16 Writers Take On the Stigma of Not Having Kids

a crying baby

Nope. Not happening. (photo via Creative Commons)

My time is up. Throughout my twenties and thirties when people asked me if I wanted to have children, I would say “no,” firmly. But I knew I had a  “maybe someday” tucked in my back pocket since I still had time to change my mind. Now, my fortieth birthday is right around the corner and since I don’t want to dabble with reproductive technology or adopt, that nebulous “someday” has arrived.

I’ve identified as a feminist for nearly 20 years. I like to think of myself as determined and capable: a woman who loves to make a plan and execute it. So it pains me to admit that definitively closing the door on having my own kids scares me. In theory, I should feel empowered about my choice. But I can’t help but wonder how people will judge my decision.

More U.S. women than ever are choosing not to have children and some feel it is their greatest achievement. Yet, we’re often still openly stigmatized. In the new anthology Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids—which comes out today from Picador press—13 female and three male writers open up about their experiences opting out of child-rearing. Editor Meghan Daum intentionally chose this gender ratio because it was “more or less proportionate to the degree to which men devote serious thought to parenthood (at least before it happens) compared to women, who are goaded into thinking about it practically from birth.” Every contributor chose not to have kids, it didn’t just happen by default, but peoples’ motivations for the choice varied. Many of the female contributors attest that their biggest challenge to being childless is not regret, but having to deal with other peoples’ assumptions that they’re cold-hearted and cruel.

book cover

I highly recommend the book. Each essay is unique and thought-provoking. Here are some of my favorite highlights.

In the essay “Babes in the Woods,” Courtney Hodell writes,

“When you talk of not wanting children, it is impossible to avoid sounding defensive, like you’re trying to prove the questionable beauty of a selfish and too-tidy existence. It is hard to come across as anything other than brittle, rigid, controlling, against life itself.”

In “Save Yourself,” Danielle Henderson concurs. She feels that it’s important to honor her decision even in the face of the judgment, scorn and pity of mainstream society:

“As a woman who chooses to be childless, I generally have just one problem: other adults. Living in a culture where women are assumed to prioritize motherhood above all else and where a woman’s personal choices are often considered matters of public discussion means everyone thinks they have the right to discuss my body and my choices, so anyone who is curious about my lack of spawn feels the right to march right on over and ask me about it.”

In her essay, Beyond Motherhood author Jeanne Safer argues that the hardest emotion childless women have to work through is the shame put on them for being selfish, unfeminine, or unable to nurture. While infertile women have their own anguish, their femininity does not get questioned because society assumes their hearts are in the right place. Her choice led her to take a stance that she calls an Affirmative No, which requires “rejecting attitudes and courses of action… that most people treat as gospel” and “saying yes to points of view that may be unpopular but are in fact authentically in line with your own thoughts and feelings.” One can only arrive there through “relentless self-reflection.”

Anna Holmes writes in her essay “Mommy Fearest” that she was afraid of her own competence:

“As it stands now, I suspect that my commitment to and delight in parenting would be so formidable that it would take precedence over anything and everything else in my life; that my mastery of motherhood would eclipse my need for—or ability to achieve—success in any other arena.”

Given my good-Catholic girl patterns of overachieving, that’d probably happen to me as well. Letting go of my “maybe” and replacing it with an Affirmative No is tempting. To be sure, regardless of whether I become a mom or not, I’d like to figure out how to reject societal expectations and embrace my life without apology. That sounds like a victory I’d like to experience every day.

Related Reading: The Baby Poop Overshare — Q&A with the Author of STFU Parents.

Stephanie Abraham was a founding member of the editorial and publishing collective that started the feminist magazine make/shift. Follow her at StephanieAbraham.com.

by Stephanie Abraham
View profile »

 Stephanie Abraham is an Arab American media critic who frequently contributes to Bitch. Follow her at stephanieabraham.com.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

15 Comments Have Been Posted

Sounds like a great book. I

Sounds like a great book. I don't know if any of you have read any of Melanie Notkin's posts on not having kids, but I found a bunch of them on Huffington and they are very interesting.

feeling the same

Although I'm only 24, I've known that I never wanted children. After battling endometriosis and losing an ovary, leaving my chances in half (if there is a possibility of having children at all) I still feel the same. But I'm also scared because I don't have the option there just in case.
I think its the worst myth about endo, that having a child would "cure" me. Especially when family is constantly berating me about settling down and having children, giving my life an actual purpose according to them. Things I don't want and shouldn't feel guilty about.

