Navigating the Adventures of a Childfree Life - A Memoir

ISBN 9781771606400
Softcover | Publication Date: October 3, 2023
Book Dimensions: 5.5 x 8.5
304 Pages

About the Book

Winner of the 2023 Banff Mountain Book Competition: Adventure Travel Award

A compelling memoir about opting for adventure instead of motherhood, and the lifelong outcomes of that choice.

Instead captures Maria Coffey’s adventurous life through her biggest decisions along the way, including the decision not to have children. It’s a vivid travelogue, a love story, and a personal commentary on the risks and rewards of choosing unconventional paths.

After two traumatic experiences during her twenties – a near-drowning in Morocco and her boyfriend’s death on Mount Everest – Maria determines to seize every day and explore the world. Mixed with her desire for freedom is a new fear of loss, which convinces her against parenthood. She falls in love with Dag, who shares her dreams, and they begin creating a life of adventure. There is one snag: he wants children and thinks they could include them in their wild exploits.

Instead follows Maria’s trajectory as she shares her guilt-ridden relationship with her Irish Catholic mother; her baby debates with Dag in unlikely situations, like kayaking through a storm; the doubts that rear up in remote cultures where her childfree choice is unfathomable; and how children eventually – and surprisingly – come into her life.

An adventure story with a unique twist, Instead tackles the universal themes of choice and consequence, agency versus fate. It is a must read for anyone curious about stepping off the beaten track, and a testament to the power of being open to the unexpected.

About the Author(s)

Maria Coffey is an internationally published and award-winning author of twelve previous books. Fragile Edge: Loss on Everest won two awards in Italy, including the 2002 ITAS Prize for Mountain Literature; Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow won the Banff Mountain Film Festival Literature Prize in 2003 and a National Book Award in 2004. For these titles, along with Explorers of the Infinite (2008), Maria was awarded the 2009 American Alpine Club H. Adams Carter Literary Award. She has also written extensively about her worldwide travels and expeditions with her husband, Dag Goering, who is a veterinarian and photographer. Together they founded Hidden Places (, a boutique adventure travel company, and its conservation branch, Adventures for a Cause, which fundraises for endangered species. Maria and Dag are based in Victoria, British Columbia, and in Catalonia.


Instead tracks Maria Coffey’s adventurous life and her decision not to have children amid both external and internal pressures. A masterful storyteller, Coffey grants her readers a compelling and honest look at the factors that bring her to this decision time and again, as well as the benefits and consequences of choosing the “childfree” life. A beautifully written memoir, Instead also reflects on how we choose a lover and lifestyle, the complexities of intergenerational relationships, and the meaning of motherhood itself. This is a powerful book for anyone who has contemplated their own unpopular choices or wants a glimpse down a road not travelled.” —Meghan J. Ward, author of Lights to Guide Me Home: A Journey Off the Beaten Track in Life, Love, Adventure, and Parenting

Instead turned my armchair into a kayak, my coffee table into a paddle, and got me traveling around the world: Canada, India, Malawi, Vietnam, Kenya, Solomon Islands… I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was with “Ma-ri-ah” in every bay, river, sea, ocean and lake, and when I reached the last page, it was hard to let go of her hand. A stunning memoir that honors its title and generously takes the reader along in the adventures – as well as the personal conflict, social stigma and unparalleled freedom – of a childfree life.” —Nicole Louie, writer, translator and curator of stories of women without children in literature and visual arts

“Maria Coffey’s poignant story shows us that there is not just one path in life, but many that can bring joy, connection, love and community. Like a true adventure guide, she invites us to explore hidden places that society’s conventions say are off limits, especially to women. And she reminds us that there are many ways to compose a rich life. This book, a love letter to the untracked trail, is quietly provocative, beckoning readers to nurture their spirit of adventure.” —Eva Dienel, founder of The Life I Want project

Instead is a deft, utterly readable memoir about one of the most profound decisions a human being can make: the decision not to have children. The world has a nasty bias against that decision, because it suggests, when undertaken by serious and adventurous people like Maria Coffey and her partner, that a life being lived can be as valuable as a new life might be, and that the present might be just as important as the future. Needless to say, it’s a huge subject and requires a writer of great courage who can tell a story beautifully, but never turns away from the gravity of the decision and its life-altering consequences. Thankfully, Maria Coffey is exactly that kind of writer.” —Ian Brown, award-winning author of The Boy in the Moon, Sixty and numerous others.

