7.26.2009

from the archives: on being childfree

Several wmtc readers will be interested in the cover story of the current issue of Maclean's: "No Kids, No Grief - A new manifesto argues that parenting is bad for your career, your marriage, your bank book and your love life".

The story, fortunately, is not as snark-laden as the title. It's a round-up of some books that are out and what Maclean's writer Anne Kingston calls "a tiny but growing minority challenging the final frontier of reproductive freedom: the right to say no to children without being labelled social misfits or selfish for something they don't want."

It's frustrating and a bit sad to me that, as the first decade of the 21st Century nears its end, adults who are childfree by choice are still thought to be challenging anything - still explaining themselves, still defending their choices.

As I near my own half-century mark, I'm amazed that some people think that there is anything - any life choice - that is appropriate for everyone. Aren't we each unique human beings? How could such an important life decision be one-size-fits-all?

But I've also learned that women will be criticized for their reproductive decisions no matter what they do - usually by other women. Having children too young, having children too old - having too many children, having only one child - having several children very close together in age, having children widely separated in age. And of course, not having any children at all. I have heard women criticized for every one of these choices, not once, but dozens of times. I'm sure men are sometimes criticized for reproductive choices, too, but I'd bet this year's tuition money that the comments directed at men are a teaspoon to the ocean of judgements directed at women.

I've never blogged about being childfree, because it's simply not an issue in my life. The decision not to have children is probably the best decision I've ever made, and the one I always have been most sure of.

Allan and I knew - both separately and together - that we didn't want to be parents. (Not of humans, anyway. Being a dog-parent is the perfect amount of parenting for me.) We've been fortunate to meet friends who are also happily child free. And, thankfully, I finally have aged out of that burning question: Why don't you have kids? It's the best part of getting older. No one asks anymore.

But people used to ask, and plenty. If blogs had existed in the 1980s and early 90s, I would have blogged about it all the time. After seeing the Maclean's story, I dug up an essay I wrote back then, probably in 1992 or 1993. If you're childfree, it might ring a bell.

The essay was never published, so it's a bit rough, but I think it holds up. And if you want to see the kind of judgements that are laid on childfree adults all the time, just look at the comments at that Maclean's story.
Mother (Not) To Be

At a friend's dinner party, my partner and I sat across the table from a couple expecting their first baby. As they talked about Lamaze classes and why they decided on a midwife, we struggled to appear interested. Eventually, perhaps feeling a little self-conscious for dominating the conversation, the woman asked me, "Do you two ever talk about having children?"

I didn't think this was an appropriate question from someone who I had known less than an hour, and I made light of it. "Yes, but we talk about not having children!"

"Are you serious?" she asked, incredulous. "You don't want kids?"

When I confirmed that was indeed the case, she said, "I never wanted children before, but now. . ." She put down her fork and squeezed her husband's arm. "Wanting a child came out of my love for Bill. When you really love someone, you want to have their baby." I still bristle when I think of her words. And I'm still gratified that, for once, the clever comeback arrived on my tongue at the right moment, and not on the way home. "Oh really," I said casually, "then what do lesbians do?"

My male partner and I do not want children. Our reasons are varied and complex, simple and emotional, and very clear to both of us. For many years, I kept my preference for remaining childless to myself, intuitively sensing other people's negative reactions. Now than I am more candid, those reactions have been very revealing.

While I don't open conversations with proclamations about my reproductive decisions, when you're over thirty and have been living with a man for many years, the subject does come up. Female casual acquaintances and virtual strangers feel free to ask me why I don"t have children yet. When I explain that it's not a matter of "yet," I open myself up to a polite barrage of criticism and disapproval. Over and over, I hear the same tired refrains.

"You'll see, when you're older, your biological clock will start ticking, you'll start to feel maternal. . ." I refuse to believe that biology is destiny. While I am angry that this is the case for millions of women the world over, I am fortunate that my circumstances afford me a little choice. And I've had "maternal' feelings all my life – if one insists on defining the desire to care for others as maternal.

