Inspiration for childless and childfree women

Thoughts and ideas to inspire, uplift and affirm the childless and childfree, by circumstance and by choice

holding back

When I was a child my family moved around a lot and I was forever starting at new schools. At a school I was enrolled in when I was about eight, the teacher put a chart on the wall and a star was added for every times-table you could recite. When you had eleven stars (from your ‘two’s to your ‘twelves’) you got a little notebook as a prize. I had already learned all my tables and I really wanted the notebook, but I never let on. I think it was partly because I wanted to fit in at the new school and partly because somehow it felt like cheating to make use of my advantage. So I held back, reciting my times-tables in dribs and drabs and getting my prize near the end of the year, along with everyone else.

Even though I’m almost thirty years older now, I still find myself having similar feelings. In discussions with friends of hopes, dreams, plots and plans for our lives, I hear a lot of “Once x starts school I will have more time, but I can’t really start anything new until then” and “When y has left home we’ll be a bit more mobile but for now we’re staying put” and “There’s really not much point in even thinking about a major change until z is a bit older”. 

In my own life, there is no x, y or z. No doubt I’m in an especially fortunate season, but right now there are just things I want to do, ways I want to live, and immediate possibilities for working to make them happen. Yet somehow, instead of owning and maximising that advantage, I’ve sometimes found myself feeling as though I should hold back. Again, it’s both a desire to fit in and a sense that it would be somehow indecent and unfair of me to take full advantage of my situation.

Since becoming aware of this funny, illogical tendency, I feel much better placed to recognise and reason with it. After all, I support all my parent friends and family in their endeavours to maximise all the happiness and satisfaction and success possible in their roles. Why on earth wouldn’t I maximise what’s possible in mine? Why should I hold back?

If you’d like to read a bit more about potential blind spots in the experience of non-motherhood you might enjoy a post about whether or not we’re real adults or this post about the parenting gaze.

But in the meantime, I wonder if there are other non-mothers who have sometimes found themselves holding back, rather than fully embracing the opportunities unique to the lifestyle we’re living?

[The beautiful image above is borrowed with permission from Sweet William.]

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32 comments on “holding back

  1. tiffanylo
    June 8, 2012

    This is such an interesting topic, Olivia! I definitely understand what you are saying, and why you might feel that you should “hold back”. That said, I can honestly say that I no longer feel that way about the childfree aspect of my life… I have usually been more of the person to “hold back” expressing happiness in my relationship or other areas of my life, but I’m pretty open about my freedoms as a childfree person. Perhaps that is because the parenting folks in my life as so vocal about their kid-related activities. 😉 My partner and I definitely take vacations when we can, travel abroad when we can afford to do so, and work on updating our house–slowly but surely. It’s not as though we can just pick up and leave at a moment’s notice, though–we do have two dogs and we are very particular about who cares for them. So, we might not be entirely spontaneous, but we certainly do have more freedom than many of the parenting folks in our life. I don’t really apologize for this, though–we’ve all made our own choices, and deserve to feel confident and happy about them. 🙂

  2. olivia reading
    June 8, 2012

    Tiffanylo, I think it’s brilliant that you’ve been able to move past this. I think I’m doing so now, too, and getting better at not apologising. Thank you so much for your thoughts 🙂

    • tiffanylo
      June 8, 2012

      Of course, Olivia! We all need to support one another in this process of “moving beyond”… Moving beyond the guilt, the fears, the holding back. 🙂 Thank YOU for your always insightful blog updates!

  3. Angie
    June 8, 2012

    I find myself holding back, but I am really trying to change that. I don’t want it to seem like I’m boasting about what I wonderful life I have, though I believe I do. As tiffanylo said, we all make our own decisions, and in so doing we live with the consequences of those decisions. If choosing to remain childfree means we have more freedom, time, and money, I don’t think that’s something we should apologize for. However, I often find myself telling my friends that I, too, have responsibilities and have to do unpleasant things at times. I suppose I do that to feel a connection to them, or to not further alienate myself. As my friends’ lives become increasingly about children and family, and mine becomes more about what I want to do and my dreams for the future, it is hard to maintain connections. Holding back some is a way to hold on to those friends that are living on a different path, but in reality it may be time to just let those friends go and move on.

    • olivia reading
      June 8, 2012

      Angie, it’s so lovely to post a tangled, private thought and find that somewhere out there in the world someone has been feeling exactly the same way. I know just what you mean about emphasising responsibilities and worrying about boasting. Isn’t it odd though since, as Tiffanylo points out, many parents don’t hold back at all!

      I must admit I don’t want to let any of my friends go, though. I think my aim in all of this is actually to trust them a bit more with my thoughts and especially my happiness.

