The author enjoying her leisure time. (Photo: Photo Courtesy Of Louise Slyth)
A few years ago, I was talking to a stranger at a wedding. She asked me if I had kids. When I said no, she responded, “Do you feel like less of a woman?”
Conflating womanhood with the ability and desire to reproduce is obviously incredibly outdated and sexist (and also transphobic). Not to mention that those who say these things are nearly always referring to biological children, which ignores the many different ways to create a family.
But honestly, as a married woman in my 40s without children, I get this kind of judgment all the time.
Every time someone asks me if I have children, I brace myself for the inevitable awkwardness when I say no. Over the years I have developed a remarkably thick skin, but this one floored me. I am a woman who is rarely at a loss for words, but I simply stared at this woman, mouth agape like a goldfish, before making an excuse and walking away.
The answer is no, I don’t feel less, but I’m tired of being made to feel less.
I’m tired of these kinds of questions, tired of always being on the defensive, and tired of others feeling uncomfortable when my life choices don’t validate theirs.
If I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me an inappropriate question, or made a hurtful off-the-cuff remark, I could retire tomorrow. From “If you were a mom you would understand” to “Who will look after you when you get old?” — I’ve heard them all.
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For some people, the road to motherhood is an easy one. For others, it’s full of roadblocks and heartaches. And some decide that road simply isn’t for them. Even though almost 1 in 5 women now reach their 40s without having children, it feels like we still have a long way to go when it comes to how we are perceived.
People (often strangers) still seem to find it socially acceptable to ask very personal questionslike “Why don’t you have children?” with no thought as to whether that question might cause discomfort or pain.
I know several women who have suffered silently through the agony of multiple miscarriages or failed in vitro fertilization attempts, all the while fielding these inappropriate questions. I can’t imagine asking an acquaintance if they were having, say, financial difficulties, even if I suspected it. And yet, the incredibly personal topic of whether we plan to reproduce seems to be fair game, as if a uterus is somehow communal property.
There are two very common answers to the “Why don’t you have children?” question. The first is that the person in question desperately wants to have children but has been unable to. If a person is having reproductive challenges and wants to talk about it, they will. The end.
The second option is that they have actively made the private and personal choice that motherhood is not for them. In which case, no amount of inappropriate prodding is going to change their mind.
If you’re wondering which camp I fall into, the answer is: That’s my story to tell, when and if I choose to.
I have a friend who is very open about her choice not to have children. She is constantly being called “selfish” for choosing a child-free life.
There are many reasons a person might choose not to have children, none of them selfish. They might have grown up without the template of what a happy family life looks like. They might have been the eldest of a large brood and had child care responsibilities thrust on them at an early age. They might be concerned about bringing a child into an overpopulated planet facing climate disaster. Or they might recognize that they simply aren’t up to the task. Isn’t it far more selfish to bring a child into the world who is not truly wanted?
But beyond that, some people simply don’t want (or even like!) kids, and there’s nothing wrong with that either.
Still, most women live with the crushing weight of society’s expectations and judgment. Swimming against the tide of that expectation is exhausting. If you live in a world where your life circumstances are not validated by your friends, co-workers or the media, it depletes your confidence.
The lack of a child may not bother you at all. But the lack of understanding can be incredibly painful.
Thankfully, I’m now past “the baby years” — that decade when everyone around me was either having babies or talking about them.
I was once part of a lovely friendship group. We used to meet up regularly for dinner and cocktails. When the babies arrived, the invitations dried up. I eventually found out they had flipped to daytime meetings with kids in tow. I wasn’t invited because they “didn’t think I’d be interested.” It was like an invisible barrier went up overnight — they were all part of an exclusive club to which I was never getting a membership.
Feeling like you don’t belong or aren’t fully accepted can be really hurtful, even if it’s unintentional.
Despite having lots of friends with kids, only once was I ever invited to a child’s birthday party. Even if it was my choice not to have children, that doesn’t mean I don’t like them or want to be around them.
Still, I’m very blessed to have some wonderful friends with whom I could have frank conversations about how to maintain our friendship in the face of our diverging life changes, and a shared history that kept us strong when the present was in flux. I am genuinely interested in their little ones, and they are genuinely interested in and celebrate the things in my life — whether it’s a career highlight or an exciting vacation.
As I watch parents from the sidelines, the main thing I think I’m missing out on is witnessing the childhood milestones, or the joy that children add to Christmas and Halloween. I live far away from my nieces and nephews, so I don’t get to be the cool aunt as much as I’d like.
Instagram is flooded with photos of proud parents sharing their offspring’s first day at school, prom or camp. We now live in an “announcement culture” and I sometimes feel like I don’t have much to announce. Compared to the picture-perfect “mom life,” mine sometimes looks flimsy and untethered, even though that’s not my lived experience.
But life without kids has its bright sides. I am fortunate to have certain freedoms and choices that some moms will never have. I have enough spare time to indulge in a range of hobbies from flamenco dancing to yoga. I’ve had the opportunity to travel extensively, work and live around the world. While that wouldn’t have been impossible with kids in tow, it would certainly have been more logistically challenging. I can choose my apartment based on closet space, not school district.
Then there’s money ― I have more disposable income and I don’t have the financial burdens of college fees or grown children’s weddings, so I can channel my money into causes I care about, and hopefully retiring a little earlier than most. I also have a wonderful marriage where we are devoted entirely to each other and have the time and money to have lots of adventures. And last but not least, I get plenty of sleep!
On balance, I wouldn’t change a thing.
To be clear, those women who do have children also face a constant barrage of judgment. From childbirth to childrearing, everyone seems to have an opinion.
Motherhood can be a lonely journey. So can “otherhood.” There’s no right way to be a woman, and it has nothing to do with whether you have kids. To insist otherwise is exclusionary and dangerous.
Regardless of whether we are mothers, we should all strive to celebrate our differences, support each other and navigate our journeys with grace.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.