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Rachel Nicholls - Talking to non-parents: a guide for beginners

Rachel Nicholls - image © David Shoukry

There are some questions you simply shouldn’t ask a woman - “Are you pregnant?” comes to mind - the person with the potential bump that you’re talking to might be bloated after a big meal, wearing a fashionable empire line top, rubbing their stomach because they have indigestion and not drinking because they are the designated driver. It is NEVER safe to assume.

There are some questions in particular that you should definitely not ask a woman if you’ve worked out (without asking) that she is between 30 and 50.

I am used to being asked if I have children. This almost always happens within one minute of meeting someone new, and of course it would be ludicrous to take offence at such an innocuous and friendly enquiry. Throughout my twenties, when I answered “no,” I was usually asked if I was planning on having any. I thought this was rude and intrusive, but now I’m in my forties, people have in the main stopped asking me this. What astonishes me now, though, is the number of times I am asked “why not?”.

Let’s just take a moment here. I’ve just x you, and you have seriously just asked me why I don’t have children? Is this because you are a) incredibly rude and nosey, b) prurient and want to know details of my sex-life, c) desperate to tell perimenopausal me that my life is meaningless without understanding parenthood from the inside and that I should do something about getting my eggs fertilised pdq because you can tell from the way I look that it’s nearly too late, d) convinced on meeting me for the first time that I am an obvious mad cat-lady/ career-driven, heartless and unmaternal, and you want to be vindicated in your preconception, e) hopeful that you can find out the big tragic secret at the centre of my marriage so you can enjoy some schadenfreude with your coffee?

Whatever your reason for asking, I hope you are prepared for some of my possible responses. I mean, “that’s absolutely none of your business!” is usually effective, but tends to throw a bit of a spanner in the conversational works. “That’s a very personal question, what makes you ask?” at least encourages a dialogue and deflects the attention back away from me and my private life, but sometimes I want to be just as outrageous in my response as you were for asking the question. It’s on the tip of my tongue to say “I did have two but they were abducted by aliens” or even better “because my husband isn’t sure where to put his willy!”. If you’re just being rude and nosey or prurient, that should shut you up.

I’m certainly not going to give you the satisfaction of telling you that I have prioritised my career instead of having a family - it may or may not be the case, but I’d be too worried that I’m not successful enough in your eyes to justify the sacrifice and that I look like a bit of a loser. I do feel very judged sometimes on this score, as if only by being a household name or getting a damehood can you legitimately be excused from being a parent too. There are lots of amazing women who are more successful singers than me and who have children. Well done them. The thing is, if the truth at the bottom of all this is that I did want a family and couldn’t have one for whatever reason, it means I now feel a pressure to be as successful as possible to try and make up for not having one so that at least I have something. Ah well I couldn’t be a mum but at least I got to sing the Messiah with Chipping-Under-Wallop choral society. That really does make me sound tragic so I won’t be ‘fessing up to that.

I don’t want to say that I prefer cats and can’t wait until I can have at least 15, or in my case “I have a dog instead” - this trivialises the whole issue. Also, I know I am a dog-bore. In fact if we’ve been talking to each other for more than 30 seconds you will probably know all about Juno, her penchant for playing fetch and the time she did a poo in a concert hall when my students were practising their recitals. You really don’t want to give me any more excuses to talk about my collie, and again, I feel judged as “one of those sad childless women who makes up for it by having a pet”- again tragic.

I suppose I could say “I’m just waiting for the right time,” and endure the sceptical looks and the “well make sure you don’t leave it too late, after all, you’re getting on a bit!” lecture - but people have been lecturing me on the right time to start a family since I was about 13 and to be honest I think if I have to sit through it again I might actually scream.

I can’t say “I don’t like children,” - this would be a lie - I love children. I don’t consider myself to be an unmaternal person. I love my stepchildren and can’t wait until they have children of their own if that’s what they choose - a whole new generation for me to play with. I am, after all, the woman who chooses to holiday by taking her godsons camping in rainy Cornwall instead of jetting off to somewhere hot and glamorous to do grown-up only activities. Somehow, though, on the occasions when I’ve revealed this much information, there are a lot of pitying looks and comments about it not being the same as having your own. The thing is, I am child-free, but I’m not an idiot. I know it isn’t the same as having my own. What you think you’ll achieve by pointing that out and belittling my attempt to hold up my end of the parenting conversation, I don’t know.

