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Cover of book: Childless: A Story of Freedom and Longing

Sian Prior
Childless: A Story of Freedom and Longing

Sian Prior’s second memoir deals with her unexpected childlessness, reflecting on the “terrible freedom” and longings wrought by a life she didn’t choose.

After she suffers two miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy, Prior’s long-term relationship breaks down. Later, there is Tom, a twice-divorced father of three who is done with babies. Alternatives are unappealing or unlikely; she feels underqualified to adopt and a candidate for sperm donation is not forthcoming among her acquaintances. Eventually, her options run out.

In his book Missing Out, Adam Phillips remarks, “We have an abiding sense, however obscure or obscured, that the lives we do lead are informed by the lives that escape us.” There is nothing obscure about this for Prior. The memoir is structured around absence: the beach reminds her of her father, who drowned when she was three months old, and children remind her of unrealised motherhood. A miscarriage represents a cascade of losses: “other lives, generations of people, infinite possible combinations of fingers and toes, eyes and ears”. Further grief arises when Tom moves on and she loses her consoling place within his extended family.

Recounting her own miscarriages, British writer Maggie O’Farrell laments the “people, sprites, wraiths, who never breathed air, never saw light. So invisible, so evanescent … that our language doesn’t even have a word for them.” Prior’s grief is similarly constrained by language. Miscarried babies aren’t named and there is no ritual with which to mourn their passing. She draws attention to this by naming each chapter after a word denoting a state of being – dalliance, liquescence, limerence – and their cumulative susurrations form a kind of lament.

Despite her grief, Prior retains some intellectual ambivalence about the life that escaped her, acknowledging it would likely “just have been the beginning of a different way of failing”. Beyond this, she offers limited reflection on motherhood’s problematic relationship with patriarchy and capitalism. However, her unashamed portrayal of her fierce motherly desire demonstrates that such longing cannot be justified or rationalised away by any one explanation, and this stance is her riposte to both the feminists who deride motherhood and the conservatives who weaponise it.

The fluidity of Prior’s prose matches her description of grief as treading water: “Just staying afloat till you can catch your breath and you’re ready to head back to shore.” This book is the product of her time afloat and shows her full immersion in the one life, by chance or choice, that is hers. 

Text Publishing, 272pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 26, 2022 as "Childless: A Story of Freedom and Longing, Sian Prior".

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Amy Walters is a writer and critic.

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