Childless by Sian Prior

Sian Prior said something at the Melbourne Writers Festival last year that has stuck in my mind – “‘Childless’…there’s that threat of deep sadness in that one word.” She went on to say that if she walked into a bookshop and saw the title, Childless, she wouldn’t buy the book. But I did.

Prior had always assumed that she would have children, however, the timing of relationships, trouble conceiving and miscarriages meant that she reached her late thirties without the baby she longed for. By that point she was in a committed relationship with a man who did not want more children (I will mention that that man was singer Paul Kelly).

Prior tells her story, rich with personal details, as well as highlighting some very important themes around not having a child (whether that be by circumstance or choice). Predominately, she describes the immense grief that was complicated by feelings of guilt, failure (“I’m not a person who fails. That’s not a boast, it’s a neurosis.”) and a profound sense of disempowerment (Prior has long been an active environmentalist, so her desire to ‘add to the population’ was always at odds with her beliefs about the future and wellbeing of the planet – she openly admits that this is something she never quite resolved).

Through all those years I spent trying to have a child, I thought giving birth would stop me feeling like a failure. Probably it would just have been the beginning of a different way of failing.

Of her first miscarriage she says –

We’re allowed to feel anger when it’s clear who’s at fault. We can be angry with the neglectors and the abusers and the murderers. It’s expected. But anger is not acceptable in a situation like mine. Sorrow is okay but it should be quiet, modest sorrow.

Prior is incredibly honest about her relationships with and feelings toward other peoples’ children. I have read a number of memoirs about the desire to have a child, but no author I have read has been so open about other children in the way that Prior has in Childless. There were sections where she discusses her partner’s grandchild that made me weep, as did the new wave of grief that she felt when she broke up with her partner and lost contact with his family in the process – she queries what one is ‘entitled’ to in such circumstances (and the answer is not much other than more loss).

Prior’s present life is very different to the one that she imagined for herself decades ago. And although she has discovered unexpected freedoms and happiness in her present, her memoir highlights how the concepts of ‘closure’ and ‘moving on’ are dangerous myths, because they ignore how human emotion works, constantly recalibrating. Grief doesn’t ‘go away’ but we adjust around it, and Prior explores this adjustment so eloquently.

Treading water: that’s how you deal with grief. Not waving, not drowning. Just staying afloat till you can catch your breath and you’re ready to head back to shore.


Massimo speaks passionately about how important it is for Sardinian families to hold on to their culinary traditions and pass them on to their children… Jack misses out on the boar, but returns just in time for a bowl of hare stew.

4 responses

  1. Interesting… I didn’t know she had been in a relationship with Paul Kelly. I don’t have children but that’s by choice so I prefer the term “child free”. I work with a lot of wools in their mid-30s who all have children under the age of 5 and I constantly marvel at the juggling acts they all carry out so that they can work and it’s made me realise I could NEVER have done that; I’m far too lazy. Lol.

    • I didn’t want to make my review about the Paul Kelly bits but… I am a huge fan of Paul Kelly and have been for decades. Prior gives him another name but you know he’s a songwriter. There’s a scene when she’s angry at him for using some of her experience in a new song he’s writing (she said that it was her story to tell, not his). He’s unkind about it. I recognised the lyrics and then didn’t take much to confirm identity online. This, in combination with a few other bits of the story, meant I finished the book not liking Kelly as much as I once had. 😕

      I’m interested in the language around having/ not having children – do you think it’s different if the choice is deliberate?

      • I think her intention is just that: for you to dislike PK. I read ‘Shy’ in which she never mentions her obsession with conceiving, just the split, and came away really disliking him. But on reading ‘Childless’ I came to understand how the whole baby thing could take its toll (PK made it clear in the beginning he didn’t want more children), and by the end of the book I could see that, rather than having gratitude and empathy for others, this privileged woman needs to stop being a victim and get over herself. Having lost my only child to cancer (and there is no word for people who have lost children) I think I’m in a position to say this, and that self absorption is harmful to the soul.

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