When I heard what actress
Elaine Paige said earlier this week, it struck a chord with me. “I
do regret the fact that I never married and had a family of my own,” she
declared. “But I’m of the belief that you can’t have it all.”
At around the same time the
former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, in an interview with The
Telegraph, said she had no regrets about not having a family.
“Look,” she explained, “I’m comfortable with my life’s choices. It gave me
my chance to work as minister of education and PM.”
It only struck me a few years ago – probably I’m a very late developer – that
to have reached the age I am (now 72) without having had children makes me
the object of pity in some circles, puzzlement in others, and possibly even
some sort of contempt in not a few (Julia Gillard knows all about that).
Former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard (REX)
The puzzlement and pity come mostly from sympathetic people in the developing
world, in countries where there is a natural assumption that being childless
is almost never by choice, but may have happened because one’s reproductive
organs aren’t working properly. Real contempt I’ve never encountered
directly, but when, in social situations, a stranger looking wildly for
something to talk about assumes one must be a mother, or a grandmother, and
then backs off with an embarrassed apology when one confesses one has no
children, it does make one feel a bit inadequate.
It was never my intention to be childless, nor indeed to remain without a
husband. I grew up in Cape Town in an era (the late Fifties and early
Sixties), when although it wasn’t unusual for (white) women to go to
university, that didn’t always lead on to a professional career. University
was the place where you paused for a while before you found the man of your
dreams and had babies. Most of my school friends were in this happy state by
I chose a different path. I wasn’t deliberately avoiding coupledom or kids,
but I longed to go to Europe, to settle in London, and if possible work for
the BBC. When I arrived in London, I felt myself supremely lucky to be
offered a job almost immediately, though it was only on a temporary basis,
in the Radio News and Current Affairs department. This somehow turned into
more than four decades.
I wasn’t especially ambitious. I didn’t ever really want to work in front of
the camera in television because I felt, possibly quite wrongly, that
television changes the people who appear on screen because of the instant
I certainly didn’t rule out marriage or children, and once or twice I was even
on the brink of ruling them in, but in the end ploughing a solitary furrow
won out. I often feel I’ve missed out by not having managed to achieve
marriage and children, but it’s not a huge regret.
BBC presenter Sue MacGregor (REX)
Like all doting aunts and great-aunts, I know I’m spectacularly lucky with my
sister’s daughters and my great-nieces and nephews. But I am well aware that
enjoying children at one remove, and not having experienced the 24/7
commitment of caring for babies and the hardly less demanding task of
keeping them safe and happy as they grow up, can come across as both
slightly pathetic and supremely selfish.
I do admire and even envy the women I know who’ve achieved brilliant careers
while bringing up a family. I think of two colleagues in particular – Sarah
Montague and Mishal Husain on the Today programme – who have successfully
combined being mothers of young children with having to get up to go to work
at half past three in the morning. Believe me, getting up that early and
sounding coherent by six in the morning is not easy.
I think also of my nieces, both GPs, who work long hours and juggle with
school timetables, homework issues and feeding the family. I think of the
millions of women who leave for work early and get home late who are also
brilliant mothers. I know I simply couldn’t do both. But please don’t feel
sorry for me.
I’ve worked on some of the best programmes on radio, I’ve met some pretty
extraordinary people – heroes and villains some of them – and I’ve learnt a
great deal about the lives of others and the ways of the world. I’ve also
had the chance to work with one of the world’s best children’s charities,
Unicef. With children of my own, perhaps that wouldn’t have happened.
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