Feeling Foreign

It happened again yesterday. I’m sure she meant no harm. And I could have chosen not to react at all.

I bumped into a junior work colleague, a relatively new addition. She asked in a friendly voice about my weekend and what I did, etc. I commented on sleeping in and on the triumph of having made whole wheat bread that was actually edible–a first for me in many years of trying. She said, “You make home-made bread? Oh your kids someday will love you!” Here’s the part where I could have just smiled and nodded and walked on. But I didn’t. I spoke the truth. I said, “Nope, no kids, no plans.” She was stunned. Clearly it had never occurred to this young dear that someone would choose such a path in life. The conversation continued for a bit. I talked about my love for my job and my desire to focus on that and my love for travel and generally did a poor job of explaining all of the many reasons why I made this decision (a very long time ago). I mentioned that I was not alone, in that several other women in our office had made the same choice. In response to the typical “But you might change your mind some day” comment I responded that I’m going to be 35 on my next birthday and have really come to the crossroads on this one and am very comfortable with my decision. She was very unsettled and muttered something about re-thinking her career choice and wandered off.

I say “It happened again” because this conversation has played out for me over and over and over again. I’m usually pretty up-front on this issue and also tend to be on the offensive, letting people know my views when we first start to be friends so I can head off possibly awkward conversations. I’m always slightly mystified that people feel the need to comment on my decision. Or to try to convince me to have kids when I clearly don’t want to. I’ve been called selfish by near-strangers. I’m mystified why my stance would upset others so much but it seems to, perhaps they see it as a value judgement on their own lifestyle which it most certainly is not–it’s just the choice that’s right for me. And I am very close to being the last one standing, I have several pregnant friends at the moment probably because of the age we’re at. I have a few other friends who are professed to be childless by choice, including several peers within my profession and also some wonderful friends of the family who I have known for 25 or so years. I talk to them about this issue a lot, as it’s hard not to worry a bit when conversations such as the above-mentioned one do play out over and over. I know of people who HAVE changed their minds and done IVF at 45 or adoption around the same age. So it’s important to me to feel sure about this now. And I am.

So this whole concept of feeling “foreign” was familiar to me before I moved countries:

foreign (comparative more foreign, superlative most foreign)

1. From a different country. foreign students

2. Belonging to a different culture.
Eating with chopsticks was a foreign concept to him

3. Of an object, etc, in a place where it does not belong.
foreign body

In groups of women who have made choices different from mine (and thank feminism that we all have the right and the option to make our own choices–this I applaud!) sometimes I feel foreign. My culture involves work and travel and not diapers/nappies or schools. But sometimes I don’t feel so foreign. As I’ve started to get to know some of the other expat bloggers over the last year and a bit, I’ve felt very much the opposite of foreign. Here were friends who have had similar experiences to mine and with whom I got along great from the very moment we all met.

And then came Cyber Mummy.

Cyber Mummy is the upcoming blogger conference in London in about a month. It turns out that of all the expat bloggers I know, most of them are going to go to this. Up until the hubbub started, I didn’t think of the expat bloggers as falling into two camps, those who were cybermummies and those who were not. But now I do. And guess which group wins on numbers alone? Not mine.

I think Iota had the most eloquent commentary on this particular event. And the buzz lately hasn’t been only about the conference, there’s also been the MADS. But it’s been an in-my-face, all-parenting, all-the-time few weeks of blogs and twitter and the like. And this weekend my exasperation hit a high point and I sent out a relatively desperate tweet. That I thought I should explain. So here we are.

There’s a deeper layer to this. I think my feelings about Cyber Mummy and the like tie in with my expat experience. The fact that there is a year of maternity leave allowed in this country is something that I am luke-warm on. I see how it’s wonderful from the Mummy perspective but I think it’s a bit of a disaster from the career perspective. My concerns were best summed up by the UK’s Donald Trump (i.e. host of The Apprentice on TV), Sir Alan Sugar, in his comments about not hiring women of child-bearing age. I don’t find the concept of a “Career woman” to be as common here as in the US, so it seems to me that there is a natural progression to an equation where inevitably,

Women = Mummies

So when I look at the Cyber Mummy agenda, and I look at the BlogHer agenda for their upcoming meeting in New York, I feel sad and homesick. In some ways the topics covered at the two meetings are not that different, what’s different is the focus on mummies versus females more inclusively. I, like Iota, don’t know that there are actually that many things of interest to me at either event, but if a big group of my friends was going to something more like BlogHer than like Cyber Mummy I would probably go along for the fun and friendship.

