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No Kidding: Where Are The Childfree Role Models?

This weekend, I did something I'd only do in the name of Bitch blog research. I watched How Do You Know, a rather atrocious rom-com featuring Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, and Owen Wilson in an awkward sorta lust triangle. I basically hated it; the on-screen chemistry was lacking, Wilson's entitled bad boy shtick was obnoxious when it wasn't wholly unbelievable, and the entire premise was...confusing? I don't even know why the guy got the girl in the end. Something about a criminal investigation? What? By then, I was barely paying attention.

I watched the film because I'd heard that it might have one redemptive quality: An unapologetic approach to being childfree. Witherspoon's character, an unfortunate stereotype of a softball-loving jock, isn't sure she can swing the normative hetero pressures of society. She can barely consider long-term commitment, let alone having and raising a family, which plays into the frustrating assumption that childfree folks are selfish, rootless adults incapable of growing up and dealing with grown-up problems. Still, I pressed on. I watched the whole blessed movie to hear her say this (and kept watching to make sure she didn't go back on it, as I feared she would):

To be honest, the baby thing... never. Never. ... When I hear girls talking about how in love they are or having babies, everything, I think they're pretending.

Lest you think I'm dismissive of other people's experiences the way Witherspoon's character is, I don't personally think most women are pretending to love having children. Do I think there's enormous pressure on women to have children? Of course. Why else would I be here, writing this stuff? But do I think many women who do choose to have kids relish the experience? I think whether or not you actively choose to have kids, you can absolutely adore the experience and be really fulfilled by it.

That said, I think there's way too much unnecessary pressure on women to gloss over the difficulties of pregnancy and raising children. Some women I've written about before, celebs like Jennifer Aniston, sidestep the issue all the time instead of owning their ambivalence (or however they feel! Just own it!). Barbara Walters and Oprah talked about how it is a difficult thing. So why don't we hear more women talking about the flip side of having kids—or rather, why don't we have more proud childfree role models out there?

Some women do hate parenting, and that's something we should be talking about. In the aftermath of writing so many articles lately about not having children, I can't begin to tell you how many women (and men) have written to me, devastated that they are, at best, reluctant parents. I also won't tell you their stories because they aren't mine to tell. But for every positive note I've gotten, thanking me for talking about this stuff, I've gotten a heartbreaking one from a mother who never knew she had a choice to not have kids, or a resentful father-turned-grandfather, deep in debt from raising his child's child. If we talked about having children more openly and honestly as something some people simply don't want to do, so many people—adults and children alike—would be better off.

(SPOILER ALERT—though please spare yourself this film)

And you know, Reese Witherspoon's character doesn't get pregnant at the end of the movie. She never even pines for a child. The storyline isn't that she's some stupid woman who doesn't know what she wants until she has it. Some of us really do know what we want, and even more of us—us being non-mothers, mothers, and everyone in between—don't care what other people do, at least in the judgmental sense. At the very least, we want to have honest conversations about our options. And some of us just want to be left alone to figure it out for ourselves.

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Comments

30 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I would like to thank you for

I would like to thank you for that little article! I'm about to turn thirty-two this week and I'm really sick of people asking "when" and not "if" my husband and I are having children. I love being an aunt I just hate the idea of ending my career or limiting my goals. I have never been a baby person, and for a long time was ashamed of this fact. It has taken me a long time to fully accept that it doesn't make me less of a woman or selfish. Thank you all you mommies out there you have my utmost respect it's just not for me.

Great article. I'm 38,

Great article. I'm 38, married for 11 years and have been reluctantly ambivalent about becoming a mom. It would be so much easier if I felt strongly one way or the other. I've chosen not to have kids because, whether right or wrong, I think I should really want it since it's such a huge commitment. My husband has been ambivalent as well, so the tide has never turned in favor of having kids.

As a professional in the childbearing community I've watched many women go through the process. Some of them love it, some of them regret it and those same people come to regret it, love it respectively. That's life I guess - we don't know how our choices are going to impact us.

I do feel all kinds of pressures to procreate - biological (which I used to think was bunk), societal, social (local) and madison ave. I'm not a big fan of pressure but as i get older it's easier to figure out what my true calling is, and for today, that's being a proud woman who hasn't reproduced.

