A Case for Living Child-Free

The happy-family aspirational blueprint is a farce. It’s time to make a decision for yourself.

Photography: Amy Shamblen/Unsplash

“Hazel, I think it might be time to freeze your eggs.”

Mum barely bothered with a “hello” before dropping that telephone bombshell — but she was probably right to convey some urgency. Menopause comes early for the women in our family. Her periods stopped at age 42 and I was only a handful of years younger than that when we had this conversation. If I wanted to be a mother, I’d better act fast.

It’s nothing short of miraculous that we’re able to take a collection of ova out of our bodies, put them on ice for a few years, and warm them up later like a microwave dinner. But it’s not without its tribulations. To better my chances of a good harvest, I’d have to pump myself full of hormones and undergo months of testing and invasive procedures. As a single woman, I’d also have to answer the not-so-simple question of who I wanted to do the fertilizing — all to shelve some rainy-day embryos.

Truth be told, I wasn’t even sure I wanted a baby. I’d never experienced that broody, magnetic pull towards motherhood that other women talk about. But this was surely just because I hadn’t hit the right age yet, I reasoned. The “give me a baby now” lightning bolt could strike at any moment because it’s a natural part of being female, right?

Fast-forward six weeks and I’m staring into the sympathetic face of a fertility doctor, my test results in hand. “You can go through with it if you want,” she said, “but the odds are pretty slim. We’d be lucky to get more than a couple of eggs, and the chances of them being usable aren’t good.”

So, I was fertile. But not fertile enough. At the (not so) ripe old age of 35, the egg-freezing boat had already sailed. And, with neither the inclination nor situation to start trying for a baby naturally, my future as a mother looked doubtful.

But this isn’t a story about the grief you might expect me — as a woman — to feel upon learning that I may never parent a child. Rather, it’s about the lack of it. Of course, I knew this wasn’t good news. But when I searched for the sense of loss I expected, the most dramatic response I could muster was a distinctly apathetic, “Oh.”

While I found my nonreaction curious, I can’t say I was all that surprised. I’ve never been interested in babies. When my friends reached the family-starting age, I’d coo and say, “Oh my goodness, she’s so adorable.” But I never once thought, “… and I want one.” So, maybe it really wasn’t a case of waiting for the lightning bolt to strike. My indifference at the fertility clinic, as far as I can tell, was simply a sign that I’m not all that into it.

In the weeks that followed the consultation, many well-wishing friends gave me the same sympathetic look the doctor had. “I’m so, so sorry,” they said. “How are you feeling?”

What kind of heartless, flawed female doesn’t even blink an eye at the news that she’s virtually barren?

I felt three things, but none was grief. Right away, there was a sense of relief that the decision was out of my hands. I also noticed a selfish-seeming worry that I might be lonely in my later years, with no children to take care of me. (This is hardly a good reason to have one.) And then, underpinning all of that, was the nagging inkling that perhaps I was getting womanhood wrong. What kind of heartless, flawed female doesn’t even blink an eye at the news that she’s virtually barren?

I’ve battled with this last question. I’ve had to measure my actual instincts against the ones I assumed I should have. In doing so, I’ve realized that this discrepancy is something I’ve struggled to reconcile for most of my life.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve thrived on the notion that I’m strong and independent, not bound by the life-scripts laid down by “the norm.” As young as my early teens, I made defiant proclamations that I wouldn’t have children. This was when I first discovered feminism and made it my mission to stick it to “the man” in every possible way. Motherhood sounded like a life sentence to me back then. (I don’t see it all that differently now.) But really, underneath that bravado, I’d always assumed I’d grow out of these desires at some point and settle down, just like my mother had, pressed by a biological need to nurture.

I’ll be 40 years old in six months and that need has yet to surface. I could probably still have children because I’ve seen no signs of menopause, but I don’t want to. And just allowing myself to be okay with that thought takes work. Even as I write this, there’s a fearful part of my mind that anticipates the judgment that you, the reader, might make about me as a nonmaternal woman. And that must mean that I’m still making those same judgments of myself: too ambitious, unfeeling, irresponsible, incapable, broken, lesser, weird.

