Child-free by Choice

A new gen­er­a­tion is chang­ing what it means to live child-free

The Walrus - - FRONT PAGE - by lau­ren mck­eon il­lus­tra­tions by hanna bar­czyk

Iused to want to be a mother. Or I thought I did. Around Christ­mas, I would pull cook­ies from the oven, in­hale the heady punch of gin­ger, and think, One day, I will teach some­one how to do this. I would hold my grand­mother’s trea­sured brooch, and think, One day, I will pass this on. Mostly, I imag­ined moth­er­hood as a 1950s sit­com: bed­time sto­ries, an abun­dance of firsts, hol­i­days straight out of Hall­mark.

At the time of these rever­ies, I was in my late twen­ties, newly mar­ried. In the re­ceiv­ing line at my wed­ding, rel­a­tives asked me ques­tions like, When are the kids com­ing? Some ex­claimed that they were “so ex­cited for them!” My fa­ther started stock­pil­ing toys he found at garage sales. My mother re­minded me that she had stowed my old baby clothes in vac­u­um­sealed bags. At night, my then hus­band would wrap his arms around me and whis­per, “You’ll make such a good mom.”

In truth, I was on the fence. Chil­dren felt like both a way to jump-start my real life and a way to end it. I wasn’t afraid of be­ing a mother, and I didn’t think I’d be a bad one. I just wanted to be other things so much more. As a jour­nal­ist, my days rarely fol­lowed a nine-to-five sched­ule. I found pur­pose in my work and couldn’t imag­ine re­ar­rang­ing my days to in­clude breast­feed­ing and di­a­per changes. I knew it was pos­si­ble to be a mother while main­tain­ing a ca­reer, but I had lit­tle de­sire to take on the chal­lenge. I didn’t see chil­dren as a pun­ish­ment or a bur­den. But I also did not see them as a gift. If any­thing, moth­er­hood was a re­quire­ment — a stage women com­pleted af­ter mar­riage, a check mark on the way to an ac­com­plished life.

I neared my thir­ties afraid to voice my dread. I wor­ried that dis­clos­ing the main rea­son for my veer to­ward “no” — that I wanted to con­tinue in­vest­ing time in my­self — would make me seem cold, even so­cio­pathic. I wor­ried about dis­ap­point­ing those around me, in­clud­ing my then hus­band, par­ents, and grand­par­ents. I could al­ready hear their dis­be­lief. Even if they sup­ported my choice, I wor­ried about what I would do af­ter I made it. How would I fill the next fifty — po­ten­tially empty — years of my life?

Those were weird, un­steady days. I would of­ten catch my­self en­ter­tain­ing other peo­ple’s fan­tasies of what it would mean for me to have chil­dren and, briefly, in­tensely want­ing those fan­tasies too. Later, I’d worry about my in­de­ci­sion. I’d be in

the shower, or about to fall asleep, and I would ques­tion who was right: them or me? The strug­gle to make a sim­i­lar “wise and mean­ing­ful de­ci­sion” is also at the cen­tre of Sheila Heti’s new novel, Moth­er­hood, in which an un­named nar­ra­tor con­sults a psy­chic and tarot cards. “Whether I want kids,” she says, is “the great­est se­cret I keep from my­self.”

Af­ter sev­eral years of this un­cer­tainty, an event forced my hand: my hus­band left me sev­eral months be­fore I turned thir­ty­one. An un­teth­ered feel­ing of loss floated through me, a sense that I’d failed at be­ing a wife and a woman. Peo­ple who had once pestered me with baby ques­tions now said I was lucky my di­vorce didn’t in­clude kids, al­most as if my mar­riage hadn’t been real. In those early weeks, I was per­plex­ingly sad — not, I now re­al­ize, be­cause I wanted a fam­ily but be­cause I had been crudely knocked off the path of tra­di­tional adult­hood. But, as my grief and shock lifted, I found an un­ex­pected up­side: free­dom.

Much of so­ci­ety still can’t ac­count for women like me. We are of­ten for­got­ten at the fringes, even as we grow in num­ber. In re­sponse, many of us have carved out our own spa­ces. The num­ber of blogs, meet-up groups, and on­line com­mu­ni­ties ded­i­cated to help­ing women nav­i­gate life with­out kids has mush­roomed over the last few years. No Kid­ding!, a so­cial club for child-free cou­ples and sin­gles founded in Van­cou­ver in 1984, today has over forty chap­ters around the world. And while life out­side the pre­scribed path can feel like a con­stant search for a new tem­plate, this strug­gle isn’t just rel­e­gated to those with­out chil­dren, those who can’t have them or those who can’t de­cide. In­creas­ingly, mothers them­selves are ex­press­ing the same frus­tra­tion with the ma­ter­nal script— namely, how fol­low­ing it of­ten comes at the ex­pense of their own suc­cess and hap­pi­ness. No won­der so many of us have started to ques­tion whether mod­ern moth­er­hood is even good for women at all. C ana­di­ans are in­creas­ingly liv­ing alone and with­out kids. At nearly 30 per­cent, sin­gle-per­son house­holds today ac­count for the great­est share of the pop­u­la­tion since Con­fed­er­a­tion. Over the past forty years, fer­til­ity rates in Canada have also been drop­ping, as women have fewer chil­dren or none at all. The num­bers are even more dra­matic in the United States, where nearly half of all women in their child-bear­ing years do not have chil­dren — that’s the high­est num­ber since the 1970s, when or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the US Cen­sus Bureau started col­lect­ing such data.

The rea­sons for not be­com­ing amother vary. One 2014 mar­ket-re­search study, led by pub­lic-re­la­tions firm Devries Global and Me­lanie Notkin, au­thor of Other­hood: Mod­ern Women Find­ing a New Kind of Hap­pi­ness, sur­veyed 2,000 women in the US. It found that 40 per­cent with­out chil­dren were pri­or­i­tiz­ing their ca­reer; an­other 34 per­cent were wait­ing for the right re­la­tion­ship. That same study showed that 46per­cent of those sur­veyed wanted chil­dren, 36per­cent did not, and an­other 18per­cent were un­de­cided. Amy Black­stone, one of North Amer­ica’s few ded­i­cated re­searchers look­ing at child­less­ness and the child-free choice, says our cur­rent mo­ment isn’t nec­es­sar­ily de­fined by there be­ing more women with­out chil­dren. Rather, there’s an in­creased will­ing­ness to speak up about the is­sue.

Women now have a va­ri­ety of terms to de­scribe their no-kids sta­tus. Those who ac­tively choose not to have chil­dren can call them­selves child-free or child-free by choice. Women might use the term child­less if they wanted chil­dren but were un­able to have them, of­ten be­cause of med­i­cal or bi­o­log­i­cal rea­sons. Oth­ers use the term child-free by cir­cum­stance, which might in­clude not find­ing a suitable part­ner or, per­haps, not hav­ing the fi­nan­cial means to raise a fam­ily. Some find that none of the terms suit them and have crafted their own. One of the com­mu­nity’s most pop­u­lar fig­ures, Bri­tish au­thor Jody Day, calls her­self a “nomo,” short for not-mother. Other women have no la­bels, only a feel­ing that moth­er­hood is not for them. When it comes to pub­lic per­cep­tion, how­ever, these shades of choice, chance, and cir­cum­stance rarely mat­ter. Wher­ever women land on the no-kids spec­trum, they are of­ten viewed the same way: spin­sters, cat ladies, ca­reer women, kid­haters, fail­ures, losers.

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