Child-free by Choice
A new generation is changing what it means to live child-free
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.