The Childless Need A Better Representative Figure Since They No Longer All Live In Shoes

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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the childless woman — one that is caring, loving, kind and very normal — but unfortunately paints a picture using some outdated stereotypes.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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  1. sasareta

    May 21, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    I’m not “childless.” I’m CHILDFREE. Childfree means you don’t want children AT ALL. Childless means you want children, but can’t have them

    • Cee

      May 21, 2013 at 12:46 pm

      *nodnodnod* I think its the last or only insult a parent has? Though I must admit it sounds sadder to use it on people who want children.

    • AE Vorro

      May 21, 2013 at 4:24 pm

      I use the ChildFree term, too and agree — childless implies that children were wanted, but unfulfilled. Occasionally it’s hurled as insult. I’d like to hope the ChildFree label is gaining more currency.

    • Carinn Jade

      May 21, 2013 at 6:22 pm

      I just said the same above. I don’t understand the delineation and it should be the choice of the person using it. Also, the entire tone of this piece was about inclusion and understanding. There were no insults intended,

    • AE Vorro

      May 22, 2013 at 6:31 pm

      No one said the article above was insulting, hence the “occasionally.” And, sure, it’s definitely a personal preference, we’re not talking about amending the OED.

    • Carinn Jade

      May 21, 2013 at 6:18 pm

      I’m sorry, but that delineation is too insensitive to those who struggle with infertility for me to accept. Whether it is a choice made before trying to procreate or after, everyone I know without children has made a conscious choice to not (or stop trying to) procreate. I think either term should be acceptable depending on your own personal preference.

    • meteor_echo

      May 22, 2013 at 1:20 am

      It’s not less insensitive for us to be called “childLESS”, implying that we’re incomplete or missing something. The people who want children but don’t/can’t have them, are childLESS. We are childFREE because we are simply free from the decision of having children and we are complete this way.

    • Emily

      May 23, 2013 at 4:57 pm

      I am totally supportive of people who opt not to have children, for whatever reason. It just seems like I have to know a lot of personal information about someone who does not have kids to find out whether I should call someone “childless” or “childfree”. I work with someone who does not have kids. Am I supposed to ask her why not? That seems appallingly rude.

    • meteor_echo

      May 23, 2013 at 5:54 pm

      Well, at least, if they call themselves childfree, don’t call them childless and go with how they identify themselves. It’s a polite thing to do.

    • Emily

      May 25, 2013 at 7:18 am

      More than happy to do that. The vast majority of people I know who do not have children do not actually use either term: they say, “I don’t have kids.”

    • sasareta

      May 23, 2013 at 12:45 pm

      What did I just say? I made the distinction between the words “childless” and “childfree.” I think these terms make perfect sense. When someone calls a person who doesn’t want children “childless,” they are implying that the person is bound to have children and is incapable of doing so, when in actuality, this person doesn’t even want children. Therefore, it is insulting and insensitive to someone who doesn’t want kids. Giving pity to someone who doesn’t want kids in the first place is like giving a millionaire a dollar bill. haha

      I would think a sensible childfree person would prefer the term “childfree.”

    • Blueathena623

      May 21, 2013 at 9:34 pm

      It’s odd, because the article title uses childless, but the link uses child free.

    • sasareta

      May 23, 2013 at 12:45 pm

      Yes, that is odd.

  2. Cee

    May 21, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    I’m childFREE. Initially, I wanted children cuz thats what all loving couples supposedly do. We researched sperm banks and adoption agencies, but as time went by, I realized I was only doing it to go through what society told me to do rather than what I wanted. I have zero regrets on this choice and doubt that would change based on many benefits I will have in life (more money, more sleep, freedom to move around without it affectiong a child). I have worked with children for almost ten years and I care a lot about their wellbeing and education, however, it is not a maternal instinct that makes me do any of what I do; it is a rational human instinct that does. Children are our future, they will work, vote and wander around the world with us. It is our duty, not as parents or mater al people to instill compassion, awareness and rationality (among other things) into a child. However, I will add that parents should not develop a sense of entitlement to know this. “My kid will take care of you when youre old so clean up his mess!”

  3. Ali

    May 21, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    I thought the old woman who lived in a shoe had so many children she didn’t know what to do.

    • Sean Phillips

      May 21, 2013 at 1:53 pm

      RIGHT??? i was so damn confused by this title, i have never ever heard of the childfree woman in a shoe stereotype before.

    • AS

      May 21, 2013 at 2:20 pm

      I know….I thought my sleep-deprived brain was remembering the nursery rhyme incorrectly!

    • faifai

      May 21, 2013 at 4:23 pm

      This must be the most egregious example of the lack of respectable editing on this site.

    • Carinn Jade

      May 21, 2013 at 6:30 pm

      It was intended to be a play on the term, which was described in the first paragraph. You might think it’s ridiculous to replace kids with cats in the nursery rhyme, but it has nothing to do with editing.

    • faifai

      May 22, 2013 at 6:44 pm

      Ah, I see. It wasn’t immediately clear to me from reading. Okies!

    • Sam

      May 27, 2014 at 1:57 pm

      Not bad editing—bad writing. There is no cultural association between a childless old woman and a shoe. Now, the 30 cats, that’s more like it. But the shoe just confuses things because there is no such association.

    • Sam

      May 27, 2014 at 1:55 pm

      I know, right! Someone got the old woman in the shoe story wrong.

  4. Erin

    May 21, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    Wait, what? The old woman who lived in a shoe was the polar opposite of childless (or childfree). She had a zillion kids and less than stellar parenting skills. Definitely not the right archetype for this article. But otherwise, good points.

