By Ann Neumann
“The other day I was remembering everything we used to do. Just getting them up and dressed and in the car… Oh I hated it.” So said a 50-something woman at the restaurant table behind me last night as I blissfully devoured my meal in solitude. I’ll admit to getting some satisfaction from hearing parents talk about the challenges of parenting. It’s not one of those raging satisfactions, accompanied by a wicked or smug cackle. More like the feeling you get when you turn onto an unfamiliar street and note that there are indeed parked cars facing the same direction you’re headed in. Ok, you tell yourself, it’s all right to go this way.
There’s a spate of media at the moment extolling childlessness, giving those who never became parents (or have decided not to in the future) the sense that we are not the only ones. While much of the commentary, like Susan Shapiro’s essay this week at the New York Times blog “Motherlode,” shakes a finger at women, warning, “do it now or you’ll regret it,” a notable set of articles takes an alternate tone: we never had children and we’re quite happy, thank you very much. In an article for Longreads, Sabine Heinlein writes, “Spoiler alert: I don’t have a change of heart at the end of this essay. This is a story about not changing my mind and not having regret.” Heinlein, 42, avoids her regular deli after the owner urges her to become a mother. “But one must,” he tells her. The next time they need milk, Heinlein sends here husband for it, knowing that the owner is unlikely to impose his family imperative on a man.
Last month Michelle Huneven wrote at the New York Times, that she was never really ready for children, thanks to a childhood that left her reeling emotionally. A new book, from which Huneven’s essay is adapted, Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, was published on March 31st. The volume’s editor, Meghan Daum, has given several interviews that are drawing hundreds of comments, like one at Huffington Post, in which Daum says she wanted talented writers and thinkers to tackle the subject of childlessness. (The interview was liked 3.9 thousand times on Facebook.) The book’s title pokes fun at the unfair but usual attributes ascribed to those who don’t want to parent: selfishness, shallowness, self-absorption. “It’s funny because those kinds of accusations or just labels, they often come from people who have kids, but more often I hear them from people who’ve chosen not to have kids!” says Daum. “It’s almost like it’s easier somehow to say that you’re selfish or want to buy expensive shoes than it is to say, ‘Hey, this just isn’t for me. This isn’t something that I want to do.'”
More than 15 percent of women between 40 and 44 do not have children, a number that has doubled since the late 1970s. The U.S. is not the only country experiencing a decline in birth rates; countries, from Japan to Germany to France, have seen a similar decline over the past few decades. In 2008, Kathryn Joyce (The Revealer’s former managing editor), noted that some of the fear surrounding birthrate declines stemmed from racial panic. “It’s ‘the baby bust,’ ‘the birth dearth,’ ‘the graying of the continent,’” wrote Joyce for The Nation, “modern euphemisms for old-fashioned race panic as low fertility among white ‘Western’ couples coincides with an increasingly visible immigrant population across Europe.” In subsequent years Joyce went on to write about the Quiverfull movement—American Evangelicals who shun birth control in order to produce as many Christian children as possible… for the wellbeing of “traditional” families and the religious future of the country—and the related adoption boom that has captivated Christian churches across the country. Pope Francis may have sounded like a counter to those who support large broods when he suggested Catholics not “breed like rabbits,” but he and his church have failed to lift Catholicism’s burdensome restriction on birth control, leaving husbands and wives, if they still want to follow the Pope’s reproduction advice, sleeping in separate rooms.
Proud childlessness, as espoused in Daum’s book and Heinlein’s article, is a counter to racial and religious concerns. It engages ideas of choice, environmental sustainability, and, if not explicitly, it works to take the shame out of abortion and other modern methods of birth control. All moves I support in theory. Yet, there is something to the tone of the recent “childless and proud” media blitz that is disconcerting to me.
My own baby clock never ticked. At 46, I’m perfectly (even quite thankfully) happy with my decision to not become a mother. But living through decades of fertility without having a child has not been easy. I’ve been on birth control, of one form or another, since my early 20s. Without regret, I’ve had two abortions, one while happily partnered-up. I’d hate to calculate the costs of remaining childless and of course I never will, not least because I’m happy with how things have turned out and because I know my health care measures were still cheaper than 18 years (or more!) of parenting plus college fees.
