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  • Emma Palmer

Childfreedom and aunty–ing in times of #globalclimatestrike

I must be a let down to the child-hating folk of the childfree movement. I’m surprised I don’t get into more trouble for my child friendly views. Whilst I’m childfree by choice, last year’s International Childfree person of the year (big thanks for that honour) and author of a book about childfreedom, I have a lot of time for children and I love and feel deep gratitude for being an aunt.

I’m perplexed when I hear folk say, ‘I hate children’. Which children, where, when? I often find children more engaging, and certainly more fun. I love the curiosity, spontaneity and the (sometimes) brutal honesty of the shorter people. And the hate thing - I’m not sure it’s even possible to hate a whole community of people? Maybe it’s marginally possible if you’ve meet them all, one by one. But then I’d bet my life that even the most devoutly child-hating person would end up liking at least one of them…?

I love the qualities of curiosity, spontaneity and honesty of my nephew and nieces. They’ve taught me so much – how to become an aunty, for a start. I remember vividly when I held my nephew for the first time. He was the first born of the next generation, a threshold moment. I felt an overwhelming sense of protection – lioness-like - towards this adorable screaming bundle. He arrived on earth three days before my late Dad was diagnosed with a late-stage chronic illness, the timing amplifying that soft animal body love and protection.

Fast forward 19 years, my nephew left home last winter and is about to start coming and going between home and university. Not long before leaving he was telling me his travel plans. I hope he didn’t notice the micro movement of my lip quivering when he answered my question ‘no, I’m not coming home for Christmas’. My inner cajoler kicked in ‘smile, be happy for him!’ I was, and my heart strings were severely twanged on his departure.

Being an aunty isn’t, for me, limited to being a blood aunty. This morning I was at the #globalclimatestrike in Bristol, supporting the young people showing their support for the planet and their loud calls for action on climate change. I was incredibly moved seeing all that youthful energy zooming around: chanting, cheering, dancing, marching. I was saddened too, that my generation and ones before have lived and worked in a way which has led us into this mess, which many are still largely ignoring. I remembered vividly the baffled confusion of my 15-year-old self, surrounded by grownups ignoring reports about global warming.

A good-sized part of my reason to be childfree – not the only one – was precisely because of this mess we’re in and the often irreversible harm we’re inflicting on other life in terms of the sixth extinction crisis, climate emergency, runaway consumption, and environmental degradation. I figured having children should be for those who really want them – and I didn’t. I’ve had, a long time ago now, fleeting moments when I wanted to have children, and many more moments when I haven’t. I’m happily childfree.

Being childfree has opened my world, not closed it down. Not having a child was a decision to do other things; for myself, in service of the earth. It was never about not doing something. The ‘selfish’, ‘career-driven’ stereotypes often applied to the childfree wear increasingly thin, as I look at most of the childfree people I know; a varied, interesting, creative, often quietly reflective bunch.

As a Zen practitioner my ears pricked up when I heard of the notion of 'parental mind': the state in which we see the entire universe as we would hopefully see our own child: with limitless love, compassion and wisdom. This state emerges from the sitting practice of zazen, when our identities and stories about ourselves, others, and the world loosen and we just sit there, moment by moment. In sitting we engage with life as it is.

Parental mind is where it’s at for me, in terms of being an aunty and being a Buddhist. And, of course, this is a practice, cos I only ever fleetingly embody love, compassion and wisdom – I most likely never will. But it’s worth keeping on trying, particularly but not only given the struggles in the world at present.

Meanwhile, this moment, I engage with life as it is. Life as it is today is getting ready for my nieces visit. Food prepared; I’ve found a film they might all like so we can chill out after we’ve been to the park. I’ve no doubt that I’ll be convinced into a chocolate and comic visit to the shop – one of our rituals. Life as it is today is doing ordinary things with three of my favourite people.

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