shutterstock_87688324Decades ago if one mentioned that a woman was childless, an image appeared in one’s mind of a batty old woman with thirty cats who perhaps lived in a shoe.  You don’t need to review the newest research – which says the number of American women without children has risen to an all-time high of 1 in 5 — to know that this association to the old woman in a shoe no longer applies.  However, no one else seems to have taken her place.

If another childless archetype floated through our consciousness, it was really the other side of feminist coin — the glass-ceiling-shattering career woman who, along with picking up milk at the market, simply forgot to have kids.  Ronnie Koening attempts to portray another version of the childless woman — one that is caring, loving, kind and very normal — but unfortunately paints a picture using some outdated stereotypes.

Her Atlantic article with the catchy, clickable title “You Don’t Have to Have Kids to Be a Great Mother” (cause we know how mommies-to-be think they’ve got parenting down to a science) has some great stories about women doing amazing work helping those in need of strong female leadership. However the background on the women interviewed makes them seem one-dimensional.

The narratives we are given, while true, reveal such a small aspect of the childless:

Anita, 46, of New York City found an outlet for her unconscious desire to nurture closer to home. Like many women her age, she had a moment when she realized that kids were absent from her otherwise full life.”I never made having kids a priority,” she says, reminiscing on past relationships and would-be fathers to a child that never was. “At 39 I thought—maybe I should have kids. I thought about having them with a gay friend, or adopting or using a sperm donor, but I wasn’t seriously considering it. I wished a relationship had happened that would have made it possible. If I had met the guy I’m with now 10 years ago we would have had kids,” she says.

Didn’t we see this character in a horrible movie starring Madonna and Rupert Everett?  I’m not sure why it was included, when the rest of Anita’s story revealed that she excels at being a top-notch aunt. Or this story of true heartache:

For Marcy, 38, of Dallas, TX, the chance to adopt a rescue pet was a ray of hope after a medical condition forced her to undergo a full hysterectomy. She admits that at first she was angry, and later sad, that biological children were no longer a possibility for her. Her life changed when she saw a picture on an email listserv from a pet rescue organization.”I found I had an instant connection with her and had the room both in my heart and in my home,” Marcy says. “Miss Daisy became my furry child in every sense of the word as she filled my home with unconditional love.” She soon found herself changing her own routine to accommodate her pet.”I would carefully make arrangements for vet appointments, baths, trips to PetSmart, the dog park, and even playdates.”

These examples downplay, or eliminate completely, the idea that being childless or childfree (whichever you prefer) is a choice more people are making – consciously and thoughtfully.  Instead it revolves around the narrow picture of childless woman who probably didn’t make the active choice not to have children (though she was more aware of the risks in waiting, which is at least progress from her “oopsie” predecessor), who has experienced stages of deep regret, and has upgraded from cats to dogs.  But at the heart, being a mother — rather than simply caring for children — is still their main motivator.

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any women without kids still have what we think of as a “maternal instinct”—an innate desire to love, care for and nurture someone or something.

There’s a new kind of parenthood that many women in their late 30′s and early 40′s are gravitating to—one that doesn’t involve tucking a little one in bed at night, or nursing him through a cold—but that is fulfilling nonetheless. We have found a way to be mothers without actually being parents.

In an article showing how women can be nurturing without having to push a baby out of their nether regions, where is the woman who is working with orphanages or children’s charities?  Where is the woman who is concerned with her global footprint and takes time to teach a new generation about recycling or builds some new invention to reduce waste in the polluted oceans?

Better yet, where are the women who happily nurtured their careers with little or no regret for the path not taken?  Are these caring qualities only apply to human beings?  What about the women who nurture their partners for their lifetime, resulting in a strong bond and a relationship that fulfills every desire to love?

The article makes an astute point – that one can still have “maternal instinct” without having children – but fails to explain what that means other than adopting animals and being a really great aunt — which are admirable, but incomplete portraits of the nurturing childless. Thankfully, another article by our Koa Beck nails the sentiment:

It concerns me to think that culturally, the only people we perceive as caring deeply about the development of children are mothers.

Issues regarding children, both in their safety and their development, are not those in which you need to be a parent to comprehend or to prioritize. Everyone, even the childless, should be concerned with what children see, the messages they’re sent, and what they are told to value. It’s often within our children that some of our most awful mindsets, prejudices, and preconceived notions are perpetuated, as well as our most powerful hopes for change are realized.

Not everyone wants to parent, which is a choice that should be respected for both men and women. But if we only choose to interpret compassion for children as parenthood, we seek to dismiss the interest and efforts of many who are invested in the well-being of our kids.

I would like to see a better range of these nurturing childless women — and men — featured. I know first hand that they’re out there.

(photo: Kesu/Shutterstock)