Whether by conscious choice, a matter of fate, or a combination of factors, many women, like myself, don’t want to have children.
We call ourselves Childless or Childfree because those are the words that exist to describe the state of being a non-parent. Even though I use and value those two words, I have never been particularly enthusiastic about them. They seem inadequate given the complicated, magnificent mosaic of women without children in the world.
The eternal core problem with Childless is that sounds melancholic, full of loss, leading to a conjured image of a barren old biddy, shriveled up and stern, lips pursed, her black dress buttoned up around her throat.
The much better, chipper counterpart of Childless is, of course, Childfree. It is a young, Age of Aquarius word from the ’70s, that, to me, still sounds somewhat awkward and light, a slow motion fantasy of people with long flowing hair running down a sandy beach. (Childfree also isn’t easy to use. It turns up in spell check as an error. And another thing: We can turn Childless into Childlessness should we need a noun. But what about Childfree-ness? It doesn’t sound or even look right.)
The childless/childfree aren’t alone in this conundrum. I recently read that “a technical term for snow mixed with rain doesn’t exist in the jargon of meteorology.” (Chicago Tribune, Feb.10, 2013)
Funny how the right words can remain out of reach.
Now that I am over the hill, as they say, I rarely call upon either Childfree or Childless to define myself. No one asks me anymore if I have kids or if I want to have kids. But I do get that sad look sometimes when I am asked if I have grandchildren (gasp!), and I report that I never had any kids in the first place. There’s this “I’m so sorry” mournful expression that passes over the inquirer’s face. Sometimes it annoys me; mostly it bores me. I have never regretted my decision, nor cried over my fate.
WHEN DO WE KNOW?
I have a recollection of realizing that I didn’t want kids when I was around 10 years old. This happened while I was holding a precious and beautiful newborn. I don’t remember who the baby was — a neighbor? a relative?
What I do remember is my mother handing me this little bundle of cuteness, and I was excited to get a turn to have him in my arms. I recall really liking the new baby smell, touching the almost surreal, soft skin, being in awe of the tiny clenching fingers and toes.
But I also clearly remember looking up at my mother and asking, “Do I have to have one of these one day?” My mom laughed, probably quite taken aback. I can’t quote specifically what she said, but it must have been something along the lines of, “Well, I guess you don’t have to if you don’t want to,” because I was very relieved by her words.
We give some kids credit when they know at an early age what they want to be and who they are — young and gifted artists, math whizzes, aspiring Olympic athletes, musical prodigies. On the other hand, we don’t always give kids credit about intrinsically knowing other things about themselves.
Many years later, I did some very quick and less-than-intensive research: (1) I asked a co-worker who was absolutely obsessed with the impending birth of his son if he ever made a conscious decision to be a father. He told me that he knew since he was around 10 years old that he wanted to be a dad more anything else in his life. (2) I asked a gay friend when he knew he had a proclivity to be attracted to his own sex. He said, “I think when I was around 10.”
Case closed, as far as I was concerned. If sexual preference, in fact, emerges in early adolescence, then why not procreation preference as well? Check out the research at http://borngay.procon.org/view.answers.php?questionID=000014
Our brains can be good at telling us things about ourselves. We just have to listen.
NATURE VS. NURTURE
I long ago accepted, I believe, without angst or hand wringing or conducting a cost/benefit analysis, that I wasn’t born with the urge to have children. It’s part of my nature.
Nonetheless, I took time at one point in my life to consider if there were any external factors that could have had an impact on my not wanting to be a mother. I came up with three possibilities.
One influence could have been that I went to the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and 1965, when I was in the 10-year-old age range. The overall theme of the fair was the super modern future — flying cars, Jetson houses, space travel, underwater pod living. Oh yes, and lots of warnings about this snazzy and jazzy World of Wonder being jeopardized by over-population, a planet swarming with crowds of people begging for food and water. After the visits to the fair, I don’t remember worrying about the perils of too many people inhabiting Earth. But I did fantasize (and still do) about that flying car.