But these judgments don’t belong to me. They come from my conditioning, an implied narrative I never chose to follow but have been identifying with regardless.

The story of woman

Girls in virtually every culture are brought up to believe that motherhood will form at least some part of their destiny. We’re fed the idea that women are innately nurturing — more so than men — and that this quality comes to fruition when we eventually parent our own children. Women who don’t walk this path are marginalized. When a woman makes the choice to be child-free, she’s questioned and criticized for being self-centered, immature, or strange. And when a woman is childless not by choice, she’s pitied for the lonely and disconnected life it’s assumed she’ll have to lead.

This story doesn’t play out in the same way for men, though. Just notice the different images that spring to mind when you hear the words “spinster” and “bachelor.” The former reeks of failure while the latter sounds like living the dream. That’s not to say that men don’t feel the pressure or the inclination to become fathers — of course they do, but it’s not factored into their life story in quite such a rigid way. I’m not one to write about fundamental differences between men and women because I struggle to believe that there are many of these when it boils down to the basics of human needs and desires. But there are certainly fundamental differences in the lives we’re conditioned to lead, and they’re limiting for people on all sides of the story. Here, I’m focusing on the “woman” script because it’s the one I’ve had to fight free of in order to feel okay with my choice. And it’s one that I believe we all — not just people who identify as women — would benefit from reconsidering.

The telling distinction between the words “spinster” and “bachelor” was first drawn to my attention when I read the article “The choice to be child-free is admirable, not selfish” by Jill Filipovic. (It was first published in August 2013 by The Guardian.)

Filipovic cites some intensely vitriolic criticism aimed at educated white women who have made the decision not to have children. But, as she points out, the same level of hostility is not reserved for child-free women from other demographics. Single, poor, or nonwhite women are criticized more for their choice to have children, rather than to not have them. For this group, childrearing is seen as irresponsible, rash, or indulgent.

The question of whether or not to become a mother is complex, nuanced, and entirely idiosyncratic.

And so, predictably, the fairy-tale female script comes with caveats and conditions. In order to feel complete and correct, a woman must become a mother. (But you may only qualify for this privilege if you tick the boxes that just a tiny proportion of women on the planet can tick.)

With motherhood being couched as a privilege, it’s hardly surprising that the educated, white women in relationships who opt out should be viewed with such bitterness. How dare we forgo the cherry on our cake when we already have so many other benefits?

But what if we’re not interested in cherries? Should we really be topping our cakes with them regardless? And what about the cherries themselves? Do they want to be sat atop a cake that never really needed them? And let’s not forget that the future of the cake shop is decidedly uncertain. There is a multitude of considerations to take into account when it comes to such a massive life decision — far too many for this admittedly flimsy cherry-and-cake metaphor to handle.

And this is precisely the problem: The question of whether or not to become a mother is complex, nuanced, and entirely idiosyncratic. It’s never going to be one that we can answer properly when limited by a black-and-white “normal” versus “different” perspective.

Championing choice

Filipovic’s article begins:

“Contrary to popular media narratives and the critiques of those concerned about the continued supremacy of the white race, women who don’t have children are not selfish, emotionally stunted, or inadequately grown-up. In fact, they’re the opposite: they’re women with the self-knowledge and maturity to buck enormous social pressure and choose a life that’s right for them.”

This would be a powerful new version of the story, not because it glamorizes the choice to opt out of parenthood, per se, but because it encourages a decision based on the actual needs and values of the individual involved.

As it stands, those who come to the conclusion that their cakes are pretty damn good without cherries on the top are demonized. This perpetuates the myth of motherhood as a fundamental part of being female. And it’s damaging.

So what if we chose to start celebrating those who flout the trends of old? I agree with Filipovic: As long as it doesn’t cause people pain, any decision that defies the expected should be both admired and shouted about from the rooftops. By doing this, we’ll champion autonomy above conformity and social pressure. And autonomy — along with the awareness and acceptance it necessitates — is a powerfully healthy thing.

