Legacies On Not Wanting Children
Why are the childfree by choice such a threat?
When you tell people that you don’t want children, they often look for a reason for it to make sense to them. You must hate children or you must have something very wrong with you. Sometimes they’ll take your declaration as a criticism of their own life choices or circumstances and become defensive.
If you are still in your childbearing years, things get even more personal: Many people will tell you that you’ll change your mind or you’ll feel differently about your own. Others love to share their story about how they once felt like you but their lives changed for the better when they had children. Consequently, for most of my life, I’ve not talked about it.
My earliest and most vivid memory of knowing that I did not want children occurred during a Ouija-board session when I was ten. The Ouija board predicted I would be married with two kids, while my best friend would be a magazine editor in New York.
“I don’t want that life!” I was furious at the Ouija board and secretly hoped my friend was moving the planchette to give herself what I considered a better future.
“You don’t have to have that life. It’s not written in stone,” she said.
I won’t , I remember thinking.
There are myriad ways to be in the world. Parenthood is just one of them, and, while it happens to be the choice for the majority of the population, that number is going down as more people are electing to not have children. The birth rate has been steadily declining in the US since 2014 and in Canada since 2009 . According to a 2021 Pew research poll , “ Some 44% of [US] nonparents ages 18 to 49 say it is not too or not at all likely that they will have children someday.” Fifty-six percent of these nonparents younger than fifty cite “not wanting to” as the main reason for their choice.
Many people will tell you that you’ll change your mind or you’ll feel differently about your own.
Recently, I googled the question “What is another word for childless ?” A site called WordHippo came up with a long list that included infertile , barren , unfruitful , empty , dreary , hollow , uninteresting , worthless , and so on.
Normally I wouldn’t take a site like this seriously, but the combination of the negative implications of the existing words and the absence of a word that adequately described my relationship with nonparenthood struck me deeply. These words are exactly how society treats people with uteruses who don’t have offspring. The connotations of this language make me never want to talk or write about this subject again, and yet I’m compelled to because, when I was weighing this choice, I longed to hear stories like mine.
I am old enough to remember when access to abortion was restricted in Canada. Before 1988, when the law was struck down, therapeutic abortion could only be performed in a hospital and had to be approved by a committee who believed the mother’s health was in danger. Interpretations of “in danger” varied wildly, and access to abortion was neither consistent nor equitable across the country. It often still isn’t, as access is largely dependent on proximity to an urban center.
Having few abortion options made getting pregnant in the mid-1980s one of the worst things that could happen as a teenager—so much so that when I was fourteen and started dating my first boyfriend, my mother said, “Whenever you want to, I’ll take you to the doctor to get the pill.”
I was mortified. “But I’m not even having sex!”
Two years and another boyfriend later, I got on the pill myself. One day my mother saw the birth control package in my room and said, “Oh. Good.”
Years later, as a young adult, I still thought getting pregnant was one of the worst things that could happen to me, and this feeling didn’t dissipate once I got married at the age of twenty-five. My partner Dave and I got married in Las Vegas as a way to celebrate our relationship, not as a precursor to having children. Although we assumed that we might have kids someday, we didn’t talk about it or plan for it.
Since Dave and I only had ourselves to consider, we were able to support each other fully in our creative lives, he as an artist and me as a writer. We moved across the country and back multiple times for school or to take advantage of creative or teaching opportunities—even if it meant more debt, temporary separation, or unemployment. No matter where we lived, we always had an active social life. The majority of people we hung around were writers, filmmakers, and artists of varying ages. Some had kids, others didn’t. While I was happy for my friends and family who had children, I still did not pine for my own.
For the rest of my twenties and into my thirties, I had no biological yearnings and experienced zero family pressure.
At one point when we were in our early thirties, Dave wondered if we should think about having kids, and I said, “I’m not ready,” ending the discussion before it could start.
In my midthirties––the time when many people are having or preparing to have children––I quit my sessional teaching job so I could attend the Canadian Film Centre’s screenwriting program and immerse myself in the film world. Because I never thought about having children, I never worried about whether it would impact my writing.
But at the age of thirty-six, I was jarred when a gynecologist said, unprompted and unrelated to the reason for my visit: “If you’re planning on having children, don’t wait. This isn’t going to last forever.”
For the first time in my adult life, I said out loud, “I don’t want children.”
“You better be sure about that,” she said, which sounded less like advice and more like a threat.
Her statement, although it irritated me, prompted me to ask Dave, when I got home, if we were going to have kids. He wasn’t sure he wanted them, and I still wasn’t ready.
But in case I changed my mind, I thought I should take prenatal vitamins. The vitamins were horse-pill-sized capsules from the health food store that I tried to gag down unsuccessfully. How would I ever be a parent if I couldn’t even swallow this pill? After a while, I stopped trying. The prenatal vitamins stayed on the kitchen counter, then migrated to the cupboard under the bathroom sink, where they expired and were eventually thrown out.
