First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes … a jet-setting lifestyle, a novel and posh townhouse in London.
For Sonja Lewis, an expat in her 40s, there was never a carriage, stroller or burp cloth. Or childcare. Or school tuition. Instead, Sonja opted out of the idea that all women need children in order to be fulfilled and complete—and now wants to tell the tale.
In her new novel The Barreness, Lewis explores the fraught and emotional territory of going child-free. We called up this Georgia-born journalist and writer in her current home in London—where she happily lives with her husband—and asked her all the questions you'd be too polite to ask.
Why did you write this novel?
I guess you could say I got married late (about 37 or 38) and became obsessed with whether I would have children. And I eventually concluded that being a mother wasn’t the right thing for me.
The previous generation seemed to stereotype non-mothers as selfish, hardcore people, and I wanted to make it clear that women can be fulfilled without becoming mothers. Exploring the subject in the form of a novel gives me free range in how I approach it.
Women who don’t have children are more scrutinized. People believe Oprah when she says she’s fulfilled. But for other women, it’s different.
Why did you decide not to have children?
You have to consider the commitment; it’s a lifetime role. As much as I love children, when it really became a viable option for me, the financial commitment, the personal commitment, everything I had to take into consideration ... It just didn't make sense.
Raising children, of course, is costly. Did that factor into your decision?
It wasn’t the deciding factor, but I did think about money. My husband and I are normal middle-class people. I think my child would have had a good life, but I would have wanted the very best, including paying for school. I read an article about how expensive it is to raise a child in the U.K., and the figures are just astounding. Plus, we already travel to the U.S. two or three times a year, and I would have wanted to go more often with a child. And that can get quite expensive.
Was this a solely personal decision, or did you involve your husband?
It was definitely a personal choice for me. We both agreed that I couldn’t wake up one day and blame him for this decision. It’s important to talk to your partner, though, and my husband was very supportive and wonderful. We did a lot of research and even considered adopting an older child, but I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t right for me.
What did you do with the money you would have otherwise spent on a child?
Travel, by far. Without kids, you can come and go as you please. I also enjoy some level of creature comforts in London. I go to the salon once a week; this morning I got a massage. We also have a townhouse in London. If we had a child, we would have had to consider living in the suburbs.
There are other ways to support children, though, from being involved with my nieces and nephews to supporting a lot of children’s charities.
Do you think not having children puts more pressure on you to be successful in your career?
I suspect it does. Women who don’t have children are more scrutinized. People believe Oprah when she says she’s fulfilled. But for other women, it’s different. I personally feel quite fulfilled, having written a novel, having worked as a journalist, having done quite a bit of travel and now, having my communications consultancy here.
Do you ever regret not having children?
I do have a “what if” moment every now and again, but it’s fleeting. I don’t have any regrets. It is so important to own that decision. It’s not one I can go back on.
It’s very easy to walk into a school or an event and make friends with other mothers. Being a writer can be isolating, so I’ve had to be creative about how I make friends here in England. But I have greater flexibility than I would have had otherwise. Because I don’t have children, I have a very different relationship with my nieces and nephews and godchildren. If I have any extra money or time, I can spend it in my role as their auntie. I’m a very active auntie, and they see a different take on life from me.
For example, they don’t mind being Facebook friends with me, even though they do mind parents in their social media circle. I can talk about things others aren’t able to.
Do you think about not having children to take care of you as you get older?
I thought about this when I was making the decision. After talking to women with children, I concluded that there are no guarantees, anyway. Whether you have children or not, you need to be smart about retirement. I do have the benefit of a large family, with nieces and nephews and godchildren. They talk about how they would never leave me alone, but I don’t count on that.
Have you faced social backlash because of this decision? How have you dealt with it?
Backlash is a strong word. People ask if I have children. I say, “No,” and they say, “There’s still time.”
People want to believe you’re missing something. My choice is absolutely considered unconventional. What I try to stress is that it may be unconventional, but it’s not abnormal. It’s your life, and you have to own it.
Have you met women who regret having children or say they envy you?
I have, but I won’t name them! I’ve met women who have said, “I absolutely love my child, but I am just so jealous.” Not every woman feels that way, but I’ve met a good handful who’ve said that if they had to do it over again, they’d do it differently. They never thought it was a choice; it was so much a part of their socialization.
My mother is a wonderful, wonderful woman. She had seven children, loves us all and would do anything in the world for us. But she did not want seven children. I don’t remember a time when she didn’t make that point.
What should people make sure not to say to a childless woman?
“Why didn’t you have children?” That is a deeply personal question, even for a woman like me who didn’t have fertility issues. If someone tells you she doesn’t have children, don’t look at her like you feel sorry for her.
What legacy would you like to leave behind?
It’s so important to remember that women without children can leave a legacy, too.
Women who don’t have children are of equal value as women who do. I want girls to know that as they become women. That’s the legacy I would like to leave.
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