On Being Childfree

About two years ago I was on the phone with my dad. We were just closing the conversation, and it finished up something like this:

DAD: Bye, honey, love you.
ME: Bye, Dad, love you too.
DAD: And tell Steve I love him.
ME: I will.
DAD: And tell my grandkitties I love them!
ME [Touched]: Aw, Dad, you love my kitties!
DAD [With a slight touch of asperity]: Well, I guess I’d better, haven’t I, since it seems they’re the only grandchildren you’ve seen fit to give me!

So, if you were in the Pacific Northwest a couple of years ago, you now know that the unexplained crashing and burning sound you may have wondered about was me being shot down in flames!

Truly, though, I wasn’t offended. I have a good enough sense of humor that I can appreciate when I’ve been "gotten," and I was actually quite delighted that my Dad, who was ill with cancer at the time, was feeling well enough to tweak my nose in the old way. If there did exist in his small dig a grain of intent, I believe it had more to do with an unarticulated fear of rejection (i.e. a rejection of his way of life and choices) than with a wish for further descendents. He was actually quite accepting of my decision to not have children, while my mother is openly supportive. True, it might have been a bit harder for them to handle had Tim (who has also elected to remain childless) and I been their only children, but the other four siblings have provided them with ten grandchildren thus far, so no pressure is likely to come our way (beyond the occasional teasing, of course).

Adults without children, be they couples or single, have commonly been referred to as "childless." Do a search on the internet and you’ll find that, among the ever-increasing number of individuals who are childless by choice, this term carries a negative connotation, implying as it does an undesirable state. Within these circles over the past two to three decades has evolved the term "childfree," a word intended to describe adults who have elected not to become parents. This includes both individuals who are physically capable of reproduction but have decided to refrain from doing so as well as those who, though infertile, have decided not to attempt to reverse that state or to adopt any children, instead embracing a life that does not include parenthood.

As of this writing, I am thirty-six years old. Like most people I’ve had to make a lot of decisions in my life, some as an individual, some jointly. These decisions included such issues as where to live, what relationships to move into or out of, should I go on for an advanced degree and if so, when, how should I spend and/or invest my money, where should I work. Sometimes my decisions were right, and sometimes they were wrong—some of them I’ll probably never know for sure which was which. Thus far, though, no decision I have ever made has brought me more uninvited comments, opinions, and disapproval than that of opting out of motherhood. I never fail to be amazed by people’s interest (for want of a better word) in a choice that really directly affects only two people—my husband and myself.

What makes the situation even more ironic is the fact that Steve and I put so much thought into the matter—a lot more, I’m convinced, than do many people who charge into parenthood without a second thought. One of the common questions we hear is, "what if you change your minds when it’s too late?" (You could easily ask that question of a person contemplating pregnancy—after all, once the children are here, there’s no sending them back!) Indeed, childfree people hear so many of the same questions so often that some genius came up with the extremely amusing and dead-on-the money "Breeder Bingo"—a "game" not meant to be "anti-child" or even "anti-parent," but rather to serve as comic relief for those of us hearing the same tired old comments time after time. Take a look at the cards; I do assure you that Steve and I could easily have yelled out "BINGO!" on numerous occasions when the subject has cropped up (and never has it been instigated by us) in a conversation. And to reassure anyone who might be wondering, yes, Steve and I did carefully consider all the points raised on the cards, and no, I’m not going to share our determinations with you—it is, after all, a very personal matter. In fact, the deceptively simple question "Do you plan to have children?" is a very personal one, and one that could be potentially painful to the person(s) being asked (we know a few people who are either infertile or having trouble conceiving, and their pain over the situation is very intense), so it surprises me how often relative strangers will ask it, apparently without even any forethought.