“A personal memoir as courageous and bold as the many expeditions that have carried Maria Coffey to all corners of the world.” —Wade Davis, anthropologist, explorer, author of Magdalena: River of Dreams, Into the Silence and The Wayfinders among many others

Instead is a beautiful meditation on the often unspoken and unexamined concerns of women without kids: nonconformity, choices, belonging, legacy, and the children who are not ‘ours’ but who are integral to our lives. A generous and honest portrait of a trail-blazing child-free life.” —Ruby Warrington, author of Women Without Kids: The Revolutionary Rise of an Unsung Sisterhood, Material Girl, Mystical World and several others

“Maria is a personal role model and a beacon of hope for anyone who’s ever wondered what a life without children could look like. Instead shines a light on the adventures that lie beyond the horizon of a conventional existence, and all the loss, love and longing to experience more that a life lived differently can bring.” —Zoe Noble, founder of We are Childfree

“To embark on the journey of parenthood (or not) stands among the most poignant decisions we must face, yet the doubts, worries, hopes and second-guessing tend to live in the shadows. Never have I seen such profound questions explored as deeply and humanly as in this compelling memoir. On a larger stage, all of life’s major intersections – children, partners, careers – mark us with a lingering, muffled awareness of other possible journeys, sister vessels, ways we might have lived differently. By so gently and caringly untangling her own journey, Maria’s book offers a meditation on moving forward, a reminder that disparate paths have a way of reconverging, and a reassurance that whether we can see it or not right now, ultimately we are all on a journey to becoming the person we were meant to be.” —Bruce Kirkby, author of Blue Sky Kingdom, Sand Dance and The Dolphin’s Tooth

“This book is my favourite bird: a heron, one foot on land and one foot in the water. You watch as it lifts off, full of grace. Maria Coffey’s writing is unparalleled. Here she turns her attention to risk, joy, freedom and the complex business of navigating a life. Life-and-death moments, ordinary moments, each a part of the other. I felt grateful as I read, full of hope.” —Helen Mort, award-winning author of A Line Above the Sky: On Mountains and Motherhood, The Illustrated Woman, No Map Could Show Them and many others

“I wanted to be a mother more than I’ve ever wanted anything, and my children are the greatest happiness in my life. In that way, I am not at all the ideal reader for Instead. But I absolutely love this multi-genre book and its encouragement to find your own best life and seize it with enthusiasm. What an inspiring, unconventional big life Maria Coffey has led! I’m grateful for this memoir, with its generous and vivid sharing of those adventures – rewards and costs, joys and sorrows. I already can’t wait to read Instead again. In prose as immersive and engaging as my favourite novels, Maria Coffey encourages women everywhere to do the hard work of unburdening themselves from society’s expectations so they can freely and truly follow their own hearts.” —Angie Abdou, author of This One Wild Life: A Mother–Daughter Wilderness Memoir, The Bone Cage, and others

“A stunning memoir that redefines notions of womanhood, motherhood and, most crucially, selfhood. Coffey reminds us of the power of community and shows how familial fulfillment can be achieved in unconventional ways.” —Natalie Berry, widely published freelance journalist, editor of

“Whether she says yes or no to having children, the question of maternity shapes every woman’s life. Maria Coffey has written with great heart, wit and honesty about her decision to live a child-free life, including the gains and losses of that decision. Instead is both a thrilling adventure story and an intimate memoir about a couple in love with each other and with the wide world.” —Marni Jackson, author of The Mother Zone

“Maria Coffey’s ability to leave me feeling like I had salt in my hair and sand between my toes is testimony to her beautiful storytelling. Open, raw and vulnerable, yet also very flowing and peaceful. And with great respect shown to the cultures she travelled through.” —Ali Hall, founder of Childfree By Choice, via Twitter

“What room is there for children in a life lived with a passport in your pocket and a kayak in your luggage? For adventurer and author Maria Coffey as she travelled with her husband, Dag, from India to Africa, the Pacific Islands to Europe and on to Asia, the answer was “none.” It was anything but a simple answer, however. As she did in Fragile Edge, Coffey again draws us irresistibly into her visceral and compelling life journey, this time through the fears, trauma and conflicts that led to her choice not to have children – and the joys as well as the unexpected repercussions that have accompanied that decision.” —Katherine Palmer Gordon, author of “No Child of Mine” in Nobody’s Mother: Life Without Kids, edited by Lynne Van Luven

“A beautiful book on navigating child-free life. But even more than that, this is a book about love in its many different forms.” —Emma Gannon, author of Olive and The Success Myth

“Maria Coffey’s evocative memoir about making tough choices takes us on a wild, round-the-world adventure, culminating in a tender and intimate finale. Masterful writing.” —Bernadette McDonald, author of Art of Freedom, Alpine Warriors, Freedom Climbers and Keeper of the Mountains: The Elizabeth Hawley Story

