Why does society often view childless women as sad or bitter? Just because you can doesn’t mean you want to or even should have children. Michelle Rabil responds to a recent Slate.com article about the public perception of child-free women.
When I got the OK to write a response to Katie Roiphe’s Slate article “Do We Secretly Envy the Child Free,” my first thought was, is this too easy? As I read Roiphe’s assertion that women with children tend to assume that women who are childless by choice “can’t possibly be happy with things as they are, that there is some brittleness, some emptiness at the center,” I imagined a response just two sentences long: Making assumptions is at the heart of every “ism” that exists. We might as well argue that gay people are secretly resentful that they aren’t straight, or that most women are deeply disappointed on some level because we aren’t men—but Freud beat us to that one.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple if we assume Roiphe is correct in saying that despite the growing number of childless women in America, the prevailing thinking is that “a woman without a child is still a tragic or at least disappointed figure.” And it is definitely true that men without kids are not pitied or viewed in the same way as child-free women. I think this is the bigger problem, for as bad as it is for society to look askance at women who choose not to procreate, it would be a lot better if childless men were sharing equally in receiving the raised societal eyebrow. Yet we don’t look upon these men as “missing out,” “damaged,” “sad,” or “thwarted,” and we need to ask ourselves why.
Interestingly, the article notes that men who opt out of reproduction are typically labeled with “Peter Pan syndrome,” aka living in perpetual immaturity. That is undoubtedly true for some childless men, but isn’t it equally true for some child-free women? Men haven’t cornered the immature market. Still, why is being young at heart a bad thing? As long as you can support yourself and aren’t harming anyone, why is wanting to live a life unencumbered, able to go backpacking in Europe or skydiving when the mood strikes you, derided as immature in our culture?
Perhaps those saddled with the responsibilities of a mortgage and child-raising are secretly envious of the freedom of the child-free. Maybe their judgment is a means of coping with this envy. Assuming that someone else is miserable is a great way to ease one’s own unhappiness, after all, and the article concedes that the freedom of the child-free “can be something of a reproach, if we are honest.” This begs the question, if people with kids are by default happier, why are they taking the child-free set’s choice so personally? Roiphe admits that she has sometimes “ardently encouraged” women she knows in their late 30s to have children, and then wondered why she was so adamant. As she says, it represents a major lack of imagination to assume that having a child is so transfiguring that nothing else could possibly come close.
So where does the assumption that women with children are happier come from, when we know that bearing fruit is by no means a guarantee to happiness or fulfillment? Can we blame the greater culture? I remember Susan Faludi’s criticism of the popular late ‘80s drama Thirty Something in her book, Backlash, followed by a few other women who joined the chorus. These writers had plenty to object to—all the unmarried, childless female characters were depicted as deeply flawed, neurotic, and miserable, either focusing their lives around the mission of finding a man to make them happy/give them children, or, in the case of the show’s only feminist, who was friendless and cold to the point of seeming inhuman.
The single women characters didn’t mask their envy of Hope, the married stay-at-home mom and star of the show. They seemed to huddle around her in an attempt to bask in her glow, as if they could catch her life fulfillment like a cold. Meanwhile, the show’s one single man was kidded about his immaturity, but was otherwise happy and well-rounded. It’s rather disturbing to consider that this was a hit show watched by thousands of impressionable young girls, including yours truly.
Then there are the films of that era with a similar theme, Fatal Attraction the most obvious example: childless and single at 36? Automatic lunatic. We should have progressed beyond this thinking in more than two decades, but if we’re still having these discussions, it’s safe to assume that we really haven’t. Sex and the City was more balanced in addressing the issue, with two characters ambivalent about having kids and one, steadfastly against it, who was not punished for her choice—unless you count her breast cancer diagnosis. Meanwhile, women like Oprah, Helen Mirren, Condoleezza Rice, Gloria Steinem, and Kate Hepburn have been asked far too often, “Do you regret not having children?” We never hear a prominent mother asked, “Do you regret having so many children?” let alone asked if they regret having children, period.
The child-free are often labeled selfish, which seems strange given that this planet is extremely overpopulated—animals driven to the brink of extinction; millions of people starving; increasing environmental destruction; third-world populations soaring; and land and water supplies unable to sustain projected population growth rates, according to many scientists. Yet the more children someone has, the more we as a society congratulate them. Despite the vast numbers of children awaiting adoption, often living in dire circumstances, it’s rare to hear the “s” word used against those like Mel Gibson, who, at last count, had spawned eight kids, and who, if you believe dozens of leaked audiotapes, is not exactly a model father. Given that humanity is in no danger of extinction, it would seem that adoption is the most selfless act.
One thing is certain—there are many people who clearly should not be breeding. Viewing any of the Kardashians’ reality shows or Cops should make this abundantly clear. Where are the kudos for those who recognize that, for whatever reason, they wouldn’t make good parents? On the other hand, there are many people who would make great parents yet have no desire to become one.
Wanting more freedom, concern for the planet, not wanting to be bogged down with responsibility, not feeling maternal/paternal, or even a dislike of children (yes, there are many outliers among us who dislike children and shouldn’t be seen as evil incarnate for their feelings, particularly on airplanes), are all reasons for not having kids. Then there are those, like a colleague of a friend of mine, who simply “refuses to go nine months without sushi and alcohol.” I suppose the point is that the reasons why shouldn’t matter; choices that don’t harm anyone shouldn’t require justification. Octo-Mom, on the other hand, has some ‘splaining to do.
Michelle Rabil is a freelance writer, public relations consultant, traveler off the beaten path and avid amateur photographer living in Manhattan. When she isn’t writing for Fortune 500 clients and some of the largest public relations firms in the country, she prefers to be in, on or under the Caribbean Sea. She has also written for Reuters, Psychology Today, Huffington Post and Salon.