Sometimes not doing something can be even more scandalous than doing something.
(And speaking as someone who has done a number of scandalous things in her life, the response to this particular ‘not doing’ has been the most shocking, and caused me the most bewildering amount of sadness.)
If you’re in the same boat- or you think you might come aboard- then I know how you feel, and I want to help.
It turns out that my decision to not have kids is so controversial that it causes, at a minimum level, mild concern, and at a maximum level enormous outrage.
Data from the US, UK and Australia indicate that anywhere from 14 – 25% of women are childless or childfree. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that between 2023 and 2029 there will be more people in relationships without children than with them.
When I have mentioned with increasing sureness over the past few years to people that I don’t want children, the responses are a mixed bag. More puzzled discomfort or misunderstandings than outright judgement.
I’m one of the lucky ones, if my childfree peers are anything to go by.
What strikes me as most difficult about this decision is the public backlash against childfree women and the subsequent lack of community for us.
I have friends who don’t have children because they aren’t in a relationship but would like to be parents one day, and friends who are painfully struggling with fertility, and of course I have friends who have children.
In fact, I know barely a handful of women scattered across the country who are also choosing to be childfree. And most of them aren’t particularly vocal about it.
As a person in her late 30’s in a happy childless relationship, I’m in the vast minority.
It’s a weird position to be in. Nothing has changed, but really everything has changed. I’m grown up. I’m making huge life decisions on how to live and give and be my best in the time we have on this planet.
I’ve realised that I’d dearly love to find others who are trying to work through similar times in their lives. Lives that didn’t revert to permanent teenagehood at the same time as others had children. A place for women to talk positively about these lives in a society that wishes to quiet us down.
But when I began looking for Australian Childfree communities, it wasn’t so easy to find what I was looking for. I wondered why people seemed to be pretty hush-hush about a decision that supposedly almost a quarter of us are making?
Digging a little deeper, I found some answers that were truly upsetting.
They shook me to my core, brought on tears, and made me think twice. Thrice. Four times about whether or not to write this piece.
But as a women’s mental health professional, it’s important to try and speak about this, because our decisions really should be our own and not in the hands of others, and we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it.
The articles mentioned above that reveal the data on who is and who isn’t having children in Australia? They nearly all contain some kind of ominous warning from an ‘expert’ about population decline, about the economy collapsing. And we’re talking about a range of publications, some of whom are lauded for their integrity.
Even the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) website in using this data to discuss social trends moves away from even-handed speculating on the data at hand and into making wildly alarmist predictions about all the problems that could occur should everyone suddenly opt out of motherhood.
As though we are seriously in danger of the population decreasing, when on the same ABS website there’s clearly data proving otherwise (without the giant dose of speculation).
Triple J’s Hack recently hosted a discussion on the topic of whether young people should be allowed to choose sterilisation, which begs the question: why are adult decisions that do not harm others- potentially regrettable or otherwise- a matter of public debate?
As though it would be irresponsible to talk about childfree people without a warning, like we are in some way obligated to have children, frightening echoes of The Handmaids Tale.
Underlying these kinds of discussions is a worrying truthbomb: that a lot of people think women have a moral imperative to reproduce. Whether conscious or otherwise, this belief seeps into the way our culture views childfree people.
There are thinly-veiled judgements about the kinds of people who would opt out of parenthood: that we must be career-driven vacuous selfish folks. That we love our jet skis more than other human beings (NB: I do not own a jet ski. And I’ve spent my life and career in service to other people as a social worker and therapist working sensitively with parents and non-parents alike as well as being a children’s counsellor. But there I go: defending our selfhoods, which I promised myself I wouldn’t do).
And of course there are the exceptionally sad stories of the ‘childless’ women who want to have children but cannot. These are valid and heartbreaking narratives and I have no desire to see them hushed away. I’m so glad that there are communities such as Gateway and local support services available for those suffering the trauma of infertility.
And I’m glad that for the most part, they get to own their narrative.
Childfree people do not.
We are speculated on by just about everybody, including some mums who feel the need to tell us what we are missing out on. We aren’t listened to when we share what our decision is really about or the circumstances that lead us there.
There are jokes about us having too much time on our hands when we share our thoughts, suggesting our very contemplations are some sort of luxury. Even though they are not intentionally patronising, there’s a sting in the tail because ‘busyness’ is regarded as the ultimate grown-up status symbol.
Sometimes we are even raged at when expressing any kind of opinion, as though non-parents don’t have a right to contribute to the society we all live in and the community we all share.
The broader social implication is that there is no publicly acceptable to way to just BE a woman and live a life of contentment.
