Wandering into Happiness28th July, 2021
I have always been curious, curious about people, cultures, history, the great outdoors, why does my cat like to always leave my gifts in the same spot and what becomes of a world where the majority of women who do not have children are the more educated.
So, my curiosity gave me purpose; to travel, to explore, to experience diverse cultures and live life.
My purpose has always been to make the most of every moment and opportunity.
I was born in New Zealand in the 70s and grew up in the 80s where slogans of “girls can do anything” were lauded, my female roles models did not live traditional roles, travelled, single mothers, a focus on careers.
I was a feminist from an early age, I didn’t understand why my brother was taught to drive the tractor and I wasn’t OR why I was asked to make visitors the tea and coffee when a) my brother never was and b) I don’t even drink hot drinks!
Despite all of this, I also saw clearly how embraced and supported by society the choice to have a family was. So, my guide to life became wanting to have a family, find a partner, marry, have children, and make preserves from my fruit trees.
No fear, I wasn’t thinking about any of that, my curiosity wanted to see the world first, so as soon as I donned my bachelor’s cape, I saved for a year in NZ’s capital, even working for a time pumping gas, and flew off to the UK to soak it all in and drink it all up. I have often told my two youngest aunts (only 10 my senior) that their travels inspired me as I was working the world out in my childhood into tweenhood. I had a conservative upbringing; I should be a “good girl”, I was the eldest, so I had unspoken responsibilities, no religion but no parties, get on with it and no need to talk about it. And I looked at my aunts and my friends’ families and saw diverse ways of being and I loved to part of different experiences. I was well brought up, had everything I needed but my soul and mind needed more. It seemed inevitable that I’d want to take that experience to a global scale.
I planned for my first 2 months to be filled with travel before I found a place to live in London. I can still recall now how overwhelmed I was in the smells of Hong Kong (from the heavy smoke cloud at the airport to the backstreet food stalls), the hustle of the night markets, sitting on the pier watching the lights of Hong Kong fill the sky, my first conversation with a fellow travelling stranger, checking my gut senses, and letting him guide me to new markets on the underground. These gut senses became honed after more travels, knowing to take every opportunity but to always have a safe out if needed. I worked in London and travelled more on my own, I did a Contiki through Europe (at 22 its everything you imagine), I took my backpack on the back of truck through the middle east, southern Africa, and the Indian sub-continent. I kissed boys at Hogmanay in Edinburgh and Pamplona for running of the bulls and in Munich for Beerfest, I kissed a lot of boys. I skied in Europe, took a train across Russia, ate Peking Duck in Beijing (Peking), slept in an Ice Hotel, and watched the aurora, ate a big apple in Central Park, jumped out of planes over the red sand dunes of Namibia, bathed with elephants in Nepal, soaked in the incredibleness of Petra, ate too much hash cake in Egypt, loved the energy of India, ate locally everywhere I travelled, talked to locals, captured moments on film. For a willing listener I have endless tales to tell.
It was just a given that after my adventures I would find my fulfilment in creating a family. The strong pronatalist message told me so and being a “good girl” was rewarded.
If my story sounds familiar, or perhaps it just sounds confusing, it was an internal struggle that was very real for me.
I guess it started (upon reflection) when I turned 30 and my brother got married. The pecking order in the family changed. My sister-in-law took precedence, and it was the beginning of conversations at the dinner table that focused on the milestones being met by my brother.
I pursued relationships in order to tick these boxes and have the Holy grail of a “family”. I can say this now, with a little cynicism because of time, but in that moment in my late 30s and early 40s it was painful.
I’ve thought about this a lot because I’m sensitive about being considered jealous or bitter. The thing is I’m none of those. I embraced my brother’s new life and pitched in whenever I could. What I was increasingly finding was that the events in my life where either not acknowledged or celebrated. I didn’t understand at the time what was happening, I just felt left out and like I was being pushed to the side. I stepped it up and really threw myself into the aunt role when my niece and nephew came along, I was super aunt.
I don’t think I’m alone here, in feeling that my achievements were received with underwhelming cheer, and I watched as family and friends who took the “traditional” path were celebrated, supported, and embraced.
I took a sideline view and quite frankly I wasn’t used to it.
I focused on my career, in Insurance and then in Telecommunications. I was successful, I got bigger roles and I bought my first house and then my 2nd and I took more epic trips overseas. I was ticking life goals; I just had not found Mr. Right and had not created my own “family”.
I got a cat, Gus, at 9 he is the most loyal and comforting male to have shared my bed for that amount of consecutive years. I climbed mountains and walked 6 100km Trail walkers in 24 hours+, I went big on everything I did. It didn’t compare to having a family though, conversations fell flat when I answered no to having children, women gathered in the kitchen talking about their children, women looked sideways at me talking to their husbands, I was asked why I was being so fussy about men. Honestly, I was living this amazing life and I wasn’t allowed into the inner sanctum unless I had a bloke and child. I was growing increasingly frustrated and outraged by the injustice. Trust me, I was dating but I was not settling for anybody, and nobody was ticking my gut senses to think I could parent together with them. And to be honest, I still feel like this world would expect me to be a traditional mum, and I was never going to be that, so I needed a pretty special man in my life. However, he never turned up in any of my very thorough searches.
I turned 40 and had a big celebration, if I wasn’t going to have a wedding or be celebrated for anything else then I’d throw an epic party and have a bloody fun time. And I did, it was catered, travel theme, I had life music and family and friends travelled to be with me. A celebration at its best!
It wasn’t until more recently I was speaking to the incredible Steph Phillips, founder of World Childless Week, that she introduced me to the term disenfranchised grief. I spent years grieving a life not lived totally unrecognised by those closest to me, let alone myself. I finally understood what I was feeling was valid and I wasn’t going crazy. Thank you, Steph.
My purpose as a young Penny was to explore, to turn the rocks, to discover new worlds. I knew my purpose as a 9-year-old. I found no greater joy than taking myself off to the back of the dairy farm to explore the secret forest (with my packed lunch), follow the old sheep tracks, wonder what was living amongst those trees. All day I’d explore, sometimes with the neighbours’ kids, sometimes alone. That 9-year-old in me questioned everything, looked behind all the rocks and trees, took to reading where new worlds and ideas were talked about, she wrote her own books (it was a mystery inspired by my love of Trixie Belden stories) and knew early lives could be lived in so many different ways and my purpose was to find out all about them.
I don’t think my purpose has ever changed. I mean, pronatalism threw me off track in a big way, it caused me pain like I’d never known or understood, and I had no support. In contrast those with families around me who were going through struggles were supported with time and money and importantly empathy.
Damn, I just wanted to be recognised!
So, here I am, 48 and fully embraced in my life without children. My family is me and Gus and now Livi (a 2-year-old rambunctious Border Beagle cross) and I continue to indulge my curiosity; I share my story (that was empowering). I won’t say my purpose is embraced by the traditionalist folk around me, but I’ve found my people and I’ve found my voice to share with everyone following behind that there is support out there for your choices, for your grief and for your successes.
My life is full of experiences and characters and friends met along the way. My purpose will continue to evolve but it’s important to me know that
- Your choices are about your happiness, not to satisfy outside forces
- there is support out there for your disenfranchised grief, counsellors with lived experience exist and thousands of women gather in online supportive communities
- I celebrate every one of your successes! Your promotion, your new business; your adopted fur baby, show me your photos! your new house? Let me bring a housewarming gift; you wrote a book? Sign my copy; you developed a new technology, let’s hear all about it; you wrote an article, congratulations!
Live your life, love your life because you have a support crew right behind you cheering you on!