    • rantywoman
      June 9, 2012

      Angie, your post reminds me of a line from the book “Complete Without Kids”:

      http://thebitterbabe.wordpress.com/2012/02/17/bingo/

      • Angie
        June 11, 2012

        That is exactly what I am seeing/feeling right now, rantywoman! I feel like as I approach 40 my focus as turned inward to a large extent, while all of my friends have begun or continue to focus outward on their kids. So many of my friends who are parents, and even my parents, talk about living vicariously through their children, but I would never want to experience anything through another person. I want to live the life I want on my own terms and follow my own dreams, not watch someone else do it.

    • M
      June 10, 2012

      I really identify with the idea of having to explain to friends and family that I also have responsibilities…I do get a little tired of always being the friend who keeps in touch with my friends with children…I’m busy too, just with different things (and yes, often very pleasant but I made a choice and I shouldn’t feel bad about that).

  4. Abby
    June 8, 2012

    I have sometimes felt this way too. For me it is much more complicated because I am dealing with a chronic illness, so the issue becomes “when I’m better” vs. when so and so is done with school. I have tried very hard to live as best I can with what I am given in the moment, and even managed to have a solo art exhibit last year despite my illness.
    A previous instructor of mine addressed this issue of holding back by using this example – would a tree not fully bloom and withhold it’s beauty so as to not make the other trees uncomfortable? That really resonated with me. And of course there is the beautiful quote by Marianne Williamson (it does have some religious overtones – sorry if that does not work for everyone but I think you can extrapolate the intention regardless):

    Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. – Marianne Williamson

    • olivia reading
      June 8, 2012

      Abby, chronic illness does add an extra layer to the whole issue. How amazing that amidst it all you were able to put together an exhibit like that.

      The tree metaphor is gorgeous and personally, I don’t mind religious overtones at all – what a beautiful quote. I’ve only ever heard the first line, so its lovely to read the rest too!

    • M
      June 10, 2012

      I use this quote in my classroom a lot – I love it. So much nastiness comes from petty jealousies and we all need to learn to shine, fearlessly.

  5. Kate
    June 8, 2012

    This is an interesting concept and I can relate on two different levels. While I do not feel like I hold myself back now, a couple years ago when I still kind of assumed that I would “change my mind” and have a baby around age 30, I found I would hold back from doing what I really wanted to do because I thought that if I was going to have a kid then what was the point of investing my time and energy into something if it was just going to get interrupted? I honestly thought that there was no point in become too successful at anything if I was just going to devote my life to motherhood once I had a baby. It sounds so weird now that I am writing this! Anyhow, when I made the decision never to have a child i felt this overwhelming sense of relief and freedom and I can honestly say that since then I don’t hold myself back anymore. However, I do hold back when talking about my life to my friends with kids. I feel like it would be cruel to natter on excitedly about all the cool stuff I am doing and how happy I am with my life when they look so tired and distracted. So in that situation I do hold back from really sharing what is going on in my life and what my ambitions are.

  6. olivia reading
    June 8, 2012

    Kate, I just wrote in response to Angie’s comment that it is amazing to write a blog post about a very specific thought, wondering if anyone will even know what you’re talking about, and find that someone else shares even in the small details of it. Your comment makes me feel the same thing again – both the points you raise. I definitely had that ‘thirty’ thing too, assuming that any major goals I went for would be interrupted and therefore weren’t really worth pursuing with much passion. Thankfully, I’m definitely feeling differently about it all now.

  7. Rhona
    June 8, 2012

    I can total relate. I find myself holding back often but it all comes back to fear. I guess i don’t trust myself to go for what i want. This is something I am dealing and coping with right now. I feel sometimes that I am too old to start certain things or I am not smart enough or ambitious enough or courageous enough. Holding back is something I am also working at getting over. I hope I eventually do because as being single and childfree, I know I can do what I like but I hold myself back.

    • olivia reading
      June 8, 2012

      Rhona, thanks so much for adding your thoughts here. Re the particular idea that you might be too old to do some things, I wonder if you saw honeymyrtle’s recent post about age, here: http://honeymyrtle.wordpress.com/2012/05/30/on-age/ ?
      She writes about a book that I’ve never read but love the title of, ‘Paper Garden: Mrs Delany begins her Life’s Work at 72’. It makes me feel that we couldn’t possibly be too old to begin anything we’re interested in doing.

