Laura Bedford is bored of seeing women, herself included, demonised and questioned over their child choices. Being a woman is not synonymous with being a mother.
Tracee Ellis Ross is a remarkable woman – an award-winning actress, director, television host, activist and recipient of an Honorary Doctorate from an Ivy League University. As one of the 300 women who signed the Time’s Up pledge, Ross has called for change and spoken out against the harassment and exploitation of women from all communities and across all industries, most recently in a TED talk at this year’s annual TED Conference in Vancouver, ‘A woman’s fury holds lifetimes of wisdom.’ However, despite her achievements and contributions, she has been put down and belittled for not having children. Ross addressed this in her brilliant speech at Glamour’s 2017 Women of the Year Summit:
“I have become a woman that I am very proud to be. And then someone just walks up to you, and they’re like, “you know, a friend of mine adopted at 52. I mean, it is never too late for your life to have meaning, sweetie.” And then my worth gets diminished as I am reminded that I have “failed” on the marriage and carriage counts. Me! This bold, liberated, independent woman. I mean, I work out, I eat well, I mostly show up to work on time, I’m a good friend, a solid daughter, a hard worker, my credit’s good, I take out the garbage before it gets smelly, I recycle, and I won a Golden Globe! I’m killing it! So, why, why, why do I get snagged this way? As if all that I have done and who I am doesn’t matter.”
“I recycle, and I won a Golden Globe! I’m killing it! So, why, why, why do I get snagged this way? As if all that I have done and who I am doesn’t matter.”
Although there have been many major advances where equality for women is concerned, we can’t deny that certain attitudes still need to evolve, including those towards women who have made the decision not to have children. Marriage and successive procreation continue to be such strong social norms that they appear to have become synonymous with a woman’s worth and value. As such, there is a negative stigma attached to women who are child-free by choice. Years of research has shown us that voluntarily childless women are perceived less favourably (e.g., selfish, less warm, more socially distant) and are believed to lead less fulfilling lives than women who have had children. Best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert discussed this in an interview with Time magazine in 2016, “there’s certainly still this idea that you’re meant to look on these women [without children] with pity and horror. And if they should dare to be like, “I’m good” then you look at them with contempt because there’s obviously something dreadfully wrong with them morally.” While conducting research for this article, even a cursory search through online discussion forums, or a scan of comments sections on relevant articles, revealed a mixture of misplaced sympathy and spiteful comments directed towards women who are child-free by choice (e.g., “I feel sorry for them, they don’t know what they are missing out on”, “It’s at the root of being a woman – no whiffling about equality can alter that”, “In my opinion they [without children] tend to be self-centred ‘me-me-me’ types”).
As someone who does not plan to have children, I also find it annoying how often I am asked to justify my choice. In her memoir, Unladylike, comedian and writer Radhika Vaz quite rightly says, “How come when a woman says she wants a baby no one ever asks ‘why?’” Indeed, when I have spoken with parents about this, they have told me that they have never been asked to defend their decision to have children and don’t expect to be.
“How come when a woman says she wants a baby no one ever asks ‘why?’”
Despite the such social stigma, increasing numbers of women are making the choice not to have children, a trend that no doubt reflects the growing opportunities available to women as well as improvements in women’s circumstances. For my own part, I simply do not wish to have children and do not believe that my personality would be suited to raising a child. When I was younger, I thought this might be something that would change with time and that I would eventually want to have a baby. However, here I am in my 30s and I still feel exactly the same. The only feeling that has intensified is the feeling of being singled out as someone who should be having kids, should be doing this and that. It all just adds up to another way that society tries to dictate the use of women’s bodies. Actress and philanthropist Portia de Rossi discussed similar reasons in an interview with Out Magazine in 2013:
“There comes some pressure in your mid-30s, and you think, “Am I going to have kids so I don’t miss out on something that other people really seem to love? Or is it that I really genuinely want to do this with my whole heart?” I didn’t feel that my response was ‘yes’ to the latter. You have to really want to have kids, and neither of us did. So it’s just going to be me and Ellen and no babies – but we’re the best of friends and married life is blissful, it really is. I’ve never been happier than I am right now.”
A further scan of the literature, and conversations with others who have also chosen to be child-free, identify additional reasons for choosing not to have children. For example, some women have spoken about a lack of interest in the activities related to motherhood or discussed concerns around overpopulation and the subsequent impact on the environment. Alternatively, others have talked about being perfectly satisfied with their current circumstances and appreciating the personal freedoms and positive outcomes that come with being child-free, such as increased independence. A friend of mine, Dr. Durga Sabnis, a Science Content Writer, said this of her decision not to have children:
“Having a child is just not something I have ever wanted. When I think about the things I want to do/have/achieve in my future, motherhood doesn’t even cross my mind. It never has! Also, from what I’ve seen, and from what parents have told me, I understand that having and raising a child requires tremendous physical, financial and emotional investment – I’m just not sure if I am, or ever will be, capable of that.”
I would really like to see a greater acceptance of women who are child-free by choice and for voluntarily childless women’s lives to no longer be viewed as less fulfilling or meaningless. It’s a dangerous myth. A good place to start would be to stop presuming that every woman plans to have children and to acquire more of a “live and let live” mindset where women’s life choices are concerned. To summarise: leave us alone. On this note, this is not a judgement cast on women who have children, or on those who want to have them. I would simply like to propose the radical and wild idea that motherhood is viewed as one of many different, and equally worthwhile, ways in which a woman can choose to live her life. Diverse lifestyles should be celebrated. To any young woman reading this, know that your life is limitless, and most importantly, is yours. There are a variety of meaningful ways in which you can choose to live your life and contribute. I’ll let Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2016 interview with Time magazine do the rest of the talking:
“It was beyond my comprehension that there was such a thing as making that choice [to not have children] and having an amazing life. To be let off the hook from that would have brought freedom a lot earlier.” She later stated, “what if somebody instead is free to joyfully pursue one really interesting path after another, and to be calm and happy enough to celebrate everyone else’s choices while totally digging her own? That’s the model I didn’t see growing up.”
Words: Laura Bedford
lustration: Nina Goodyer