"I didn't want children either, when I was your age, but you'll feel different when you're older." The woman who says this combines an arrogant assumption – that her own experience is universal – with the judgement that I am not mature enough to make my own decision. I thought when I turned thirty I would finally stop hearing this old cliche. As medical technology continues to stretch the age limits of fertility, I wonder when I will finally be deemed "old enough."

"What a shame – you would make such a good mother! The world needs people like you to be parents!" I suppose this is intended as a compliment. I must assume that whatever qualities of mine inspire this comment also mean I can be a good partner, a good sister, a good daughter or friend. Like many people, I think I would be good at many things. I once thought of becoming a lawyer, but I decided I'd rather be a writer, and sometimes a teacher. No one ever laments, "But you would have made such a good attorney!"

"But you'll never know what it's like to have a baby grow inside you, to look at a child and know she is biologically related to you." And perhaps this woman will never know what it's like to write a book, or climb a mountain, or perform brain surgery, or any one of the myriad things a woman might do in her lifetime. No one can experience everything. Last time I heard this remark, I wondered if it would be rude to say, "I'll never know what it's like to pay for day care, either."
Will I ever see a baby and feel wistful? Perhaps. Our friends who are parents frequently envy our freedom. It doesn't mean they wish they never had children.

"What does Allan have to say about all this?" This is not a neutral "How does Allan feel?"; the question is laced with a touch of alarm, even disgust. The speaker assumes that I arrived at this decision alone, then sprung it on my unsuspecting mate, who could not possibly share my unnatural desire. Now I have deceived him in the most treacherous way: my man has just learned that I am not a Real Woman.

These are all actual quotes, and I have heard each several times. All the speakers could be considered my peers – college-educated women between 30 and 50 years of age. They all had children, or are planning to, at a later age than their mothers did. Learning of my intentions to not have children, they were amazed, appalled, or simply mystified.

I frequently compare the attitudes of my contemporaries with those of my female students. Ranging in age from 16 to 24, my students did not finish high school and are now studying for their high-school equivalency exam. Almost all had children when they were teenagers.

The question is inevitable: "Miss Laura, do you have kids?" And then, "But are you going to? Do you want to?" Upon hearing the answer, the young woman is invariably shocked. I have grown accustomed to students openly marveling at me – a woman who, by their standards, is nearly old enough to be a grandparent, but has not had even one child. At 23, I was single, rootless, cultivating my career and my friendships. My twenty-three-year-old students often have two children, the oldest one in first grade.

Listening to the few young women in my classes who do not have children illuminates why the majority do. "I'm not ready for kids," says Tamika. "There's so much I want to do first." "I'm going to college," declares Kesha. "It'll be much easier if I don't have children to worry about." Tamika and Kesha have stretched beyond their insular world enough to discover that women can do things besides have children – that we can be happy, at least temporarily, without being mothers.

Natasha's words are especially telling: "I got nothing to prove." When asked to elaborate, she explains, "Guys will kill each other trying to prove they're men. Girls have babies."

These women encounter very few alternatives to having children at a young age; almost everyone they know did it. Having children is what you do. Having babies is part of growing up female. Indeed, it's what makes you female.

On the surface, this attitude is foreign to my peers. Certainly, many of us had sex at a young age, but we did our level best to avoid pregnancy, and those who were unsuccessful never considered having a baby. As girls and young women, we knew we had exciting, interesting futures ahead of us, and having a baby wasn't part of the plan. We didn't need babies to fill our lives or to prove ourselves.

Yet, as more mature women, these same people have warned me against loneliness, against missing the greatest experience of my life. They have implied motherhood was my social obligation. They have questioned my commitment to my partner. They have ominously cautioned me about the ceaseless ticking of Time. They have challenged my femininity.

For some women, becoming a mother at 16 or 17 is the norm. For others, motherhood may be delayed, meticulously planned, and may include only one child – but not omitted altogether. Across differences of race, class, income and education, this concept adheres: women are supposed to be mothers.

