And it’s not up to you to decide whether or not that’s valid.
It seems like it’s happening with some regularity, recently: The media latches on to the fact that some people don’t have children, whether by choice or circumstance, and proceeds to ponder it via articles, news segments, and social media. In the last few weeks, there have been several such pieces, including this one and this one.
As someone who’s childfree (not childless, there is a difference), it doesn’t take very much for me to get angry about what often seems like willful ignorance leveled at childfree women in particular: We’re part of the “Otherhood,” Melanie Notkin’s name for those who want children, but also want to be in love, married, partnered, etc, before doing so. We “forgot” to have children. We’re just waiting for the “right” person (as though there is such a thing). We’re absolutely going to regret it. There’s something deeply, pathologically wrong with us. We were absent in school the day they taught us about what’s really important. (Nope. We just have a different version of what’s really important.)
I’ve written a lot about being childfree, and I’ve thought about not doing it anymore—I’m tired of talking about it, explaining it, reminding people that I (actually, seriously) am not ever going to have a kid and explaining why. But then, someone will write or say something about how women are natural mothers, how we all love kids, even if we don’t have our own, how we have to manifest caretaking in some clear way so that the rest of the world feels better about us as women. If we don’t have our own children, we have to be mothers to our pets (“fur babies”), or to children in a classroom if we’re teachers, or, through language or action, prove that we have an instinct to take care of something, besides ourselves.
To be clear: I don’t mean that caretaking is not a thing that’s important. I’m saying that it should not be an assumed role or task, that it’s not an integral part of gender. As a woman who’s not going to be a mother, I’m not interested in convincing a world who reads two things as inextricably linked to the legitimacy of femininity.
Another thing that happens when I talk about being childfree is that people start to question whether or not it’s really such a big deal that I am—and not in a good way. “What’s the big deal?” a married, heterosexual friend of mine with a kid asks whenever I post on Facebook something I’ve written or read about being childfree. It’s always something along the lines of (if not specifically this): “I have never felt pressure to have children myself, so people don’t care if you have children!” This from those who have made the choice to have kids themselves.
If you are white, heterosexual, married, and have money, your decision to have children is lauded. There is an expectation that you will have children if you are married, and while that pressure can in itself be toxic, it’s a different experience to explain to others that you will eventually have kids, that you want them, that you’ve always known you would have them, than to tell people that you don’t want them and then have to justify yourself. They are completely different experiences. Just as confusing the term childfree with childless—someone who wants children but doesn’t have them—creates awkward situations and prevents people from being able to build community with like-minded folks, so does dismissing people when they say they’ve experienced something. Particularly when you yourself have made a decision—having children—that qualifies as normative, as it does in my community of largely white, middle to upper middle class, college educated, married people.
I’m not sure why it’s such a leap for people to imagine that the idea of a woman not having kids would be so threatening in a world where women’s bodies are commodified, and where we’re considered untrustworthy and undeserving of bodily autonomy. But take my word for it, OK? Most people do not understand what it’s like to not want kids, especially if you are a woman. They might be able to theoretically get that you don’t want them now, but to say you never want them is another thing entirely.
If you’ve never had to explain that to people who think that not wanting kids is selfish, unnatural, and going to leave you bereft of happiness; if you’ve never had to tell someone that you do actually know yourself well enough to know that parenting would be the wrong decision for you, then you don’t know that it’s like. It’s comparable to other situations in which we do not understand the experiences of another person, and in those situations as well, it’s not OK to question someone’s claim of how they experience the world.
It’s not up to you to decide whether or not it’s valid.
Chanel Dubofsky’s work has been published in RH Reality Check, Cosmopolitan, The Frisky, The Billfold, Lilith and The Forward, among others. She is working on her MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Brooklyn, New York.