By Jessica Sutton.
Women without children have been called a lot of things: incomplete, tragic, unfulfilled. But more and more women are rejecting these labels to embrace the decision not to become pregnant or have children. Being child-free, or voluntarily childless, came into the public eye in the 1990s as a response to the label “childless”. “Childless” women were presented as being, for one reason or another, unable to have children at that time. There was no word to represent a woman’s free choice to not be a mother.
Of course, being child-free is a privilege. It is a not a choice for many women, whether due to cultural norms, familial pressure, or lack of access to birth control and abortion services. But for those women who are able to make that decision, the child-free lifestyle has many attractions. Now, the child-free movement is becoming more visible on social media, and garnering both admiration and backlash.
But motherhood is your destiny!
Much of the backlash child-free women experience comes from proponents of the “marriage and baby” narrative. Many still believe that it is a woman’s duty to provide her husband with children and that she cannot be truly fulfilled in life until she is married and becomes a mother. True, some of us are no longer pressured to only be wives and mothers. Instead, that pressure has been replaced by the expectation for us to “have it all”. Now it is expected that women thrive at work at the same time as being a fantasy wife and perfect mother.
Biological essentialism is key to this expectation.
This narrative reduces cisgender women to their ability to get pregnant and give birth. They are presented as naturally predestined to be nurturing partners and mothers, while cisgender men are presented as natural protectors and providers. Without the addition of children to a woman’s life, she cannot be happy and fulfilled, we are told. Motherhood is therefore portrayed as integral to womanhood. We see this everywhere, from the media (ever seen a woman in a pregnancy test advert be happy about a negative test?), to the well-meaning words of our friends and family. The pressure to procreate is constant.
There is an avalanche of problems with this view. Firstly, it ignores the fact that women are rational human beings who are more than capable of making decisions about their lives and bodies. No woman is predestined to be a mother. It should be her choice whether or not to pursue motherhood, and it is up to her to decide whether or not she would be suited to pregnancy and parenting.
Another issue is that defining womanhood and family by reference to heterosexual marriage, pregnancy, and motherhood is deeply transphobic and heteronormative, and excludes people who have built their families in other ways, for example through adoption or surrogacy. You do not have to have a biologically female reproductive system to be a woman, and you do not need to be in a heterosexual partnership to be parents. Equating womanhood with motherhood is also hugely offensive to women who desperately want children but are unable to have them.
Motherhood is not a woman’s destiny. It should be her choice.
You’ll change your mind eventually!
This obsession with women’s reproductive “destiny” has serious consequences. One obvious repercussion is that child-free women report being hounded by friends, family, and even strangers about their decision. The most common occurrence is being termed “selfish”. Selfish for not providing their partner with children, selfish for not fulfilling societal expectations, selfish for daring to focus primarily on themselves. Yet, men without partners and children are not vilified in the same way. It’s the difference between the carefree bachelor, and the bitter spinster.
What is at the root of societal discomfort with child-free women, is that these women are defying one of the most entrenched gender roles: that of the wife and mother. If you accept that an allosexual woman (someone who experiences sexual attraction) does not want children, that means that she is having sex for pleasure. The horror! It also means that she has unparalleled freedom to meet her own needs and craft her life according to her own desires.
One key result of this societal discomfort is that child-free women experience significant obstacles in the medical system. For many women, the possibility of pregnancy is terrifying. Yet, even raising the question of permanent birth control with a doctor can be a fraught experience. I know I’m not alone in being shut down by my doctor when I cautiously raised the subject of tubal ligation (getting my tubes tied). You’ll change your mind when you’re older. What if your partner wants kids? You’ll understand once you get pregnant.
This mistreatment tells women that a) their own desires and dreams as a human adult are subordinate to a hypothetical baby and the wishes of their partner and b) they can’t be trusted to make decisions about their own body.
Why would you not want a baby?
It’s clear that when a woman openly declares that children are just not for her, it strikes a societal nerve. But there are plenty of reasons why someone might not want to go through pregnancy and motherhood.
Not for everyone
For one, some women are just not suited to parenting. Parenthood is not for everyone. Some people know that, deep down, they are not the kind of person who is going to be a good mother. They might not like kids at all. They might like them, but not want to be their primary carers. They might feel that they are not in a position to give a child a good life. It is more than okay to recognise that and move on. Bringing a whole new human being into the world is an enormous step. Potential parents have to be sure that they can be there for that little person, that they have the emotional and financial capacity to keep them safe and happy, that they aren’t going to wake up one day and regret them. Because children are smart. They will know when they aren’t truly wanted. We need to stop treating parenthood as an automatic stepping-stone to fulfilment, rather than a life-altering decision. It’s fine to want to. But you shouldn’t have to.
The cost of gender roles
Another simple reason is that having children is expensive, particularly for women. Raising a child until they are 18 years old costs parents approximately $285,000 NZD. But in a heterosexual partnership, children continue to cost women a lot more than they cost men. The bulk of childcare and domestic work is still performed by women. This work is gendered, unpaid, and often thankless. A common (and depressing) joke by new mothers is that they now have two children, the baby and their (incompetent) husband. The exhausting job of being the primary carer and domestic worker impacts women both personally and professionally. Women have made up the vast majority of job losses throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with many of them citing the pressures of childcare and domestic labour as the reason for their retreat from the workplace. Until men take on their fair share of caring for their own children, women are still statistically likely to suffer reduced personal and professional opportunities due to having children. It is entirely understandable for women to recognise these worrying statistics, and factor them into their decisions about motherhood.
Pregnancy and Birth Trauma
Another key issue is pregnancy and birth trauma. Pregnancy and birth trauma may be both psychological and physical. On the most extreme end of the scale, approximately 303,000 women and girls will lose their lives in childbirth and pregnancy each year. Obstetric fistula is one of the most serious birth injuries that can occur, involving a tear in the birth canal between the vagina and the rectum, ureter, or bladder. This is caused by a long and difficult labour and is more common where women and girls are not able to access appropriate medical care such as caesarean section. Approximately 75,000 women per year will suffer obstetric fistulae. On the less severe end of the spectrum, 1 in 3 women will suffer urinary incontinence after birth. There is very little government support available for postpartum rehabilitation.
Also, pregnancy and birth are often psychologically distressing. Pregnancy creates a cocktail of hormones that can cause or exacerbate anxiety and depression. The physical changes and pain associated with pregnancy can also negatively impact the mental health of prospective mothers. Some women, particularly those with pre-existing physical or mental health conditions, may wish to avoid these psychological and physical side-effects of pregnancy and birth.
The world is disintegrating
Global pandemic. Climate change. Systemic misogyny, racism, ableism, and homophobia. You’d be forgiven for not wanting to bring a child into that.
The most difficult reason for others to accept, is that some women just enjoy the freedom of a child-free life. They don’t have to justify their decision to anyone. If you feel deeply upset by the idea of a woman living her life with freedom, then maybe you need to ask yourself some searching questions.
Do I think that everyone should be child-free? Of course not. But having a child is one of the most significant and permanent decisions a person can make. People should not be pressured to go through with it if they are not 100% on board. Most of all, whether women want children or not is just none of our business. It is a choice like any other. She doesn’t owe the world anything. She doesn’t owe her partner anything. She doesn’t owe you anything. It’s time for women to live their lives exactly how they want.
 WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, World Bank, United Nations Trends in Maternal Mortality: 1990 to 2015 (2016) at xi.