If we are ever invited to speak about being childfree, there’s simply no way to do it without falling into justifying yourself –see above. Childfree people are inevitably backed into a corner shouting ‘But I love children, I’m not a monster!’ even if they don’t, in a way that no parent feels obligated to announce other than when talking about their own.
It can be rough out there.
A lot of us are determined to resist the frustration that boils up after:
- Reading the articles warning of impending doom that quietly imply women’s obligations to ‘do woman’ as we tell you to thank you very much
- Hearing the endless pitying stories written by people who are not childfree about our inevitable regrets
- Figuring out how to kindly respond to others who think it’s a compliment to tell you what a great mum you’d make when you tell them you’ve decided not to have children. I mean, they’re lovely words, and I appreciate you think that, but did you really listen to what I just said?
If you’re like me, you’ll want to find others who understand, and even more importantly, who inspire you in a world that still struggles to really come to terms with childfree and childless women.
Across the ocean there are some really lovely, inspiring and empowering childfree groups that have been developing for some time.
One of my favourites is Canadian Childfree: Not a Dirty Word chockfull of interesting articles, forums, media links, quotes, news, holiday options and resources for people who want to celebrate (or come to terms with) and respectfully discuss a childfree lifestyle.
In the USA there’s the Rinky DINK life (Double Income No Kids), which was started by a sensitive woman who arrived at being childfree by choice ‘sort of’. Similarly there’s The Not Mom, which holds a yearly summit for women who are childfree AND childless. We’re not having a baby is a fun space full of rants and resources created by an enthusiastically childfree couple. In Australia there’s the Childfree Zone and in the UK and Ireland there’s a group called Childfree Women. There are also varying Meet Ups in major cities for childfree get-togethers.
We’re thanking the internet right now for global boundaries collapsing and the ability to connect with likeminded people outside our immediate borders!!
The fact is that it’s incredibly hard to find your in-person childfree tribe.
And make no mistake: we do need a tribe.
In the same way that my wonderful parent-friends needed to connect with other women who are also on that particular adventure, I think we need stronger and more vocal and positive childfree communities. Even trying to explain to my closest loved ones who have children why I feel this way isn’t always easy.
‘Well it’s just a different decision’ say a number of well-meaning friends, not really understanding that it’s not ‘just a different decision’.
It’s a decision to not-do something that almost no one we know is also not-doing.
It’s a decision to not-do something that most of society thinks is the most important thing a person can do.
It’s a decision that might make potential counselling clients not have faith in me, even with years of professional, successful, and beautiful child-centred work under my belt.
‘You’d better make sure you do something really fulfilling then’ says another well-meaning friend. Does having children automatically make a life more fulfilling?
You know, perhaps it does. Many people who were not able to be good parents still consider having a child to be the best thing that they ever achieved. I don’t wish to judge those people. I’ve met many of them over my years in social work, and we’re all humans doing the best we can.
But then, if having children is automatically a ticket to a kind of fulfilment, it’s even more crucial that those of us who choose not to reproduce have a voice in a society that is regularly scared to make it’s own meaning.
When having children doesn’t really feel like a ‘choice’ but is instead the default setting, how are we going to make it ok for women to choose any path their heart desires?
I think a good start is with brave vulnerability, kindness and genuine curiosity.
Because here’s the truth:
I don’t know anyone who has thought about having children more thoroughly than people who choose to be childfree.
To choose to not do something that is ‘supposed’ to give you meaning as a human being.
To know you are giving that up, that you will be forging into less-travelled territory as you are creating your own meaning-making, and additionally you will receive judgment from society for the rest of your life, is no light matter.
We have grappled in our very deepest and darkest places with this decision.
Had conversations for hours and hours with partners.
Wondered whether we should risk putting it on our dating profiles.
Googled ‘childfree women’ at 3am countless times, looking for regrets as much as happiness, wondering what we ARE going to do with these precious years when our friends are understandably consumed by their children.
We wonder if we’ll be happy, if we’ll be successful, if our time is being well spent, if our dreams will come true, if our relationships will be fulfilling, if our careers are the right choices, if our lifestyles truly honour what we value in life.
And my god, we need to talk to each other about it.
It would be a dream to share our thoughts without a ‘you’ll regret it’ lurking around every corner. And yet we shouldn’t need to ‘dream’ about places where we can speak honestly about who we are and who we want to be.
We shouldn’t continue to be silenced by those who are uncomfortable, those who wish to control our bodies and our decisions, and those who are wilfully not listening to our voices. As women there’s already more than enough of that going around.
It’s time we stood up for each other and made room for all of us to speak authentically and live the very best lives we can, with or without children.
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Main image by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash