aging · feminism · inclusiveness · stereotypes

I Chose Not to Have Children and I Belong Here, Too

Today, I hit 2 years straight in my daily meditation streak. When I started, I set myself the goal of 30 days. As time passed, I kept moving the goalposts. I feel good about my accomplishment (and I’ve written elsewhere about what I’ve learned). And yet, as soon as I sense those first inklings of pride, I hear the voice: “Well, you don’t have children, so it’s easy for you to meditate every day.” That’s the collective voice of women I’ve known, friends even. It’s also the voice of our society, which has insinuated itself into my psyche, passing itself off as my own judgments of myself. Every accomplishment I might celebrate is diminished by this subtext, “You don’t have children, so it’s easy for you to …” Write a book. Run an ultra-marathon. Start a new venture offering emotional intelligence workshops and one-on-one facilitations.

Not only do I not have children, I am one of the extreme few women who are childfree by choice. 6-10% by some estimates, but that number sounds high to me; especially given that the total percent of women without children is 15.4%, which includes women who tried without medical success or would have had children, if partnered. In other words, I neither tried, nor was I circumscribed by circumstance. Oh, and my decision is irreversible at this biological point in my life. That’s right, I’m also over fifty. What a disgrace! I’ve allowed myself to age and I did not contribute to society’s diktat of the highest and best use of my female body—having children. Not that our overburdened, beleaguered planet is in need of more carbon footprints. But it turns out that I’m the carbon footprint the world can do without. I am surplus. Not even worthy of pity, because I chose my condition.

How many times have I heard variations on the phrase, “you can do that because you don’t have children”? How many times have I watched a mother’s face cloud over when she asked me if I had children and I answered? How many times have I been told that children keep you young? How many times have I endured pronouncements and opinions prefaced with “as a mother”? How many times have I been told that one has to be unselfish to have children? How many times have I heard that a woman can only truly know love once she has children? How many times have I heard during COVID that it’s the grandparents who can’t see their grandchildren who are suffering most?

The subtexts of each of these statements are demeaning and hurtful.

How about this? –A friend once said that I could (and should) make the effort to buy a fuel-efficient car, but that she could not, because she had children. Not only is it my responsibility to pay school taxes (which I absolutely 100% want to do!), but apparently it would also be helpful if I reduced my consumption, to allow for more by people with children. 

This is the moment when I make the disclaimer: No, I don’t hate children. In fact, there are children I love a whole lot. Same as most people, regardless of their procreative status. More, I enjoy cooking for people and engaging in other standard nurturing activities. And, it distresses me to have to have to clarify these points; in case people think I’m the Wicked Witch for not having children.

Playful sign on homey porch that reads: “Beware the Wicked Witch Lives Here”.
Bee Felten-Leidel on Unsplash

This is a caveat to my disclaimer: Children’s parents can be self-important and insensitive.

I was moved to write this after reading this interview with Jody Day, psychotherapist, author and founder of Gateway Women—I’m losing my shame. Day talks about the pernicious pronatalism of our society, which tells a woman without children, “You’ve failed, you’ve got nothing to offer, you don’t fit in.” This message crashes up against what Day points out is our all too “human desire to be generative.” After all, aren’t children the ultimate generativity? Of course, that standard only applies to women.

I have been struggling lately with feeling generative. Because Day is right. I want to contribute to our society. I want to have a positive impact during my time here on earth. My last book came out in July 2019. I don’t have another one underway … yet. Early this year I founded a new venture offering emotional intelligence workshops and individual facilitations. We launched right as COVID hit, so we’ve been pushing uphill against all those obstacles. I don’t have a regular pay cheque, so I suffer the psychic degradations of an uncertain income. On occasion, in desperate fallow-feeling moments, like now, I think, “If I’d had children, this would be okay; because I could point to them as my raison d’être.” My children would be my accomplishment, my meaning. Instead, I have to stand in my own shoes. Live my own purpose. Find my own meaning. Offer my own grace.     

To do so, I need to overcome the explicit and implicit negative messaging that assaults me from all sides. Women should not be shamed or feel shame for choosing not to have children. One last quote from Day’s interview: “… [J]ust being a childless woman living shamelessly as you age is already radical enough.” Radical? I feel more generative already. I embrace that label. I don the cloak of radicality with insouciant pleasure. I slip it on over the cloak of invisibility assigned to me by society when I reached a certain age without children. My shoulders could feel crushed beneath the weight of the double cloaks. Instead, they feel lighter, looser and easier. The lens through which I’m looking at my life shifts. Free of society’s shoulds and musts, I feel the vitality of energies that want to flow. I remember that I made a conscious choice to be who I am. That choice was a generative act. A decision to share my energies beyond the borders of home and family.

Women without children are abundant; a radiant, radical power source. Let’s plug into our own energy shamelessly, so we can fulfill our highest and best purpose.  

22 thoughts on “I Chose Not to Have Children and I Belong Here, Too

  1. Thank you for this. I deeply value and respect the people in my life who do not have children, for their perspective, wisdom, and modelling of living their lives free of pronatal and heavily gendered and ableist societal constraints. I am a feminist and also parent. I also struggled with fertility and had kids « later in life » (that’s sarcasm, I’m 43, and I had my kids at age 34 & 37). I feel like that struggle with fertility was a gift for me to accept, as you wrote so beautifully, that « Instead, I have to stand in my own shoes. Live my own purpose. Find my own meaning. Offer my own grace. » I just want you to know that even as I am deeply involved in the lives of children, both personally and professionally, your words resonate so deeply for me. If this pronatalism is to change, I need to drop the story of self-importance and motherhood how it has been written, including our own gendered part in this. My child-free friends owe me nothing, given the burdens and assumptions they have to deal with on a daily basis. I have been guilty of buying into that self-importance. It is a whole lot of it is mixed up with a wierd and toxic capitalist effed up brainwashing that very much starts with those babies and pink aisles in the toy stores. Looking back I’m pretty sure I was unbearable and also my behaviour was worrisome for those around me who saw a vibrant woman crumble under the weight of her own assumptions of a mother should be. Luckily for me, my own mom had a massive break-through in her 40s, reclaimed her life, and modeled this for me. The most important gift to me was hanging with some pretty amazing child-free folxs who I can’t imagine not having in my life. I want you to know that your existence, just being who you are, is indeed radical and vital if we are going to change this. You are modeling new ways of being. Sharing your thoughts around your choices is so appreciated so that parents can check themselves and stop perpetuating these harmful mores and expectations. Your words and your existence are so valued. Both as a model for those who have chosen child-free lives and also for those who are working to radically expand the meaning of family and selfhood.

    1. Selena, I am so moved by all that you’ve written. I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts–which are so fresh and self-reflective. And I’m also very glad that you are going to be the model of deep thinking for your children!

  2. Mina, this is a fabulous post. Thank you for articulating it for all of us who chose not to have children. In my mid-thirties I gained a step-daughter (who was by then a teen) and committed to develop an independent, non-parental relationship with her. That beautiful friendship has survived and even thrived through divorce. And I stand firmly by my decision, made in my twenties, not to have children. I wish I had been as firm in my decision not to marry (which is another one of those choices that women are given a great deal of grief for making), but I will not be doing that again! I love your idea that there are other “generative acts” in life.

    1. Your step-daughter relationship sounds wonderful (I’m feeling some envy!). I’m looking forward to all your generativity post-divorce.

  3. Thank you Mina and to all of the commenters. It very much resonates for me, another woman without children. Beautiful beautiful post.

  4. As another childless by choice middle aged woman, I thank you for this post Mina. I have personally found a lot of satisfaction in being a kind of role model for younger women (colleagues, friends, friends’ children) who are not interested in having kids. I didn’t mean to be a role model and it’s an honour to be an example of what is a “radical” lifestyle.

  5. Your eloquence is always so on point. As a secondary teacher I get many sideways glances wondering why I chose to teach if I ‘dislike’ children… that is they (society) assumes that as a woman so close to my 40s having never had children, I MUST hate kids.

