This essay was originally posted on Skepchick back when we were a humble monthly e-zine. I’ll be periodically re-posting the articles that were on the original site so that they can find a new audience.
Proud to Be Childfree
Originally posted April 2006
â€œNot all who wander are lost.â€ — J.R.R. Tolkien
One fine spring day, my father and I were driving somewhere, exactly where I do not remember. I was excited about my upcoming high school graduation. I had thrown my hat in the ring to be one of the commencement speakers, but sadly, it was not to be. I was discussing my glumness at this apparent rejection with my father, and he was attempting to ameliorate my adolescent angst by telling me that speaking at graduation was, ultimately, a popularity contest. He said to me: â€œYou know, at my high school graduation, there was a girl who spoke for the class. She told everyone that the world was such a bad place that she could never bring children into it. I always wanted to look her up and see if she had kids now. I bet she does.â€ His face then contorted in anger. â€œWhat an obnoxious bitch.â€
I was stunned. My father never swore in front of me.
Let me say, first, that I am not a big fan of commencement speeches — by either class members or invited speakers — that center around how the graduating class is inheriting a world that is basically a big ball of shit. I think that kind of sentiment is unnecessary and casts a pall on a day that is supposed to be celebratory.
That was nearly 20 years ago and I still remember it like it was yesterday. This exchange was my initiation into the cult of assumptions that is our pro-natalist culture.
I got the sense that my father was reacting less to the fact that it was a ball-of-shit speech, and more to the fact that this girl announced to everyone present that she did not plan on having children. My puzzlement at my fatherâ€™s over the top reaction that this girl did not want to bring children into a world that she perceived as negative and hostile, remains. Why did he care what she thought or what she did? If she didnâ€™t want children, so what?
I am sure I do not have to explain what it is like to grow up different. Many of us, as skeptics, have gotten into a fistfight with the status quo in one way or another, whether that be through religious differences within our community, scientific literacy gaps, or through our charming, geeky, and misaligned social priorities. I am also certain that I do not have to explain to some of the women how sometimes the skeptic worldview comes into conflict with the stereotypical essence of womanhood, which apparently somehow has been codified as â€œwarm, fuzzy, emotional, and collaborative.â€ Act with your heart, not your head, women!
What is the main difference between women and men, even if youâ€™re a skeptic? The obvious answer is that if you are a man, I have a uterus and you do not. I can think like a man (whatever that means), get a job in a male dominated field, and play a â€œmaleâ€ sport, but I will never, ever, have a penis. That means that people expect a certain mindset from me. Uteruses are meant to be used, right? An empty uterus is a sad uterus!
Freud once said, â€œAnatomy is destiny.â€ While many of my contemporaries, as â€œmore enlightenedâ€ individuals, insist that this phrase is one of many stupid things that Freud said, I am not so convinced. I do believe I am somewhat in control of my destiny, but destiny is something that requires the input of the community unless one is stranded on a deserted island. Mozart was born with talent, and even had a father who recognized and promoted his talent. But where would Mozart be if he were born now? Would he be a brilliant hip-hop artist? Or would he be composing movie preview music? Would he be drowning his sorrows in a bottle of gin and cursing Internet music pirates?
Therefore, regardless of how enlightened some individual people are, if your cross-section in time is not in alignment with you, your anatomy can indeed be your destiny. Specifically, if I had been born in my great-grandmotherâ€™s time in the Russian Jewish ghetto, I may have been disallowed to learn to read. Typically, only boys were sent to school, and girls generally were taught to keep house. There I would have been, a woman born to love learning but who was denied the chance to learn anything except how much childbirth hurts and how to make a good kreplach. I would have been dependent on the men in the family to allow me to learn to read and write. They might have tsked at me and worried that such bad habits or desires would make it harder to marry me off. Biology = destiny.
Even today, though, the community at large seems to believe that since I am a woman, I love babies, want lots of children, and that I am dying to hear about other peopleâ€™s children. When someone brings pictures of their babies into work, I am supposed to squeal. I donâ€™t quite have the squeal down. It is a bit higher pitched than what I am used to. Apparently, the appropriate noise is something like â€œSQUEEEEE,â€ but since I canâ€™t get the line right, I have taken to hiding in the bathroom during picture presentation so I donâ€™t embarrass myself by my obvious non-reaction or get â€œthat look.â€ Swimming against the current is extremely tiring and occasionally very uncomfortable.
So hereâ€™s the reality: I am childfree. That means that I have no childrenâ€¦by choice.
Those of us who identify as childfree use this term instead of â€˜childlessâ€™ â€“ because â€˜childlessâ€™ implies there is a lack of something in our lives. People without ferrets wouldnâ€™t identify themselves as â€˜ferretless.â€™
Childfree does not mean that I hate children. I like older children. I just donâ€™t want any of my own. Very smart people look at me like I have two heads if I ever say that I donâ€™t really like babies, so I rarely bring it up anymore. Saying that I donâ€™t like cats but I donâ€™t kill cats either also does not help. This discussion about whether or not I want children invariably leads to what is known in the childfree community as â€œbingoing.â€ This is mostly a verb (â€œI got bingoedâ€), but it can also be used as a noun (â€œAnother bingo todayâ€).
Below are the common childfree bingos and my responses. I hope you havenâ€™t been on the bingoing end. If you have been, email me for the repentance formula.
1. â€œYouâ€™ll change your mind.â€ I am nearly 35 years old. Iâ€™m pretty sure that 1) I know my own mind at this point, and 2) Donâ€™t you think that if I wanted children, it would have happened by now? Other CFers prefer to say: â€œWhen did you know you wanted children? Youâ€™ll change your mind.â€
2. â€œJust wait until your biological clock starts ticking.â€ I think mine is busted. I donâ€™t hear it. At all. Other CFers resent the implication they are nothing but the sum of their hormones and answer this question accordingly.
3. â€œYour dogs are child substitutes.â€ No, theyâ€™re dogs. I am not going to drive them into therapy if I say in a baby voice, â€œDog #1, youâ€™re just the stupidest dog ever! Yes! Ever ever! And, Dog #2, you eat poo! You are so gross! Youâ€™re the grossest thing ever!â€ Instead of developing parent-induced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, they wag at me and get wound up. They cheerfully sleep in their crates at night. I canâ€™t be sure, but I have heard that Child Protective Services doesnâ€™t like it when you keep your kids in a crate.
4. â€œYouâ€™ll regret it.â€ Hereâ€™s where being familiar with the psychological literature helps. Actually, studies have found that childfree couples are extremely happy and do not regret their decision, as long as they agree on being childfree. The sum happiness of many couples goes down when there are children in the house and doesnâ€™t rise again until after the children leave. Besides, I would rather regret not having children than regret having them.
5. â€œYouâ€™re selfish.â€ So you had your kids solely because you wanted to benefit society and not because you wanted them? How sad.
6. â€œYouâ€™re not truly an adult until you have children.â€ Part of being an adult means taking a realistic appraisal of your abilities, wishes, dreams,
and talents. Adults think through decisions before they make them and they do not do things just because they are â€œsupposedta.â€
7. â€œWho is going to take care of you when youâ€™re old?â€ If youâ€™re having kids for social insurance, I think youâ€™ll be disappointed. Such elder worship is not the culture of the USA. We throw away our elderly just like we throw away razor blades.
8. â€œYou must hate children.â€ No. Some childfree hate children, just like some of us hate peas. I like children. I work with them. Therefore, I know how hard it is to be a good parent. I like children enough that I would not want to give them a mother or father who doesnâ€™t really want them.
9. â€œWhat if your mother said that?â€ Then youâ€™d be standing here talking to yourself. That would have been her right.
10. â€œYouâ€™re just doing this so you can live high on the hog/buy that Porsche.â€ You obviously havenâ€™t seen the new Porsche Cayman, otherwise you would understand my viewpoint better. Seriously, though, why is it wrong to take into account finances anyway? If I canâ€™t afford it, why do you want me to have children I canâ€™t afford? Telling me â€œyouâ€™ll find the moneyâ€ is not a logical strategy. Sure, I could find the money for something I really wanted to do. I could work two jobs. But money is a limited resource. It goes to things that are important to me. If my relationship is of #1 importance, and my relationship is strengthened traveling to the Great Wall of China, Iâ€™m investing in my relationship. Besides, how am I more materialistic than parents who buy Dolce & Gabanna outfits and Chanel diaper bags for their children?
The bottom line is that there are unspoken societal expectations for women. We are â€œsupposedâ€ to think in a certain way. I have tried to explain some of the estrangement that goes on when you are a woman who loves learning more than babies. Why do people keep trying to convince those of us who are childfree that we are wrong about a decision we have considered at length? A lot of us donâ€™t buy the argument that it is because such people are â€œconcerned about usâ€ and want us to experience something beautiful. If being a parent is one of your sparkling talents, thatâ€™s beautiful. This is your time, your society.
As for me, Iâ€™ll throw some books in my backseat, pop my Mozart CD into my Porsche, drive to Napa Valley, sip some wine at Opus One, and wholeheartedly atone for the ball-of-shit speech I just gave.
Dr. Risa Beckwith is a reproductive justice advocate with a Master’s in Public Health.