Why would a personal decision to not have children draw so much attention? My guess is that it’s because it varies so widely from the life "script" we’re all brought up to believe in—and that’s not a criticism of any particular generation or generations. The urge to reproduce is innate within all living things; it is both a way to embrace life and to grasp at an earthly immortality. As a child I didn’t realize how wide open my life really was—I assumed I would finish school, go to college, get married, and have children— probably in that order. I even figured I’d have four: two boys and two girls. A barker at a carnival read my palm once and told me I’d have three, and that I would be a "fun" mother. I certainly did not look forward to parenthood with any particular sense of "fun"—I just assumed it was a given. Certainly I never liked the idea of pregnancy or childbirth, but there seemed to be no way around that if you were going to have kids—unless you adopted them: and let’s face it; much of the drive to have children has less to do with a genuine enjoyment of children and parenting than it does with a desire to promote one’s own genetic code. (There are probably going to be people who are irritated with me for saying that, but how else do you explain the expensive and sometimes drastic measures people resort to in terms of fertility treatments, artificial insemination, in-vitro fertilization, etc.? I do know a number of wonderful people who genuinely love children for the children’s sakes alone, and who delight in the challenges of parenthood whether their charges are their biological offspring or not, but most people, when seeking to enlarge their families, think primarily in terms of having "one of our own.")

When I turned fourteen, I began to have my doubts about what followed childbirth, as well, for that was the year my first nephew was born. Don’t get me wrong; he was a great kid and I loved being an aunt—I still do, as a matter of fact. But as my older siblings began to start families, I got to see for the first time what I, as the youngest, had not understood before: just how much sheer hard work goes into being a parent, how much parenting takes out of a person both physically and emotionally, how much sleep has to be sacrificed along with time to one’s self. It was this last point that frightened me the most, for I am a person who treasures solitude, to a point where I even felt some hesitation about getting married. I remember a time, after her second son was born, that my sister couldn’t even be alone in the bathroom! My dear husband understands my need to spend time alone walking, or with my books, my pen, or my brush, for he is that way himself. But children are far more needy and demanding (which of course is to be expected). When people tell me what a wonderful mother I would make because they think I’m so "good" with other people’s kids, I have to smile. It’s easy to be a wonderful aunt, but even as a teenager I knew full well that it was not the same thing. When you’re an aunt, you can enjoy yourself until you get tired, then someone eventually goes home—either you or them, and there is no responsibility for the safety, education, moral fiber or emotional well-being of the children. No, it’s not the same thing at all!

During my years as an undergraduate, two things happened that finally revolutionized my thinking in terms of what choices I had in life. The first was a boyfriend, whom I will not name out of respect for his privacy. He was a sweet guy and we’ve stayed friends; and while we never really considered marriage seriously, because we dated one another exclusively for a time he felt honor-bound to tell me early on that he was in all likelihood sterile, having received chemotherapy and radiation treatments for a form of cancer he had been diagnosed with as a teenager. He explained that, while he was now in full remission with little chance of a recurrence, he had dated a couple of women who, upon learning of his probable inability to father children, were unwilling to invest further time in a relationship with a man who would be unable to help them realize their own dreams of motherhood. Far from frightening me off from the relationship, the idea that it would not lead to parenthood lifted from my mind a weight that I hadn’t even realized was there.

The second part of my epiphany occurred just after graduation, when I went to visit Tim and his wife for the first time in New Mexico (you’ll find that most of the unconventional decisions I’ve made in my life are Tim’s fault—he’s always been a very bad influence on me!). I knew already that Tim and Louise did not have kids, nor did they want them: Tim had told Mom that he’d jokingly informed Louise that "I won’t have kids if you don’t!" But as it turned out, it wasn’t their "childfree" state that interested me so much as the obvious love and closeness between them, their pleasure of the world around them and their place in it, their enjoyment of each other and the life they’d built together. Resembling my big brother in more than looks, but also in my tastes and in what’s important to me personally, I don’t suppose it should have come as such a surprise to me that the quiet, contented life that he and Louise shared should hold such an attraction for me, or that it should give me ideas for my own future—but it was so different from what I’d been expecting for myself that it was. Was all of this due to the mere absence of children in the house? Probably not—but it certainly helped! More though, it showed me that, rather than just accept what seemed "normal"" or "usual" in an unthinking way, I could take the time to think about just what it was I really wanted and needed for my own life.

