On not wanting to have children

 

jose 4

I do love this photo of my late mother and me. I always found her glamorous. In this photo she’s probably 28 or 29, as she left my father when she was 30.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

The Guardian has been running a fascinating series recently, of essays by women who don’t want to have children, and it includes a 6:57 video with five interviews of women ages 22 to 45, explaining their feelings as well.

Here’s an excerpt from the essay by American novelist R.O. Kwon:

 Throughout history, people without children – women, especially – have often been persecuted, mistreated, pitied, and killed for their perceived lack. In ancient Rome, a woman who hadn’t borne children could legally be divorced, and her infertility was grounds for letting a priest hit her with a piece of goat skin. (The blows were thought to help women bear children.) In Tang Dynasty China, not having a child was once again grounds for divorce. In the Middle Ages, infertility was believed to be caused by witches or Satan; worse yet, an infertile woman could be accused of being, herself, a witch. In Puritan America, it wasn’t just having no children that was suspect. Giving birth to too many children could be perilous, too, and grounds, yet again, for being condemned for a witch.

Also in the US, enslaved women were expected to have babies, and were routinely raped, their potential future children considered a slaveholder’s property. Some of the only times women without offspring have garnered respect might be when they have formally devoted their lives to a god, and to celibacy: nuns, vestal virgins.

Which brings us to a word I haven’t yet used, but which often is levied against childfree women like me: selfish. Despite everything, it’s still common to view parenting as a moral imperative, to such an extent that voluntarily childfree people can be viewed with such outsize emotions as anger and disgust

The series is interesting, with reasons from not making enough money or not wishing to pass on a genetic disposition to addiction to having watched their own mother really resent having had children.

I knew from childhood I didn’t want kids, for several reasons:

— My mother started having manic breakdowns when I was 12, several times when I was alone with her and with no one to turn to for help or advice. It was terrifying and overwhelming. I felt burdened too young with too much responsibility, “parentified.”

— I wanted to become a journalist, especially (initially) a foreign correspondent, a job that makes parenthood pretty much impossible since you live out of a suitcase, travel constantly and have to be ready 24/7 to go where the news is happening, often with little or no notice.

— Journalism. It pays badly compared to many other industries, is very insecure (much worse now), offers a lot of obstacles to making better wages. Without money, raising a child, I knew, would be really stressful. And the hours can be terrible; news happens 24/7 and night, weekend and overnight shifts, if you even have a job now, are real at every stage of one’s career.

— My parents didn’t care. Neither pressed me hard to have kids and neither ever showed interest in doing what many grandparents do — move in or move closer to help out, offer financial aid for a nanny or helping me acquire better/larger housing to make parenthood more comfortable.

— Bodily autonomy. While I know some women absolutely adore being pregnant and breastfeeding, I had heard too many horror stories. The idea of carrying someone inside me for nine months, then being put through the agony of labor, then 20+ years of someone relying on me utterly? Not a chance.

— Freedom. As some of the women in the Guardian series say plainly — this has offered me tremendous freedom, in work,  in partners, in where I live, in how I work.

— Weird parenting. Having done a lot of therapy, I had to be persuaded that my childhood was in some ways deeply neglectful, because it was materially privileged but, often, handed off to others. I spent ages 8 to 16 at boarding school (8 to 13) and summer camp, all summer, every summer. My parents, it seemed, just didn’t want me around. So why would I choose to have kids when they found it so…unappealing?

I know,  everyone thinks we’re selfish. Because women without children have chosen a life that’s not spent, de facto, in service of others for decades — breast-feeding, changing diapers, rushing to the ER for the latest bleeding wound, doctor and dentist and teachers’ appointments.

It also makes clear that a woman who is not subservient to the needs of others ahead of her own, always, is deeply suspect.

Why not, missy?

Some people make a lot of rude and unfounded assumptions about us:

that we hate kids (I don’t); that we are incapable of sustained sacrifice (hello, work?!); that we shun intimacy (ask our husbands, partners and friends); that no one will care for us in old age (hah! as someone often estranged from my own parents, this is a fantasy.)

 

I’m in awe of the time, energy and attention it takes to be a good and loving mother!

 

I just didn’t want the job.

 

Do you have children?

Or not?

Have you enjoyed it?

