It’s not the one you’re thinking of, or any from the typical arsenal of word-weapons – the ones we humans launch at one another in moments of anger, when the red mist descends and none of the others are quite hitting their target. No, the four-letter word that insulted me recently was one that is usually wholly innocuous; one more commonly looked upon as a “goody” of the word world. One associated with reward, with gifting; getting something for nothing. And who doesn’t love the instant gratification of getting something ‘gratis,’ eh? But, somehow, the little word that hurt my feelings was… wait for it…
I know, I know! How silly to let a lovely little fella like Free bother me, when he’s such a gentle little guy, who’s usually greeted warmly and ushered inside: “Oh look who’s here everyone – it’s Free!” Who wouldn’t welcome Free to a party? We all love Freddie Freebie… don’t we? Well, usually, I’d agree. I’m the first one to buy a magazine I have zero interest in because, well, there’s something free on the front…. or to rush to join a crowd at the station on my way home from work because a company is dishing out ‘free stuff’ to careworn commuters.
But on this occasion the word ‘free’ was used after another one: child. I am a woman without children. So why would being described as ‘childfree’ bother me? Until now, it hasn’t, really. I preferred it to childless, because I felt that being described as ‘a childless woman’ made me sound like I was lacking; less than. It sounded sad, as though a life without children is a wasted opportunity, when we all know that isn’t the case. If anything, I’ve probably been able to do a lot of things that I wouldn’t have been able to, had I dedicated myself to family life: travel the world, go clubbing regularly (even to this day, in my forties – I know, disgraceful!), be spontaneous, take risks, spend money on frivolities, and so forth.
That’s not to say I didn’t want children, or try my damnedest to get them – quite the opposite, in fact: I was desperate to be a mother. Like any passionate clubber, I wanted to cross the red rope into the plush VIP lounge. But it turned out there was one members-only club I’d never gain access to: the Mum Club. Despite trying everything – including arduous fertility treatment – my name was never added to the guest list; I wasn’t welcome. The door was rudely slammed in my face on each occasion. Eventually I conceded defeat and started my own club, a Facebook group called The Non-Mum Network. It attracted women without children for a whole variety of reasons: some by choice, some by circumstance, some unable to, like myself.
Despite all having that one thing in common, there is one key word that separates us women without kids into two camps: choice. Generally, those that choose not to give birth refer to themselves as ‘childfree,’ whereas those who had their non-mum status thrust upon them without a choice see themselves as ‘childless.’ Some would say it’s a small detail, but nonetheless it’s an important one. Choice is everything. A situation of your own making, rather than one you’ve unwittingly found yourself in, dramatically alters your perception of it. It turns out that childfree and childless are poles apart. Chalk and cheese. Night and day. It’s the difference between choosing to stay in, and being grounded. Choice.
That’s not to say we don’t get along, or respect one another’s situation, because generally, and in my Non-Mum group, at least – we do. We have a lot in common, after all. Yet recently the divide was brought into sharp focus.
Last year I took part in a project with acclaimed British photographer, Denise Felkin. Entitled Mum’s Not The Word, she photographed childless (childfree?!) women, naked and in the foetal position, to highlight the stigma attached to not giving birth. Each woman, including myself here, bravely disrobed and curled up on her own duvet, brought from home and transported to Denise’s Brighton studio, to represent women without children everywhere – a section of society largely ignored and disregarded in a family-centric world. Each gave her reason for not being a mother, captioned alongside her photograph. Well, pregnant women are often photographed naked, I figured, so why not us? We deserve a voice too, and what better way to be represented honestly than naked – tastefully of course – in all our vulnerable glory? Parents or not, we’re all just human at the end of the day; mere mortals. Being naked illustrates that point perfectly.
It is a powerful image which has seen Denise nominated for multiple awards, and which has divided public opinion: are the women childless, or childfree? Since Denise appeared on the BBC about her project last week, the light discussion has become a war of words…
Having largely overcome my sorrow around not being a mother and (I thought) fully accepted the situation, I’d shrugged off my childless chrysalis and started to view myself as a childfree butterfly. Yet the furious response from those childfree-by-choice to the Mum’s Not The Word project sometimes being described by the media as representing ‘childless women’ made me realise I’m not one of them. I’m actually not childfree at all. I never will be, not really. I didn’t choose this life, although I’m determined to make the most of it. Our outlooks are entirely different. I will always be a bit childless. And they will always be proudly waving the childfree banner. I can see how being described as ‘childless’ has negative connotations, yet to describe myself as childfree would be to deny the fact that I did actually want children. We are not the same. So what was originally one artist’s striking use of imagery around parenthood vs non-parenthood, has morphed into a fierce debate about whether women without children should be referred to as childless or childfree. And that is the beauty of thought-provoking art.
I take my hat (and the rest of my clothes) off to you, Denise. Job done.
Photographer Denise Felkin and I at her Brighton studio. Mum’s Not The Word is shortlisted for the prestigious MS Amlin Continuity Prize, the winner of which will be announced on November 21 and will receive £5,000. The work will also be exhibited at the 21st National Open Art Exhibition, November 17-26 at the Oxo Tower’s Bargehouse.
Childless or childfree? Denise herself says: “I am forty-eight and childfree. I do not want or have never wanted children. I have had a few pregnancy scares in my life. Each time I prayed to the universe it would not happen to me. Thankfully the result always came back negative. I am now nearly too old to reproduce. The wish I made in my younger years is almost true. Occasionally I question myself if I made the right decision? Am I infertile? How would a child have changed my life? How would having a child have affected my career as an artist? Why would I want to bring a child into a world of uncertainty?” Mums Not The Word is a photographic project which debates the social stigmatization of why women, whom by choice or for medical reasons, friction against the instinct of childbirth and maternal productivity. The project bring together images of the female form, positioned in the fetus position, in reverse. I choose fetus shaped bodies connect the typologies and to represent divisions of women’s experience between the female reproductive system and menopause. I photograph women of an array of ages, skin tones, body shapes, to document the attitude towards the negative position of the fetus within society today.”
Are you a woman without children? Are you childless or childfree? I’d love to hear your opinions.