I have much in common with my female students, despite our different backgrounds and cultures. In this respect, however, my students and my peers are more alike, and I am a foreigner in both worlds. For most women, Womanhood is still inextricably linked to Motherhood. A woman who is childless by choice is a radical outsider.

To be fair, I have encountered a few individuals who did not respond negatively to my decision. I'll never forget the relief I felt when my sister, the wonderful mother of two wonderful children, said without hesitation, "I can understand that." And once in a while I meet a woman who says, "Me neither." And then: relieved laughter as our feelings are happily and unexpectedly revealed. "Do people act like you're crazy?" I ask her. She touches my arm and says, sarcastically, knowingly, "'You'll see, when you're older, you'll change your mind.'"

Nice to get this out there after 15 years.

29 comments:

Cornelia said...

Thank you so much Laura. It would just be so nice and way less trouble if some people finally did mend their business instead of trying to bully other people and get bossy. It's in no way their concern that I don't want children and I needn't put up with their nonsense and interference even if I have to get redress in court!!!

Cornelia said...

Having children too young, having children too old - having too many children, having only one child - having several children very close together in age, having children widely separated in age. And of course, not having any children at all. I have heard women criticized for every one of these choices, not once, but dozens of times. I'm sure men are sometimes criticized for reproductive choices, too, but I'd bet this year's tuition money that the comments directed at men are a teaspoon to the ocean of judgements directed at women.

Sure that's the patriarchal bullshit. Always something to get pushy and potentially verbally abusive about and mostly at the expense of women. Stupid. Those people should get a life and find something more constructive to do in order to keep boredom at bay and feel better about themselves.

Cornelia said...

I'm amazed that some people think that there is anything - any life choice - that is appropriate for everyone. Aren't we each unique human beings? How could such an important life decision be one-size-fits-all?

I agree. Of course. You know what is the best answer to some bullies: "If everybody wanted to have dogs, nobody would get a kitty!" That should hammer home the point that not everybody has the same preferencies and that's legitimate and nothing alarming at all.

She said...

What a wonderful post. I appreciate people who are honest enough to deal with societal pressures in such a forthright manner. Hopefully, attitudes toward women and childbearing are beginning to slowly change, but it's confounding how so many still see parenting as a "duty" to be performed upon establishing a life with a spouse/partner.

I have two kids, nine and ten years old. I love them dearly and can't imagine my life without them, although it would likely be much less stressful. But I certainly cannot judge those who don't feel they need children to complete them. How can procreation define a person's worth?

Cornelia said...

Thanks so much for your support and your kind words. I'm so happy about your great post and encouragement. Really uplifting and definitely much appreciated.

impudent strumpet said...

When you really love someone, you want to have their baby.

Translation for those of us with childfree partners: "When you really love someone, you want to force a major life change and enormous responsibility on them against their will."

No one ever laments, "But you would have made such a good attorney!"

Actually, I do get "You'd be such a good engineer" and "You'd be such a good teacher," both from people who also like to tell me I'd make a good mother. I think next time I'll ask them why they'd want someone they think is delusional in her self-knowledge doing any of those things.

I'm amazed that some people think that there is anything - any life choice - that is appropriate for everyone.

In my own life (no idea if this is broadly applicable) I've noticed that people who are inclined to to interpret/intend "This is what I'm doing" as "This is what you and everyone else should do" tend to be or to aspire to be parents. Not all parental types do this, but the people who do this are mostly parental types.

L-girl said...

How can procreation define a person's worth?

Good question. Yet that's how women are typically defined. "Grandmother of 4 walks on moon."

L-girl said...

I think next time I'll ask them why they'd want someone they think is delusional in her self-knowledge doing any of those things.

I like that. :)

***

Thanks, Cornelia and She.

Jen said...

"No one ever laments, "But you would have made such a good attorney!"

I get "you would make such a good doctor" to which I always respond "But then they wouldn't let me be a nurse!"

Jen said...

