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Does being disinterested in children make you a bad person? Author Emma John on hiding her true feelings about kids

Author and journalist, Emma John is 40, single and “joyfully celebrating individuality in a world built for two.” In this extract, the author’s disinterest in children leads to her to ask the question: “was my biological clock broken? Or had someone just forgot to set the alarm?”

The following is an extract taken from Emma John’s memoir, Self-Contained: Scenes From A Single Life.

The curtains were still pulled and we stood in the gloom of an underpowered low-energy lightbulb. “Don’t make a scene,” she said, as if she were about to pull a gun on me. “I’m not supposed to tell you this yet but I’m pregnant.”

My sister had only begun trying for a baby a few months ago, having been ready for one pretty much the moment she clapped eyes on Justin. It was far too early to celebrate, she said, and we had to keep it a deadly secret from our parents. She looked like someone delivering bad news while fighting an inappropriate urge to giggle.

My own reaction was the reverse. At surface level, I was thrilled that the sister I loved had got what she wanted. My happiness for her wasn’t a pretence. But it also wasn’t the whole story. Even as my slightly tipsy ears absorbed the information that our family was about to expand again, a sober corner of my mind was worriedly picking it apart. 

The truth was, I had never enjoyed other people’s children. Kate knew this. It wasn’t something I was good at hiding, and even hiding it felt like an imposition. But I did understand that indifference to, boredom with and occasional outright revulsion at somebody else’s bundle of joy were not socially acceptable responses. 

As a woman, I was expected to find divine delight in the children I encountered (unless they demonstrated particularly noxious behaviour, which apparently entitled me to judge both them and their parents). The sight of a big-eyed baby was supposed to warm my heart and flutter my uterus. And if a gif of a two year old with porridge smeared across its face didn’t melt me, did I even have a soul?

I didn’t want people to think I was a psychopath. So I calibrated my reactions accordingly, exactly like a psychopath.

There was an array of stock phrases I turned to when people started talking about their children, most of them gleaned from things I’d overheard others say in similar situations. “What a cutie,” I said, when shown a picture of a snot-nosed troll staring into a phone camera with a malevolent expression. “That’s adorable,” I breathed, at the story of a peacocking little know-it-all correcting their teacher’s pronunciation of bruschetta. 

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The one question everyone kept asking when we were having a baby

My favourite was, “Oh, bless,” which was not only utterly meaningless and thus universally applicable but also forced your lips into something that passed for a smile. It had become my go-to at social gatherings in my late twenties, when babies were still a rare commodity among my friends and non-mothers queued up to hold them, passing them hip to hip like koalas at an illegal petting zoo.

None of this is to say that I didn’t expect, at some stage, to have one or more myself. “It’s different when they’re your own,” I was told, by just about every parent I’d ever met. Children had always been presented as an inevitable part of pre-packaged adult life. So, for a considerable time, they remained on my long-term agenda, like a household item I ought to own at some stage, but that felt boring to spend money on right now. 

It wasn’t that I didn’t want them – I just, you know, didn’t want them. “You’ll want them when you meet the right person,” my mother always told me. I was happy to leave it at that and didn’t interrogate her hypothesis any further. One grand quest at a time was enough. 

As for the fact that I found children mildly irritating – I assumed this was because most children were mildly irritating. Why everyone had to pretend to be wryly amused by everything they did eluded me. Wailed demands for more tomato ketchup did not make eating out a more entertaining experience. Siblings competitively naming everything they saw from the train window did not make everyone else’s journey pass faster. A changing room full of knee-high hazards did not enhance a trip to the swimming pool, especially if one of them was loudly asking their mummy why that lady’s bottom was so much bigger than hers.

I didn’t choose to be this grumpy around children. When an old schoolmate became the first of my friends to become a mother and I was invited round to see the baby as if it were a new exhibit at the Tate, I felt very conscious of the honour. I bought a tiny item of clothing that cost as much as something ten times its size and showed up to what was billed as Christmas drinks with the family. My schoolfriend’s parents and siblings were there too, people whose company I had always enjoyed. 

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“I didn’t want kids, but do I feel differently now the choice is slipping away?”

And yet the moment I showed up, I realised that something had changed, and not for the better. We sat on a circle of chairs eating cake while everyone’s eyes remained glued to the baby bouncer in the centre. The place was zombified; no one was capable of carrying out ordinary conversation. This mute, immobile being was sucking the atmosphere out of the room, making everyone around it as uninteresting as itself. I felt like a heroine in a horror movie, the only one who could see the creeping paralysis infecting everyone about me.

“Babies are boring,” my friend Laura told me when I complained to her on one of our phone calls. “Kids don’t get interesting until they can talk.” But when I had the chance to test this theory – after everyone I knew had partnered up – I found toddlers just as tedious as well as quite a bit stickier. As for their effect on anyone around them, it was worse than babies. The sound of the voices of people I knew well modulating instantaneously into sing-song banalities made me cringe.

It seemed that, in the presence of children, most adults’ brains flicked into another mode, one I simply didn’t have. For a while, it amused my friends that I couldn’t talk to children in anything other than my regular voice. “You sound like you’re reading them the Financial Times,” Ben once told me. But I couldn’t help it, and I saw no reason to mask my disappointment if my skirt was grabbed at with chocolatey hands, or my conversation interrupted for the 15th time. I felt no compulsion to engage with, or entertain, the small figures who had appeared in my social circle without invitation. 

Self contained book cover
Emma John's memoir is out now

Some friends were accepting of the fact that I didn’t fall in love with their respective children and understood that when I visited, I wanted to reconnect with them, not spend time in a painful three-way conversation about which superpowers the Mighty Pups have. Others, however, rolled their eyes and told me my standoffishness was a pose. One person got angry. “Deciding that an entire subsection of humanity isn’t worth your time doesn’t make you cleverer than everyone else,” she said. “It makes you a bigot.”

I was a bit shaken by this criticism and worried she might have a point. After that I stayed quiet about how I really felt and I got better at faking. I wouldn’t say I went into my encounters with children any more open-minded, and I still avoided mass gatherings of them, including any birthday parties that celebrated a single-digit number. But I learned to stifle my weary sigh at the sound of their piercing screams and to appear more interested in 30-piece jigsaws

Was I less womanly than other people of my sex?

I didn’t linger on the idea but I couldn’t avoid it entirely – especially as time passed and the broodiness I’d expected to settle on me one day, like a religious vocation or nuclear fallout, never arrived. If cultural markers were to be believed, then by my late twenties I should have been unable to behold a baby without a secret swell of maternal longing and by my mid-thirties I should have been walking around to a background hum of unfulfilled fertility. Was my biological clock broken? Or had someone just forgot to set the alarm?

Kate had always known she wanted children – two, ideally – and yet I’d never stopped to picture it because I’d always thought of our lives running in perfect parallel. Our passions and personalities coincided too. Sure, Kate was a little more cautious, and I was wound a bit tighter. But it was strange to think there could be anything we didn’t share. As we stood suspended in her secret, the big news we would swallow down the moment we left the room, I had a moment of vertigo. My sister had already overtaken me on the prescribed route to adulthood – and now she was disappearing into the distance, down a path I wasn’t going to follow. 

This extract is taken from Self-Contained: Scenes from a single life, a memoir by Emma John published by Octopus Publishing Group in hardback, ebook and audiobook, out now.

Images: Getty/Octopus Publishing Group

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