“As she kayaks and treks all over the world, Maria Coffey dodges the same question over and over: Where are your children? Her answer is met with puzzlement, pity and often abject horror. She had made the scandalous decision years earlier to not bear children, resisting societal pressure and her mother’s disappointment. Initially rooted in trauma, her choice laid the foundation for a big life of adventure, altruism and meaningful connections, with control over her own destiny. Instead is an important book, raising the deep and topical question What is the purpose of a woman’s life? With humour and candour, Coffey shows us there are many lives a woman can live, and that we can indeed choose to be child-free without ending up wizened, bitter and alone under a pile of cats. This beautifully crafted memoir by a master storyteller is part travelogue, part coming-of-middle-age tale, part love story. You will not want to put it down.” —Jan Redford, author of End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage, and Motherhood

“Travel gripped Maria Coffey’s imagination early on in her life. Instead is her honest, poignant and exhilarating memoir of answering that call, leaving her parochial childhood in England and forging her own future. Along the way she almost dies in a drowning incident, loses love through a tragic accident, and emigrates to Canada, where she meets Dag. With an observant eye and vivid prose, Maria takes the reader on a journey through the handcrafted life she and Dag created together: finding home, seeking adventure and grappling with the decision not to have children. Instead is not only a portrait of a great love affair but also an exploration of the heart, of overcoming loss and learning to take risks. It is a moving glimpse of the sometimes painful journeys we take from our roots. And an examination of the expectations and horizons of different generations.” —Alison Watt, author of Dazzle Patterns

“Maria Coffey excels in Instead, sharing a journey that is both extraordinarily unique and exceptionally human – a rare feat to combine both in a life and in story.” —Majka Burhardt, author of More: Life on the Edge of Adventure and Motherhood

Instead shows us what a life full of love, daring and, at times, uncertainty can be. And the picture is inspiring. Despite challenges, and maybe because of them, Coffey stays true to herself and her choices, following her heart, and as her adventurous life unfolds, she shares all the twists and turns with warmth, humour and disarming candour. Coffey redefines what it is to mother, to nurture, to care – for her family, her partner and the young adults and children she meets on her journeys. She explores the difficulties and tensions of bringing a child into her peripatetic life. This honest inquiry is interspersed with fascinating and sometimes hair-raising adventures, and her journey is all the more satisfying when motherhood comes in its own way into her life. This is a moving and necessary book that charts a new path for the woman writer and traveller encountering many of the same pressures and questions. Can I do this? Should I do this? Instead doesn’t offer advice but presents a shining example of what life can be when it is lived full of intention and a curious, open heart.” —Adrienne Fitzpatrick, author of Instructions for a Flood

“Many people dream of leading a life of freedom and adventure but lack the time, guts or opportunity to make it a reality. Maria Coffey has taken life by the reins and packed countless adventures into her 70 years. In her deeply reflective and personal memoir Instead, Maria explores what remains a somewhat taboo and widely misunderstood subject: women who dare to choose travel, adventure and freedom over motherhood. Maria makes no apologies for the beautiful path she has taken and invites the reader to experience the losses and gains of a life well lived. By creating meaningful connections with people around the world, she has redefined notions of community, family and motherhood. Instead reminds us that ultimately what matters most is that we create a well-intentioned life with few regrets rather than give in to the pressures of societal expectations. This well-crafted memoir is a must-read for anyone who has wondered what their life might have been had they paved a different path.” —Lisa Duncan, author of Chasing Africa: Fear Won’t Find Me Here

“I picked up Coffey’s book hoping that it would be a ringing endorsement of a child-free life. But I quickly realized that Coffey is too honest to oversimplify such a fundamental, complex choice. What she offers instead is an articulate grappling with the great cosmic irony of being a woman: whether you bear one child, many children, adopt, or have none at all, each of these decisions will bring joy and pain. This reality should bond, rather than separate women, no matter which path we choose.”—Stephanie Pearson via Outside Magazine

“Intimate in tone, sweeping in emotional and geographic scope, this globetrotting memoir testifies to the rich possibilities that can unfold in choosing to be childfree. Maria Coffey offers a candid and inspiring account of her decision to embrace a roving, creative life over more conventional paths. Instead is a testament that biological reproduction might well be the least imaginative and most limiting interpretation of what it takes to make a family. The great adventure, as Coffey attests, is putting your own spin on what a life of deep connection can look like.”—Kate Harris, 2023 Book Competition Jury