“What do you mean, you don’t have kids? Why not?” I wish I had a dime for every time a variation of this has been asked of me.
I don’t know how free people feel to ask this of men, I have never been a man. I only know what my experience is. When you are a woman and you don’t have kids, you are the weirdo. Everyone asks. Total strangers. People on buses and planes and in coffee shops.
This starts with girls at a young age. If you have kids with you and are out and about—perhaps you have a small cousin you are babysitting and you make a run to the grocery store, for example– people feel free to ask if they are yours. Even if you are a teenager. Even, sometimes if an older woman is near you who IS their mother.
People see having kids as a natural progression, integral to one’s being on this planet.
Anyone who has been engaged or lived with someone of the opposite sex can probably bear witness to the onset of the questions.
But us childless folk tend to have a tribe. I have had a lot of childless friends over the years. We tend to find one another. I can tell you why and how many people end up without children.
A few friends married men who didn’t want children. They were told by many of their well-meaning older relatives (always eager to get young people hitched) that the groom would “change his mind” after they got married. And yet, the grooms didn’t. Ever. When faced with the prospect of ending the marriage or continuing as a childless couple, they chose to stay married.
Some of them can’t have children. Through a whim of biology and chance. If you don’t have the funds, don’t have the latitude to take time off work for exams and appointments, and also the patience for a battery of fertility treatments and so forth, you don’t have much choice.
Some of them decided against having children for themselves. Reasons of personal preference or
And then, there are those other of us like me.
Those of us who never wanted to have kids alone, who feared poverty, and were extra-super-careful, choosing partners and protection wisely just like your sex-ed teacher taught you. Those of us who were trying so hard to do it the right way that the opportunity, as people are ready to remind us, is disappearing day by day.
Some of us come from backgrounds where pregnancy outside of marriage is met with disdain so great as to have created the choice for us. The choice between having a child or having contact with our parents. The choice between falling into the pattern of “fallen, but repentant” or “old maid”, if a proposal or wedding never managed to appear. Perhaps there were proposals, but because life happens, they never managed to come to fruition. Because people are imperfect and imperfect, non-fairy-tale things happen all the time.
Perhaps a lot of the men we knew were losers and we had little in common with them when it came to the ideas they shared about raising children, so that co-parenting with them would have been an ongoing stressful disaster.
Perhaps they have a psychological disorder that would make life hell for children, and they do not wish to visit that upon them.
Perhaps they come from abusive backgrounds and do not have the funds to leave their immediate area, but do not wish to expose their children to their abusers.
Perhaps we, or our families, were the “weird ones” in the community. The only Jewish person for 10,000 miles. The only Wiccan. The only punk. The only goth. The family that wasn’t “good enough” because you didn’t have brand-name clothes. The girl who was too smart or too poor or too much in the wrong political party. Socially speaking, nothing succeeds quite like sameness.
You are going to say, “Well, just meet someone online!” Look, I am 41. I still think of internet dating as scary and weird. In 1994, I was 18. There was no internet dating. People dated who was around. Available. There. Matches were often simply made by default, especially if you didn’t have the funds to move to another area to get to know people or drive around to date in another area. I took someone from out of my usual social circle to my senior prom. The question everyone wanted to know, in very rude tones, mind you, was “how do you two even know each other?” Because that was not a thing that happened, certainly not in a small town. What do the people do who live in areas that don’t have good or affordable internet service do now? I would assume it is the same thing.
What women learn in this process is that having children is paramount in terms of how others view them.
Even if the decision to not have children was not an intentional one, but simply the way life worked out between following the AIDS-scare-era rules of safe sex, a few failed proposals, and never quite having the kind of job to make enough money to make pregnancy a reasonable option.
Women without children get portrayed as unfulfilled, cold, sometimes even sexually frigid, but above all things, selfish.
There are a couple ideas bound up in that. First, there is an idea that you owe the world children. You owe it to other people – family, friends, the universe, God—to produce children. Not adopt them, oh heavens no, that is failure. So is having a surrogate. They must be a production of your own. You owe it to society to create children within yourself with the partner that your chunk of society has deemed acceptable.
The second idea that is a little further out there is that you are selfish for not sharing your home with a child that you pop out of your own body. Not the selfishness of not sharing your home with child who is already here, oh heaves no, you are selfish for not creating something to share your life with in order to share your life with it. As if there were babies in heaven waiting on a couple to be unselfish enough to give birth and produce them. Like a giant baby soul breeding factory in heaven, popping out baby souls waiting for homes on earth.
It doesn’t matter what else you are doing with your life. You could be creating wells in dry areas of distressed countries. You could be feeding the homeless. You could be curing diseases. The fact of your childlessness makes you selfish. And to some, removes your worth.
We get asked who will take care of us when we get old.
I don’t have the answer for that. However, in every generation before this, plenty of women left this earth without having children. They managed to get by somehow. In previous generations, the governesses and the nannies may have never had children because of the complexity of their station. Stories like Jane Eyre talk about the way the governess is not a part of the upper class, not a part of the lower class, and is almost without a social stratum to belong to. Religious adherents of different kinds didn’t have children. There will always be people, no matter how lovely and bright and kind, will leave this earth without having created offspring. That is just a reality of living life according to the multitude of social rules that we have created for ourselves over time. When you combine that with biology and the slim chance of getting pregnant each time a person has sex, the variations in fertility among people, you are going to end up with a statistically significant portion of the population that manages to just not reproduce.
I think a few things have led to this current cultural mentality. I could postulate on that and might at another time. We decided at some point that being the one to not have kids was something that other people had the right—perhaps even the duty—to weigh in on. I’ve known my pregnant friends to gnash their teeth at the latitude people seem to show over commenting on and touching their bodies. While not the same thing, society seems to feel it is owed something from those of us, regardless of circumstance, that never checked “have kids” off the list.
The very people who will tell you that you shouldn’t have kids if you can’t afford them, will later despise you for never having those kids you couldn’t afford. Because your life was supposed to fall into a pattern that they recognized, and you failed at making that a reality for them.
Sameness is what they want. That is why they react badly to Halle Berry having children at 47 instead of 23. That is why they react badly to people having more than exactly two children (not one, that will never do! You have to have two!) The people who comment on whether you have children or not are not interested in your happiness. They are disappointed that you didn’t choose the same path that they did. Because people love love love sameness.