Reese in Four Christmases

I just watched part of the movie Four Christmases, also starring Reese Witherspoon, and the central thing there, too, was that she and her husband weren't interested in having children, and in visiting their families during holidays were constantly having babies foisted upon them, with the usual hijinks (vomit! hitting a baby's head accidentally!) resulting. I couldn't get through the whole movie, so I don't know if it ended with them realizing, in rom-com fashion, that they're having their own baby after all, but for some reason I think it's interesting that Witherspoon (who became a mother very young in real life) has chosen to play characters who are happy to be childfree.

As for childfree role models: My favorite is Dolly Parton, although admittedly I don't know how much she's talked about that decision.

____________
Andi Zeisler, cofounder and editorial/creative director

Comments Policy: Like to hear it? Here it go!

This movie totally ends with

This movie totally ends with them realizing how wonderful marriage and commitment and children can be, and they have a daughter in the end.

Thank you thank you!

i just finished reading an article in Marie Claire about this and then a friend sent me your post. What a great day! Thank you so much for addressing this.

Lonely Decision

Despite the existence of some childfree online communities and blogs such as this, sometimes choosing to be childfree feels like kind of a lonely decision. Though I'm happy with the choice I've made, I often do feel as if I'm missing out on something. Not the feeling of motherhood, as people assume, but the feeling of having a validated community. Obviously I don't need the kind of community support for this that a new mother would (and I definitely don't begrudge them that support), but I do wish that the community was more open to the decision to not have children. There are times when I really do feel like an outsider. That is an aspect I've struggled with since my teen years when I first realized that becoming a mother didn't have to be an inevitability. I know that family members are disappointed by our decision and friends, even those who aren't judgmental, are at the very least mystified and a little disbelieving. It does hurt to realize that my husband and I have disappointed our parents and at my worst moments I have wished I was different. Having more childfree role models would do a world of good for women who are struggling with that. Really, having more role models to validate all reproductive choices and experiences would benefit all women.

Your comments resonated with

Your comments resonated with me. I am child-free by choice, something I was fairly firm about for as long as I could voice an opinion about it, and everyone in my life ignored my decision as something I would "overcome". I'm 38, and now they finally realize I was serious about it! Somehow the tide has turned amongst my peers and family from gentle encouragement to sullen resentment, and maybe I am being overly paranoid here, but sometimes I feel people are deliberately unfair to me because of my choice. I get lumped with extra tasks at work, because they assume I have more flexibility in my schedule, while my colleagues with kids leave promptly at 5pm. I was appointed (without consultation) the official person in charge of skeleton maintenance of my work facility during a potential H1N1 epidemic because I had no one to "care for at home". Hello? Ok, I will drag my fevered zombie corpse into work because no one will miss me. The flipside to that? My bitterly disappointed parents have informed me that they are relying on me in their old age as a carer, because my young sister is married overseas and plans to have a family very soon, and that should be her priority.

I guess my point is that women who have chosen to not have children live rich, complex, full-filling lives and culture needs to recognize that and not view it as potential untapped energy to be exploited.

When I was growing up people kept saying "you'll change your mind". I wonder how many folks ever tell reproduction-inspired young women that they might someday "change their minds".

It is still lonely because

It is still lonely because your daily life will, mostly likely, be around women who feel very strongly the other way and are often completely irrational about the subject of children. I was 34 before I actually met (in person) someone who had chosen to be childfree. I was a first for her and she is 42! Of course, in that time, I've got to know hundreds of women who want/have children.

All I can say is, for all the abuse I've received (and the nagging) from people I've met when I've told them I don't want children, that one time where the woman said "neither do I" was well worth it. We are now firm friends and our partners (they were already acquaintances through business) have become great friends also, not least the 4 of us can quite happily socialise in any combination of the 4.

It can be lonely, but still worth it!

My last post didn't go up I don't think.

At 34 I finally met (in person) another woman who was childfree. Until then it was only 'meeting' people online.

I had years of meeting women who wanted children or had children, all of whom thought it their right to ask me if I did. I took years of abuse, confused looks and utter vitriol for saying I chose not to have any children (I've always been open about my choice and refuse to lie and say I can't have children). All the abuse was worth it for that one time when I said I didn't want children and the woman replied "I don't either, I've never met anyone else like us". Totally worth it. We are now firm friends and our partners and us regularly get together and socialise, we all get on great and we turn out to have so much else in common it's never dull.