I just don't get it

Hi, I'm Marcie, Long time listener, first time caller....

I remember ages ago, must have been in the 90s or late 80s on some trashy talk show they were talking about women who chose not to have children. The audience went INSANE. I saw lots of stupid crap on those shows and lots of emotions but this was by far the most vocal an audience got. I was stunned then and I am still stunned now.

Your decision not to have children does not at all impact me or my decision to have children. I can still love my kids and be happy with my decision even though you chose differently.

Could it be that people who have had kids are that insecure in their choice to have kids that they need others to validate their choice?

I just don't ... and ... confused. But... like why? ARG!

oh hey. Tea. I will just be here drinking my tea and being bewildered.

Thank you...

I am extremely happy to hear that there is a women with children who feels the same level of freedom of self choice as me. I really wish more people would take the stance of letting people choose there path and not letting it affect themselves(assuming of course their choices don't actually impact you). Whether you have kids or not should be a personal and respected choice.

I do not want kids, and have no desire, but understand that other people do. It is still a source of debate with my husband who does want kids. I unfortunately had always assumed that I would just have kids, but over time have realized it's not for me; hence the not sorting the issue out pre-marriage.

On top of the stress making a decision has in my personal relationship, I am seemingly always hit with the "...just wait 'til you have kids", "you'll regret it if you don't", "it's a woman's most rewarding act", "who will take care of you when you're old?", "it's the only lasting effect on society", etc. There are plenty more, but I'm sure most here have heard them all. Also, family stating comments like "haven't given me grandchildren" are particularly bothersome when in all other respects my parents raised me to make my own decisions.

Anyways there is my relatively short rant. Again, I wish I knew more parents like you.

...I hope that Jen Kirkman

...I hope that Jen Kirkman contributed an essay to this book.

Unfortunately, not

Nope, no Jen Kirkman in this one. But I am getting it anyway ... and will put it on my shelf next to Jen's book and the one Henriette Mantel edited called "No Kidding." ;-)

Childless and GLAD.

I will be purchasing the book immediately, and watching the piece on this on PBS Newshour. I NEVER wanted children--for as long as I can remember. Now, at 51 (tomorrow), I watch friends of mine have children late in life (usually based on a second marriage where the husband WANTS kids badly) and struggle with not only fatigue, but also (and this mostly applies to women) the sad fact that it is THEY who must give up their careers, etc to rear their children while their husbands continue to work.

Nothing changes.
I made the correct choice...for me. When my mother asks me, "Do you think the reason you didn't have children is because you are selfish?" I smile and simply respond, "Yes. I am."
And I don't every apologize for it.


"No, but i do think that the reason you want me to have children for your pleasure is selfishness."

Oh, good.

I'm glad this exists.
I got my tubes tied, last year, at twenty five years old. It was easier than it would have been a decade ago, and my insurance covered it, and I've always known that I didn't want children. I have an extensive list on why not, for that matter.
But you'd have thought I was going to have my leg removed! I had to go on a waiting period, see the doctor four times in that waiting period, the woman that handled my paperwork said, and I quote, "you're signing your life away", my ex (who, I'll give him this, backed out of his own sterilization because of fear of regret) spent a day discussing with me the likelihood that I would regard this as a horrible mistake, and I STILL get asked "what if your husband wants kids", like it'll be a secret or something stupid, like I should be building my life around a man I haven't met yet, assuming I'm going to marry a man.
I'm just relieved. I had be nothing but respect for parents. Their jobs are hard, long, thankless, and kids are wonderful and the toddler I live with tried to eat a raw egg, shell and all, the other day. Yeah, no.

