According to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, one in five women end their childbearing years without having children. Just a few decades ago, in the 1970s, the statistic read one in ten. With the population of women without children reaching new heights, it should be no surprise to us that many women and men decide not to have children. However, according to Katie Roiphe, not having children is still seen as taboo for both women and men. When we see a childless woman, Roiphe says, we assume she is deeply saddened by her lack of children, and when we see a childless man, we assume that he suffers from a serious Peter Pan syndrome and refuses to grow up.
In a response to Roiphe’s article, Adaya Adler reminds us that there are many reasons why women and men remain childless, and that there is a difference between childless and childfree. Childless women are women who desperately want a baby but, due to medical, financial or emotional complications, cannot have one. Childfree women, on the other hand, have chosen not to have children. The key difference, according to Adler, is that childless women are deeply saddened about their inability to have a child, and childfree women are happy with their decisions.
The problem remains, though, that many people do not believe that lives can be complete without children. For many, the problem is that they cannot even conceive of a life without children. Adler’s partner and her had this discussion, and he said to her: “Think about it; with a few rare exceptions, we are all brought up in families where having and raising children is the norm. You have to be willing to think outside of how you were raised just to conceive of a life without children.” Since we are all someone’s child, the very thought of not having children for any reason breaks the mold. This can put childfree and childless women at odds with their peers who are having children and enjoying every minute.
Of course, it is not just peers that vilify the decision not to have children. Employers do it too. We know that working mothers are penalized for taking time off to raise their children, but women who decide not to have children are often seen as cold, uncaring and odd and are sometimes passed up for promotions and raises because of it, according to Dr. Caroline Gatrell. As women, we just can’t win.
The decision whether or not to have children is a highly personal one, and one that I’ve been wrestling with for a long time. As a 27-year-old married woman, I am officially in the age group where many of my friends are starting to have children of their own. I have been asked more times than I can count when (not if) I am going to have a baby, and when I say I’m not sure if that’s in the cards, I’m usually told that I’ll change my mind. Of course, this usually makes me hold on even stronger, telling them that I might not change my mind and there’s nothing wrong with that. Most often, I get a condescending smile and a patronizing “OK, sure.” Most of my good friends are supportive of my decision making process, but sometimes it isn’t easy. Some feel I am judging them for having children, and some don’t want to hang out with me as much because they feel we don’t have much in common anymore. Unfortunately, if I do have a child, these clashes won’t end there, either.
The bottom line is, no matter how a woman comes to her decision about having or not having a child, it isn’t any of our business. Women are unique, complex, interesting people with or without children. They do not need a child to make them whole, nor are they defined entirely by their children if they have them. In a society where families take on all shapes and sizes, this should not shock us, nor should it change the way we view each other as human beings.
Photo Credit: photon_de