In response to a recent article by the often controversial Katie Roiphe, Adaya Adler discusses the difference between the “childfree” and “childless,” and questions the common idea that having children is a hallmark of achievement.
When I first read Katie Roiphe’s Do We Secretly Envy the Childfree? my initial response was to explain to her what it is like to be childfree, because she clearly had no idea. Roiphe did something that I’ve seen many parents do when they try to imagine the lives of the childfree—take their own lives, subtract out the children, and see if they could build a life around what was left. According to Roiphe, what would be left are sad, lonely, brittle women who own too many pets to fill the void. And the men? Men who choose not to have children are immature, semi-immoral Peter Pan types whose lives revolve around staying out at parties until 3am and flying to Europe at the drop of a hat.
Between the marginalization of the women and the condescension toward the men, she kind of makes it sound like childfree people are, well, not real people.
So let’s talk about who is, and who is not, a childfree person. Childfree people are people who have consciously chosen not to have children. For the past two years I’ve moderated an online community for childfree people. While that certainly doesn’t make me an expert, I have had a lot of people to talk to about how being childfree impacts our lives. And the thing is that childfree people aren’t anti-family or even always anti-child (unless a parent brings a screaming child into a nice restaurant). Many of us even enjoy acting as a mentor to younger family members and friends. But we have all decided to get our emotional needs met in ways that don’t include being a primary caregiver to a child.
The people in my group cite many reasons for deciding to not have children. Some, of course, have made the decision due to illness or injury—they are not capable of sustaining a pregnancy, cannot physically care for a child, or see the cost to their quality of life as too great to want to risk it. Some simply do not want to bear the expense. Some have demanding careers or personal lives. Some, like myself, assumed the parental role in childhood for younger siblings and decided that was as close to being a parent as they wanted to get. What we all have in common is that for a number of different reasons, we, the childfree, don’t want kids. We just honestly don’t want them.
Conversely, there are people who do want children but either cannot have them or are prevented from having them: They are generally called “childless.” Childless people are prevented from becoming parents for a multitude of reasons, but the difference is that their childlessness is painful to them. These snarky, superior comments that are thrown around by some parents may anger the childfree, but they can wound the childless. And I can’t help but think that if you are someone who’s been prevented from having children, isn’t your life complicated enough? Why would any parent want to add to that by calling names?
And despite Roiphe’s idea that childfree people are irresponsible grasshoppers to the parent worker-ants, for many of us, identifying as childfree is a long and difficult process. We have to fight against the assumptions, both internal and external, that parenthood is an objective hallmark of maturity and selflessness. I was talking about this with my partner and he said, “Think about it—with a few rare exceptions, we are all brought up in families where having and raising children is the norm. You have to be willing to think outside of how you were raised just to conceive of a life without children.”
I also have to question the idea that having children is some kind of hallmark of ultimate achievement. Roiphe talked about many of the shortcomings commonly ascribed to the childfree, but she never took a critical view of parenthood. If we can assess the quality of a childfree person by their number of pets and trips to Europe, can’t we also assess the quality of a parent by their children’s grades and the condition of their lawn? And in evaluating the moral impact of having children, what about all the bad parents out there? If simply having and trying to raise children were a “semi-moral” act, as Roiphe says, then wouldn’t all parents be morally superior to all childless and childfree people? What about parents who abuse and neglect their children? Parents whose children that are taken away by the Department of Child and Family Services and raised in group homes—are they morally superior too? Of course not. Just having children is a morally ambiguous decision. As with many decisions, what you choose isn’t inherently moral or immoral—how you arrived at your decision and how you carry through on your commitments shows your moral character.
I do share one habit with Roiphe, though. I also tend to encourage people to have children. Many people who are struggling with whether or not to have children come to talk to me about how I arrived at my decision to be childfree. Honestly, for me, the decision was as easy, obvious, and natural as any I’ve ever made. But many of the people who talk to me about it are heartbroken and torn. They desperately want children, but can’t find partners, can’t get pregnant, or the path to adoption is just too long and difficult. My heart aches for them. I don’t have any reason to encourage people to be childfree. I feel like if a person is to be childfree, they will come to it on their own. For those who want children, I encourage them to go as boldly after their desires as I have gone about being childfree. In the mostly good-natured battles between parents and the childfree, I feel like all too often the voice of the childless, those who struggle between the two polar opposites of this debate, gets lost.
It seems to me that this name calling and judging each other needs to stop. Instead of trying to fetishize the single, older, multiple-cat-owning woman who lives down the street as a symbol of why parenting is so awesome, maybe struggling parents should look into why they need to make themselves feel better by putting someone else down. The assumptions that I read in Roiphe’s article and echoed by many parents I know are not only off-base, but hurtful. It seems to me that resentment is driving that kind of schadenfreude, and I have to ask, why are these parents so resentful?
Adaya Adler is a jacqueline-of-all-trades and has worked many jobs from Fortune 500 trainer to phone sex operator. She is a part-time citizen journalist and a full-time adventurer, and wants to use all her experiences as fodder for future blog entries. She blogs at http://adaya36.livejournal.