No justification or explanation needed

I have to admit, I never consciously chose not to have kids. It just never appeared on my radar screen, and I can't see having kids just because I'm of a certain age or because other people expect me to or try to make me feel selfish for not doing it. I've always thought that having children should be a conscious choice, not by default, or for any other reasons involving others' expectations. I've been fortunate in that no one has ever questioned my not marrying or not having children to my face, although I imagine that there has been some speculation behind my back. My true friends and family who understand me accept my situation, and whenever someone I don't know well asks me if I have kids, I simply say no and leave it at that.

Motherhood isn't for everyone

Another mother here who supports every woman's ability to make her own choices regarding her body and her life. For the record, I never even entertained the idea of having kids until I was married for a few years and turned 30. Then it was all I thought about. When my 4 were young and I was in a moms' support group, we'd argue endlessly about whether or not you could still be a feminist if you were an at-home (mostly, except for p/t jobs) mom. Of course you can! I raised 3 feminist men and a very independent feminist woman. They all know that any choices they make in their lives are their own and I will love and support them no matter what. I've treated them as the adults they are since right before they each turned 18. And they've thanked me for my relaxed style of parenting.

But to say that I have no regrets is untrue. If I had never had kids, or only had 1 so daycare would be affordable, then I'd be making a whole lot more money right now than I am. My career had to take the back seat, because daycare for 4 kids is so prohibitive that I'd never have made enough to make it affordable. So despite my college degree, I'm in my late 50s and working multiple poorly-paying p/t jobs to help put the last ones through college. Not everyone wants to make that kind of sacrifice. And when others go on spring breaks to exotic warm places, we go visit our son who lives near Detroit.

Your body is your own...period. End of discussion. What you choose to do with that body is your own business and no one else has the right to interfere.

The start of something

As a women who chose not to have children at a very early age, I find it liberating that this topic is starting to have a voice in the media.
Interestingly, a similiar book just came out here in Israel, dealing with women who choose not to have kids. It's not essays, but rather the Phd dissertation of a women who interviewed women who choose not to have kids and analysed it within the context of Israeli society, which is very un-accepting of not having kids.
In the past year or so I see an increase of articles, blogs and books about the choice not to have kids. It is still in the edges of mainstream media and society, but I guess it's better than nothing...

For me, the most annoying

For me, the most annoying thing that people say when they find out I don't want kids is "You Will Someday". I am over thirty years old, I think I know myself and what I want. I have plenty of reasons for not wanting kids, and yet every time the subject comes up I get the "You Will Someday" comment.

I am lucky that, every time anyone asks my Mom if she wants grandbabies, she tells that person that I'll have them when I'm ready. I've always known I was something of an accident, and finally figured out... She didn't want kids either! She had to give up her chance at a college education, a good job and future, and was left with massive college debt and crappy low pay jobs to take care of me. She never complained about it, and did the best she could by me, but still.

No children for me. And I don't feel the least bit ashamed about it.

Can't Wait to Watch this Book Put "Selfish" Stereotype To Bed

Parenthood should be a vocation, like teaching or art, not an accident or a “service” to a husband or relatives who “expect” children or grandchildren and assume the mom will provide all childcare all alone and forgo any other dreams she has.
Real good parents of all genders understand and respect my choice not to be a mother. You don’t have to give birth to a child to love them or be a parent to make this world better for people of all ages. A person who truly wants a child in their life can adopt at any age or be a Big Brother/Big Sister, tutor, foster parent, godparent, babysit friends and relatives’ kids, teach or work in a school. A person who gives birth and raises a child they do not want or love breaks that child’s heart and there’s no going back.
While I wasn’t having children (and aged 18-38), I taught 3 first graders to read, 1 third grader to multiply and helped develop over 100 rent-controlled apartments. I wrote and published a novel, climbed a mountain, moved to another country and taught myself the language, bought a home in the city of my choice with my own income and worked in a school office for 7 years helping teachers and students ages 2-18. I also gave my mother a trip to Ireland that she always wanted and I’m most proud of that. I have no regrets about being a friend of children, instead of a mother of children.
I just wanted to put the "childless=selfish child-hater" stereotype to bed. I have always known that was false from reading about women like Mother Teresa and Jane Addams. I'd love to read this book.

Add new comment