      • Abby
        June 8, 2012

        I love that you mentioned this book – it’s about the woman who invented the art form of the collage. I am a collage artist myself, so I found the subject matter very interesting. And btw, I didn’t start making art at all until I was 37. I agree you are never too old to start something new 🙂

  8. Beam_Me_Up_Scotty
    June 8, 2012

    I haven’t had a problem with “holding back.” I like everything to happen at it’s given pace – even if I am in front of or behind the pack. That being said, being a female INTJ is an interesting way to experience the world. I don’t really think about hurting the feelings of others with my actions – as long as those actions are morally acceptable and/or purely academic or skill-based. It’s not my fault if others can’t keep up with me…and I’m not going to stunt myself to make others feel comfortable or to “fit in.” I’ve always felt like something of an outsider – I have no patience for social rituals like small talk – I like to get to the facts, jack, don’t waste my time with drivel. This straightforward approach tends to be looked down upon, especially coming from a woman – but it’s served me well so far, and has earned me the respect of many a male colleague.
    I used to find it funny how easy it was to make someone uncomfortable, and would endeavor to do so when forced to be in a room with people that I’d rather not be associating with. It’s interesting how quickly 15 seconds of silence can make someone squirm with anxiety. I’ve become a little more respectful and patient over time – I still don’t like hugging, shaking hands, or any type of physical contact with people I don’t know well – but I’ll make small talk, as tedious as it is, to accommodate the others around me and make them more comfortable. I’ve been forced to recognize that although I’m pretty happy here in my brain by myself, I am not an island. Social rituals exist to tie us together, as does holding ourselves back to avoid making others feel uncomfortable. If you’re “too smart” you don’t fit in – and that makes some people uncomfortable. I never really felt like I fit in…so this was never an issue for me.
    I realize that I sound like a jerk – but really, I’m not. 🙂
    ~Audrey

    • olivia reading
      June 8, 2012

      You don’t sounds like a jerk, Audrey! You just sound like a woman who is pretty clear about what she wants. Your comment reminded me of that brilliant Rebecca West quote: “I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.” Ha 🙂

      • Happily Childfree
        July 15, 2012

        I have never heard this quote before. Love it!

  9. valkyrie5959
    June 9, 2012

    I definitely believe in “not holding back” Also sadly one must occasionally weed the garden of friendship. i am highly motivated and can live without encouragement but find it impossible to live with discouragement. When I took up the piano in a serious way at the age of 50 a young friend of mine said “do you realize that the age you will be by the time you can play really well is exactly the same age you would have been if you hadn’t taken it up” LOL. I do love a bit of encouragement
    which is why I like this blog.

    • tiffanylo
      June 9, 2012

      I could not agree with you more, Valkyrie… And I totally believe that the garden must indeed be weeded from time to time, sad and disappointing as that might feel… At nearly 37 years of age, I have had to bid “adieu” to a number of friendships over the years, and not just because they have kids and I do not. However, I am once again at a challenging point with a couple of long-term friendships mainly b/c we are not in the same place when it comes to lifestyles (parenting vs. non) and there is not much give-and-take going on. I have tried, but find myself increasingly more frustrated by how rigid some folks can be about their child-raising habits, even friends I am unable to see more than a few times a year b/c of geographical distance… It’s really taking a toll on how I feel about these friends, though I realize I am also not perfect. Sometimes I just cease to be accommodating to my parenting friends, particularly if I feel like they rarely attempt to accommodate my lifestyle.
      I have had friends tell me, “Well, if people can’t understand where I’m at with my child-raising needs at this point, I just can’t be bothered.” While I am sure that makes sense on some levels, I cannot fully grasp that mentality. I am an only child, and while my parents adored me, they did not hover, they had careers, and they also had a social life, which involved me staying with a babysitter or my aunts and uncles if necessary. I have so many friends who are reluctant to go out at night, even when their child is well beyond the needy infant stage. My own mother cannot comprehend this mentality, and she was (is!) a very involved and caring parent, but also craved her space/own life.
      The “helicopter parents” do tend to drive me a bit batty, and because some of them are currently in my garden of friends, I believe that a bit of weeding will eventually take place. Not to say that we cannot come back together again one day, but for now, the frustration I feel is starting to color how I feel about the relationships…

    • Angie
      June 11, 2012

      Those are wonderful encouraging words! I have just taken up pottery at almost 40, and sometimes I feel silly being by far the oldest person in the studio there for her own class and not a child’s. I love it though and will keep taking classes and working on my technique because I have the time and the inclination to do so.

  10. rantywoman
    June 9, 2012

    I think one of the things I’ve had to get over as a childless woman is guilt over spending money on my own dreams. My tendency is to forget that people take on the huge expense of raising kids because that is their dream, so I should allow myself to take on the expenses associated with my own dreams without feeling like spending money on myself is somehow “bad.”

