For as long as it’s been a physical possibility, I’ve been assured in my decision that I won’t be having children. Hints came when, at three years old, I chopped the head off my only doll. Of course, this was a fairly standard and sensible choice when I was a young teen, but as I’ve aged I’ve been increasingly bombarded with casual opposition. Not that I protest against baby-making wherever possible, but when the need does arise to correct assumptions about my familial planning I am consistently met by a smug, “Just you wait!”
It’s understandable for people to assume that at my stage of life—beginning my twenties, about to graduate into the vast uncertainty of the “real world”—my choices are not set in stone. I might change career path, move continent, switch my hair colour after a decade of bleaching. But when I tell people that I plan to live in London for the foreseeable future, I’m never questioned. The same goes for my weightier preference for avoiding marriage. Granted, having a child is possibly the biggest commitment any person can make, but this doesn’t justify the flippant reactions I hear from my peers.
Without getting too far into evolutionary biology, it is permissible to assume that a person’s genes would like to be passed on to the next generation. It’s not permissible to assume that this is an overruling factor in a person’s choice to have or not have children. It’s also not correct to think that this biological fact means that everybody has the urge, at some point in their life, to create and nurture a human life. Some people—a minority, yes—don’t feel that way, and ignoring their emotions is hurtful.
Pronatalism is anti-feminist
An insidious kind of shaming is happening when a person who shares their decision to not have children is defied. By telling somebody that they will want kids eventually, you are essentially telling them that the state they are currently in is not the right one. They need to wait a bit longer, and then they’ll be okay. They’ll be the parent society wants them to be. The philosophical term for this set of beliefs is “pronatalism”, an ideology that values the role of parenthood above all others, and that’s all it is—an ideology.
In my own case, I am being repeatedly told that, as a woman, my body will claim all authority on the matter and I will, overnight, become insatiably broody. Rational and careful consideration be damned: I must be impregnated! This is an inherently anti-feminist view of the female body, and it’s a casual stance that’s taken by many without thinking. When you tell a woman that her decision will be invalidated by physiological maturity, you imply that her future is controlled by a biological clock that she is helpless to defy. Her mind is slave to her hormones.
Aside from assumptions about the fragility of a female decision, this kind of offhand opposition is completely dismissive of a person’s history. What if she can’t have children? What if she has a trauma that makes the idea of childbirth unthinkable? What if there are other circumstances that make it impossible for this person to sustain another life? Many of these factors don’t apply to alternative options like adoption, but I never get the feeling that people are telling me anything other than an all-consuming need to get knocked up is looming at my next birthday.
I’ve heard men who’ve decided to be “childfree by choice”—the media’s unsightly label—have their opinions refuted, but much less frequently. Most likely, this is because men aren’t asked about their paternal instincts so often as women. We’ve all seen tragic headlines lamenting the likes of Jennifer Aniston’s debilitating loneliness, pregnancy rumours flying about always with a hint of relief for the actress. This gendered bias isn’t reserved for celebrity, however. While men can remain lone wolves for as long as they please, a woman without a child is always a woman missing something. A woman who says she doesn’t want children just doesn’t know that yet.
I’m an easy target at my age for this kind of dismissal, looked down upon as romantically naïve about my own body. The curious thing is, though, that this patronising isn’t just coming from those who are older, wiser, paternally experienced. The snap judgement—“You’ll change your mind”—comes from people my own age who don’t have children. The assertion that my womb is a ticking time-bomb is held by an entire demographic who couldn’t possibly know what it feels like to grow older and into “child-free” life, can’t really be advising me about any threat age imposes on my current choice. It’s just a universally held truth that a woman must want to procreate.
Things aren’t gonna get better
As I grow into my choice, I don’t expect things to get any easier. The harsh cry against my decision’s futility, by the looks of things, is only going to fade into awkward whimpers of pity for my lonely life. A person who doesn’t want a child is deemed defective by society. It’s often something a person chooses to hide about themselves, for fear new relationships will be tainted by the idea that they are immature, uncaring, selfish, or just a little messed up inside. Women in particular can be shamed as unfeminine and emotionally empty if they fail to fit the maternal mould.
If they’re not lambasted, childfree people are often painted as a group tending towards luxury. Portrayals in the media will often depict carefree, trendy couples using the money they’ve saved on nappies to go off on dream holidays, as if their choice will allow them to stay young forever. This more flattering representation is still an untrue stereotype, failing absurdly to reflect the entire range of people who choose not to childbear.
There’s also the incorrect assumption that a decision to stay childfree equates to a dislike of or repulsion from babies and children. While some do genuinely feel that way, not everyone who makes the choice does so because of this aversion. There’s really no need to hide your baby from a childless forty-year-old: they won’t eat it. The scale does allow room to manoeuvre. It is possible to like kids without immediately wanting to make one.
The grand irony here is that this article in itself is going to be seen as the ultimate naïveté. Writing this is surely going to bite me in the ass when my darling daughter googles my name thirty years down the line. The world will laugh in its unimpeached wisdom. This may be so. Things might change. Equally, though, I might wake up one day, look out the window of my city-center apartment, and gasp in horror. If I move back to the quiescence of my Leitrim hometown and fall headfirst in matrimonial love, I don’t think I’d get any amiable jeers: “I told you so!” I wish the decision to be or not to be a parent was given the same amount of respect.