So it is lonely because everyday you will interact with women who just do 'the norm' and have kids, and it can be very annoying having to interact with them, especially when they are at their most irrational, but equally it means that every day you are reminded that you are glad you are not them, so it has its plus points also.

I wouldn't call the mothers

I wouldn't call the mothers and pregnant women I know irrational or state that I'm glad I'm not them. Yes, I don't necessarily want the things they want, but I'm happy for them that they got it. Even though I have no desire to be pregnant, I was thrilled for my best friend when she became pregnant because she was able to have something she really wanted. Yes, I wish my decision was more accepted by society in general and by some of those people who are close to me, but I don't think that turning that same judgment back on those who chose the more traditional route accomplishes anything. I want to be accepted, just as I should accept them.

Maybe you wouldn't call the

Maybe you wouldn't call the mothers you know irrational, however I've seen full on temper tantrums from mothers, an almost paranoid an antagonistic relationship to childfree people from mothers, and in some cases having a meltdown and howling in the middle of the grocery store for seemingly no reason.

I try to be understanding, but I think it should be respected that just because I'm female, it doesn't mean my life should have to revolve around the seemingly endless drama of mothers with small children. When did we get to a point as a society, that as long as someone claims to be a mother, they can act like a public disturbance? If anyone else were to just howl for no reason in a store people would think they're nuts, if they have a kid we should understand? Shouldn't this behavior be more suspect in someone responsible for the care of a child, not less?

did you watch last night's

did you watch last night's episode of desperate housewives? i happened to watch it (my roommate is a fan) and two of the characters (a mother and a childfree friend) had this discussion about how having children is not for everyone but in the end it seemed as if having them was a more profound and meaningful experience than anything else. not sure how i feel about the whole thing...

Reluctant Parents

I think that you touch on something here which I find really important when considering whether or not I want children.
I am only 20 and if I do have kids it won't be for several years yet but I am definitely undecided on the issue. I know a lot of responses to this series of articles have been expressing frustration that people always say that they'll change they minds but for me it is a possibility (and I am supremely envious of those who are certain). Most days I think I don't want kids at all, others I think I'd like to go full on Weasley and sometimes I think I'd like to recreate my own happy little family unit (although that does require the man leaving-problematic).
The only thing I know for sure is I NEVER EVER want to be a reluctant parent, a women who has kids because it's expected, because at some point in your life it's the norm, it's what everybody does, it's the next level of prestige; nice job, good relationship, nice house kids etc.
I have seen those parents, I know their kids. I wouldn't wish either side of it on anyone.

childfree role models

Just had to jot a few words...childfree author of Families of Two here...a question that came to mind as I read your article is Where are the Good movies that have childfree characters in them? Hollywood still is very much on the side of glorifying parenthood--like you said in a previous piece, evenoscar award winners have to speak to the "most important role" of their lives as not one from a film but motherhood. On another channel, having interviewed and talked with hundreds of childfree all over the country, many childfree women mention that one thing that influenced their decision was having some sort of childfree role model in their lives--someone who showed them there are other ways to live one's adult life than to be a parent. Thank goodness they have been out there, and more are out there today on the ground, as it were, modeling fulfillfing lives that do not include offspring. ~Laura

to kid or not to kid ...

