Why being you matters – whether or not you’re a Mum
If I had a magic wand, I’d magic up a permission pass. I can’t tell you how many times in my life I wish I could have had a message from the universe giving me a big thumbs-up that I should just go for it. Do things my way, be a bit different, follow my heart. Permission granted. “You are officially allowed”, it would say.
With the big stuff: You’re on your own
The truth is that when you grow up, you realise you’re often on your own for the big stuff. Even if you have friends, family or a partner cooing reassuringly that you’re doing the right thing. That you should go for it. Egging you on.
You often get that nagging voice in your head wondering if they’re just saying that because they want you to be happy. We all know that agreeing with someone and validating their feelings is often a good way to help them feel better about something. We’ve all done it. And we’ve all been on the receiving end of it. We’re all so very lovely, you see. But it doesn’t necessarily stop the person hearing that validation wondering if they really are making the right decision.
Am I making a mistake?
I’ve often trodden paths, gingerly taking each step wondering whether I had made a dreadful mistake. Particularly when those paths divert me away from convention, or societal norms. Deciding early on in life that I didn’t want to be a mother was one of those choices. For many years I felt I was being judged. One senior (male) executive while I was working at Sky News asked me whether there was ‘something wrong’ with my ‘bits’.
But I’ve had countless tasteless comments over the years, many of which I have found hurtful and unkind. In the same way it can be horribly intrusive to have a stranger reach out to stroke a pregnant stomach, or try to touch or kiss your little one – it can be deeply unsettling when people think it’s ok to invade your space with their opinions about your childlessness.
In my twenties, everyone I knew began to fall pregnant and join wonderful, supportive NCT groups, forging lifelong friendships in some cases. Little networks of shared experiences and solidarity.
I chose not to have kids. Many don’t
I chose not to try to have children. Many others who are childless have had heartbreaking experiences of IVF, miscarriages, illness. None of us can presume to really know a person’s reality unless we get to know them pretty well. Yet society encourages us to stick a shiny label on each other, about anything and everything. We’re hopelessly pre-programmed to make assumptions about why someone adopted, or fostered, or has an “only” child, or several, or none.
How to answer ‘Do you have kids?’
I find myself jokily being defensive every time I am asked whether I have kids. I always feel the need to explain that I don’t by choice – and I find myself saying out loud to whoever is asking that I have several wonderful children in my life – my two nieces, my nephew, my goddaughter and my godson. And since my marriage, two step-daughters (who live overseas, so not with me). I realise I want people to think I am normal, not weird, so I find myself justifying the absence of a child in my home, or an empty nest, by reassuring my interrogator that I LOVE children. I find myself wondering if they think I must be some sort of alpha cyborg, devoid of emotion and tenderness. Society often prefaces sentences by that powerful, beautiful, but also alienating phrase “As a mother….”. I cry inside.
I made my choice when I was quite young. Many of us become the people we blossom into, shaped by the pressures and problems of our own childhoods. We often kick against what we experienced, in order to carve out new realities for ourselves.
Discovering about my brother
My parents had three children. Or at least, I thought we were three. I remember being 14 years old and finding out by accident that they had had a baby boy the year before I was born. Tragically, he was born prematurely, and he died within days.
In those days, baby’s bodies were quietly disposed of at the hospital. My mother never got to hold her little boy. And he doesn’t have a grave.
I remember hearing what happened and feeling incredulous. Unbelievably sad. And also, if I am honest, a bit betrayed. I couldn’t believe my brother, sister and I didn’t know something this important about our own family life. On reflection these days I realise how selfish and egotistical this aspect of my own reactions was. At the time it felt like my world was collapsing into a new and different reality where grown-ups lie to you and you can’t trust anyone. Until that moment, we’d been bobbing along quite nicely, thank you – no great dramas and all very ordinary. Roast dinners on Sundays. Angel Delight for afters. Staying up late to watch Torvill and Dean. Homemade dresses for me and my sister. School uniforms from Woolworths and a red brick house in the suburbs.
And now, a dead baby brother I didn’t even know I had.
How my experience with my brother affected me
When we talked about Philip, and understood more about what my parents had gone through, we found out other pieces of the puzzle. It turned out my Mum had had several miscarriages. That she was in hospital for ages during her pregnancy with me. That she couldn’t carry boys. I already knew that my brother Paul was born very prematurely. I can still see in my mind’s eye the cracks in his cranium where he wasn’t ‘sewn up’ yet, a wee little mouse in an incubator with what seemed like dozens of tubes connecting him to glass and steel and pumps. At the age of five, I’m not sure I was very aware that these tubes were keeping him alive.
As a child, his arrival felt joyous. Like when my sister Caroline came into the world when I was two and a half – a real live doll for me to play with – I was over the moon with both my siblings. But rewinding the story of how many years of pregnancies hadn’t lead to happy, healthy children cast a new truth on everything. It helped me understand why my own mother had wept so viscerally when a neighbour’s baby miscarried. And it explained a lot of other things, too.