Because we were ambivalent, Dave and I didn’t talk about parenting again until the fall of 2013, when we went to see Linda Griffiths’s play Heaven Above, Heaven Below in Toronto . The play is about an ex-couple who meet up at the wedding of a mutual friend and revisit their past relationship and her abortion twenty years earlier. While he is now a parent, she is not.
Dave and I were unusually quiet on the walk home. Although the play didn’t depict our experience exactly, it had deeply affected us. I felt simultaneously glad I didn’t have children and wondered if I would regret it. Suddenly, making this decision became pressing. By that point I was in my early forties and probably only had a couple years left to even try. If I couldn’t get pregnant, there was no money for fertility treatments. We were still paying off student-loan debt. The only way we could have afforded a child would be to move in with my mother, and I was not prepared to make that sacrifice.
Did I really want to become pregnant? I did not. As someone who lives with a chronic illness, I would not fare well during a geriatric pregnancy, the term for anyone over thirty-five who becomes pregnant. The times in my life when I had pregnancy scares, I always knew I would abort.
But despite my reservations about pregnancy, now that the choice was soon to be taken out of my control, all of society’s motherhood projections began to haunt me: Who will help me in my old age? Am I being selfish? Why have I never had an urge to become a mother? Does my life have purpose? Is there something terribly wrong with me? In her essay “Beyond Beyond Motherhood ,” Jeanne Safer describes exactly how I felt: “I don’t really want to have a baby. I want to want to have a baby. I long to feel like everybody else.”
Choosing not to be a parent can be extremely isolating. Between the limited vocabulary for describing the experience and few established communities and support networks for people who make that choice, it was clear to me that society did not want to make room for this way of being.
I was desperate to find other women to talk to who did not want children but who had some mixed feelings as they were approaching the end of their reproductive years. Eventually I found a forum for “childfree women,” which was the first time I had heard that term. The site used the categories “childfree by choice” and “childfree by circumstance,” implying the group members were accepting of both situations. I went to one of the local meetups at a coffee shop, hoping to have nuanced discussions about the tension between gendered societal pressure and not feeling any desire to have children.
All of the women present had what are usually considered “legitimate” reasons for not having kids—infertility, no partner, other family responsibilities. They bonded over their search for partners, fertility treatments, and their exclusion from family and society. When I introduced myself as someone who never wanted or tried to have children with my husband and had no family pressure to do so, they turned on me. One gasped. Another said, “What a waste,” and the rest became unfriendly. I left feeling confused and even more alone.
A year or so later, Dave declared out of the blue that he was no longer undecided. He had been thinking about this for some time, reflecting on his childhood, and he realized that he did not want a child. At all. Not biologically and not by adoption, something we had also been considering.
Between my age and Dave’s realization, the choice I theoretically could have made at any time in the previous twenty-two years was no longer available to me. While I wasn’t particularly surprised by Dave’s statement, it was the finality of this decision that shook me. Suddenly, the fear of missing out gripped me like it never had.
But Dave and I had been together for over two decades, and our relationship meant more to me than having a baby. While I knew there was room for negotiation, I decided not to try. He had been abandoned by his father when he was younger, and, at the time, I was estranged from mine. I would never choose to bring a child into the world if there was a risk they would be unwanted. Nor would I make the person I care for most have a child he did not want.
With the decision finally made, I descended into the grief another childfree friend had described—not just grieving the baby I wouldn’t have, but the loss of future relationships as it would grow. I felt disconnected from the world. I was mad at Dave and mad at myself.
Although the grief did pass, it was not quite in the way I expected it to. In 2018, when the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced that the world had twelve years to slow global warming, I felt a deep despair (and still do) for the planet and the children who would come of age into this chaos. This crisis felt like it let me off the hook for not wanting children, and after the IPCC report, I was never conflicted about it again. Instead, I was relieved and grateful I could invest my energy into environmental activism.
Despite my relief, being childfree still was not something I felt I could discuss openly. One need look no further than the Catholic Church to see how the childfree are treated. In 2015, Pope Francis, during a speech about the joys of having children , said that “the choice not to have children is selfish” and later went on to say that a marriage that does not produce children “comes to old age in solitude, with the bitterness of loneliness.”