A recent study about the connection between work stress and mortality rates found the following: The chances of an employee dying early increase not in correlation with the level of demand placed on them in their job, but in inverse correlation with the level of control they have over that demand. The study showed a 15.4% increase in likelihood of death for people under high levels of demand in low-control jobs. But for employees with a greater level of autonomy, high job demands were associated with a 34% decrease in the likelihood of death.

The paper’s lead author writes: “These findings suggest that stressful jobs have clear negative consequences for employee health when paired with low freedom in decision-making, while stressful jobs can actually be beneficial to employee health if also paired with freedom in decision-making.”

While the study above focused on professional pressure, I’m sure most of us would agree that our personal lives can impose a comparable level of stress. If that’s the case, autonomy must be considered to be equally important at home.

But the social expectation to start a family depletes our sense of control when it comes to one of the biggest decisions any human being will ever make. So, championing choice for the question of motherhood is not only important for those of us with wombs; it would be a win for everyone.

Surely anyone in a relationship involving a woman would benefit if the question of whether or not to start a family were, in fact, a question. It’s not uncommon for heterosexual men to feel like having a baby is more their partner’s decision than theirs. Yes, the woman will (quite literally) bear the load for the first nine months. But after that, wouldn’t it be a good idea for both parents to be equally invested? The current model doesn’t quite support this idea, and the harsh reality of raising a child can be a terrible shock for both parents.

Postnatal depression affects more than one in 10 women, and researchers have reported that paternal postpartum depression occurs in 4% to 25% of new fathers. Take into account the lingering stigma around this particular issue, which makes it hard for people to ask for help or recognize their symptoms, and it’s entirely possible that these percentages could be higher in reality. Would bringing autonomy to the parenting table improve these stats? We can’t know for sure, but it’s unlikely to hurt.

Championing choice would mean that children could be born to more people who have made that call based on wants rather than shoulds. Furthermore, they’d be brought up by parents who are practiced in answering the question of what they really need, which is an invaluable skill for any growing mind to witness.

Being allowed to see motherhood as a choice would change our lives.

When it comes to people who want children but are unable to conceive, seeing parenthood as a choice will be unlikely to ease the grief they have to process. But it could help with the entirely unnecessary sense of inadequacy that’s all too often felt by those — usually women — who have tried for months, years, and even decades to have a baby without success, and feel the weight of shame as a result.

Finally, of course, it’ll benefit women like me who don’t feel that magnetic pull. Being allowed to see motherhood as a choice would change our lives. We’d be free of endlessly grappling with expectations that don’t match our personal inclinations. And when more people see child-free living as a normal and acceptable option, we won’t feel such pressure to justify our decisions.

No matter which angle we come from, the stories and expectations that form our conditioning cause us to sort, separate, and judge ourselves (as well as others) based on a stereotype that we cannot possibly conform to on mass. The current model doesn’t take into consideration the fact that we all have different sets of needs, interests, and desires. So until we can start factoring these things into the bigger decisions we make, we surely cannot know if we’re making them correctly.

It’s time to edit the script. We need to swap the happy-family aspirational blueprint for models of awake human beings who can make up their own minds about their lives.

This will require work from all of us, child-free or not. Rewriting the narrative means getting real about the prejudices we’ve been encouraged to uphold and rejecting them in favor of choice. It means lauding and celebrating all of the many, many different types of lives that people lead, and feeling inspired rather than threatened by those that don’t echo our personal preferences.

I didn’t mourn my chance for rainy-day embryos because when I really listened to myself, I knew that motherhood wasn’t for me. But unlike my teenager stance, this is no angry protest. My decision to live child-free is not anti-family, anti-social, or anti-(the)man. And it’s not irresponsible, either. Quite the contrary: It’s a considered decision that I’ve made about my own existence. The more of us who are given the opportunity to make choices like this, the healthier and happier we will be as a society.

So, to all my fellow child-free sisters out there, let’s live our lives fully. We may not have biological children to bring up but we’re still influencing the growing minds of everyone around us. A narrative of shame is not one I’m prepared to teach. Let’s live the story of autonomous choice instead.

Read more like this in The Mind Monster Solution.

CEO and co-founder of Betwixt: a guided interactive adventure that helps you build mental resilience (www.betwixt.life). Author of “The Mind Monster Solution”.

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