While in her twenties, Maria Coffey endures not one but two life-changing events: a near-drowning in Morocco, and the tragic disappearance of her then-boyfriend, British mountaineer Joe Tasker, on the Northeast Ridge of Everest. Hoping to fill the “grief-gnawed emptiness” inside her, Coffey leaves England to begin a new life on Canada’s West Coast. What she finds there is Dag – the man who is to become her partner in adventure and life.
Now in her sixties and an accomplished travel writer (best-known for Fragile Edge: Loss on Everest and Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow), as well as tour operator, and guide, Coffey looks back on her unconventional journey in Instead: Navigating the Adventures of a Childfree Life. The memoir is an engaging depiction of a rich and full life, one that includes getting married on a (very practical) whim, building an unconventional home base, kayaking the Ganges River, and connecting with elephant researchers in Kenya. What it does not ultimately include is a decision to have children.
“An unprecedented number of people in our society are making the same choice,” Coffey writes in the author’s note, “yet it is still often questioned and harshly judged. I hope my story can help to challenge and change those attitudes.”
The author’s ongoing ambivalence toward motherhood is refreshing in a world of black-and-white narratives on the topic. (“It occurred to me that if I didn’t have a child, no one would live on through me,” she writes. “I’d be the end of the line.”) She’s also candid about the conflicts her choice to be child-free provokes – with her disappointed Catholic mother, with Dag, who longs for a baby to bring on their adventures, and, of course, within herself.
Coffey makes it clear that not having children did not protect her from the feelings she spent her life running from: “Fearing loss was one of the reasons I decided not to have children,” she writes. “But loss found me all the same.” There is, however, great joy facilitated by the freedom Coffey cultivates, and this freedom provides room for her to welcome children into her life in surprising and fulfilling ways.
Instead presents us with striking scenes from all over the world, buoyed by the author’s knack for galloping narrative. Despite what the subtitle suggests, Instead is less an interrogation of the broader choice to be child-free than a clearly articulated celebration of life fully and vibrantly lived. Coffey’s decision is certainly central to her ability to travel (and one that is questioned repeatedly throughout her life, regardless of where she goes), but adventure, made all the more magical by Coffey’s gift for travel writing, is at the forefront of the memoir.
“Dag and I have always left ourselves open to chance and serendipity,” Coffey writes. “By axing our secure careers, and not having children, we created space and freedom to be able to seize opportunities when they arose, to develop ideas that popped into our heads.”
Coffey has walked a different path than what was expected of her, but the assertion here is not that any one path is more valuable than another – only that, as Coffey grows older, she knows that the life she created was the right one for her. In fact, the ultimate success of the memoir is that it shows us both the great uncertainty and possibility of life when we follow not what is dictated, but instead what is deeply desired.
“I knew I was a nurturer, that I would have enjoyed motherhood and made my own mother happy,” Coffey writes. “But the life I chose was the life I wanted. If I could go back, my choices would be the same.”