I'm 47 and no kids, and while I wanted kids, I knew enough to know I didn't want to do that on my own (and was lucky enough not to get accidentally pregnant). As a teenager I watched my very young stepmother fight off really intrusive questions about when she was going to have kids "of her own." Part of the reason she married my dad was because she didn't want kids, and he'd already had a vasectomy, and frankly, living with us in our teens didn't change her mind. Even at 13 the baby feminist in me was appalled by the way people felt entitled to get all up in her business about it. So she didn't want kids. Why was it anyone else's business? I watched my mom struggle with being a single mom, and watched her older sister deliberately drink herself to death when she couldn't find the strength to get out of a bad marriage. All of us cousins were resented at times, and we learned early that parenting was hard work. I wanted kids. I was a nanny in my 20s and raised a lot of younger cousins and I'm really really good with kids. But I didn't meet the guy until way too late (and the guy I met never wanted kids). Am I sad about the way it worked out? Sure, but life is like that. I'm also sad that my beloved younger brother died in a car wreck. Life is life and there aren't any guarantees. So I took my affection for kids and put it into my best girlfriend's five kids -- I'm a great auntie, get to support my friend as she tries to figure out what's the best thing for her kids, be the favorite grownup and confidante to them, and I also get to enjoy lovely peaceful mornings with my beloved without having to yell at anyone to get their stuff already we're late to school! What I dislike about the phrase "childfree" is that it seems to me to deny the ambivalence that not having kids can bring. I have a friend who adopted, and we've talked about how just because she loves the kids she has, doesn't mean she still doesn't mourn the kids she couldn't have biologically. We don't always have that much control over things -- it's not always a "choice." Sometimes life chooses for you, and it seems to me that where it gets really interesting is how you handle that ... (okay, climbing off soapbox now).

I think you're missing

the point of the word childfree. It is SUPPOSED to convey the fact that there is no ambivalence. Childless is the term for people who might have wanted kids and, for whatever reason, didn't have them. And you can say all you want about labels but in this case I think it's an important distinction.

As someone said above,

As someone said above, "childfree" is supposed to be unambivalent. We don't want kids. There are people who are childless, who might have wanted kids but didn't have them for some reason or another, but I think that is a different scenario than most of us who are literally childfree and have never wanted kids.

Although, I do want to say, I really like your comment about how "life's like that." I continually get questions about, well, what if I regret not having kids? So? For me, it would be better to regret not having kids than to have them and regret having them. You can't take back kids once they're born. And I have too many friends who had a or both parent/s who didn't want them and it was obvious, even if the parents weren't abusive. Kids pick up on resentment, on things done out of duty rather than love. It's absolutely not fair to the potential kid, because I'm fairly certain that while I could shake it as a parent, I'd resent the kid for it, and I'm not going to do that. Not to myself, not to the potential kid, not to my husband and boyfriend. Everyone else can mind their own effin business and stop worrying about the state of my uterus.

childfree/childless

There actually is some debate in the community over the phrasing here - although the word "childless" seems straightforward enough - meaning without children, "childless" has historically mostly been used in situations of shaming and/or pitying those who were unable or simply unwilling to have children. As such it isn't always the favored phrase for those making a conscious, educated choice not to have children nowadays since it does imply that there was an unfulfilled desire to have them at some earlier point.

But "childfree" can also be interpreted to be judgmental of those who do have children, that they are not "free". It also implies that there are no children anywhere in your life and, taken further, that you dislike or even hate children, which is not always or even usually true of people who decide not to have children. I personally don't like using the term "childfree" because, although I have no children of my own, I am by no means child-FREE - I enjoy babies and toddlers as much as the next person and I love spending time with friends' children.

A compromise I've heard and use myself, most notably used by author and researcher Laura S. Scott, is "childless by choice" - this term kind of refines the "childless" label, removing the connotation of unfulfilled dreams and desires by clarifying that it is, in fact, by choice.

Scott also writes about different categories of childless-by-choice people - one of which she terms the "acquiescer" - which is someone who chooses to be childless because their partner wants to be childless or because they maybe at some point had some difficulty getting pregnant and then later decided to stop trying, making a conscious choice to be childless from then forward. She also identifies "undecided" as a category - these are people who are currently childless and are ambivalent about whether or not they want to have children. Often the undecided person may become an acquiescer later in life in the sense that they never truly decide and then pass the point beyond which it becomes much harder to become a parent.

It's so tempting to pick a label and stick with it, but in reality we are constantly shifting and changing - someone who is childless by choice may someday change their mind, or they may not - it takes all different kinds, after all, some certain, some less-so. Regardless, the choice not to have children should be a personal choice that isn't judged as abnormal.

What I wish I had is examples of childless by choice couples who DON'T have tons of money and travel the world - what are the normal, day-to-day lives of lower to middle-class childless by choice couples like? Do these people not exist? My husband and I can't be the only not-rich childless by choice couple in existence.

I wish women to feel supported whether childfree or not.

