I don’t remember when I first realised that I didn’t want to have kids. But I do remember the first time I articulated that sentiment to my mother. I was 18 and we were in a supermarket carpark. How we got on the topic I don’t know anymore; could have been the baby-food aisle or a toddler in the shop. But I vividly remember the emotions I perceived coming off my mother in waves: surprise with an undercurrent of sadness and an overtone of what did I do as a parent to make you feel this way?
People decide not to have kids for all sorts of reasons: the economic strain, the environmental impact, the shit world we’re living in, or a childhood that left them with emotional scars and therapy bills. But I’d grown up with two loving, supportive, and enthusiastic parents. If anything, they gave me an appreciation for how much work and sacrifice bringing up babies is when you really throw yourself into it. At that time, I hadn’t thought through the rest of the checklist. For me, it was simply a sense that I had all sorts of ambition, and none of it was directed toward having a kid.
I also didn’t have a clue that being vocal and confident about this decision would elicit the critical feedback it has over the years. People I knew and people I didn’t know told me that I’d change my tune as I got older. No one trusts women (let alone 18-year-old women) to know their own bodies and minds. And though I understood that some people who make this decision evolve their stance over time — or find a partner who cares more deeply about having children than they do about not having them — something told me I wasn’t going to.
Apparently, a woman who doesn’t want kids is a shocking thing, even in 2019. As someone who’s almost embarrassingly square, it’s probably my most countercultural act. The idea of the natural progression toward parenthood is baked into our society in little and big ways. I hand-clapped on the school bus to the cringey “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage” refrain that hammered the order of things into seven-year-old me. I’ve fake-smiled through many a wedding speech from a well-intentioned father of the bride urging the happy couple to go forth and start a family — as if a family isn’t whatever you want it to be, whenever you want to make it.
Though I feel as strongly at 36 as I did at half that age, I’ve had to validate my stance through the years. I’ve had hard talks with family members who’ve said, “But you’d be such a good mother.” To which I respond: “I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t do something just because you’re good at it.” (After all, I could be a really great tightrope walker too, but we’ll never find out.) I’ve corrected relatives who’ve said, “Just wait ‘til you have your own!” while chasing a toddler around a living room. I’ve braced for monologues about how being a parent has been the most meaningful experience in one’s life — as if that insight might trump me following my gut. On a business trip, I’ve put a colleague in his place after he chuckled and said, “We’ll see,” when hearing my intentions. I’ve had awkward exchanges with a hair stylist, who asked soon after I got married when I was going to start trying for a baby, and I’ve had ridiculous interactions with practical strangers who felt infuriatingly comfortable sharing their opinions on what I do with my body. Just the other week, a man I’d known for five minutes asked if I saw that study that reported women who don’t have kids are judged more harshly. Weirdly, I didn’t request he send it to me.
Though it’d be really badass of me to breeze through these conversations with pure self-assuredness and poise, I have plenty of worries. I have concerns that my steadfastness forced my husband’s hand, and that he didn’t have a chance to decide on his own, because we started dating in college. (He assures me that when he was a kid himself, he always pictured himself with a partner, but never with offspring.) Though I don’t stress about missing out on parenting itself and am very cool leaning into the role of PANK (professional aunt, no kids). I do fear missing out on the bond of parenthood. I fear missing the conversations between mothers commiserating about 3 a.m. feedings, comparing football match schedules, and sharing the joy of your kid cracking their first joke, or getting their first job. My business partner, bestie, and work wife had a baby in December, and I’ve wrung my hands over how that’ll affect our relationship, which is core to my life. So far, there have been shifts, but no real meaningful changes. I get anxious about being on the outside of this world that so many inhabit, and being dismissed as the one who’s “not getting it” — a diss that makes me practically shiver.
But I also hope to be able to connect with those who opt for the path I’ve chosen, and to form a no-kid club. Despite knowing I’m in fantastic company in my decision — shout-out to my many child-free role models: Oprah, Terry Gross, Tracee Ellis Ross, Sonia Sotomayor, Sandra Oh, and Ellen Degeneres, just to name a handful — I don’t feel part of a community by taking this road, and it’s on me as much as anyone else to change that.
I want to feel supported in my decision and to support everyone else in theirs. Because ultimately this is about choice, right? The people who matter most to me (my parents very much included) get that by now. But I want the Gloria Steinem quote “Not everybody with a womb has to have a child, like not everybody with vocal cords has to be an opera singer” to feel like a big, ol’ duh to everybody. I want to be a parenthood ally and to understand pregnancy and birth better, because doing so is essential to advancing women on the whole. I want to be able to have informed, supportive conversations with friends about IVF. I want to make the workplace better for parents, and every last one of us whose personal life calls for flexibility and compassion within our professional life. But I also want to go home to a quiet apartment and to never, ever feel guilty, insecure, or judged for doing so.
No one asks grown-ass people why they choose to have kids, even though they’re making a life-altering decision with an abundance of unknowns. And no one should. I’m just looking for the same courtesy and acceptance. Ultimately, 18 years after I first made this decision, I know two things with conviction: that I have no desire to have children, and that I don’t owe anyone an explanation as to why.
DESIGN AND ART DIRECTION ANDREINA CARRILLO. ANIMATION BY MISHA TOWNSEND.