Tina Boyer responds to the recent Time magazine article that discusses the choice to live a child-free life.
I love the current cover of Time magazine in which a blissed-out white couple looking fine in matching teal-hued bathing suits lounge ear to opposing ear on a manicured beach under the caption: “The Childfree Life: When having it all means not having children.” I had not realized the super-sweet, opulent lifestyle afforded to me simply for choosing not to procreate. I am psyched.
OK, seriously, I am psyched for the choice I’ve made not to have children, but we’ll get to that. First, the Time article and its consequent reaction. Sales-driven cover art aside, I thought Lauren Sandler’s story read as a thoroughly researched, well-considered, data-driven piece. Yet her data speaks to the most intimate of subjects: the decision around whether or not to have children.
(For the purpose of this piece, I use the term “childfree” to describe those of us who have consciously chosen not to have children, as opposed to the many folks—some very near and dear to me—who would like to have a child, or another child, and are struggling to do so for any number of reasons.)
Here’s where my naiveté kicks in. People are really freaking defensive about this stuff! I’ve been genuinely surprised at the descriptions of relentless social pressures and judgment that the childfree have faced around their decision not to breed and the subsequent self-righteousness with which they’ve armored themselves to defend their choice. Not to mention all their complaining about other people’s children. I’ve gotta tell you: This has not been my experience.
Sure, over the years I’ve detected notes of underlying jealousy when it comes to the flexibility of my schedule and bank account as compared to my parenting friends but I have not faced anywhere near the kind of blatant judgment that some of the women in Sandler’s article—or those commenting on it—describe.
Setting aside the strong possibility that my friends and family actually are in fact judging me and I’m just not picking up on it, I’m thinking there are two major factors for why I’ve more or less been let off the hook.
First, I’ve always known that I didn’t want to have kids. There is no deep, dark trauma or pathology (that I’m aware of) lurking at the heart of this feeling. It’s just something I’ve always known. It’s not political, it’s not anti-child, it’s simply not something that’s ever appealed to me. People who have known me a long time seem to get this.
Second, I spent many years working in the pro-choice community and a large number of my friends are from those years. While the vast majority of them are parents, they also value the fundamental right and subsequent positive outcomes that arise when people make their own choices. Which is to say, people have pretty much left me alone on this one. Don’t worry, I’ve been raked over the coals plenty on other issues.
You want to know more about the coal-raking, huh? I figured you would. A few years ago I took a big risk by walking away from a good job to pursue a creative endeavor: novel writing. (Coal raking can now commence.) I took on some freelance work but left the bulk of my energy to the goal of writing a book—a risk I could take without worrying about how it might jeopardize my family. A risk I might not have taken if I were a mom.
Well, it turns out that people get really threatened when your behavior causes them to question their own. In fairness, as my own biggest judge and jury, I understood the line of questioning. And even now—when the blasted book is all but done—I agree that the undertaking was insane. But for me it was insane in a good way. A really good way. The way it’s insane to do something terrifying only to discover the rewards are much different and much better than any you could have imagined before its outset. I hear this is a fairly accurate description of parenting too.
Another unintended and magnificent outcome to this childfree existence is the luxury to be an active participant in the lives of other peoples’ kids. I’m a firm believer that it does indeed take a village and knowing that my husband and I are extra sets of hands in what appears to be the complicated art of raising children makes me happy. On a recent afternoon with our energetic 3-year-old niece, her parents lay comatose on the grass while my husband trotted her around on what can only be described as the longest piggyback ride of all time. While my niece giggled hysterically, my sister raised a weary head and smiled. “I think that’s the picture of pure joy,” she said. “Totally uncomplicated and pure.”
Even more unexpected has been my recent gig as a writer coach, during which I spend some time each week at the local middle school helping junior high students with their English assignments. Were I running carpools and juggling soccer practices for my own, I wouldn’t have the time or energy to help some of the kids in my community. And I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to realize that I may just be getting more out of it than they are.
If any of this is beginning to sound a little too idyllic and/or nauseating, I should mention that it’s not all piggyback rides and Harper Lee. When you butt up against the status quo, you’re going to be on the outs in some respect; even in the best of circumstances, it’s a challenge. I’ve been left out of confidences and disregarded by friends who’ve assumed I wouldn’t care about anything involving their burgeoning family. In other cases, friends have moved on because they didn’t relate to my lifestyle or they took offense at my differing priorities. It can be alienating to reconcile the choices I’ve made versus those of my peers, particularly in a culture where us empowered types are supposed to…here it comes…have it all.
For many women and men, the power to control their reproductive life is not fully in their own hands, be it a result of politics, societal factors, biological realities, or that they haven’t found the right partner yet. I’ve known folks in all of those situations and my heart is with them. Had my own circumstances been different, I might have caved and done what I thought was expected of me, gut be damned.
But here’s the thing for those of us who do have the power to choose. Whether we decide to have kids or not, it is the autonomy to make this most fundamental of choices that is the real “having it all.”
Tina Boyer lives on the West Coast and writes grants when she isn’t volunteering as a “writercoach” at her local middle school, where she helps eighth graders master their English assignments. Her first novel, GOOD GIRLS, is in the final throes of revision. You can find her on Twitter.