I also got to talk about it with Tim a bit on that trip, and it turned out that, like me, he’d never felt any particular urge to reproduce. "I suppose if the woman I was interested in had really, really wanted children, I would have gone along with it." He paused, then added thoughtfully, "Come to think of it, though...I’m not sure I would have been interested in the kind of woman who really, really wanted children!"

I could relate to this feeling exactly, for, years later, when I met Steve, I was so crazy about him that I feared I might cheat him somehow if I denied him an opportunity at fatherhood. But it turned out that while, like me, he had expected to become a parent one day, he had not looked forward to that day with any particular enthusiasm. In fact, when I first brought up the notion of not having children in the early days of our relationship (it’s best to get that issue out in the open as soon as possible, because it truly is a deal-breaker—there’s really no way to compromise on parenthood), he was surprised at the idea, and unthinkingly brought up the "Breeder Bingo" classic, "But don’t you think it’s selfish of people to purposely not have children?" Knowing that Tim and Louise had been asked the same thing, I was ready with my answer: "Selfish for whom? And even if it is, it’s not nearly as selfish as it would be to bring an unwanted child into the world!" And that was all it took to get Steve to rethink the script.

Interestingly, like Tim, it transpired that I was not attracted to the kind of person to whom fatherhood would have been that important—Steve and I began our life together in earnest, and enjoyed it so much that it didn’t take us long to solidify the decision to not change it by becoming parents. A good thing, too: while many childfree people enjoy being around kids (some even elect to work with them as teachers, etc.), as it turned out, my husband isn’t even particularly fond of them. While I genuinely enjoy spending time with my nieces and nephews, Steve can take them or leave them, and would most often prefer to leave them!

And so it goes. Is life for me perfect because I don’t have children? No, and it wouldn’t be perfect for me if I did have children, either—there’s no such thing as a perfect life, or a perfect marriage, because there are no perfect people (though I do believe people can be perfect for each other). But it’s the life I wanted, even when I wasn’t sure what it was I wanted...mostly, I think, because I try to take the time to figure out what it is I do want, instead of focusing on what I think I should want. So many decisions we make in life because we think it will bring us fulfillment...about a year ago, a dear, old friend of mine had her first child after numerous miscarriages and heartbreaking years of trying to figure out what was wrong. I agonized with her, but one of the things that hurt me most of all was that she should feel her life to be pointless because of her lack, when she had fulfilling work that benefited others, a loving marriage, the home and the life they both wanted. Then came a horrendous miscarriage that nearly killed her.

Afterwards, she told me on the phone that she had a new lease on life.

"People keep telling me that I’m still young, that there’s still time for me to carry a baby to term," she said. "Can you believe that?! I’m just grateful to be alive! No more fertility treatments, Jenn. No more doctors, no more timing when we have sex. If we get pregnant—wonderful. If not...well, I’ll just work on getting comfortable in my own skin."

She spent two years doing just that, and when her son finally arrived last year, she rejoiced over him because he was the icing on an already delicious cake. I’m happy for her in her life, just as I’m happy for me in mine.

Choices. At the risk of empolying a cliché, we all have to make them, and some of them have a powerful impact on our lives. Some are tremendously life-changing, and permanent (whether or not to have children). With that in mind, such decisions deserve a lot of careful thought, and in the end you have to decide for yourself what the best course of action may be, since no one can live your life for you. And it doesn’t hurt to keep in mind that what may be good for you, may not be good for someone else.

Jenn Eagen
May, 2007

An all-volunteer, non-profit social club for couples and singles who, for whatever reason, have never had children. NO KIDDING! has chapters all over the world—check out their site for a chapter near you.

Happily Childfree
A reference site about childfree living in a family-friendly world.

Baby Not on Board
A celebration of life without kids.

Childfree Abby
Whenever I’m in need of a giggle I go to this site. "Childfree Abby," as she calls herself, gives her own very blunt, sometimes painfully descriptive responses to issues people present to various syndicated advice columnists. Be warned—she can be very colorful in her phrasing!