    Using this logic I was able to convince myself it was okay to quit my job and spend money on a big cross-country move– it was an expensive endeavor, but a lot less expensive than raising kids!

    I do find that a few of my dreams are limited by the following:
    1) My job and paltry two week vacation limit
    2) The lack of other childless women around my age to pursue certain endeavors with
    3) The ageism of single men over forty (oh the fun I could potentially be having if this was not the case!)

    • olivia reading
      June 10, 2012

      I relate to the money thing too, rw. Money spent on children (well, at least on things like their home, education etc) is so easy to identify as money that has been spent sensibly, whereas money spent on oneself is so easy to identify as frivolous (even if it’s on things like home and education!) At least, that’s how I sometimes find myself thinking.

      Two weeks of time off is a mean little limit, isn’t it! And oh, the ageism thing…such a tricky, thorny issue. I’m learning a lot about it from reading your blog and wondering very much if there is a way around, through or past it. It does seem a particularly unkind limit to place on women.

  11. M
    June 10, 2012

    No, I don’t hold back, but I do feel as though I should be doing much more fabulously in my career and life in general, without the excuse of children stopping me…I’m working on finding a balance between doing something really meaningful and just finding meaning – MY meaning – in the little things. After all, it often seems ok for mothers to say “I’ve spent the last 20 years being a mum”…so I’m going to spend the next 20 being a bum!

    • olivia reading
      June 10, 2012

      M, I’ve grappled a lot with that balance too – the obligation to be somehow extraordinary versus the liberation of being allowed to just slow down and live. On the bright side, whether we achieve one, the other, or just a little of both, I feel we’ll end up living pretty good lives with those as our aims.

  12. Mali
    June 10, 2012

    Well, I certainly haven’t held back on the travel side of things. In fact, I think my husband and I have treated that as our “children” – we[‘ve poured money and time into it, as much as possible!

    As a younger person, I certainly held myself back to fit in, being taught that bragging or “showing off” was not polite. I wish I had learned to celebrate my abilities more, and to feel more confident, because now – as I age – I find myself holding back (at precisely the time I shouldn’t be holding back) out of fear. When all I have to fear is the fear itself.

    And thanks to Abby for that beautiful quote.

    • olivia reading
      June 15, 2012

      Mali, I don’t think it’s a day too late to start pushing forward instead of holding back! At least that’s what I tell myself almost every day. I like the idea that you and your husband treat your travels like children :).

  13. Nicole
    June 11, 2012

    I hear you on this. I got to the point where I could make the leap to self employment (which I am about to do! Eep!) and live in the town where I really want to live, but I got scared about making that, because it was like “well, I think I need more money in the bank”, but I realized I could keep putting it off forever. And when I step back and see how without kids I have less financial burdens, I realize it is silly not to do the things I want. Some people have to put life on hold for their families, but I don’t and I should take advantage of that.

    • olivia reading
      June 15, 2012

      Nicole, I made that leap this year too – a big scary one (and I admit I left myself a safety net) but it has been amazing and successful so far! My thoughts about it were just the ones you’ve laid out here and I definitely have no regrets.

  14. Happily Childfree
    July 15, 2012

    A very interesting topic and comments. I am in my mid-forties and have always held back about my intelligence, capabilities, and the rewards of my childfree choice. I think some of that is female socialization: needing to be liked. I did a professional women training seminar once where the instructor required each of us to say out loud “I would rather be respected than liked.” I was shocked that some of my colleagues refused to say it. I have experienced and agree with so many of your comments. I seldom boast of all the great things my husband and I do with our free time and finances, yet I will listen as someone drones on about their kids. I feel sorry for them, which is why I act the way I do. But I recently realized that they probably feel sorry for me because I don’t have kids. So my pity is probably poorly placed and I shouldn’t feel bad about sharing the great parts of my life with them.

  15. Bronski
    November 22, 2012

    This seems to be an area of confusing and conflicting stuff. On the one hand we may be pitied by some mothers because we have not had ‘that unique experience’ of motherhood which they ‘wouldn’t have missed for anything’. On the other hand, we hide our lives and potential freedom to capitalise on non-motherhood because of the risk of offending. Perhaps we would feel less of a sense of loss and less victim-like, and more a part of mainstream society if we got on with what we want to do without pussy-footing around the sensitivities of women who claim to be totally fulfilled. We shouldn’t have to downplay what we do because of the choices we have made.
    My 8 year old niece – desperate for more cousins – made the link between my having lots of holidays and not having children – but got the cause and effect wrong when she said to me one day in frustration – ‘Perhaps if you went on fewer holidays, you would find time to have children.’ !

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