On being childfree and other ‘othernesses’
Updated: Jan 28, 2020
So far in my writing life I’ve largely written about ‘otherness’ from the point of view of being without child. For me that childlessness has been through choice, rather than through happenstance, circumstance or loss, which meant I ended up writing Other than Mother: Choosing Childlessness with Life in Mind (Kamalamani, 2016). But the more I’ve reflected, the more I’ve realised that feeling ‘other’ has been a recurring theme in life. It’s cropped up again and again - some ‘othernesses’ causing more of a stir than others. Becoming vegetarian in my mid-teens having been a reluctant meat-eater was notable (surprisingly), causing a kerfuffle with some of my peers and family friends. ‘She’ll grow out of it’, they said knowingly (35 years later, and she still hasn’t...)
The older I got the more it dawned on me that my Mum’s side of the family, felt ‘other’ - to others, not to me. Mum’s stories of arriving at primary school in Bristol spoke of the other and the exotic. To her bemusement, fresh off the SS Atlantis from Mumbai, on her first day at school she was asked whether she had tigers in her garden. She was puzzled, she didn’t, growing up in a suburb of New Delhi. ‘Is your Nan Welsh?’ friends would ask me when I was at primary school. ‘Err, no, she’s from India’. Other children in our Somerset village weren’t weaned on biryani, dahl and parathas, as we were, and didn’t spend hours playing carram of an evening, so I sympathised with their questions.
Perish the thought if you suggested that we were a bit Indian, as I once did to my Nan. ‘We are not Indian, we are B-R-I-T-I-S-H’ she screeched in a truly Cruella de Vil moment (the baddy in ‘101 Dalmations’) eyes narrowed in anger, shoulders squared and raised. I learned not to say that again, even though I knew in my bones that we were a bit Indian - it was blindly obvious to me. Years later, researching our ancestry, I discovered my part Indian great grandmother and other ancestors and my shoulders dropped an inch, the truth, as well as the tension of the denial, hatred and prejudice of the class and caste systems – a toxic mix - finally allowed to start to seep out of my bone marrow.
So it’s a hot topic, otherness. But what is it, exactly? I checked the dictionary:
That which is distinct from, different from, or opposite to something or oneself.
View or treat (a person or group of people) as intrinsically different from and alien to oneself.
Otherness and ‘othering’, as defined above, made even more sense and became more personal still when I started researching the subject of voluntary childlessness, as it was then known, at the age of 27, back in the late 1990s. I had recently realised that having children was a choice, it wasn’t actually compulsory. It came as a shock to me, as I’d assumed I’d have children ‘by the time I’m 30’. I became fascinated by this growing phenomena of childlessness, partly to understand my own situation and decision-making, and partly cos I’m a social scientist and I love researching.
Back In the late 1990s the subject of childlessness was largely unexplored and there wasn’t even a distinction made then between those who were childless due to happenstance, circumstance and loss and those who were childfree by choice. I found a couple of books and a few academic papers, some of them excellent. My ears pricked up when I came across the title of a 1975 journal article:
‘The Moral Careers of Voluntarily Childless Wives: Notes on the Defense of a Variant World View’.
Variant world view? (Wow). The more I read, the more I realised the complexity of pronatalism, patriarchy - rarely talked about back then - and how a woman’s identity was/is still very much defined by whether or not she’s a mother. I was shocked. The shock soon eased, perhaps because I was already somewhat used to feeling other and because I started experiencing that ‘othering’ first-hand in response to being without child myself. I was told many things over the years, despite rarely willingly talking about the subject of non-parenthood. I’ve been told I’m sad, selfish and career-driven, and that I’d make a lovely wife and mother. Projections, stereotypes and assumptions abound….
As time has worn on and feedback from my Other than Mother book has been positive, and the book welcomed, I’ve learned to reclaim the deviant label – to even quietly enjoy it, at times. If deviant means that I have the voice to question things I see going on around me that are clearly unjust, then yes, I'm happy to be deviant and speak out against the status quo. If career-driven is the term applied to having a passion and ambition for the work I do, particularly the work which might makes small differences in the world – so I’m told - then I'm also happy to hold the career-driven label.
It’s fascinating - and on a personal level, paining, too - how the narratives around the childless and childfree highlight deep-seated questions, views and assumptions about gender identity (and its very binary nature) and our place, role and function in society. And this varies for different people. I am fortunate to be from a family whose members have largely accepted my childfree choice. Others are not so fortunate, with their childless or childfree statuses leaving them marginalised and stigmatized, particularly in family cultures in which bearing children is still very much the expected norm.
Being other, reclaiming that otherness with pride (pride in a healthy, human way), comes at a high cost for the person standing in and for the minority. Many minorities experience much higher costs than I do, being mainly white, middle class, able bodied and childfree. If we are treated as other in terms of an intersection of our abledness, colour, class, culture, faith, gender, neurodiversity, religion, sexuality, amongst many other things, it’s harder to reclaim our otherness as a positive thing, given the structural prejudices and harm, both past and present and the dehumanising nature of othering.
Coming across this quote about the childfree being deviant opened my eyes in terms of otherness, whether that’s on a personal level of being other than mother, other than man, other than meat-eater, other than completely British – many other things. It’s also made me more interested in, sometimes horrified by, the process of othering. In particular, how othering happens from the outside in, often in a ‘power over’ position, with people telling you about yourself, for example: ‘she’ll grow out of it’ in response to my veggie decision. Or the flat denial of otherness in my Nan’s furious words: ‘We are not Indian, we are B-R-I-T-I-S-H’. Or the label of deviant for childfree women in the 1970s. Or in Trump’s propaganda. Or in the way the ‘other’ of anyone who doesn’t confirm to whatever the category of ‘normal’ is in the fear-mongering of these messy BREXIT times we’re in.
We are often typecast as other from the outside in. I realise looking back that I’ve unknowingly – at the time - imbibed that otherness and its shadow. Often that imbibing involves shame - to be other than the majority is generally imbued with shame, fear, given that one’s otherness is pointed out, explicitly and covertly, in an attempt to silence and marginalise. I’m increasingly aware of the othering I do or have done and the limitations of the prejudices I’ve grown up with, given my particular conditioning and privileges. I’m aware of assumptions I make and I am still unaware of plenty of things which lead me to act foolishly and with harm.
One of my passions is holding spaces where we can openly explore this sort of complexity and how it shapes our everyday lives. The process of othering and what it does to our identity is a fine example of this. When we are othered, when we are put firmly in our place, how do, or can we (?) re-define our place on our own terms, re-wiring who we thought we were?
With this in mind I’m so glad to be leading a one-day workshop offering the chance to explore otherhood, otherness and othering later this month. This day will have a particular focus on otherness in terms of the non-parenthood/parenthood decision-making process, and other othernesses - abledness, colour, class, culture, faith, gender, neurodiversity, other-than-human, religion, sexuality, amongst others… - will be warmly welcomed! The day will be a chance to explore, in good company, how, in terms of being childless and childfree we are seen as ‘other’ from the outside in, as well as exploring how we’ve imbibed less helpful stories of our otherness, our alien-ness, giving us a chance to sift through the gold and reclaim ‘other’ as something which is potent rather than invisibilised and disempowered.
I’m particularly glad to be leading this day at the Aashna Centre in North London, it’ll be my first visit there. ‘Aashna’ means ‘devoted to love; embracing difference and diversity in all its forms’ and a central aim of what happens at Aashna is to reflect the rich cultural and global society in which we live. I can’t think of a better place to explore, challenge and reclaim our otherness, whether we are childless, childfree or as yet undecided…. come join us!