In my opinion, the strangest persistent belief about childfree women is that we're selfish. From the jump, this is problematic as this logic negates the experience of infertile women, women ambivalent about motherhood and parenting, and women who would—for any number of reasons and because of any combination of circumstances—perhaps like to be mothers but have opted out nonetheless. It's also a pretty big slap in the face to queer women, who may not face the same social pressures to procreate but may still be held to the same weirdo standard when they don't have children.
But why are women's choices always labeled negatively? Why can't we just, you know, do stuff? Just be who we are? Not to be all "labels are for jars," but in all seriousness, why are individual choices the subject of such ridicule? Not having kids doesn't make me a selfish narcissistic cat lady any more than having children makes a currently preggers pal of mine a conformist breeder drone. I'm Brittany. She's Kate. Believe me, we're both far more interesting than what is or is not happening in our respective uteri. In fact, her husband just took her last name. How's that for feminist conversation fodder? Sure beats explaining away her expanding womb or apologizing for my empty one.
It should be said that by and large, men aren't criticized for not opting into fatherhood in the same ways that women are. Now, I'm not suggesting that men don't face social pressure to have children. But I'd argue that while men are typically criticized for being "deadbeat dads" if they aren't around or skip out on child support, women tend to be shamed no matter what choices they make.
Here are a couple of my favorite myths related to selfishness and childless women:
You won't self-actualize without having a baby. As if this isn't repeated by commentators and media personalities enough, many women also act as if not being a mother will leave you an empty shell of a person, filled with unrealized potential. I'd argue that concern is hinged on the idea of giving to others, which is really about everyone else's selfish demands, not one's own.
Take recent comments by actress Mena Suvari (perhaps best known for playing the sexpot teenager in American Beauty). "Everybody wants a child," she told People. "I want at least two children... Who knows, I might end up having five and being this woman with all these children. I think that [having children] would be the ultimate experience for me. I think that's where you really find yourself. That's what's important about life."
It's not that I think Suvari is completely wrong. Relationships with others can greatly inform us about who we are and even why we matter. But it's pretty unfair to say that you can only find yourself—as if authenticity is an unchanging concept one must discover, rather than an abstraction you can grow to understand—by having a child, and it's straight up untrue that everybody wants a child. The numbers of childfree men and women are steadily increasing. We not only exist; despite not procreating, there are more and more of us all the time!
Choosing your career over children is selfish. You could lose your job, but family is forever. There are a number of problems with this argument. For one, I've personally never said that I chose having a career instead of having children—though if I did, what of it? Though I personally see the choice between babies and breadwinning as fraught with complications for many women, there's certainly a majority of people out there who don't see the two as mutually exclusive, choosing to make it work or even relishing the complication that comes with trying to balance it all. But to assume that women are ditching maternal impulses to go pound on the glass ceiling is kind of silly. It implies that we're all biologically hardwired to want the same things, or that feminism has only given us two options: labor and, well, labor. And though it may be hard to remember with all the messages about how those two choices are the ultimate goals for women, it's myopic and reductionist to think that gender equity is only about making money and making babies.
Also, family isn't forever. Biology might be, but let's not kid ourselves (ha, pun!): families fracture all the time. More importantly, everyone has their own definition of family, and for many of us, our family structure is always changing. Mine, for example, includes mostly people and animals who are in my life voluntarily. I won't tell you how to construct your family if you don't tell me how to construct mine. We can also agree not to assume that one is superior to the other. Deal?
Why do you think the selfish myth persists? Why is opting out a supposedly selfish choice for women, and why aren't men held to the same standard?
Photo by wonderferret via Flickr