"I'll ask them why they'd want someone they think is delusional in her self-knowledge doing any of those things"

Parental types would probably cite that ol' chestnut "you'll learn so much about yourself through your children". They never stop to think about how you may learn the same or different things by NOT having children.
***

Often, at work, a parent will ask "Do you have kids?" They want to know if I can relate to them as a parent. I get really offended by this as my empathy/sympathy extends to them and their kids just fine, and I can do my work without all sorts of personal bias and baggage that comes from empathising/sypathizing too much as a parent or with the adults and not the kid. I've been a kid, I get that hospitals are big and scary and painful. I'm there for the adults too, but my focus is on the kid.

I'm a very kid-centric person and have recently come to define my style of nursing as "camp-councellor nurse". This has it's pitfalls (not relevant here), but it does keep me focused where I should be: on the kid, the patient. If I were a nurse-who-is-a-mom, I think I'd be on the adult team much or all of the time.

I'm often tempted to answer the "Do you have kids" question the same way as the "Are you single" question: "All you need to know is that I'm a nurse". But I've not yet had the guts.

Steve said...

All I know is that at in my future dealings with any employers, I'm going to say I have a couple of kids.

I'm sick and tired of being an unmarried bachelor who is just expected to stay late and work longer to cover for the other employees who have kids who need time off, or who need to leave early for their kids to see them.

Is asking for a decent, well-managed work environment that allows everyone to leave early sometimes asking too much nowadays?

L-girl said...

Jen, that would drive me nuts! I wonder if you can think of something between "I'm a nurse, that's all you need to know" and seething - something the parents might be able to use as well.

Because I have written a lot for kids and teens, people frequently ask me if I have kids in that context. I always say, I don't, and I find that the people who can most relate to kids on their level are people who aren't parents.

I'm not comparing the two situations, yours is much more immediate and direct, goes to the heart of your job much more. But maybe something like... "I'm a pediatric nurse, children are my most important patients" that might shut them up, reassure them and put your foot down at the same time.

Or else just deck 'em.

L-girl said...

Steve, I know, I compare it to the smokers who take 5 extra breaks a day, each 15 minutes long. Can I say I smoke so I can just go stand outside 4 or 5 times a day?

I try to insisit on my time off, with or without kids.

L-girl said...

I get "you would make such a good doctor" to which I always respond "But then they wouldn't let me be a nurse!"

Great reply. :)

That must be so annoying, since it implies being a doctor is better than what you do.

Nigel Patel said...

The parentals should get down on their knees and thank us for not helping them to completely overload the planet with people so that we can squander it to death that much faster.

who else said...

I thought this was interesting post because I live in San Francisco and the parenting environment is much different. This being such a young, career-driven city, most woman (and of course men) do not want to have kids.

I'm actually tired of being the only person in my 30-something social group who wants kids. I'm constantly having to defend myself against "modern" women who have decided that they don't want kids and pass judgement on would-be mothers for being "old-fashioned." Not to mention how many relationships have ended because I want kids and the men feel it's completely unreasonable and have asked why I want children when we're facing overpopulation and a reality where both men and woman work and raising a child is less and less relevant.

I've often been told that wanting children in modern society is selfish.

I guess my point is the the grass is always greener.

Perhaps everyone that feels pressure to have kids should consider moving to San Francisco...

Cornelia said...

Steve, your boss should hire in more people like myself who want to work in the afternoon and evening and readily stay longer so that they can sleep long in the morning and work later when they are efficient and can work well and with enjoyment...

Cornelia said...

Then they can take over and stay longer and your boss needn't bother you...!!

M. Yass said...

There's something else at work here. Children are one of the primary tools The Man employs to keep people in line. How many times have we heard, "I knew it was wrong, but I couldn't lose my job because I have a family to feed"? So people shut up, put their noses back to the grindstone and, especially in this Great Recession, do the work of two and three people.

L-girl said...

I guess my point is the the grass is always greener.

I don't think the grass is greener for women who have or who want kids. As I say very clearly here, I see women getting criticized for whatever they choose.

