Do couples without children really have better relationships?

Ellen's son back from his sleepover

Ellen's son back from his sleepover - Credit: Archant

It’s very peaceful in my house this morning, writes columnist Ellen Widdup.

For the first time in eight years I have woken up naturally and not to an ear-splitting yell, an elbow or foot in the face or a demand for breakfast to be served.

I have had a leisurely shower, shampooed my hair and applied face cream.

Then I enjoyed a cup of Earl Grey and a slice of toast laden with butter and jam without anybody climbing on me, stealing my crusts or insisting we turn on the television.

“This is what life would be like if we had never had children,” my husband mused contently from behind the newspaper.

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“Mmmmm…” I replied non-committedly, taking in the deathly silence.

My son, at age five, spent the night at his friend’s house. His first sleepover.

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I knew it was only a matter of time.

After all, my daughter regularly stays over with pals and he has become increasingly jealous of her midnight feasts, duvet dens and slumber secrets shared.

I was a little anxious about how he would cope but he was very excited to be leaving me behind.

He packed his pyjamas, toothbrush and Mr Eat Lotsa Bananas and, with barely a backwards glance, brushed past me to join his friend.

“What do you think he is doing now?” I asked my husband at about 6pm.

“Swinging from the lampshades, shaving the dog, smearing snot on the windows,” he suggested. “The sort of things he would be doing at home.”

At 8pm I texted to see if all was well.

“No problems,” came the inadequately short reply.

I twiddled my thumbs and tried to immerse myself in a wildlife documentary.

Then at 9.15pm my phone pinged again.

“He had a little cry and said he wanted Mummy but he’s now fallen fast asleep,” said the message.

I was relieved. Not just because I wouldn’t have to drive out to Woodbridge in the early hours to collect him but also because a little part of me needed to be missed.

That said, I have to admit to enjoying our brief time apart.

Call me a bad mum. Judge me if you will because, yes, I can envisage life without children. There I said it. Hunt me down and throw stones.

Most people – mothers in particular – say that as soon as their little ones are born they simply couldn’t imagine a world without them.

It’s a strange statement.

And I can only think of a handful of scenarios for such delusion.

One, they are so sleep deprived they can’t think straight.

Two, they are on drugs.

Three, their husbands are doing all of the nighttime parenting and they are scoffing chocs and watching soap operas during the day while their kids are in nursery.

Alternatively, perhaps they are just using the expression as a way to quantify that overwhelming surge of love that appears out of nowhere post partum and threatens to swallow you whole?

Because if you have lived a life without children for 20, 30, 40 years before they make an appearance and turn your world upside down, you can’t honestly expect me to believe that you can forget it entirely.

Even with baby brain, I can just about recall the pleasure of watching a film uninterrupted, making a nice meal to eat on the couch at leisure, spending Sunday afternoons in the pub, spontaneously arranging a night out, getting home late and going to bed for a blissful full night’s sleep.

If left unattended, I might even imagine my previous life as better than it actually was.

Now of course I’m not suggesting I regret parenthood.

I wouldn’t have done it twice – about to be thrice – if I resented giving up my sleep, my health, my body, my free time, and quite a bit of the best parts of the food on my plate.

But there is a little part of me that regularly dreams about what life would have been like if my husband and I still had access to all that freedom, fun and lack of responsibility.

Not so long ago some very unsurprising survey results from the Open University recorded that couples without children had better relationships.

They had more quality time together, more hobbies, more holidays.

But the study also revealed that mothers are a lot happier as individuals than childless women – even if the childless woman happens to have a better relationship with their partner.

I can see why this might be true.

Because while I was content before I had children, I didn’t get to experience all those extreme emotions that, for me, life is really about.

Children are as wonderful as they are awful. As selfish as they are giving. As kind as they are cruel. And as beautiful as they are gruesome.

They push you through the mill until you think you can’t take anymore, then redeem themselves with a single smile.

Perhaps the reason people who have children can’t properly remember what it was like before them is because parenthood changes them so much that there is no firm ground from which to view the past.

After all the joys of being alone with your partner and being part of a family unit are so qualitatively different that they can’t be compared.

I can’t say for sure that having children has made me happier.

But I do know that my kids bring with them a whirlwind of feelings – from the most blissful to the greatest depths of misery.

Parenthood is certainly not the soft option nor the safe option – it is the extreme option.

It is the rollercoaster for the thrillseekers while the childless stick to the teacups and look on with horror.

I’ve enjoyed my brief reprieve from the twists and turns – a reminder of life before the funfair.

But my kids are on their way home and time to strap myself in for the next part of the ride.


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