    I do like kids, I just don’t want my own. I like the freedom of dedicating my life to other pursuits and not necessarily tying myself to the lifelong responsibility of having offspring. And I will add (not meaning to be too controversial here) that having kids and caring for kids are two very different things. I think there are a lot of people who have children out of a sheer need to “follow the blueprint of the Hallmark family movie” only to realize too late that this was not the life they wanted. Perhaps if more women realized they can wholistically and without fear of judgement make the choice to not have children we might have a society with less youth who feel unwanted, anxious, and dealing with significant mental health issues. I am not speaking as an authority on the matter by any stretch, just a teacher and wife of a social worker who see a lot of youth struggling in their daily lives. Maybe adults need to make sure they are ready and willing to take on those life-long responsibilities BEFORE wandering down society’s ascribed path.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing these perspectives. Having and caring are indeed two very different modalities.

    2. I love the distinction between having children and caring for them. I’m childless (not entirely by choice) and have worked in education my entire life. I’m also an aunt who adores her nieces and nephews. In both of those roles, I feel I have a lot to offer to children that often even their parents can’t. We forget that it takes a village, and those of us who are childless are an important part of that village.

  6. Oh such a good post & comments! I am 54 and had my son at 34- of course I adore him, but he’s not the ‘purpose of my life’. I tell my childless friends they’re lucky: parenting is 80% boring for me, & often very thankless! I commend your radical resistance and freedom- celebrate that 🙏🏼

  7. Utterly brilliant, moving post, Mina! I am there with you. When I hear the protonatal gremlins I think, “but as a teacher I influence young people and hold space for them! That’s my contribution”, but the truth is I would do that work anyway. It is work we all need to do all the time – not just parents, and certainly not just those who are not. Raising kids is a personal choice, and it can be fraught; I’ve recently realized that, had I even wanted kids earlier in my life (or been pressured to have them; thankfully my ex did not want any), I would have destroyed them by accident because I had not yet begun to access and work through my trauma at depth. Imagine passing deep-seated hurt and intergenerational trauma unthinkingly to a new generation; that’s actually real harm. I’m grateful I can work through it now and live better for myself, and I’m glad I did not do harm where I might have.

    Hugs to you!

    1. Kim, thank you. I think it’s pretty rare that raising children isn’t fraught! Your students are lucky to have you. Sending distant hugs back.

  8. Bravo Mina! Our love for you has never questioned, judged, or waivered. Generative Radical indeed!

  9. Mina, I am also childless by choice and over 50, as you know. My partner and I have never once regretted our decision. I am a nurse-midwife, so maybe I had a closer look at childbearing at least than many women. I would have loved the challenge of pregnancy; the challenge of parenting without the village it takes to raise children properly, not so much. I understood at age 10 how my spirit was crumping in family where I experienced pretty severe emotional neglect and some abuse. I now am a psychiatric nurse practitioner who works with children. I see early childhood trauma playing out in real time now. Generally people don’t have a CLUE about what it takes to raise emotionally healthy children. Parents need to have their shit worked out BEFORE they choose to procreate. Children do not confer marital/relationship stability. They do not confer a life purpose (and when the need for such is projected on kids it is the kids who suffer). What they do do is drain you of everything for about the first ten years of their lives, which is what they are supposed to do. My feeling was that if I could not be trusted to pass on my early childhood trauma to my kids then I would not embark on the endeavor. Call me a perfectionist. I also STRONGLY believe that women need way more support in our society to child-rear than they get. This is also an observation shared by the maternal mental health activist community, of which I am a part. When we moved to the nuclear family arrangement I believe the emotional needs of children started to go unmet. And single motherhood life—forget it. Mina, I have heard comments of the ilk you describe as well, and I feel they often flow from jealousy for our free time, our ability to follow passions and hobbies, even our ability to sleep in! Well, they made their choice. And I made mine. And if feel at all shamed for my choice I am outta there.

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