You get any more career-oriented in a city than New York, so I'm not sure it's a San Francisco vs elsewhere thing. Maybe it's just luck of the draw - or maybe there's been a big change from the mid 1990's when I wrote that essay.

impudent strumpet said...

@Jen: Maybe it would be more effective to disingenuously fail to pick up the negative implications in that question? Like just react like you would if an adult patient asked you that when there's no child in the room. Or maybe react as though you're expecting positive connotations, something like "Oh, no, I get that all the time, it's just that I work with kids every single day."

Not to mention how many relationships have ended because I want kids and the men feel it's completely unreasonable

Things They Should Invent: standard, socially-acceptable, non-presumptuous way of disclosing one's childfree status extremely early in a relationship. Right now the best we have is mentioning it in passing when it's relevant to the conversation, but any deliberate mention early on is presumptuous and kind of creepy. ("Want to go out for coffee sometime?" "Sure, but I'm not going to bear your children.") No one on either side of the spectrum wants to waste time and heartache falling in love with someone with incompatible reproductive goals.

Dharma Seeker said...

My favourite bumper sticker ever: "My rescue dog is smarter than your honour student". Now that's love, man. And probably true :)

ErinOrtlund said...

I think the choice to be childfree is fine. Everyone has different desires and goals. Parenting is tough--I can't imagine how much tougher it would be if it hadn't really been what I wanted to do.

Anne said...

Great article Laura, I'm going to let my daughter see this. She's 22 and from her teens has been telling me that she doesn't want children. My husband and I support her in this decision but she's gotten flack from other relatives and even kids in high school who questioned her right to make this decision. (One even asked her if she was afraid of labour!). Other family friends have told her she'll "change her mind").

I don't understand why some people don't recognize that being childfree is a personal & individual decision and should be respected as such.

I've told her that by age 15, I knew I wanted children and it certainly possible to make your mind up on this issue as a teen and feel strongly about it. I respect her feelings and beliefs it is a valid choice and unlike others I will not try to change her mind. I love my children and they are the best thing that ever happened to me however that was *my* choice. No one should feel pressured or be questioned on this decision. *Her* choice although different than mine, it as valid as mine as it is *her* decision to make.

espaciotoronto said...

As always, great post and article!! I married at 22 by choice and I have been happily married since, but for the last 11 years I had dealt with the repetitive questions: so when are you having kids? why don't you have kids yet? why do you want to be an old mom when you could have been a young one? + I had to deal with the why did you marry so young? do you know that you probably missed the best years of your dating life?, and so on with many decisions I've taken in my life. I think there will always be a soul willing to explain you why your decision is "right" or "wrong".

We will probably have a kid (if we're fertile) but at our own time. If we can't have one life is great as it is. I think having kids is an irrational decision, I tend to be so rational that I feel seduced by the risk of going wild and being a parent, but so far we have resisted the temptation for our own sanity.

Cornelia said...

Wonderful post, Anne, thanks so much! I'm happy to read that, great!

Cornelia said...

Yep, avoiding misunderstandings and trouble is best and so it's fine to say pretty early one doesn't want to have children, for example when discussing plans for the future and preferencies. I have already said: "I don't want to have kids, I want to have a kitty!" And once, when some weirdo claimed how can I know and I would allegedly change my mind, I said: "Oh, if I was but wealthy, I could bribe every corrupt gynecologist into sterilizing me!" (Unless of medical importance, sterilization must be paid by oneself.) As intended, that shut her up right away!!

Cornelia said...

meant over here. There were some cuts in what health insurance does pay regularly.

L-girl said...

Things They Should Invent: standard, socially-acceptable, non-presumptuous way of disclosing one's childfree status extremely early in a relationship.

Totally!

****

Anne, thanks for your comment, I hope your daughter takes some comfort in this. Impudent Strumpet's blog is a better place for childfree support, as she's living through it now, where my issues are in the past.

****

I wonder if "who else" came back or was just hit and run. I find it so frustrating when people don't read what I've written, respond to some misinterpretation or imagining, then don't return. More frustrating than I should.