Throughout history, there have always been women who pushed back against the roles society set for them. Suffragettes fought for the right to vote; lesbians fought (and continue to fight) to have their relationships acknowledged publicly and treated equally under the law. But it’s still somewhat taboo for women to push back against the role they have occupied the longest: mother.
Childfree and childless have just one syllable’s difference, but they are a huge chasm apart. To treat all women who do not have children as a single, monolithic group is to ignore the most critical of all questions: why? To parse this, let’s think in slightly longer phrases: childless (by circumstance) and childfree (by choice). A woman who is childless-by-circumstance may want to have children, but could be coping with fertility issues, waiting until her financial situation is different, or trying to find a partner first. Childfree-by-choice women do not have children because they simply have decided not to.
Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert has said that she believes there were always women who knew they had no maternal desire; historically, these women would become nuns, governesses, or whatever option was available to women of their era and status. Often, they took on the role of caretaker for other women’s children. But celibacy, poverty, and a life without protection from the male-dominated law was often the price they paid for this freedom. For Gilbert, it seemed that she couldn’t be her whole self — someone completely devoted to her writing work — and also be a parent. This career-woman-or-mother dichotomy has plagued women for centuries, but it leaves out the many women who simply never wanted children and who never had to prioritise a career over something else. “I have chosen to remain childless, which is a decision that reflects my own life, my own desires, my own destiny,” Gilbert said.
She isn’t the only woman writer who has considered this subject. In 2015, Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum edited the collection Selfish, Shallow, and Self Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on The Decision Not To Have Kids, which included essays from Anna Holmes, Kate Christensen, Lionel Shriver, and Geoff Dyer. And although Daum has become a major face of the childfree movement, she isn’t a fan of the word itself. “I am sort of allergic to jargon, and it sounds like jargon,” she said over the phone from her home in L.A. “‘Childfree by choice’ is redundant.” Daum refers to herself as “childless by choice,” but she finds the phrase cumbersome and would rather keep working toward finding a sharper, snappier term. (She likes "barrenness," because it sounds like “baroness.")
It’s still somewhat taboo for women to push back against the role they have occupied the longest: mother.
Daum’s book came out of a desire to soften the us-or-them language that so often makes childfree people feel like they must be strident in their beliefs, using dismissive terms like “breeders.” As a result, some of the essays in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed feature men and women talking about how they like kids in theory or enjoy being around them despite opting not to become parents themselves. Some talked about economics; others about desire. "I was trying to put together a book with broad appeal that would reach parents and non-parents," Daum explained. "A few years ago we were in a moment where we had to bring the discussion [about people choosing not to have children] into the mainstream. I can’t tell you how long I’d been wanting to do this project, and [potential editors and publishers] told me that I was addressing this tiny niche group." As a result, she adds, "One criticism that was made [of the book] is that a lot of people seem to be bending over backwards to say they like kids or feel like they have to apologize for it."
That’s because Daum essentially had to reach two groups at once — she had to speak to parents who believed they’d made the right decision by having children but were curious about those who’d chosen to live a childfree life, but also be a voice for childfree individuals who felt like they’d been ignored by traditional narratives about families and relationships. That false dichotomy went back to Daum’s initial issue with the word "childfree" — it created a division that felt politicised, rather than simply identifying a group by name. But when her book was published, it became a New York Times bestseller, spurring comments and reactions from around the world. Despite the initial concern by book publishers that Daum’s book wouldn’t find an audience, it wound up finding several. And it was a sign that childfree people were interested in buying more than just books.
The I-don't-have-kids-but-I-like-them community has been dubbed PANKs (Professional Aunt, No Kids). The term was coined by Melanie Notkin, who turned her Savvy Auntie blog, aimed at women like herself who were involved aunts or godmothers and wanted to buy kid stuff without the judgment, into a full-on lifestyle brand dubbed "Otherhood." She has been praised by some feminists for acknowledging all the underappreciated childrearing work done by non-mother family members and criticised by others for taking too much advantage of marketing opportunities. Last year, she appeared in a New York Post photoshoot proclaiming, "I'm 47 and my love life is better than ever!"
Although Notkin has been dinged for using her platform for profit — she has partnered with Westin on hotel rooms specifically aimed at female solo travellers, for example — it's not at all unusual for women in the public eye to leverage their motherhood status for financial gain. For example, actress Jessica Alba is now arguably better known for her green baby and kid-product brand, the Honest Company, than for her film and TV roles, and part of her narrative is that obsessively checking the ingredients in products she used for her two daughters was what inspired her to become an entrepreneur. Notkin isn't just savvy at being an aunt — she keenly recognised that a significant group of women were being ignored by advertisers, and put herself in front of those companies as an ambassador. In America, where money is viewed as proof of success, Meghan Daum and Melanie Notkin have been able to prove that women without children are willing to buy books, stay in hotel rooms, and purchase kids' toys — and once you're worth being marketed to, you matter.
It must be said that, like many conversations about femaleness, discussions around being childfree have often centred around white, middle- or upper-class women. In the past, white women have been more likely to have access to contraception, to medical care, or to doctors who would perform abortions in secret when they were illegal otherwise. As Braelin E. Settle of Wayne State University notes in her 2014 dissertation, "Defying Mandatory Motherhood: The Social Experiences of Childfree Women," "Women of colour were assimilated into dominant white culture to take advantage of their labor, leaving them with few or no policies to protect and preserve their families in comparison to white women’s families. Women of colour have performed the mothering work for white children, resulting in the neglect with their own children. Whereas women of colour have always worked, white, middle-class women have often had the option to concentrate only on motherhood and other caregiving responsibilities." For her study, Settle surveyed a range of women about their decision to be childfree. Predominantly, it was white women who identified as "active" and “certain,” while Black and Latina women were more likely to say they were "passive" and “ambivalent” about their choices. In 2016, actress Joy Bryant wrote an essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny newsletter entitled "Stop Telling Me I Should Have Kids." Bryant addressed some of the most common sentiments lobbed her way — namely, that her being pretty meant her kids would be pretty, or that she "owed" it to her husband to reproduce — but race didn’t appear to be among her reasons for or against parenthood.
Ultimately, Daum says, choosing not to have children is fascinating and controversial to so many people because it gets at a larger question about what it means to be an adult. Many of the social markers we’ve used in the past — owning a home, having a steady job, leaving the big city for the suburbs, being married — have fallen away or been redefined. The ongoing debates about whether women can “have it all” inquire whether a woman can balance a spouse, kids, career, and personal pursuits like hobbies — without stopping to ask what “all” would look like for a woman who’s not interested in one of the usual elements, or to consider what that means for women who marry other women. And that's not to say that any woman who decides to have a child is a tool of the patriarchal past. Simply providing women with choices about motherhood — how many kids and when, what kind of labor and delivery she wants — is a revolutionary and modern concept. What the childfree-by-choice movement does is include "whether" in that list of choices.
While the question of what makes a man a man has been a subject of philosophy since the days of Homer, the notion of a woman expressing opinions about her own body, especially if that opinion is that she doesn’t want to have children — whether because of health, economics, or simply not feeling up to it — terrifies much of our society because it means that a woman is choosing to live her life for herself and herself alone. It means that she is a whole, entire person defined solely by her words and actions, not by her relationship to someone else. It means that she can become what men have always been. No matter what name it goes by — childfree, childless by choice, barrenness — it is a major sign of forward movement that more and more women around the world have the ability to make their own decisions about their bodies and, by association, the shape of their lives.