The second possible external factor is one that a friend hypothesized: Maybe I was turned off to parenthood by mother’s incredible affection and affinity for children.
My mother adored kids, and we all adored her back, magically gravitating toward her warm smile and playfulness. She was a sort of “baby whisperer,” the type of woman who could calm even the fussiest child with her ability to distract and charm.
My friend asked if it was possible that I subconsciously decided not to procreate because I felt I would never be as good with kids as she was.
I doubted this. I totally admired my mother’s talent with little ones. I loved that I got to share in her joy when she was holding or playing with a child. I learned from her, and I was proud of her, delighted by the way she could delight. I think that with a little practice, I could have been as good as she was.
And then there is a third potential influencing factor: I had two childless aunts who were certainly role models. One was a maiden aunt (I can’t use the word spinster) who was a petite, fastidious fussbudget. She wore crisp shirtwaist dresses and covered her hair with turbans and hats. She was, in a word, persnickety, but she also could laugh really hard, and she would do cool things like take me to New York and buy me leather mini skirts and wild mod tights from Gimbels. She loved kids, by the way.
The other aunt without children (who wasn’t really an aunt but a cousin) was on the opposite side of the spectrum. She was a glamorous dark-haired beauty in diamonds and white mink, driving her pink Cadillac around town. She ran a few taverns (and married a few men), and she chain-smoked, alternating between Marlboros and Kools.
I loved both of these women immensely. Oddly enough, in spite of their completely counter personalities and lives, they were very close and could be a fun, hilarious pair, if you didn’t pay attention to their incessant bickering and slinging stinging insults at each other. I would venture to say they found a connection in being “the sisterhood of the childless” in our extended family.
A CERTAIN SISTERHOOD
The childless/childfree segment of the population is indeed a vast sisterhood, but with a bit of an underground or subculture identity.
Researchers and anthropologists have explored the childless sphere with non-fiction such as Without Child: Challenging the Stigma of Childlessness and Complete Without Kids. There are numerous organizations, groups, and hashtags out there for us all to connect, converse, and commiserate: The Childfree Choice, The Childfree Life, Why No Kids? The list is long, and they are excellent platforms. Kudos to the folks who make those things happen. Way back when I was young, I wish I would have known that there were so many other women like me out there.
It would be cool to have a Childfree Women Month to celebrate the extensive list of childless heroines, women such as Katharine Hepburn, Frida Kahlo, Mary Cassatt, Coco Chanel, Julia Child, Rosa Parks, Edith Wharton, Gloria Steinem. What impacts they made on the world.
When I was in my thirties, I wrote a short novel, Human Slices, which features a female protagonist who is happily childfree. I wanted to create a character who was well adjusted, who knew she didn’t want children, who had never wanted a child, and who was quite content with that lot in life. I had never before come across that kind of female lead in a romance.
Childless women are usually portrayed in fiction (and in film for that matter) as miserable, barren, bitchy, unfulfilled, bitter, sexually frustrated, or somehow characterized as a deviant “other.” And if these childfree characters are in their childbearing years, it’s implied, at least if it’s a “happily ever after” story, that their destiny is marriage and children. The reality, of course, is that happiness doesn’t always derive from procreation. I wanted to tell one of those stories.
Scads of agents and publishers, as well as my friends, mentors, and teachers, told me there was no market for a book of that ilk, even though the U.S. census data show that the percentage of women under 40 who are childless is steadily inching up toward 20 percent.
Although some may perceive this group as a weak or unworthy market force, the childless/childfree are powerful, raising their voices to create a lot of buzz — yet so do their detractors.
Every once in awhile, a kerfuffle ensues when a writer or reporter, usually a women who is a parent or striving to be a parent, feels compelled to fret publicly about their childfree counterparts. These commentaries are infuriating and inappropriate…and outside of their realm. Leave your judgments to yourself, please.
Then there are those times when someone, usually a man, pens a column or a book or a blog post about the perils of falling birthrates. Tirades rage on about the need to return to the traditional family, create more subsidies and incentives for childbearing, market motherhood in a better light, and devise pro-natal policies and protocols.