    • AP

      May 21, 2013 at 4:29 pm

      There was an old woman who lives in a shoe/She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.

      I don’t remember the rest, but the “too many kids” is in the first line!

  5. Rachel Sea

    May 21, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    A mother is a female parent. Nurturing is not the exclusive territory of female parents, and, frankly, plenty of female parents suck at nurturing. Calling women who have pets mothers is dismissive both of actual mothers and people who care for animals.

    I love my dogs and cats. Sometimes that means staying up with them all night because they are sick, and scheduling appointments, and making arrangements for alternative care, and all kinds of things that parents do. I am invested to provide all their needs in a way that parents of children typically do not, because my animals will never be independent. Parents have to concern themselves with the moral standing of their children, their future relationships, earning potential, and independence in a way which I never will with my animals. My dog is 12. if I am very, very lucky he will live to see 13, and that longevity will be a testament to the care I have provided. If he were a child, no one would be patting me on the back for keeping him alive for 13 years and teaching him 20 words in English.

    Having pets does not fulfill the desire to parent. I will never see my cats off to their first day of school or their first date, or their prom. I will not stay up late to help my dogs finish science fair projects left to the last minute, or teach them how to swim, or about where they came from. My cats will not take care of me in my old age, and they certainly won’t provide me with children-in-law or grandchildren. When I die my animals will not see to the disposition of my remains (unless it’s to eat my corpse) and they will not fight over who gets my great-grandmother’s glassware. If I only ever have cats, and not kids, then my genogram ends with me, and in 100 years no one will even care that it existed.

    • faifai

      May 21, 2013 at 4:32 pm

      I like the cut of your jib, lady!
      I love my cats, and I feel every life entrusted to me is a sacred trust (from houseplant to husband), but when my tabby bugs me while I’m trying to work on something difficult for my job, I holler “not now!” and he goes away & will forget about it 20 minutes later. Can’t do that with kids! They get multiple warm beds in the sun, expensive all-natural canned food, annual checkups AND health insurance, and cuddles every night, but not because I’m a “Pet Mommy.”

    • Emmali Lucia

      May 22, 2013 at 1:37 am

      Speak for yourself,

      I taught both my dogs how to swim.

  6. Outlaw Mama

    May 21, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    This is a fascinating look at an underexplored part of women’s experience. I have some friends who have opted not to have children– they are artists and therapists and computer programmers and they make the world better for me and for children all around them. Being a child therapist, and one of the only adults that some kids will ever receive love from? That’s mothering to me. This conversation needs to keep happening and we need to expand our archetypes.

  7. AE Vorro

    May 21, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    As a woman who is ChildFree entirely by choice, thanks for this article! Sometimes we are misunderstood or even pitied. Truthfully, I’m not terribly nurturing. I adore my niece and nephew, but mostly they bore me (that doesn’t mean I’m not a great aunt, I just don’t need to have the most active role in their lives). I’ve always preferred the company of adults. Just as many women feel compelled on a very deep level to have children, some of us feel very deeply that it is not an option — sometimes this is met with disbelief, but I think it’s becoming more mainstream — great articles like this are helping!

    Koa Beck’s editorial is dead on — we should all care about child welfare, to some degree, even if it’s as basic as voting for educational funding, whenever possible; it’s a very important part of being a humane individual. Personally, my charitable giving is almost entirely to local food banks — these services feed kids during the summer (the hungriest time of year) and support families in need. I read Mommyish quite frequently (not every article) because I want to know what challenges my fellow women, who have kids, face. And I can point my friends who do have kids to good information.

    The world needs visible ChildFree women as much as it needs great moms and I’m not just talking about uber-successful ChildFree women, I mean every day ones who bring other, equally valuable things to their families and community. (Yes! Couples without kids consider themselves families. Our lower head count just means we get seated faster in restaurants.)

  8. Blueathena623

    May 21, 2013 at 9:36 pm

    Maybe I’m off, but I don’t think caring about children = maternal instinct. However, I can’t explain why I think that.

  9. Zoe

    May 22, 2013 at 12:10 am

    Weird and confusing title, but I totally agree with your view. Too often, women without children are all tarred with the same brush – that of women who actually do want children (because every women does, apparently), but can’t for some reason. The idea that women without children have to funnel their maternal instincts into other areas, and will live with regret for the rest of their lives, is ludicrous. It assumes some kind of deprivation.

    Women without children may have waited too long, sure. They may be unable to conceive or carry to term for any number of reasons. They may have a genetic disorder which makes it inadvisable for them to breed. Maybe their husbands don’t want children. They may also have chosen not to have children for reasons which are, likewise, entirely their own.

    I know a woman who had 8 siblings and grew up in mess and chaos, and now she lives happily child-free with her husband, because she can’t stand the idea of shattering her peaceful, clean, quiet life with a baby. That is her reason, and it is valid. Another woman I know has a rather dangerous and intense career which requires a huge amount of dedication, and she feels she would be selfish bringing a child into the world if she cannot divide her time between them fairly (she loves her job and would never give it up). That is also perfectly valid. I know other women who don’t want to give up their regular travel. Some actively dislike children. Some don’t want the responsibility of a child. Some don’t want to bring children into an over-populated world. Some are so happy with their lives the way they are they don’t want to change anything. My great-great-aunt didn’t have children because she hated pain so much!

    I’ve known plenty of child-free elderly women who have no regrets at all. A woman can love and cherish other people’s children without it being tied to some kind of unrequited maternal drive.

  10. Ashley

    May 22, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    Ooh, one of my favorite new Tumblrs gender-flipped this article. Check out what it’d be like if we talked about men this way:

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