Last summer, I was at a festival with about 25 friends. We all camp together, something of an annual tradition, our numbers swelling year on year. Some of these people are among my oldest, closest friends; some are very new ones, whom I might see only once or twice a year; and some have gone from being the latter to the former. Looking around one morning when we blearily, cheerfully gathered for a communal breakfast, I was struck by a realisation: in this large group of people, everyone was child-free.
I’m 37, and looking back over the last few years, I can see an expansion as well as a reshuffling of my friendship groups. Yes, I spend less time with the ones who have had kids – or at least don’t see them on big group holidays, nights out, or impromptu theatre trips anymore. I know we may bounce back into that kind of friendship one day – or we may not – but for now of course I’m happy to navigate around bedtimes, or catch up in between chasing their toddler round the park.
But there is a flip side to this, and it’s one I never hear anyone talking about: in my mid-thirties, as well as losing pals to parenthood, I also gained a raft of new child-free ones. I think it’s because, for the first time in a while, our settled friendship circles become more elastic – they morph and change when some people have children and others don’t. Those of us that haven’t sprogged – and there are record, rising numbers of us these days – may find ourselves with friendship vacancies: we suddenly have the space and time to forge new connections or deepen previously casual ones.
This has been a joyful thing for me: an exciting bonus chapter of adult life that I was in no way expecting. We hear so much about the sadness and loneliness of childless women who lose friends when they start families, or how difficult it is having to hang out with parents and babies – an anguish certainly sharpened for women who want children but haven’t been able to have them, for whatever reason.
Many women are writing about this with brilliant honesty. In her latest book, Friendaholic, Elizabeth Day is bracingly candid about letting go of parent friends inconsiderate towards her infertility struggles. Emma Gannon fictionalised her alienation at being the only one in a friendship group who didn’t want to be a mother in her novel Olive. Sheila Heti’s Motherhood details feelings of being abandoned by friends: “That absolute kick in the teeth, that relieved and joyful desertion. When a person has a child, they are turned towards their child. The rest of us are left in the cold.”
I don’t want to deny any of those feelings. I’ve seen friends struggling to conceive firsthand, and it is hell. And I know from my own experience that watching your friend’s lifestyle change completely with the arrival of a baby can cause pangs.
But the idea that being child-free is inevitably a disaster for your social life, bringing only loss and loneliness, is damaging. At its most pernicious, it has the potential to scare women into thinking they need to start families in order to keep up or not be left behind – something not all women will want or be able to do. And, in my experience, it simply isn’t true.
Just as new parents find themselves making friends with fellow mums and dads, so being child-free becomes something to bond over as you age. There are people I’ve become closer to recently, who speak openly about changing dynamics in their own friendship groups, and how happy they are to find someone else not going down the parent path. I’ve also noticed that a lot of queer friends seem to see marriage-and-kids as less of an obvious default, and several are unabashedly, joyfully certain about not wanting to start a family, ever – and pleased to find people who feel similarly.
In 2020, I moved from London to Sheffield – something which obviously forced the issue of needing to make brand-new buddies. But guess what: all my friends in Sheffield are child-free, too – because parents of young kids don’t exactly have masses of spare time, I assume. Yet here, too, being child-free can be a point of connection. It’s a sensitive topic, of course, and I’m not going around demanding new mates declare their intentions around procreation. But there are often mutual, cheerful rushes of relief, when you realise you aren’t about to lose this fledgling friendship to sleepless nights and nappies.
And the luxurious thing about child-free relationships is that they can sprawl and stretch – over long afternoons uninterrupted by napping schedules, long walks not curbed by little feet, long nights dancing and chatting until dawn (yes, I still do this at 37). There’s space in our lives to continue to figure out who we are and what we want to do, and what we mostly want to do is work less and explore more. I joked to friends the other day that we’re in our “hobbies era”, but I am perpetually fascinated by all the wildly varied things my child-free friends make time for, from stone-carving to recording music, teaching kickboxing to photographing English folk traditions. I’m obviously not saying parents can’t connect deeply or have fascinating lives – but several have bemoaned to me how they have no time for much beyond work and childcare, at least in those intense early years.
Which doesn’t massively appeal. My own feelings towards motherhood have always been somewhat ambivalent, but it seems increasingly likely that my partner and I won’t have kids. I’ve been open to the idea that the intense maternal drive I see in many of my friends might one day arrive… but it hasn’t. And while I adore hanging out with their bright, funny, cute offspring, I also find myself embodying that old cliché: I’m delighted to be able to hand them back. Parenthood looks glorious but also terrifying and difficult, and on balance, I’d rather not explode my life.
And this deepening of friendships, or the kindling of new ones, in my thirties has certainly added to my sense that I am already leading the life I want to – one that is full, and rich, and sweet, without having my own children. I’m not saying all my child-free friends feel the same way. Some still plan to have kids; others have sadness about not finding the right person to parent with, or being able to get pregnant. Not having the family you yearn for is a heart-wrenching experience, and the narrative that being child-free is an isolating experience obviously holds truth for some.
But it isn’t the only experience. I hope that anyone, weighing the balance of whether they want a baby, or reckoning with being unable to have one, may be encouraged to hear how being child-free can, in fact, bring its own abundance. I remember looking around our campsite at that festival and all these exuberant, interesting, open-minded people and thinking: “This is amazing; why did no one tell me this might happen if I decided not to have kids?”
We’re gathering again this August. Many are bringing new people along, expanding the group once more, spreading the joy. I’m excited by the thought that perhaps I’m about to make another new friend. My life, even without children, is still very much expanding.
Holly Williams is the author of What Time is Love?