Much of this discourse can make me shudder, leading me to recall the disturbing book, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. It’s a terrifying story of a society wrestling with its declining birthrates. The solution that the powers that be come up with is to designate specific women as concubines for reproductive purposes. It is a chilling, cautionary narrative.
On another side of the childless news spectrum, more kerfuffles arise when a commentator, usually a woman, writes a column or a book or an article about her choice to be childfree. Responses to these writings can be brutal — ranging from “Who cares?” to “You’re a selfish, unreasonable pig.”
In between the harsh, mean-spirited dialogue, of course, are the supportive comments that go something like: “Hey, you’re just like me.”
ALL KINDS OF US
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love recently responded on her Facebook page to a fan who asked if she had any regret about not having children. Gilbert said she did not.
In her answer, she also went on to define “three sorts women when it comes to maternity.” She wrote, “There are women who are born to be mothers, women who are born to be aunties, and women who should not be allowed within ten feet of a child.”
Her categories got me thinking about the way we define and don’t define the childless/childfree.
To be sure, the Childless by a Dirty Trick of the Universe are the most heartbreaking lot, the women who are born to be mothers but who can’t get pregnant, suffer miscarriage, are unable to adopt, face illness, or confront another overwhelming obstacle. I can’t even imagine the pain and longing that these women have. It doesn’t seem fair to label them with the gloomy Childless word.
While some women may struggle with their fertility status, there are others who would strongly embrace such a reality. They are the Childfree by No Friggin’ Way! who can’t, under any circumstances whatsoever, abide by kids. They sneer, sometimes seriously and sometimes with great hilarity, at children (and their parents). They can can be the funniest of the bunch.
The Childless by Indecision may never be quite driven, not quite ready, for whatever reason, to have children. And then one day, bam! They realize that time is gone, and they have to learn to live with their dilly-dallying. They seem to be neither childless nor childfree, just not sure.
The Childfree by Decision worry about the cost, the impact on their carbon footprint, their fear of not being good parents, or some other tribulation. They seem serious.
The luckiest of the pack appears to be the Childfree by Plain Old Natural Tendency. They are cool, calm, collected.
The combinations and subsets of these categories may be limitless. Life can be complicated, that’s for sure.
I can see myself identifying with all of them. Am I Childless by a Dirty Trick of the Universe? It’s very possible that my reproductive organs are challenged, and I could never get pregnant even if I wanted to. I have been so annoyed by kids at particular points in my life that I could fit into the Childfree by No Friggin’ Way! group. And yes, I have wrestled with being Childless by Indecision (“Maybe I’ll rethink it one day…”) and Childfree by Decision as well: I can barely take care of myself, how could I ever take on the responsibility of raising a child?
How many categories of Childfree-ness could you fit into?
I would also file myself under Gilbert’s “auntie” category. I think kids are great. Sometimes I’ll be walking by a playground filled with yelling and running grades schoolers having the time of their lives, and I’ll have to stop and savor their infectious laughter and abandon (while I also worry about the kid all alone leaning against the fence).
It’s fascinating to watch kids play, discover, see them concentrating over a book or a drawing. When I look at my nephews and nieces, I sometimes feel so much love that it hurts. But it’s a joyful hurt, as if my heart is full to overflowing. It’s not a hurt arising from a lack, longing, or sorrow because I have no children of my own.
I am absolutely sure that motherhood is one of the most profound and blissful experiences in the world. But, um, “No thanks.”
THAT SHE BEAR CHILDREN IS NOT A WOMAN’S SIGNIFICANCE
Some day, I hope that we have more and better words than just Childless and Childfree to identify ourselves. Maybe we can get that done long before the meteorologists agree on a word for snow mixed with rain.
In the meantime, whether Childless or Childfree, we have an extraordinary opportunity to be true to our own destinies, our callings, our natures.
One of the most memorable and beautiful quotes about women was written by a man: “That she bear children is not a woman’s significance. But that she bear herself, that is her supreme and risky fate.”
Thank you, D. H. Lawrence, for saying it.