I think it is important to support our friends in whatever they decide. I have friends that have kids of their own and firends who have decided not to. I am a mom and have had to reinvent the role for myself so it isenjoyable. Being a mother is a heavily scripted role. My friends who have no children feel the same responsibility just towards other efforts. Ambivalence and ectasy are to be had on both sides of the fence. There are so many labels too. You have to be careful not to let anyone slap them onyou, lest you lose your individuality. There is a lack of childfree role models in the media but plenty in my life, for that I am grateful.

<3 Mimi Vaunderbroad

The choice to remain child

The choice to remain child free as a negative choice in exemplified in the fact that our (Australia's) now Prime Minister was once described as "purposefully barren" by a member of the opposition.

Childfree Author

I am so glad people are finally talking about this! In my new book "No Way Baby! Exploring, Understanding and Defending the Decision NOT to Have Children" I also point out several other pieced of pop culture that almost did the childfree thing right, but in the end got it wrong. Even a show that celebrated and advanced another sub-culture - gays and lesbians - ended with everyone getting married, having babies and living happily ever after. I am referring to "Will & Grace" of course.

Keep up the great work, bitches, and come by my website and/or blog and let me know what you think. I reposted this article everywhere I could :-)

Karen Foster
Author
No Way Baby!

BRAVO!

LOVED your article! I laughed through Four Christmases but found myself screaming at the end when it ended with her having a baby and seemingly having been wanting that all along. I HATE movies that make childless by choice women look like jocks and selfish hedonists. There's many, many reasons why I don't have kids. I never really wanted them or saw my life that way. I think so many other people do because they think they have to live up to some image. Not me. But it's difficult explaining to others, "Hey, I never felt like having kids. So sue me!" They think something's wrong with you, either mentally, physically or both. Maybe I could have kids. I never tried. Mentally I was never ready, so...no kids.

But nothing about my hub and I's relationship has ever been the "norm."

We were high school swethearts and this year will celebrate 25 years together. (Total time. We waited to get married, so we'll celebrste 16 years married.) Sometimes we wish we'd been the childraising types so we wouldn't feel like outcasts, but mostly we're just very happy in our lives, both independently and together. I don't know many of my married with children friends who can say that.

Of course most people have to

Of course most people have to be brought up to believe that wanting children is the norm. If everyone felt like I did, what would happen to the population growth? ;-)

Swirling

My brain is a swirl after reading your great piece. Thoughts:

1) while I have always wanted to be a mom, I definitely support those who do not. Every child a wanted child.

2) With that said, some people do change their minds about having kids, as my husband did (before we got married and had kids - he made the switch all on his own and has relished his role as papa).

3) having a child is a huge wake-up call. I could've never imagined the struggles I am having. And I am hesitant to talk about them in print for fear of my daughters finding it, out of context, and being really hurt by it. But, I am trying to find ways to honestly yet gently discuss my feelings (including in their baby journals), because I know I can't hide it from them and honesty is a two-way street.

4) being a parent is a profound experience because of the love and responsibility involved, not because one person is an adult and one's a child. I think the parenting conversation would be enhanced if it included other types of caretaking relationships.

And that is all. Thanks!

Great Timing

Coming across this article couldn't have come at a better time. I'm 23, getting married next month, and I have no idea if I want kids or not. My fiance (28) is on the fence as well. We've been having interesting conversations about it, and I've found myself feeling guilty that I don't necessarily want to be a mom! I think we've both come to a point where we realize we are in no way ready, that I want to explore my career, and that we might end up being a childfree couple. I'm very lucky in that I have an aunt who was childfree, who showed me I don't need kids to have a fulfilling life. I'm really glad I came across this; it makes me feel more "normal," because as people are saying, choosing not to have kids is seen as abnormal (especially in the smaller Texas city in which I live). For now, I'm going to enjoy my career and my independent life, and if we both change our minds, great, if not, well, that's ok too!

I'm queer and about to marry

I'm queer and about to marry my girlfriend of 4 years in 3.5 weeks. We desperately want kids. It's weird, because people automatically assume we'll adopt or that we will remain childfree (if I could have rid myself of the "childfree" banner, i would have several years ago, and same with my fiance, but there aren't any accidents!).

When the discussion comes up with people I've never met, I tell them I think it's awesome that they've chosen this, just as I've chosen to become a parent. I tell people who are ambivalent to stay childfree, because like other commentors have said, it's not something to be taken lightly, and it's not something you can UNDO. There is no return on a snot covered, screaming toddler who has just mashed your lip gloss all over your brand new duvet.

