When child-free women write about our lives, the lede is almost always a variation on, “But I REALLY LOVE kids! I’m not a bad person, okay? Don’t hate me please.”
I won’t deviate from that pattern much here, mostly because it’s true—I dig children, a lot. New and tiny infants, feisty toddlers, question-obsessed elementary school kids, angsty teens—they’re all my adorable, hilarious jam. I’m not sad that I don’t have kids of my own, but I am sad that women like me must be so universally defensive about our procreative status—often before the conversation has even begun.
That’s because we know the drill: When we announce that we have no plans to breed, someone is going to call us selfish, and it won’t take long. In my early 30s, when it dawned on me that I’d probably not have biological kids (thank you, ubiquitous, legal birth control) a male friend was the first to tell me that I was selfish. He’d been on the marriage track since we were in our early 20s, and now had two kids. I was stunned, and needless to say, it was the beginning of the unraveling of our 20-year friendship.
Why We Feel Defensive
Child-free women get defensive when men say we’re selfish because we know what they really mean. The not-so-subtle implication is that we’re just not feminine enough. That we’re not emotional and/or maternal, which is another way of saying that we’re monsters—that we’re really not women at all.
What is often left out of the conversation is how unselfish child-free women have the freedom to be—caring for friends, friends’ children, aging parents, and animals, and caretaking our communities, both local and global. Without kids, I get to be an activist—if we’re measuring contributions to society, I think I’ll get a pretty decent score.
When a man calls a child-free woman selfish, his criticism is at once reductive and belittling; he’s essentially saying we have one purpose here, and we’re not fulfilling it. How dare we have sex merely for pleasure? Uber-liberal men have suggested this as well—one doesn’t have to be a Beyonce-hating Mike Huckabee type to join the pile-on. Even Pope Francis, everybody’s favorite progressive pontiff, recently weighed in, falling into the “childfree women are selfish” camp.
It’s the Best Thing That Ever Happened to You—But Not Me
And then there are the women. Friends with kids, my nearest and dearest, still sometimes look at me with sad eyes, suggesting that I really should just try, because it’s the best thing that ever happened to them—and I’m sure it is. But it’s not my best thing—I have other bests. At the heart of this, I suspect, is a projection about unlived lives.
It’s not as if I’m still going out five nights a week like I did when I was in my 20s, yet no matter how many times I explain that my life is rather staid, the moms seem to think I’m always out at da club, or taking a new lover. Usually I’m at home streaming Netflix after a long workday, just like everybody else. But a few women friends with kids badly want me to join their club, and sometimes I wonder if it’s because they are unconsciously jealous of my (imaginary) party lifestyle. Or because they want me to experience a year of sleepless nights and sore nipples, just so I can know their pain.
I Won’t Be Giving Birth, But I Might Still Have Kids
I should clarify: I occupy a slightly skewed position in the realm of the child-free. I might still adopt at some point, if circumstances (and finances) allow. I’m also quite open to being a stepmom. But I swore off biological motherhood close to a decade ago, mainly because of concerns about climate change and overpopulation. I’m quite capable of fiercely loving tiny, fragile beings, even if they haven’t issued from my own loins. So adoption, were it affordable, would be a no-brainer for me. Frankly, I’d probably foster if I didn’t live in a studio apartment.
But you know what? If motherhood isn’t my path, I won’t be devastated. I’m honestly cool about either outcome. I do not lie in bed at night worrying about my shriveling ovaries or lost opportunities. I am whole and my life is full.
If I do become a mother someday, I hope I can preserve my identity as a woman, a writer, a lover, and a human being. Motherhood is deeply fetishized in our culture, and although moms deserve huge props for the hard work they do, I want them to know that they’re layered, complicated people—not merely mommies.
The first time I wrote about being child-free a few years ago, it unleashed a wholly unexpected backlash. “My Uterus Is Closed For Business and I Have No Regrets” warranted close to 500 comments on the Huffington Post, many of them vicious trolls calling me selfish, like my friend had. There was an upshot: The post got nearly 6,000 likes on Facebook, suggesting that it spoke to a large number of child-free women out there, ones looking for a new narrative.
Four years later, it’s clear that we have more work to do to set the child-free free from judgment. I believe it starts with the way that moms and dads are raising their girls right now. Not all girls will grow up to be mothers, so maybe we can let them know that being child-free is an option—one that’s as good as any other.
Creating space for the child-free requires a bit of soul searching, a bit of ruminating on one’s own choices made and not made. It should start early, in our teens and 20s. But even deep into our 30s and 40s, whether we’re up until six in the morning because we’re dancing all night or nursing, we still need to respect one another’s clubs.