My mum went on to have a hysterectomy the same year I found out about Philip… and the suffering that caused for her and for all of us was excruciating. By the time I was 15, I had made my mind up that I wouldn’t have children.
Later in my own life, I had a few (relatively minor) health issues – I had to have part of my cervix removed when a smear test discovered pre-cancerous cells. And I went through a premature menopause in my thirties. I remember feeling truly thankful that I was in the deeply fortunate position of already having taken this life-defining decision about not having children of my own.
When I was signing the release forms before going into general anaesthetic for my operation – the relief in the nurse was palpable as I explained I was ok. She was gently, and very sweetly, making sure I understood the implications – that my operation meant I would probably be unable to carry a baby to full term. She looked like she wanted to hug me when I told her I had decided years before not to have children. One of those precious moments of humanity we sometimes glimpse in a stranger.
Through my career, I feel I have (mostly) learned how to handle tactless questions about my own situation, and an expectation among colleagues from time to time that whatever plans I may have in my personal life should be sacrificed to step in when others have nativity plays, sports days or chickenpox to attend to. I mostly haven’t minded, because of course I understand. And in fact a lot of the time, those things are more important than whatever I had going on. But there has been the odd occasion when I have had to give up something that mattered a lot to me – and I’m not sure it was appreciated.
The path my life did take
I have broadly navigated life in a way that has brought me immense soul nourishment, doing meaningful work and notching up experiences I am proud of. I’ve had a TV career producing and writing for some of the most famous people on the planet – making programmes with Nelson Mandela, Sir David Frost, Sir David Attenborough – on everything from palaeontology to politics.
I’ve travelled all over the world for work, and I got to work at the Royal Household for a number of years – based at Buckingham Palace. I’ve had the privilege of being made Visiting Professor of Media, Strategy and Communications at the University of Huddersfield. I am a Board Trustee and Company Director – and for someone who defines herself as a storyteller – most happy-making of all, I am a bestselling five-star author. My psychological thriller Seas of Snow is my proudest achievement – and although it’s a dark and upsetting read, I draw deeply on some of my own childhood experiences to bring the pain and suffering of my protagonist to the page. I have been overwhelmed by the response to it.
My book = my baby
For me, my book is my baby. My own Mum jokes it had a much longer gestation than most babies, and she is right (seven years!). I also (spoiler alert – cliché coming up) – have a cat I adore, and although I have had a bumpy road in matters of the heart, I do feel somewhat late in life that I have at last landed in a place where I love, and am loved. At no point, though, have I ever felt an empty hollow where a child should be. In my own life, I made the right decision, for me.
Remembering the things I’m grateful for
It doesn’t mean life has been plain sailing – far from it. But I get through the tough stuff by mindfully thinking through my ‘grateful’ list every day. Really. I have ten things I literally think about, in list form, every day before I get out of bed to remind myself of my blessings. It’s surprising how thinking about the things you feel grateful about gives you a lift and infuses your day with positivity and sunshine.
I find reading and writing enriching. I love poetry. Making time to actually write matters to me. I use writing to process my thinking and I would go so far as to say I need it.
Enjoying the joy of nature
I get immense pleasure from little things like hearing rain, seeing the changing seasons unfold, watching the zoo of butterflies, bees, robins, magpies, squirrels, turtle doves, herons and frogs that seem to use my garden as a social club. For me, sensory things matter. And quiet. I like to feel serene, and be somewhere calm and beautiful. One of the happiest places in my world is where I am sitting right now, writing this. My dining room table, with a view of the garden. I am an introvert by nature – so retreat into myself quite a lot when I can. It energises me to be alone in my thoughts, and to breathe.
Life is pretty hard and the challenges it throws at us can be pretty relentless. But you can find fulfilment in so many ways, I’ve learned that we each need to forge our own paths, and have the confidence to ‘be me’. Writing your own ‘permission pass’ is one of the most empowering presents you can gift yourself. Do things your way. Be different. Follow your heart. Don’t wait for someone else to give you permission. Or tell you you’re ‘officially allowed’. Believe me – you are.
Professor Kerensa Jennings FRSA is a digital impact specialist, senior adviser at BT, a Trustee at the Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technology (CAST), and Visiting Professor of Media, Strategy and Communications at the University of Huddersfield. She is also a bestselling author and award winning strategist.
Kerensa was previously CEO of the Inspiring Digital Enterprise Award (iDEA), an international programme set up to help address the digital skills gap. Earlier in her career, Kerensa spent many years as a TV producer and was the BBC’s Head of Strategic Delivery. She represents BT on boards, at major events and in the media. BT Skills for Tomorrow aims to help small businesses make the most of the digital economy with free help, mentoring and training on everything from social media to protecting your data.
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