I also feel that if people think of me as unmaternal they will somehow also see me as being unfeminine at best, and at worst unnatural. If I won’t or can’t secure the future of the human race by procreating, what is the point of my existence? I spend quite a lot of my time feeling guilty and pointless - are you sure that’s a fun conversation you want to have with me? It might get a bit depressing.

Lastly, for the schadenfreude junkies, if I am concealing a private grief about not being able to have children, or about wishing I had had different circumstances or made different choices, I’m not sure you would really enjoy the torrent of pain, bitterness, loss and frustration which might be unleashed once the dam is breached. So it’s probably best kept under wraps and under control, if in fact it is there at all. You’ll never know!

Once when, gobsmacked by the naked curiosity and rudeness of the person asking me why I don’t have children, I answered the question with “I can’t,” in the hope that it would make them shut up or change the subject. However, rather than apologising and retreating to a safe distance, my interrogator carried on mercilessly with “Why didn’t you have IVF, or why don’t you adopt?”. This made me want to reply “Gosh! I hadn’t thought of either of those ideas, wow!”. However

much you are burning with curiosity, please, please don’t ask these things.

You see, it may be that I knew the sort of obsessive person I am quite well, and knew that I would want to try one, two, three, seven, eight, nine cycles of bankrupting treatment becoming statistically less-likely to work every time, and that it was likely to drive me completely insane and destroy my marriage. It may be that our circumstances meant adopting wasn’t the right option for us, or that we would have been turned down as prospective parents. It may be that we didn’t want to interfere with Mother Nature and decided that if we couldn’t breed, probably Mother Nature had a reason why it wasn’t a good idea. It might be that the fertility consultant we saw was so rude and insensitive that I simply couldn’t go back. It might be all of these things or none of them. Maybe we didn’t want to spend the money. Maybe we decided were were better off as we are. Maybe we only wanted a baby if it was genetically a part of me and a part of him and nothing else would be the same. Whether or not you agree or disagree with my reasons or choices, and whether or not you would have done the same, this is my life and you have no right to question my decisions. Believe me, I have thought about all of the implications of all of these choices. A lot. I doubt very much that you’ll have some amazing insight into how I could have done things better, and even if you do, I don’t particularly want to hear it so I don’t want to tell you.

I have even once been asked “Why can’t you have children?” - ok surely we must all be agreed that that is unacceptable? Why can’t I have children? It may be that there is a reason which is too embarrassing to share, or not my secret to divulge, or it may be that there is no reason at all that anyone can find. Years and years of tests and no answers could create a horrific limbo for a person to live in. As John Cleese says in Clockwise “It’s not the despair, it’s the hope.” And for all you know, I may still be going through fertility treatment. Please don’t ask. It’s too big, it’s too embarrassing and it’s just too personal. Respect my boundaries.

Probably most of you will think you have have worked out by now that I’m not child-free by choice. I’m not going to confirm or deny it for the reasons above, but if we get to know each other better, and I feel we are friends, and if I feel comfortable with sharing some of my journey to being childless, I might eventually let you in on some of the more entertaining stories from the fertility clinic - there was the BMI saga where the nurse congratulated me on my healthy one and then said to my husband that his was a bit higher but “that’s ok because you’re really tall!” and the tests we went for (invasive and painful for me having a cone-shaped probe inserted where the sun doesn’t shine and having dye squirted into my Fallopian tubes, for my husband a pleasant interlude spent with some porn and a plastic tub) after which he said “I don’t know what you were making such a fuss about - it wasn’t bad at all!” - I have to laugh about it because otherwise again it’s just too sad. But even if I am sharing, which means I trust you, please let the lead come from nme- if I change the subject, leave it alone. I may not want to tell you whether or not we went through with IVF and whether we are still going through it, or how many miscarriages I may have had, or if my husband had any problems conceiving with his first wife. Asking me about these things is insensitive and intrusive and it is bad manners.

I’m very lucky to have wonderful friends who share their children with me and I’m blessed with my stepchildren, all of whom make me immeasurably proud. I have so very much respect for all of you mums and dads. You are doing an amazing thing. But I will never, ever think less of someone because they are not a parent. Some of the most precious and influential people in my life, and people who have inspired and mentored me don’t have children. I have friends who are child-free by choice, friends who are childless and sad about it, friends who may or may not be planning on starting a family or who may have been trying for years, and friends whose reasons for being without children I don’t know. I will never ask.

Rachel Nicholls is now widely recognised as one of the most exciting dramatic sopranos of her generation. Her Brünnhilde in complete Ring cycles for Longborough Festival Opera in 2013 received the highest critical acclaim. Read more about Rachel here (image © David Shoukry)

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