39 thoughts on “On not wanting to have children

  1. it makes me sad that people judge women by if they do or do not have children. there are many reasons, why women make the choices they do and not up to anyone else to decide or judge

      1. JULIE WADDELL

        and sometimes women try, and can’t have children…so even harder when people judge them incorrectly!
        I was always asked why I wasn’t married and having children…
        I didn’t want to have children for many of the reasons you gave, but suddenly at 38, when i figured the chances of it happening must be slim, I took a weekend without protection…and twins came…

  2. I’m a man, so I don’t have the same burdens. But honestly, I don’t want children either. I admire people who do and are good parents, but they are too big a burden. Financial, physical, mental, emotional, etc. Plus they can be pretty disgusting and difficult to control at times.
    I just don’t see it for me. And even if I did see it for me, I’d want a partner to have my back, but I’m not interested in that sort of relationship, so it’s still out.
    In summary, I don’t think I’ll ever be a parent. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

      1. I don’t do well around loud anger….even though, intellectually, I know little kids and infants can’t help it. Have had too much of it from other sources.

  3. Don’t have kids, don’t mind kids. I tend to be more like a big sister or funny cousin to kids much of the time, when I’m not strictly being their teacher. i try to teach them something, have fun, return them without sugar to their parents. That’s the deal.

    I think my parents never should’ve had a kid. My mom’s so obsessed with staying busy and working (and has been her whole life) that I felt like either an afterthought or a pawn to be used during their three-year long custody battle after she and dad divorced. Once dad won primary caregiver, they both kinda gave up trying to be good parents. Dad worked all the time to provide, so I get that, but once I became a teenager, even though I was a non-troublemaking latchkey-kid, he didn’t know what to do with me. He provided, but I felt incredibly alone all the time. Same with mom. And neither ever brought up the idea of me having kids or them wanting grandkids. Baffles me, because I’ve always heard family likes to butt in and make their opinions known on that sort of thing. Guess all my cousins have had kids so there’s no pressure on me to do so, too.

    I’ve wondered about having a kid of my own, but can’t picture anyone in my life to help and provide. I’ve lived a mostly solitary life and dating scares the hell out of me (too many cyber-stalker experiences), and I’m so used to doing my own thing I can’t even imagine what it would be like to share my time and home with someone. I’d like to, but I can’t do it now. And I’m approaching 40. I know I can have kids older than I initially thought statistically speaking, but would I even want them by the time I get there? I don’t understand relationships and barely know what love is–how could I demonstrate that to a child of my own? Kids need love and patience, and I am in short-supply.

    1. I hear you! My mother, when sane and around, was fun…but I was mostly at boarding school and camp, so I just felt out-sourced and it’s left scars.

      I know I could have been a terrific parent in some ways — but not in others. And it’s a complete deal.

      I agree about the partner. I met Jose at 43 and we argued for a a few years about whether to try — but that’s very late to try and have a child and all the other factors still applied.

  4. Jan Jasper

    I agree, Caitlin, that there’s something disturbing and ridiculous about the traditional idea that a woman who doesn’t want to become a mother is selfish. It has always been obvious to me that people often have kids for very selfish reasons. And all the valid reasons you list to not have kids make sense to me.
    However, even though I was, for decades, definite about not wanting to have kids, I’m now 67 and I sometimes wish I’d had kids. It’s still clear to me that I could not have lived the life I’ve led if I’d had kids. And I don’t regret the things I’ve spent my time on instead. However, when I see people my age who have good relationships with their adult children – even just OK relationships – I sometimes envy them. Being single and childless (OK, childfree) and introverted puts me at a disadvantage for my coming old age.
    Of course I realize that many older people have adult children who never visit etc. It’s unrealistic to see kids as some sort of insurance.
    Still, I really question why The Guardian chose to only interview women ages 22 to 45. Unless you follow some of those subjects until they’re much older, the “insights” are not worth much. I don’t want to sound patronizing to the interviewees who, at age 45, are glad about not having had kids. But that’s just too convenient a cut-off age for the article. I really do wonder how the women will feel at age 65 or 70. Any serious reporting on the subject has to include older women.

    1. Agreed…it would have been better to include older women.

      I agree — I sometimes really envy the love and fun and pride that parents so enjoy with their kids. But I also have four local friends whose lives have been very very affected (negatively) by their severely autistic kids — all boys. Even the mild one has had really tough issues and I see the effect on my friends and their marriages and careers. That has scared me.

      The economic truth — unless you’re very high-earning, inherit $$$ or are super-frugal — is that (lots of) kids are expensive. I have never relied on my family of origin for a thing since leaving home at 19…and have been very cautious with money to be able to retire…while I also have friends (bless their generosity) putting multiple kids through multiple forms of post-secondary education…leaving them with very little for current needs and for the future, and the need to keep working and working.

      I have younger friends (20s, 30s, 40s) and hope we’ll stay in touch if I am lucky enough to have a long(er) life. My half siblings….nope.

