When It Comes to Judgment, the Child-Free Just Might Have It Easy

I used to feel very put-upon for being expected to have children (because of this uterus I have), and it was more than irritating to be called “selfish” (one family member I rarely see, and who was therefore probably not aware of my decision, went into a brief rant during a family visit about how self-centered and mean child-free women are).

There have also been articles (written by women) that say child-free women make poor employees, and women without children have been called freaks, sex-haters, cold, and any number of other flattering terms people use to describe the kind of woman who doesn’t want to procreate (you’ll find a comprehensive list in a Psychology Today article by Ellen Walker, Ph.D).

While I’ll not deny we child-free types do face some judgment and criticism, and although, as women, we’re marginalized when it comes to choosing the best juices (“As a mom, I want to know my juice is all natural,” one commercial advertised – do we non-moms not want natural juice, too?) and receiving special labels (“Coma Mom Defies the Odds” a recent morning show episode headlined – is she somehow special because she is a mom, and not just a woman, who defied the odds?), I think we have it easier than moms do – and not just because we don’t task ourselves with raising children.

Don’t misunderstand; women who are uncertain about whether they want to have children, or who have just realized they’ll never want them, have a tough time, for a while. Deciding not to have children means being something of a social outcast (every woman I know, who is my age or older, has children), it means difficulty finding a life partner (it’s actually surprising how many men feel strongly about having children), and it means periodically wondering whether being child-free was the right choice.

The child-free also have to deal with guilt-trips from parents and in-laws who want grandchildren, the constant barrage of “Aren’t you afraid you’ll regret it?” and “What happens when you’re old and alone?” questions, and feeling like society believes we’re “unnatural,” in general (because everyone knows it’s “natural” to want, and have, children).

Even so. I’d much rather suffer whatever judgment I might receive as a child-free woman than what I suspect I’d have to deal with if I were a mother.

For instance, if you type “should mothers” into the Google search bar, the options it will bring up for you automatically include “stay at home,” “work,” “sleep with their children,” and “work outside the home.”

If you type “mother’s shouldn’t” into the search bar, the suggestion feed is “work,” “Facebook,” and “have Facebook.” (Really? Facebook?)

Other questions people ask about mothers (and many of them make the morning show segments) include:

- Is it okay for mothers to have a glass of wine during playdates with other mothers?

- Should mothers breastfeed?

- How long should mothers breastfeed?

- Should mothers breastfeed in public?

- Should mothers give their children milk?

- Should older mothers be allowed to have more children?

- Should mothers have more than one child?

And that’s just conversation taking place in the media. Mothers (after being touched on their pregnant bellies by strangers) also have to deal with other mothers. Other mothers, who are certain they’re raising their own children the right way, are often the first to criticize the way other mothers raise their children.

“Really? You let them eat that?”
“Really? You let them watch that?”
“Really? You let them listen to that?”
“Oh, you don’t make him do his homework as soon as he comes home?”
“You let her boyfriend go into her bedroom?”
“You don’t go to every single soccer practice?”
“You let him have coffee? Really? At fifteen?”
“You bought condoms for her? Really? At fifteen?”
“You let her wear that?”
“You don’t let her wear that?”
“Wait – you went OUT?”

We all have our issues where children (or a lack thereof) are concerned, but I’m willing to bet my early years of non-mom guilt, two divorces, and pregnancy fears as a child-free woman were far more tolerable than it would have been to hear  one single unsolicited word about how I was raising my child. (And I’m pretty certain mothers have to deal with this for the full eighteen years. There are “right” ways to care for infants, toddlers, pre-teens, teens…)

A note: This should not be confused with something that turns mothers into heroes. It isn’t, and they aren’t. (“Hero” is a word that should be reserved only for those who risk their lives for others even as they fear for themselves.) Nor should it be mistaken for something that minimizes the experiences of the child-free. It is simply an attempt at an honest assessment of the judgment women receive (and cast) under the category “childbearing.” (There are many other categories under which women are judged, but we see those every day in magazine and television ads.)

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5 Comments

  1. Posted September 27, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    As someone who has chosen not to have children, ever, can you tell me (another never parent person) what to expect? I know people will probably tell me that I should be married and having kids at 30 or w/e age I’m at when they tell me these things (I also dislike the whole church marriage of patriarchal hond offs and don’t plan to be the bride in one ever), and that some people will tell me that I’m not a real woman cause I don’t want to be pushing a screaming stroller for years after pushing out a kid or two. Is there much else to expect from our culture? Please and thank you for any information anyone has on this.

    • Posted September 27, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      Outside response – you can expect that no reason you give, no matter how well thought out or valid, will ever be good enough. You should expect to be talked down to and either 1) be urged insidiously to change your mind or 2) be TOLD you will change your mind, even by people you trust and respect. Not sure how old you and your friends are, but it’s likely you’ll hit a point where your friends are busy with their new family obligations and not as accessible (which makes your personal freedom to do whatever you want a little less enjoyable, sadly), and many conversations will involve your friend half-listening to you while telling their child to get away from the stove. If you are in a traditional workplace, you will be expected to understand and unquestionably accept everyone else’s family-related needs, and also feel like the oddball at most events. You can expect that people will secretly think you’re lying and/or just being defensive when you say you’re happy with your choice. And, if you are single, you can expect partners who probably wouldn’t have cared otherwise suddenly have a psychological freeze when the children option is off the table, and have a really hard time finding someone who will respect your position on this in the long-term.

      On the other hand, you will have personal freedom, probably some jealous friends, more money for yourself, enough children to play with if you want to except you get to give them back, the edge in the workplace as far as advancement, and the knowledge that you didn’t saddle yourself AND another human being with the wrong choice for yourself. :)

    • Posted September 27, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

      @Ariel – you’ll be accused of being selfish, weird, perhaps a lesbian (despite the fact that LGBTQ people have or adopt kids too). Your mental health will be called into question, or if you have a history of mental illness (as I do),some health care providers may view this as a symptom of an existing issue. If you have physical health issues with your reproductive organs, you may encounter some doctors reluctant to give needed care if it might interfere with your ability in the future to have kids. Because many people think you WILL “change your mind.” And if you don’t you’ll “regret it” people will say, in a way that suggests they’re relishing the thought.

      But like I said, everybody has judgments and hassles to contend with from people who apparently have nothing to do but dictate others lives for them. Still, you gotta live your life for yourself, not for what some random other people expect.

  2. Posted September 27, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    Both face judgments and suspicions from others. Hell, WOMEN are constantly being judged and assessed for everything they do (though frankly childfree men get their ration of shit from society too–what man DOESN’T want to prove his virility/pass on hisgenes/blah blah blah). So I really don’t get the point of this oppression olympics pissing match(sorry, is that patriarchal language?), especially when a civil discussion about not having a CF vs. Parent war was being had in an earlier post.

  3. Posted September 27, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    Adding on to what’s already been said in the comments…

    I write about this to some extent in No Children, No Guilt (Kindle book), but in short, you can expect that most people won’t believe you don’t want children “ever,” and this includes potential mates. So, when it comes to finding a partner, make sure you say very early, and very clearly, that you don’t ever plan to have children. (My ex-husband told me before we married that we could “have or not have kids,” but once we were married, he told me he’d always hoped/thought I would change my mind. We divorced soon after.)

    You can also expect to have an interesting time in your thirties (I have no idea how old you are) trying to find friends your age who don’t have kids.

    And, yes – also expect to have a whole lot of freedom. :)

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