As it happens, it doesn’t matter how I feel about this as I’ll be just flying back from the US while Cyber Mummy is taking place. I’ll be heading up to Norwich the following day for Boudicca’s Feast, run by one of the very few other non-Mummy expat bloggers. And I do hope my bloggy friends have a wonderful time at Cyber Mummy. They are all wonderful people, and as far as I can tell, wonderful mothers. But I really wish this whole thing had never come up and I could continue to feel like one of the gang instead of the outsider. I worry I’ll never quite go back, and I really didn’t need another reason to feel foreign in this country.

19 responses to “Feeling Foreign

  1. You know I would never judge you for not having children. Those who do can suck an egg.

  2. I am (ehem) “slightly” older than you (+VAT). I have no kids (and may not be able to bear one). I got married — but it was largely unplanned. I am and was happy and independent. I understand perfectly what you are saying, …. don’t feel alone or like the outsider! You rock and your take on things (as a non-cyber mummy) is something I love reading. We all bring a different perspective to the table and the blog world and that’s something to be celebrated! 🙂

  3. Hey NFAH — First off — thanks for the link to the foodfest! Most importantly, though, I think that these things are cyclical. I think you and I are on the same page in thinking simultaneously (a) Yay for there being a cool fem-hip forum for mothers, but (b) sniff — I feel like a bit of a voyeur reading about it. I’ve shared my feelings with you on it before — I truly believe that “family” takes on all shapes and sizes. I’ve been fortunate to have some strong role models who never had kids but have such a large extended network of friends it is almost unimaginable. The recent buzz about Cybermummy is woman-positive and I’m a fan. I am not a fan, though, of the idea of woman = mummy (only) and have been highly offended at comments similar to Alan Sugar’s coming from some of the English men on my MBA course.

    A bit rambly, but I just want to say on a personal level that things come and go that make us sometimes feel like an outsider, but it is transitory. Your perspective on the world is special and unique — let your flag fly!

  4. Thanks for the mention!

    I’ve written before about how I’m never sure if I’m an expat blogger or a mummy blogger (and I don’t like the jokey-patronising title “mummy blogger” anyway). At the end of the day, I suppose I’m just myself, which is what you are, and that’s what makes a blog interesting and alive.

    I can’t believe people have called you ‘selfish’ for your decision. So offensive.

    • Yeah, I’ve gotten the ‘selfish’ epithet before. As if we owe something to a being that doesn’t even exist. Somehow the idea of ‘personal’ boundaries/life/decisions gets thrown out the window when childbearing’s on the table.

  5. I am 31 and have known for at least 10-12 years that I have no interest in having kids. Not now, not ever.

    And I’ve been there. I’ve heard every response from the dismissive “Oh, you’ll change your mind” to the blank-faced stare of disbelief. I tell people that I have no maternal instinct, to which a coworker retorted, “You’ll learn!” Um, no, it’s called instinct for a reason. I love my nephew, but the best thing about him is that when I’m tired of dealing with him, I can send him home to his mum.

    Neither of us has to answer to anyone for our decision. I know plenty of people who have kids for selfish reasons; which act of “selfishness” is more despicable?

    As for Cyber Mummy…I’m inherently distrustful of anyone who defines themselves by parenthood (or, really, any ONE facet of their life). So many people (women especially) seem to lose whatever identity/personality they had before kids. It’s sad. I guess just focus on the ways in which you feel included with those people. No one can have everything in common with anyone else. 😉

    • I’m not sure it’s always that people lose their personality after having kids. Sometimes it’s just that your focus changes and you have a different personality that people may not like so much as the previous one! I certainly find my individuality disappearing as so much of my time is taken up with child-related matters. I don’t want it to. It’s tricky to prevent that in the early years as everything’s so new and weird. But totally agree that defining yourself by one aspect of your life is restricting. Having said THAT, maybe it’s a way to try to find yourself in your new role?
      But whatever, no-one should judge anyone else’s life choices. I may be interested to know about your reasons (for any kind of life choice), but I wouldn’t feel able to ask unless I knew you well. It’s none of my business!

      • I by no means meant to suggest that all people always lose their personality after having kids. But I’ve seen my share of women who start defining themselves not as, say, “Mary”, but as “Tom’s mum”. It’s the parenthood equivalent of people who start to lose themselves (become obsessed, a different person) within a romantic relationship.

