8 May 2024

Otherhood: women without children get personal in new essay collection

From Nine To Noon, 11:30 am on 8 May 2024

More than 30 New Zealand women who are not mothers write about their experiences in Otherhood. 

The essay collection explores what it means to live a fulfilling life while giving "a middle finger" to the societal expectations on women, the book's editors tell Nine to Noon.

picture of Alie Benge, Kathryn van Beek and Lil O'Brien

Alie Benge, Kathryn van Beek and Lil O'Brien Photo: supplied by Otherhood editors

New Zealand writer Alie Benge

New Zealand writer Alie Benge Photo: Supplied

A 2022 essay by writer and frequent RNZ guest Kate Camp - No miracle baby to see here - was the catalyst for the book, Alie Benge tells Kathryn Ryan.

"On Twitter, Lil said 'Someone should create an anthology around this'. Kathryn jumped in and said 'I've got an essay'. I was in Barcelona at the time chillin' and Lil had tagged me so I just opened up to this whole conversation on Twitter and thought 'Well, should we do it?'"

Benge describes herself as "child-free by choice".

"The reason that I wanted to read a book like this is because I just hadn't seen that story ever. I knew that I didn't want children but it wasn't a life trajectory that I had seen from anyone. I just thought even though I don't want them it will just happen 'cause that's what you meant to do.

"I think if I had seen more stories of people choosing not to have children, then I would have seen other options, different maps for people's lives. I had written an essay years ago about making that choice and I just want other people to see that that's an option that we all have.

"The term 'child-free' is really important, rather than 'childless'. There's been a big movement to separate those two terms and people can identify with either one. People who don't have children sometimes don't feel like there's something missing from their lives and some people do feel like that's missing. Having those two categories has been really important for people."

New Zealand writer Kathryn van Beek

New Zealand writer Kathryn van Beek Photo: Supplied

Kathryn van Beek says she grew up thinking she didn't particularly want to have children but felt differently after meeting her partner. 

"You meet someone and you think 'Oh, that actually could be quite nice'. So I met a good guy. We did the IVF thing and it didn't pan out for us at the end.

"I guess I don't know if I'm child-free or childless, I guess I'm somewhere in the middle, happy with my life. But in the book, my essay really focuses on my negative feelings around not having children because that was just the mood I was in when I wrote it. I suppose I'm more in the child-free camp.

"I'm really lucky that I wasn't one of those girls who grew up wanting desperately to have children because there are plenty of people like that. It must be very difficult to have to reconcile not being able to have children with those early ideas of how your life was gonna pan out. I'm very happy with my life right now."

New Zealand writer Lil O'Brien

New Zealand writer Lil O'Brien Photo: @lilobrienwrites

Lil O'Brien was uncertain about whether she wanted to have children until her 30s.

"I was living in New York. As a queer person, that was kind of what tipped the balance - I suddenly had access to sperm that we don't have in New Zealand. It was my partner and I sitting down and doing pretty much a pros and cons. We really could have gone either way in terms of we knew that we would be happy with that, and happy with, but we ultimately decided to give it a crack because I think it would have felt like a missed opportunity.

"Living in America, you can go online and buy five vials of sperm in 10 minutes and have it shipped to you. Despite my ambivalence at the beginning, once I'd committed to the process, I became very single-minded, despite the cost and the emotional toll. We began intrauterine insemination, which is kind of the less complicated version of IVF, the old turkey baster method. And ultimately, I did have an early miscarriage.  I almost brushed that off. I know that everyone has different reactions to miscarriages but for me, I was just like 'I was silly to think it would happen that quickly ... I'd become quite single-minded, and I'm sure a lot of women could identify with this, you get lost in the details of the injections and when you're ovulating and you kind of push away the emotion.

"Nine months in, we moved on to doing IVF. And that's when the pressure really ramps up. I did get pregnant again and I lost the fetus at 18 weeks with a very rare condition. That's a lot of what, for me, is difficult with IVF. You can throw everything at it that you have. And in life usually, if you try really hard you can achieve something. But when you when you're trying to have a baby … it's out of your control."

Approach carefully when you ask someone whether or not they have children, O'Brien says.

"A lot of people are carrying grief around inside of them about, ultimately, their life not going the way they wanted. Even people who have come to peace with it, like I ultimately came to peace, and almost felt like a relief when I stopped trying to have children. I felt 'Oh my god, I actually don't have to do this. And suddenly the structure of my life is different. Getting to 35, 36, 37 years old does not have the same weight anymore. I think people just have such a range of experiences."

The idea that if you're not a parent something else in your life must "fill the gap" is simply not the case, Benge says. 

"You can have a very meaningful, fulfilled life without kids. But it's hard to maybe see that outside of that dominant narrative. What these stories [in Otherhood] do is show stories of people with happy, fulfilled lives who don't have kids and that it is possible. It doesn't have to be a matter of replacing something. It's as simple as not making a choice. It's like not running a marathon.

"I think the theme is what is it to live a fulfilling life? And also probably the pain that people have gone through to come to acceptance with that because of what society tells us is important."