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Child-free: why women who choose not to have kids are given such a hard time

Selfish, damaged, cold-hearted, shallow, overeducated and greedy. Women who choose not to have children are often labelled in these ways by everyone from the Pope to their co-workers.

Australian women experience marked social exclusion if they choose to remain childless – and it’s the choice part of the equation that leads to their deviant status. While all childless women experience some exclusion, women who have rejected the traditional ideal of motherhood are at the greatest risk of social disconnection. It is the very act of making a conscious and public choice to reject the role of mother that is overtly or tacitly criticised.

The so-called lifestyle pages are full of articles by women trying to redress and reclaim the dialogue around the choice not to have children. These narratives and other contemporary writings on the choice to remain child-free parallel the research and challenge the dominant story that women who choose not to have children hate little people, want to save money and can’t give up their holidays.

The research evidence tells a different tale. It’s not children childless women hate, or even the terrible cost of having children, the lack of available childcare, parental leave or the loss of superannuation that’s taking up the lion’s share of their decision. Instead, it’s the degraded state and overinflated expectations of motherhood most are not keen on. And, of course, some women simply want a different kind of life.

Several recent studies point to an increased social acceptance of women who choose to remain child-free in societies with greater gender parity. In other words, the larger the space women can occupy, the more opportunity there is for a variety of life choices for women. In places where women have greater power, there is less policing of the role of mother and room for a more inclusive view of how to be a woman.

Women who are childless by choice often mother in other ways, ways that can go unrecognised by all but those who benefit from them. They step mother, allomother (where women other than the mother help take care of the child), actively aunt or foster. Anyone who has ever shared the burdensome role of parent or been mothered by such a voluntary mother will understand how desperately necessary this kind of mothering is.

The fascinating story of voluntary childlessness is really no different from the story of all women who have fought to gain a measure of control over their fertility. While the reasons women choose not to have children are in some ways complex, more than 7% of Western women are making this choice. This proportion has increased significantly over the past 30 years. And more women are making this decision as their ability to do so with less censure increases.

But not all women are able to choose. Just over 40% of pregnancies worldwide are unplanned and many of those are also unwanted. There are a myriad of reasons for this staggering number, including access and adequacy of contraception, domestic violence, social pressure and misinformation. The choice to limit fertility is very much still an ideal rather than a reality for many women.

If you step back from the picture painted by the research and personal dialogue about women’s voluntary childlessness, what stands out is how hard it still is for women to be truly free to make choices about whether or not to have children. The rhetoric around childlessness, like the often degraded conversations about abortion, older mothers, young mothers, lesbian mothers, single mothers (the list goes on), continues to pit woman against woman in a effort to keep the definition of woman as narrow as possible.

The experiences of women who choose not to have children play a key part in understanding how our choices as women have the power to define who we are. And our degree of freedom to make those choices tells us something about who we are allowed to be. Women who use their freedom of choice to not have children are among those who stretch the idea of womanhood to its furthest edges, challenging the age-old assumption that woman and mother are synonymous and spotlighting the current high cost of mothering.

The ConversationShare your comments below.

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Zoë Krupka, PhD Student, Faculty of Health Sciences, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation and shared here with full permission.

 

  • I think it’s very sad that women who choose to be childless often are labelled as selfish, damaged, cold-hearted, shallow, overeducated and greedy. We should accept and respect each others opinions.

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  • Such a good article, thanks for sharing this.

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  • I hope we’re getting better at it, but we’re ingrained from birth to have children and anyone who goes outside that norm is considered different. I’m not saying it’s right, and I definitely think things are changing. I’ve been through IVF so I know I never ask anyone when they’re having children or if they are. This is so personal and can be heartbreaking for those trying, or those told they’ll never have children. And for those who decide they don’t want children, that’s their right, their decision.

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  • I have a friend who has decided to remain childless and that is her choice. It is no one’s business. One person’s journey will be different to another. People need to seriously get a grip and stop meddling in things that don’t concern them. Whatever happened to the sisterhood. Let’s give each other a break.

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  • PEOPLE SHOULD MIND THEIR OWN BUSINESS.

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  • I agree it’s a personal choice. It’s better for kids to be wanted and loved than born to people who don’t want them.

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  • If you knew you have a hereditary medical condition that you know you will pass on to a child, would you still want to being a baby into the world???
    It is not always selfishness.

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  • You can be all of those things and have children. Being a bitch has nothing to do with being childless. So i agree we should stop generalising

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  • IT is a personal choice and should never be judged.

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  • I have never judged someone for choosing not to have kids. It’s that person’s choice

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  • Sure I’m all for a woman choosing to remain childless. You life, your rules….no regrets???

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  • Better to be honest about not wanting children than to have them and lrovide substandard parenting

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  • Every woman is different, I think in general there needs to be less judgement of others choices.

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  • its their business what they do with their life. If they choose to have kids then great, if not then thats also great…who is anyone to judge. its not their life to live. if you can be happy without children then so be it…i personally NEED my kids in my life, the best decision i ever made was to have children

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  • I think because the desire to have children is so primal and strong in many people, they find it hard to understand when others make different choices.

    Reply

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