This piece was originally published for Mother’s Day 2018. The circumstances of the author’s life have since happily changed.
Last July, at age 33, I separated from my husband. We had been unhappy for a while, but were both absolutely shattered when it all unraveled. Friends and family were there for both of us, though I suspect that their support was slightly different depending on to whom they were talking. It invariably didn’t take more than three or four well-intentioned platitudes before the person asked me about what I was going to do about having children. I was 33 going on 34, after all. My window was closing.
My husband never experienced this. He had a long rich life ahead of him, whether he had children or not. I, as a woman, was teetering dangerously close to the unfulfillment of my biological purpose—something that not only makes me selfish, but also a deeply tragic figure, destined to grow old alone without any joy or companionship in my twilight years.
But all of that, of course, is bull.
A Woman’s Private Parts Are… Private
According to Brianna Madia, a storyteller and professional vagabond, we all know the “rules” when it comes to religion, politics, or salary. “And yet,” she says, “even in our current culture of correctness, it is still deemed socially acceptable to ask a woman about something as personal as the status of her reproductive organs. I’ve been confronted about my childlessness at cocktail parties, holiday dinners, and even standing in front of an office copy machine.”
It’s not just a rude and deeply personal question, it can also be triggering and—even unintentionally—open wounds. “That woman standing before you may have just experienced her fourth miscarriage or her third round of IVF fail,” says Brianna. “She and her partner may be knee-deep in the excruciating pain that infertility can bring upon a couple. And here you are, demanding to know about a child she’d love nothing more than to tell you about… If only she could.”
On the other side of the spectrum, women who choose not to have kids sometimes face the insinuation that they’re somehow devoid of maternal instinct or the capacity to love. “Several years ago, due to a family emergency, my 17-month-old nephew was sent from California to live with my husband and I in our studio apartment for over two months,” says Brianna. “It was one of the most challenging and emotionally trying things we’ve ever gone through. Just once I wanted to be told, ‘you’re a great aunt’ instead of, ‘you’d make a great mother.’”
The Unconventional Realization
Whitney Smith is a graduate student whose parents, she writes, “had a rocky relationship with parenthood.” Despite that, Whitney says that she feels as if she was effectively brainwashed, “programmed to ignore or deny any negative thoughts associated with motherhood.” She’s recently realized that she isn’t, in fact, required to procreate; that she doesn’t owe society a child, and that her femininity and womanhood isn’t threatened by deciding not to have kids.
I was programmed to ignore or deny any negative thoughts associated with motherhood. – Whitney Smith
“I know women,” Whitney writes, “who have been pressured and judged to the point that they fall victim to coercive tactics, only to be left in a position they were not prepared for or ultimately did not desire.” That is, women who DO have kids are not permitted—not even once—to have the unthinkable thought that their life could’ve been better, or at least different, without kids. She’s immediately cast as a wayward mother, failing to tap into feelings that define the feminine experience, rather than a human being with complex and competing desires and life plans. Men do not face this same stereotyping. Patriarchy, much?
And then, of course, there’s the “biological clock,” which is what I was reminded of when I separated from my husband. According to Whitney, the pressure to have kids definitely amps up as a woman approaches her mid-30s. A woman, writes Whitney, is expected to be grateful for the years in which she was able to unconventionally eschew maternity for a career or continuing education—as if those years were a bonus, rather than a path.
“If the amount of childfree years did not suffice, a women risks being viewed as greedy, selfish, unloving, less womanly, and even subjected to dehumanization,” she writes. “Freedom of choice doesn’t afford us women the ability to choose not to have children and exist in a judgement-free world.”
You’re Not Alone
When I started working on this piece, I posted a simple query on Facebook, asking women who had chosen not to have kids if they had ever felt a stigma. The question got as much engagement on my personal page as the sharing of my wedding photo album (and the photos of friends’ newborns, for that matter). Responses came in from all over the country, from women on disparate walks of life, with disparate backgrounds and experiences.
“Your life can be full without being a parent,” says Kristi Siconolfi. “And guess what? You still have tons of responsibilities.” She says that people often comment on how lucky she is that she doesn’t have kids, because it obviously means she just does whatever she wants, when she wants. “Umm, no,” she says. “I have responsibilities at work, for my dogs, to keep my home looking nice, to pay my bills.”
Brianna has faced this kind of stereotyping as well. “There’s this horrible connotation that people without children sleep until 10am every day, spend all their money on brunch, and couldn’t possibly know what it means to have a responsibility to someone outside of themselves,” she says. “Perhaps this is a pipe dream of exhausted parents, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. There are childfree individuals who, perhaps unbeknownst to you, have dedicated their lives to bettering yours and your child’s,” she says.
There’s this horrible connotation that people without children sleep until 10am every day and spend all their money on brunch. – Brianna Madia
For Megan Carl, it’s not about not wanting to have kids at all—it’s about meeting the right person with whom she’d like to raise a family. Ironically, says Megan, it wasn’t until she was diagnosed with complicated chronic illness that her opinion on having kids changed.
“I am 90 percent sure I want kids, but up until very recently I was at maybe 50 percent,” she says. “However, I am 100 percent glad that I didn’t have them yet—at the wrong time (in my development as a human) or with the wrong partner. I can’t imagine being bonded to the wrong someone in that way for the rest of my natural life. I say this all the time but I truly mean it. We are all EXACTLY where we are supposed to be, right at this moment. The universe wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Right on, Megan. Kids, no kids, pets, no pets: It’s all about knowing what feels good for you. So happy Mother’s Day—to mothers of all kinds, and to women who honor their maternal instinct in all sorts of unconventional ways. You’re exactly where you need to be.
Lisette Cheresson is a writer, storyteller, yoga teacher, and adventuress who is an avid vagabond, homechef, dirt-collector, and dreamer. When she’s not attempting to create pretty sentences or reading pretty sentences other people have created, it’s a safe bet that she’s either hopping a plane, dancing, cooking, or hiking. She received her Level II Reiki Attunement and attended a 4-day intensive discourse with the Dalai Lama in India, and received her RYT200 in Brooklyn. She is currently the Director of Content at Wanderlust Festival.