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Child-Free by Choice: A New Generation of Non-Mothers

“When are you going to have a baby?”

It’s this question, asked over Thanksgiving dinner, in the grocery store, at baby showers, that many child-free women dread. For the women who can’t have children, it’s painful. For the women for whom remaining child-free is a choice, it’s offensive and prying. For both, it’s inappropriate, a nosey request for reassurance that they are going to fulfill their societal duty as a woman and procreate.

Shona, a 32-year-old self-employed copywriter, never had the desire to have children. But even in her early-twenties, the expectation that she would become a mother influenced her life choices—like buying a practical car so she wouldn’t have to get a new one when she became a mom. “I’ve never really had the urge [to have children]’s just something you think of as part of your life when you’re younger because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do,” she said. “It wasn't until my mid/late-20s when everyone else was starting to have kids that I realized I was actually moving away from that conditioning.”

Not all decisions to remain child-free come as easily, though. Ashley, a 34-year-old graphic designer, realized that she liked her life as it was—quiet and clean—and knew that having children would disrupt it in ways she wasn’t ready for. “I have never felt that primal tug to be a mother myself. I didn't feel it in my 20s but figured maybe it was something I'd grow into. When I hit 33 and still never felt the urge, I accepted that having children was not on my life's path. At 34, about to be 35, I still feel that way,” Ashley shares. “I've gotten surprisingly little blowback from that decision from friends and family. Interestingly, the most conflict was within my own marriage, because I found out last year my husband had never fully eliminated the idea of starting a family.”

Of all the taboos women face, remaining child-free is perhaps the greatest of them all. There’s a sense of expectancy—from society, from friends, from our own mothers—that we’ll continue the cycle of life. At a 2015 speech in Italy, Pope Francis condemned those who choose not to have children saying, “The choice to not have children is selfish. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished.” The Pope sums up the way that so many people feel about those who intentionally don’t have children, their feelings about the matter projected onto women who make that choice.

Shona and Ashley are two women out of millions who have made the choice to remain child-free. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that the number of women who remain childfree—1 in 5—has doubled since 1976, with more women in most racial and ethnic groups and most education levels choosing not to have children.

Some reasons for not wanting a child are practical, like not being able to afford them or understanding that their career path isn’t conducive to being a mother. Other women choose not to have children because they don’t have a maternal urge or don’t want to bring a child into the world just because it’s expected of them. And yes, perhaps some women may be abstaining from motherhood for seemingly selfish reasons—not wanting the expense, the struggle, the mess—but isn’t that their right as women, as humans? To not bring a child into the world that you don’t have a deep desire to care for can hardly be deemed selfish when there are so many children who sleep in orphanages, in foster homes, on the street.    

Staying child-free is the newest addition to the list of motherhood debates—career mom vs. stay-at-home, breastfeeding vs. formula, traditional discipline vs. positive parenting—and it’s just as controversial. The choice not to have children is just that, a choice, and yet, like all other decisions women make about their own reproductive health, it’s one that is stigmatized and criticized to no end.

The stigma isn’t reserved for people’s personal thoughts on this, though. Shona, when telling friends or potential partners that she doesn’t want children has received comments like “Oh, you’ll change your mind” and “What kind of woman doesn’t want to bring a child into the world?” These comments are far from harmless, not just to individual women, but to the societal expectation that it’s a woman’s duty to bear—and raise—children.

Antiquated thoughts like these, along with the belief that a woman is not whole unless she has a child, are responsible for women choosing to have children, even when they don’t want them. A recent article on Marie Claire discusses the movement of mothers who wish they’d never had kids, the ultimate taboo for a mother. The feelings of guilt, embarrassment, and shame that surround women who don’t want children or who have them but wish they didn’t point out the many ways in which women are criticized and shamed no matter what they do.

Women who make the choice to be child-free, whether it’s because they don’t want to spend their days changing diapers and stepping on Legos or because they have career ambitions that leave no room for childrearing, shouldn’t have to justify their decision any more than they should have to jump through hoops to get birth control or have an abortion. And it’s important to note that not wanting a child doesn’t mean that there is not respect or love for what children bring to the world. There are many women— and men—who play active roles in the lives of their nieces and nephews, act as mentors for children, or are teachers. To love and care for children are not acts solely related to biology.

The choice to remain childfree in a society that tells women that their critical role in the world is as mothers should be celebrated, not bashed. Lauren, 34-years-old and married explains, “I understand there are many joys of motherhood, but I never wanted my self-worth or my existence in this world to be hinged on procreation. Women can choose not to have kids and still be strong and accomplished. Self-worth should not come from procreation, but from the worthwhile things you do for yourself and others while on this planet.”

Ultimately, choosing to have or not to have a child is a woman’s choice. If you’re partnered, like Ashley, it may be a choice that you have to make with your partner but, in the end, it’s your body and your life that will be most deeply affected. Regardless of your reasons for not wanting children, it’s your choice to make, haters be damned.

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