Accusations of selfishness, threats of loneliness, and warnings about dying alone are often hurled at childfree people. In fairy tales, childfree women are cannibalistic witches, pitiable old maids, or abusive stepmothers. In film and television, childfree women are portrayed as shallow, child-hating, career-focused, or insane. While there are some notable exceptions of childfree TV characters who remain childfree throughout a series—Mary Richards ( Mary Tyler Moore ), Cristina Yang ( Grey’s Anatomy ), Issa Dee ( Insecure )—often on mainstream television, childfree women succumb to motherhood by the end of the series. The most egregious and infuriating example of this in recent history is Penny and Bernadette in The Big Bang Theory —neither of whom wanted to be mothers but who conveniently changed their minds by the finale, further reinforcing the cliché that women don’t know their own desires and cannot be fulfilled until they are mothers.
Despite my relief, being childfree still was not something I felt I could discuss openly.
When I was in my childbearing years, these attitudes were pervasive. I would be having a chat about the weather when suddenly a neighbor felt the need to say, “You’ll never experience true love until you’ve been a parent.” Or a friend would note, “You would be such a good mother.” Often I would hear the dismissive, “You’ll change your mind.” Another common refrain is “You’ll regret it.” People often like to use the word regret in relation to people who are childfree by choice when in fact studies show that few childfree women regret their choices, unlike many parents who do .
When I get the do-you-have-kids question now, and I cheerfully say, “No, I didn’t want children,” the reaction is much different than when I was younger. It’s like people don’t know what to make of me. Who am I if I am not someone’s mother? They will end the conversation quickly or become cold. It doesn’t matter if it’s an acquaintance or a stranger. Recently I interacted with a nurse who had this reaction. Suddenly all the warmth and familiarity vanished, and I became someone with whom they could no longer relate.
Why such an interest in our lives? Why are the childfree by choice such a threat?
The two most common words for a person who does not have children are childless and childfree , with the latter connoting choice and the former, circumstance. Not everyone accepts or identifies with these terms; some call themselves nonparents, NotMom , or aunty, or they don’t wish to be labeled at all.
The reason I had been looking for another word for childless is because I flat-out rejected the term childfree to describe myself. The word had always bugged me. It seemed mean or smug or suggested that I hated children. But recently, I learned that’s not the case.
In her book Childfree by Choice: The Movement Redefining Family and Creating a New Age of Independence , sociologist Dr. Amy Blackstone notes that early use of the word childfree dates back to the 1970s by the National Organization for Non-Parents (NON), founded by Ellen Peck and Shirley Radl. “As parenthood became increasingly viewed as a choice rather than a destiny,” Blackstone explains, “ the term childfree emerged to differentiate those who had chosen nonparenthood from those for whom childlessness was not a choice.”
By dismissing the word and being more concerned about maintaining the perception that I don’t hate children, I denied myself language that describes my experience.
After reading Childfree by Choice , I realized I had unwittingly participated in the pronatalist agenda, which Blackstone describes as the “political, ideological, and religious systems designed to encourage childbearing and retain high birth rates within nation states.” Pronatalism is the reason behind the negative depictions of childfree women in art, literature, and media; the attempt to control reproductive health (through anti-abortion laws or prohibiting the voluntary sterilization of people with uteruses); the social pressure to reproduce; and the deliberate ostracization of those who don’t. Even the myth of a woman’s biological ticking clock is rooted in pronatalism, which Moira Weigel writes about in her book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating .
I now use childfree to describe myself and make no apology for it. In fact, I feel more comfortable with childfree as a self-identifier than even the word woman because of our culture’s insistence on equating womanhood with motherhood.
These days, there’s a delightful childfree movement afoot. Search the hashtag #childfree on any platform and you’ll find people celebrating their lives, dispelling myths, advocating for reproductive rights, pushing back against gender stereotypes, and supporting one another. There are childfree-by-choice communities for specific identities, attitudes, or circumstances and a rich body of work on the subject. Sheila Heti’s 2019 book Motherhood grapples with this decision in the context of being a writer. Houreidja Tall writes in a 2021 Harper’s Bazaar article about the issues that Black childfree women face. Therese Shechter’s 2021 documentary, My So-Called Selfish Life , explores the right to choose to not be a mother. It’s exciting to see these discussions happening and communities forming in more mainstream spaces.
There is a great deal of freedom in writing about my childfree choices at the end of my reproductive years. No one can say you’ll change your mind or you’ll regret it. People might not know how to react to me, but I don’t have to deal with their condescension anymore.
This doesn’t mean I haven’t had mixed emotions along the way, or that I haven’t been affected by society’s gender expectations. But I did come out on the other side. I am living a meaningful and fulfilling life as a person who didn’t want to be a parent, who didn’t have children, and who doesn’t regret the decision. The only thing I do regret is that I didn’t talk about it sooner.
Eventually Dave and I even gained a sense of humor about it. When our neighbors got engaged, they asked us the secret to our long relationship. Perhaps they hoped to glean some hard-earned wisdom about trust or commitment, but, much to our amusement and likely their horror, we both blurted at the same time, “We didn’t have children.”