        And as you say, I don’t judge anyone for having kids; their choice. And if they can handle it, more power to them. 🙂

    • The one I always get is the “but you’ll feel totally different about your own children” … as though somehow that was a good reason to just suck it up when you don’t really feel comfortable around the small ones most of the time.

      • how on earth would they know if you’d feel different about your own?? bizarre.

      • Yeah, I don’t get that, myself – just because you’re genetically connected to the child doesn’t mean you’ll automatically suddenly love kids or spending time with them.

  6. I hope I made my feelings clear on this topic when we met up for lunch. Live and let live. I’ve also been the victim of judgement calls, on the opposite end of the spectrum, for choosing to stay home and raise my children, rather than going out of the house to work. I don’t understand why some women feel they are in a position to judge other women. Or why we then end up feeling the need to justify or rationalize our personal choices. Can’t we all just get along and appreciate each other for our differences, the spice that makes this world such an interesting place.

    The other point I want to make is that, just because you don’t have biological children doesn’t mean that you are not a valuable, generous, fantastic role model to the children of your friends and family members or young people you come in contact with everyday. There are more ways to nurture and feed the fire of young minds than simply through childbirth. I hope my comment made sense and came out in a positive way which is how I intended it:)

  7. I think you are definitely not alone. In fact, I feel like this is becoming more the trend – not having kids more than having kids. Look at Elizabeth Gilbert! And, I even have a friend who think it is totally and utterly irresponsible for parents to have more than ONE child. She thinks the earth is overpopulated enough, the resources are limited and to have more children is the most selfish thing a person can do to the rest of the world.
    While I am at a point of my life (27) where I certainly can’t fathom children in the next five years (if ever) – my mother and my boyfriend’s mother are constantly on our tails.
    I’m mixed about the work force thing – on the one hand, I think the United States is disgusting for its treatment of pregnant women and on the other hand, I think the UK goes too far as well.
    Great post, and really interesting.
    Perhaps try another tactic and people will react differently to your choice? Why do you feel it so important to let others know right off the bat that you don’t want children. Surely its like a gay person coming out right away and saying “Guess what! I’m gay!”
    Just food for thought…
    Really good post.

    • My friends who are gay actually tend to be very upfront about it, just as I am with the kids thing. It’s sort of a “just so something awkward doesn’t happen later in this conversation” thing. And so maybe I’ve actually picked it up from them.

      • I actually had an awkward situation once where I assumed a man was straight, and we became good friends (not anything more) after a few months. Anyway, we were out with my other very gay friend and I think the guy that I had assumed was straight got offended and finally just blurted out “I’m gay, Meagan! I’m gay.”
        I didn’t have a problem that he was obviously, but because I didn’t know, it made it really awkward. So, yeah, I see your point.
        Interesting you compare your decision to that.
        Good for you for living your life!

  8. I, for one, commend you on your decision! You’re a woman who knows what she wants and is willing to do what must be done to attain it. I can see where people are coming from with the whole ‘selfish’ thing, though. I would totally agree with them too, if we lived in a world where humans were at risk of dying out! As this is not happening, you are more than free to live the life you want to live.

    It’s really odd to me how everyone always talks about human rights and how great it is to live in a post-feminist world, until, that is, a woman chooses to take advantage of said post-feminist world and break the mommy mold. Because, obviously, if you choose not to have a child, you’re not really a woman at all, right?

  9. I don’t get this one: “I think the United States is disgusting for its treatment of pregnant women and on the other hand, I think the UK goes too far as well.”

    How are pregnant women disgustingly treated in the US?

  10. I’m expatting in Ireland largely because of this issue, in a sense: their young workforce is having lots of kids and their long maternity leaves mean my company needs to fill some spots for awhile, but doesn’t want to hire anyone new due to the economy and industry. Enter one US employee to fill in for a year! I don’t get bugged much about not having kids (I’m 34), for which I’m grateful. But the assumption that I’ll have kids someday (I don’t expect to) can be annoying.

  11. Clare A was W

    I feel your frustration. My husband and I made the decision not to have children and when I tell people instead of hearing “We decided not to have kids” they hear “We hate kids”. In fact neither of us hate kids. We like them a lot. We just don’t want to have our own.
    Considering the over population of this planet I feel this decision is actually very UNselfish.
    And I do not worry about not having kids to “look after me” when I am old because what an outdated, naive and rather selfish idea that you have kids to look after you when you are old!!

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