I totally think there needs to be more women and men who are proudly child-free. Conception and parenting should be an informed consent activity. It would keep inept parents out of the gene pool and provide resources to those who want and need them.

But I'm a selfish bitch who wants a snotty, screaming toddler to look like me. ;)

Plenty of Role Models

This is a great article and so timely. It seems as if Hollywood just can't bear to see a childless woman. I guess paying audiences just don't like that. But when you look at REAL people there are some fantastic role models out there for us. In honor of National Women's History Month I have been posting profiles of famous childless/childfree women from history. Rosa Parks, Mary Cassat, Billie Jean King, and Gen. Anne Dunwoody, for example. We have some incredible women to look up to. You can see all the profiles so far at www.lifewithoutbaby.wordpres.com.

A culinary adventure on an unassuming Tuesday is quite lovely

Thank you for the article. I watched the beginning of How Do You Know and did not finish it. I am glad to hear that Reese Witherspoon’s character does not decide that she needs a baby in the end. Other films often sell the myth that childless people are unhappy and empty. I remember a film from the mid-1990s titled, Nine Months implying that a man without children is lost. Ebenezer Scrooge seems to be the childless man archetype.

Then there was the film Family Man starring Tea Leoni and Nicolas Cage. It propagandized that without family your very soul may be lost. Moreover, the film condemns the man or woman who chooses no to marry or have children; traveling, reading and enjoying culture, fine food and wine are sad, barren replacements. As others mentioned, the recent film Four Christmases screams a related sentiment. According to the film, spending Christmas vacations on tropical islands can become dull and meaningless. The movie also suggests that spending time with a dysfunctional and unhappy family is far more fulfilling over the holidays. Moreover, there is a clear message that children and family are the authentic desire of most couples; even the most reluctant couple wants children even if they do not realize it yet!

As many of you have noted, not having children is a desirable choice with ample benefits. I am a 36 year-old college professor and my husband is a 38 year-old attorney. We have been married for seven years and have remained ambivalent about having children. We both can appreciate the allure of a child. You create a life together; that is truly a miracle! In addition, you fall in love with your child. The love takes you through the incessant need and tears. The moments of bliss are spectacular and this makes the sleepless nights, financial strain and worry worth it. I think that everyone understands this and has heard this message consistently offered in media.

However, we can also grasp the beauty of not having a child. Travel, freedom, financial security, time for intellectual pursuits and good wine are all incredibly appealing aspects of a child free lifestyle. The responsibility of a child is enormous. I enjoy exotic holiday vacations, calm evenings and weekends doing what I please. A culinary adventure on an unassuming Tuesday with my husband at the newest restaurant is quite lovely. I am not envious of the mother with screaming children at the supermarket. Rather, I feel relief.

Thus, I am confused. If you consider both sides ambivalence seems inevitable. And I must conclude that parents do not give child bearing much consideration. Most seem to jump in without much deliberation; they simply do what their parents did. Tradition is embedded and children are assumed. Other options are not feasible. And now, this child-bearing majority needs to convince the rest of us to do the same. They scream for validation, “Anyone without children must be unhappy, at least unconsciously!”

I am not unhappy. Sure, a little girl in her princess dress offering a smile is always enchanting. Her innocent eyes stir my ambivalence. Then, I consider the costs. Then, I use birth control! There is beauty in the struggle. Can’t we all agree on that?

Thank You!

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Childfree role models

Hi liked the article, the issue of parenthood is tough. For over twenty years mothers have told me how hard it is to be a parent. Mothers have talked honestly, as I have asked them the question,"what's it like being a mother to five, or four or three kids" the response has always been. "It's too hard". Women felt safe telling me, as I raised the subject, and am to a mother of one, aged 24 years old. Let me tell you this, there has not been a day when I was not told to have another baby. But that is another article altogether. Now I relatively free, I look at role models too. But there seems so few modern role models around. Why I don't know. Could it be fear. That to speak out about being childfree will cause offence, or anger the mommy mafia. Kids are adorable and cute funny at times to. But not everybody can do it, or may not want to do it. That should be respected. Kee up the good work.