    2. I’m 69, and my husband and I don’t have children, although he has twin daughters (now 50) from his first marriage. When we got together, I thought I might want children down the road, and he thought he probably didn’t. The moment never arrived, so eventually he had a vasectomy. For the first few years after, I occasionally felt a pang that would last about ten minutes and then I’d move on to some other thoughts.
      I adored my stepdaughters as kids, and I believe they loved me, but they seem to view their childhood differently now. One has been estranged for more than ten years. The other was estranged, but we have reconciled, kind of. It’s very one-way. She barely communicates, but at least we are allowed to see our teenage grandsons, who are delightful.
      I enjoy children a lot (especially without their parents! who can, in my experience, be too controlling, answer for them, etc.) but I have no regrets about not having my own. I am occasionally lonely, but I think that would be true even if I had kids.
      And I never felt any pressure or heard negative remarks about being selfish. If anything, I have to deal with my own self-talk. Occasionally I feel that with the freedom and autonomy I’ve enjoyed, I “should” have accomplished more.

      1. I hear you! When you don’t have kids or grandkids and arguably have more time, money and energy to accomplish more…I think there is pressure, if only internally.

  5. I have two, but doing so is a choice, not a requirement. For some, the only reason they are parents is because they have working genitalia. Others who want to become parents but can’t for biological reasons must meet stringent requirements. Shouldn’t all parents be required to meet basic parenting requirements? Guilting people who don’t want to become parents is terrible. They are making a careful, considered decisions (unlike some parents I have encountered).

    1. It’s funny. I had assumed you had none, with your demanding career.

      I wish every parent could wise up to their own faults and frailties. If either of mine had been more humble (and sought therapy) things could have been a lot easier.

    2. I have no choice in the matter – being one of the people without working genitalia. But I can understand the plight of people who do and choose not to. Even as a guy, I get asked when I’m going to settle down and start a family – I’m almost tempted to tell them the truth – that I lost both testicles in a stupid and avoidable accident. I guess that would shut them up. 🤐😉

  6. I have children by choice – I started with 2, then added 2 bonus children courtesy of a second marriage. Then chose to have another one together, which happened to be twins. So yep, 6 kids, currently aged between 14-24. I love them very much and can’t imagine my life without them, but it has certainly changed what I have done with my life. There are times when it is hard (our oldest has a chronic pain condition, had open heart surgery 8 weeks ago and has just had 11 days in hospital trying to manage her pain) but tonight as they all (including a girlfriend, a nana and my bonus childrens’ mother) sat around the dinner table laughing and teasing each other to celebrate the second oldest’s birthday, it all seemed very worth it.

    I will say that NOT ONCE have I been asked why I chose to HAVE children, however childless friends of mine (by both choice and those unable to have children) are constantly asked why they don’t have children.

    1. That’s a busy life!!! Hoping for a quick healing for your oldest…Chronic pain is so exhausting.

      I never met anyone I could have imagined having kids with until I met my second husband when I was 43…and he had been a very late life surprise baby to parents with health issues and not a lot of money. So that was a “no.”

      We’re both journalists and the sad truth is that it is so competitive you have to choose what you hope to succeed in…and career won.

      Now…what do I have to show for my life? Two books, 10000s of articles, a lot of great adventures.

      But no one to mourn my loss or celebrate grand-kids with. They are all choices.

    2. I have one child and he has been tremendously rewarding to be the mother of. I remember vividly what a leap of faith it was to decide to get pregnant, since you really don’t know what kind of child you will have and what kind of parent you’ll be able to be. We were incredible lucky with our son and were very devoted parents. It was both the hardest and the most rewarding job I’ve ever had and I was really surprised by this. My husband was an excellent and very involved father – we had a lot of conflict over parenting styles (I’m a WASP from the south and he’s a NY Jew, so very different histories and expectations), but it all worked well for our son and we are extremely grateful.

  7. ThingsHelenLoves

    I have four children and building that family was the right choice for us. Have I enjoyed it? Yes , on the whole. It comes with sacrifice, though. But, I am so encouraged by the fact that women are talking about not having children and that some of the judgement seems to be fading, albeit slowly. My eldest daughter has just qualified as a barrister and has been open about having no desire to have children. My two other daughters, in their teens, seem to relish the options open to them. To have children or not being one of them! If I had my time again, I’d still have four children ( maybe closer together though!) but I hope for the next generation that choosing not to won’t be viewed as a choice that requires explanation.

    1. I’m glad it’s been a good experience for you. I also suspect, certainly on social media, women for whom motherhood has been an ordeal would be less likely to say so — for fear of vicious attacks.

      If someone reads my list of reasons, many are pretty legit. The fear of my body being taken over? There’s a name for that. It wasn’t a phobia, but it just seemed so weird…when it’s how I came into the world! So I wonder how many mothers did it, even while very nervous.

      I bet a lot.

  8. What really bugs me are people who have children, and they’re utterly unfit to be parents! One of the failings of France’s generous family allowance benefits is that many – I swear this is true – have multiple kids just to receive generous “baby bonus cheques”. This needs to be curbed. The more kids you have, the more money you get. Shocking.