Compare my life and career to that of my sister. After five years of marriage, she and her husband decided to have children. More than 13 years—and two gorgeous, un-self–conscious amazing daughters I couldn’t imagine life without—later, my sister, who has two master’s degrees and lives in semi-rural Pennsylvania, is working as a part-time nanny, unable to find work that employs her skills. We’re both very happy with our choices, but I’ve managed to sidestep the financial challenges and career pitfalls that accompany motherhood in this country. It breaks my heart that my smart and wise sister has had to choose between being a good mother and following her own career.
I know that it’s a privilege for me to be childless. Only because of my class and financial and health care resources have I had a healthy and rich sex life that didn’t lead to motherhood. Sure I’ve had family members chide me for my decision to not become a mother. Particularly when traveling in foreign countries, where more traditional ideas of women’s roles in society are deeply entrenched, I’ve been criticized for my childless lifestyle. But I know that it’s no coincidence that most of the women (and men) currently extolling childlessness come from a segment of society, like I do, where making that decision is possible. (A 2014 post at New York Magazine quoting 25 famous women on their decision to remain childless includes only three or four women of color, including Condoleezza Rice, Oprah and Margaret Cho.) Choice is easier for women of some demographics than others.
And that’s what makes me a little uncomfortable about the recent spate of articles. The tone sometimes smacks of protesting (the curious deli man’s comments, for instance) a bit too much. Yes, I think, go on about your fortuitous ability to make a choice. But at least acknowledge that you’re only able to do so because of class and privilege.
“This country has a way of not supporting women no matter what choice they make,” journalist Helaine Olen told me by email. “Women without children feel judged. Women with children feel overwhelmed. We turn on each other instead of demanding a just society that offers support for all of our choices and offers help and care when we need it.” Olen’s comment is astute. Support for women’s choices, no matter what they are, and the will to provide the resources necessary to make choice possible somehow get lost in the babble about lifestyle. It’s one thing to avoid the oppression of your kindly grandmother asking where the kids are; it’s an entire other thing to avoid the sexual and financial oppression of your government. Lack of basic family planning services, unequal pay for women, inadequate or nonexistent child care programs, and tax policies that favor “traditional” families all pressure women to conform to the mothering role that the likes of Daum and Heinlein have been lucky enough to avoid. Leavening the recent spate of “childless and proud” with a dose of activism is helpful. I suggest Lizz Winstead’s “Lady Parts Justice.” “Behind every successful uterus is a man calling her a whore while cutting her pay,” said Winstead in a recent spoof on the state of the union address, the “state of the uterus address.”
What articles and books extolling childlessness inadvertently highlight is not how acceptable it is today to not have children, but how difficult it is to develop an environment where everyone has access to the resources necessary to make an informed and satisfying decision on parenthood. The broad existence of childless pride is not proof that we’re on the road to progress; in fact the challenges for women have been coming hard and fast the past few years. And from a minority faction in our country that nonetheless exercises great influence over public policy: social conservatives.
The notion that a “traditional family” is superior to other social formations—particularly for women and children—still has powerful influence in our culture. Bolstered by state-level restrictions on abortion and contraception that limit women’s access to family planning and by the use of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to give institutions and corporations inordinate control over individuals’ life choices (like the Supreme Court’s ruling last year on Hobby Lobby, which allows employers to determine whether health insurance covers their employees’ birth control) women’s autonomous decision making is often crudely sacrificed for the righteous or inaccurate belief that there’s a right way to be a (Christian) family.
If you live in a part of the country where those ideas are less “closely held,” if you have the financial resources to get the health care access you need, if your community supports women’s equality, you’re able to get around the laws and pressures that enforce a limited women’s role. Unfortunately, disastrously, if you don’t have those benefits, as many in lower class or minority groups in this country don’t, you’re left without many options. Amidst all the ink spilled about the joys of childlessness, it would be refreshing to see more thrown at the support of women’s choices, regardless of what they are.
Ann Neumann is a contributing editor at The Revealer and Guernica magazine and a visiting scholar at The Center for Religion and Media, NYU. Neumann‘s book, The Good Death, will be published by Beacon Press in January 2016.