In her recent Time Magazine piece, “Having It All Without Having Children,”, Lauren Sandler spoke to women and couples about their decision not to have children in the context of social pressure and statistics (19% of women aged 40-44 have no children, which is almost double the percentage from 30 years ago, according to the U.S. Census Bureau) as well as the expectations and “cultural noise of motherhood.” The magazine’s cover drives it all home: It’s a photo of two smiling, relaxed white people in matching bathing suits, as if to say, “When you don’t have kids, you have time to lay in the sun and match your bathing suits.”
When I’ve written about being childfree in the past, I’ve often been asked to clarify that I’m not talking about reproductive challenges like infertility. Often, the two are confused. Talking about infertility is a taboo, and so is the idea that a woman might choose not to reproduce because she doesn’t want to. While couples and individuals encounter reproductive challenges and sometimes choose to remain childless, that is a different reality and a different conversation. When I talk about being childfree, I’m not talking about something that I wish I had that I don’t. I’m talking about a choice I’ve made, which should always be a choice and not as an assignment. I’m talking about what it means to not want something that women are expected to want. And I know I’m not the only one.
Responses to Sandler’s piece included this chat between two Yahoo writers, Sarah B. Weir and Beth Greenfield, both mothers, who admitted their own suspicions and frustrations in regard to childfree women. Upon hearing that her husband’s colleague, a woman in her early 30s, definitely doesn’t want kids, Weir said, “I immediately went to ‘selfish, narcissistic.’ What is that about?” Greenfield admits “to being perplexed when I’ve met women, throughout my life, who say they don’t want to,” but also questioned her own motives when she got pregnant: “Was it a good decision for the world, which is overpopulated? Or was it just a good and selfish decision for me?”
In addition, KJ Dell’Antonia wondered in the New York Times if parents can be friends with the childfree. Amanda Marcotte’s piece in Slate discussed the lack of male voices in the discussion, which harkens back to the conversation months ago about women and the right age to get married. Not only was the question always “when” women should get married and never “if,” but there were no pieces in which men were told when to get married.
Before Sandler’s piece, of course, people were writing about being childfree. Comedienne Jen Kirkman responds to the assertion that she’ll change her mind in her book, “I Can’t Even Take Care of Myself.”. Eleanor Wells, who spoke with Sandler for her Time piece, writes about being single and childfree at her blog, Spinsterlicious. BlogHer, a blogging network for women, includes a section on the childfree life. In other words, there is nothing new about the decision to be childfree, but suddenly, everyone’s talking about it.
What might be new, however, is the breadth of exploration the topic is receiving across lines of race and religion. Danielle Vermeer, who runs the Christian Feminist blog From Two to One, interrogated the “why” of having children in the face of the expectation that all Christian couples will be parents. She encouraged her readers with children to articulate the reasons they had them in the comments section. At Ebony, Josie Pickens talked with folks in the Black community about what it means to be childfree, and the idea that a family can be a family without children. Pickens interviewed Evan and Lisa, an engaged couple not planning to have children. “Many will say that Lisa and Evan are selfish or abnormal, especially in the African-American community where establishing and raising strong families is a constant bullet on our plan towards progress.”
As Jews, we cling hard and fast to the value of procreation, with the conviction that we have to make up for Jews lost as well as ensure a robust future. In writing this piece, I did a brief Google search for “childfree Jews.” In addition to several things published at the Forward, I also found this post at LadyMama, by a childfree Orthodox woman who chose to be anonymous. She cites many of the classic arguments for Jews having babies, including the classic: “It is your responsibility to keep Judaism going! Don’t be your own Hitler.” Is there no way to acknowledge those who chose not to have children and not label us as self-hating and destructive?
Sometimes I feel like I talk about my choice to be childfree (yes, still; yes, I’m sure) too much. I thought about not writing about it anymore, or mentioning it, because often it’s easier to just go with it, to pretend that I’m not any different from other people, that I also can’t wait to be a mother. But that’s not true, it’s never been true, and while I hope the stigma is lifting, folks who have chosen not to have kids still know what it’s like to have that choice interrogated and pathologized. Fortunately, we also know how to imagine and create new versions of family and community.
Chanel Dubofsky types words in Brooklyn.