    As for me, I regret not having at least one child. I think I would have made a pretty good mom. Luckily, I’m very close to the four kids of my ex and best friend who lives in Lille. I also have a niece in Toronto, but my toxic sister ruined any chance of having a relationship with her.

  9. We’ve talked about this tons! I know many women feel a very real and powerful biological imperative to be a mother, I’ve just never been one of them. I actively didn’t want children and the only reason I’m open to it is because my partner does. It was something we talked about while dating, engaged and now married. We have a plan that works for us – no kids until our mid30s, openness about not wanting to spend money of infertility if it happens to us, openness about adoption, and so on. I’m much less afraid of the idea of being a parent alongside him, but still very aware that I don’t want to replicate my own parent’s style in many ways, and also that having made many of the life decisions we did, we won’t have the same cultural support and institutions that we had growing up. From ethics, to chores, to sex ed, we’re going to have to carve a new path if we have kids and we’re both very aware of how much work that’s going to be.

    1. It’s complicated for you, as well, living in a very expensive city you love. And mid-30s means some added biological urgency, sorry to say. The most sobering work event I have ever attended — of many — was years ago, on infertility, and the desperation of would-be parents clutching the arms of MDs there was stunning.

      1. Definitely complicated, and that’s something else we think about a lot. Between maternity/paternity leave and the NHS, HAVING kids in the UK is definitely an improvement over the States, but RAISING them? I don’t think we could afford it!

        And add to all of this the mormon upbringing and the rhetoric of motherhood being a woman’s highest calling… If we are able to have children naturally, great. If we can’t, I won’t be heartbroken and I’d rather spend money to adopt than go through fertility treatments. I’ve seen way too many friends put through hell from it – hope, despair, repeated disappointment, financial worries, marital stress – and I know for sure that’s not a route I want to go down. Meanwhile, my parents are incredibly concerned about our continued childlessness and bring it up without invitation and in really invasive ways.

        Basically, parenthood is a minefield for many and we need broader acceptance for all kinds of lifestyle choices across the board. And consider more ways to make having and raising children achievable/desirable without shame or coercion.

      2. I am very lucky never to have been pressured into parenthood; my mother tried when I was about 30 and I told her never to do that again, and she didn’t.

        It is so deeply disrespectful to you — married more than a decade?! — to have anyone discuss this or try to push you into it. Really sorry to read this. Infertility treatment is…ugh, $$$$$$$$.

        One of the great myths/prejudices about parenthood — which causes some REALLY ugly divisions between some parents and non, is the incredible self-righteousness some display….they are SO self-sacrificing (true, your choice) and we are…not. There’s almost never a discussion how generous and generative some of us are with OTHERS’ kids! We know and love at least half a dozen “kids” — people in their 20s and 30s — who have some tough stuff to get through (one whose mom died of cancer while he was far away working, another whose father suffered a terrible brain injury) — and we are always happy to talk to them, listen to them, advise them and love them.

        People forget — or don’t want to know — that having older/wiser/loving friends is a great gift that many non-parents happily give to the world. (also fostering, volunteer work, etc.)

      3. Helping a young person grow up takes a great deal of energy, ideally from more than one person and even more than just two parents – but parents need to be into it!

        And interested caring people who aren’t their parents add so much to children’s lives!

        On a very practical level, adults who don’t have that energy to give on a day-in-day-out basis and don’t really want to do it should not be pressured to have kids, because their kids will need more than they want to give and are likely to have a rough time. It takes so much time and energy to heal from a difficult childhood – but just think of the positive effects if every child were deeply nourished by many adults.

      4. I know for sure our “kids” (most also journalists) really get a lot from us — as we do from them. Even just having a sympathetic non-parental ear — and sometimes a “WHAT are/were you thinking?!!!” — because we are not invested in their specific outcomes, just want the best for them.

      5. Yes absolutely! Having thoughtful fun people who care about you and give you their best thinking is always a huge benefit! Your journo kids are very lucky to have you and Jose!

  10. We don’t have children, not because we didn’t want them but because I can’t have them. We considered adoption but after an experience in which the grandmother ultimately decided to take the child, we decided to remain childless. I have no time for people who choose to be disrespectful to us about that decision. Recently, a 7-year-old neighbor boy scratched my husband’s ’49 pickup that he’s restoring, then took off without saying a word. My hubby tracked him down and asked for an apology and I let the parents know what happened. They came over to talk to us and the mother began the conversation with “I know people like YOU who don’t HAVE children don’t understand how to talk to them.” My hubby’s response: “We have 8 nieces and nephews, none of whom who were born 21 years old. We know how to talk to kids. Just not disrespectful kids.”

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