No kids, no kidding

By Sarah Lang

It takes guts to admit you don’t want to have children. Especially when people’s response is that you’re selfish, or you’ll grow old and lonely. Married and childfree, writer Sarah Lang looks at the pressure to procreate

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Recently, a friend shared the image above on Facebook. "Exactly! That's exactly what people say!" I thought, clicking "like" then "share", feeling partly grateful to whoever had the nerve to post it, and partly uneasy in case it offended any of my Facebook friends who have kids.

For reasons I don't want to get into, I don't plan to procreate. However, now that I'm 33 and married, the once-occasional questions about having children have become increasingly common. What exasperates me is that they come not from my family and close friends, who'll support me either way, but from the people with the least right to poke their noses into my business: acquaintances, friends of friends, family friends, work contacts, neighbours, the dental hygienist, the hairdresser, the woman next to me at the hairdresser.

Typically they ask when, not if. "Will you wait a while? Don't leave it too long. Tick tock and all that!" I find such inquisitions insensitive at best. For all they know, perhaps I suffer from infertility, miscarriages or another health condition; perhaps I've agonised over this decision for years; perhaps many things.

When I reply that we're not having children, faces freeze in shock as if the wind has changed, as if I've committed one of Nineteen Eighty-Four's "thoughtcrimes". Perhaps I have, for their expressions make it clear that the onus is on me to explain myself and usually I'm asked to do so. As a vegetarian who rarely drinks alcohol, I'm used to having to justify my choices, but why should I face pressure to explain this very personal matter to relative strangers? Uncomfortable, I usually mutter something suitably vague, change the subject, or crack a bad joke like "sorry, I lost my evolutionary imperative. I know I put it somewhere ..." or "I've heard they turn into teenagers" or "I've thought long and hard about this and I've decided I'd rather have shoes".

You'd think such terrible quips would be conversation-killers. Yet, for some strange reason, most people feel free to pontificate on why I should make what one woman called "the right decision".

There's the rhetoric based on fear: "you'll regret it if you don't", "you'll be lonely when you're old". The rhetoric based on flattery: "you'd be a great mother", "people like you should be having children".

The rhetoric based on world view: "life isn't complete without kids", "it's different when you have your own".

The rhetorical questions about my commitment to the human race and to an ageing taxpayer base: "isn't that a bit selfish?" and "what if everyone had no kids?" But my all-time favourite is this directive: "give it a try". What? Does the stork bring a return slip, a money-back guarantee?

Come on, do you think I've made this decision without considering it from every angle?

Do I demand reasons for why you have children? And if I wanted lectures, I'd go back to university. But I bite my tongue - sometimes literally - and remind myself that this pressure is probably well-meaning concern taken too far. However, I was flabbergasted when one woman flat-out didn't believe me. "Ha! You'll change your mind." No, I won't. "Of course you will." Now, I haven't entirely ruled out changing my mind but I couldn't help wonder how she'd feel if I dismissed her choice to have children as a ridiculous idea.

Since Victorian times, when women slaved away and shrivelled into husks by bearing up to a dozen children (and, often, bearing their deaths), the Western world has witnessed transformative social change in women's rights, equal opportunity, and reproductive choice. For those and other well-documented reasons, New Zealanders now have fewer children than they used to and more of us - a quarter of Kiwi women born in 1975 - aren't having kids at all. But statistics ignore a crucial distinction between two groups: the "childless" - those who want children but haven't had them due to infertility or other personal circumstances - and the "childfree": those who choose not to have children.

You could argue that, in 2013, the childfree choice should be accepted, understood, even commended - and that the pressure to procreate is out of step with today's realities. We live on a worryingly warming, over-populated planet with pillaged natural resources. We live in a country where the birth rate is bang on replacement level; a country where immigration can make up any population shortfall.

We're members of a liberal democracy and increasingly irreligious society that prides itself on freedom of choice and tolerance of others' beliefs and practices.

Given all this, perhaps the pressure to procreate is a hangover from the 20th century, but it's still causing headaches.

British journalist Polly Vernon has written about being criticised, belittled, pressured and harassed for being childfree. She's been accused of being "deluded", "irresponsible", "bitter", "selfish", "unsisterly", "unnatural" and even "evil"; she's been told she's "diminishing society" and will die "cold, old, and alone". The issue has infiltrated popular culture, too. In Sex & The City 2's only interesting scene, a pregnant woman asks Carrie and Big about children. Carrie replies: "We both love kids, but it's not for us." By the look on the woman's face, you'd think Carrie had just denied the Holocaust. Actress Cameron Diaz has weighed in too, telling Cosmopolitan that "women are afraid to say that they don't want children because they're going to get shunned".

I'd say Diaz is right. Most of the childfree women I came across while researching this story didn't want to be interviewed, yet alone named, for fear of people's reactions.

"There's such a social stigma attached to not wanting children, and I don't want to offend friends who have kids," says one woman, who pretends to others that children are "a 'not yet' rather than a 'no"'. You can hardly blame her, given what other women told me of people's reactions to their childfree status. One was told, with an unconvincing half-laugh, that she was a freak. One that she was career-obsessed. One that her husband might leave her for a woman who wants kids. One feels that the expectation for childfree staff to always work the late shifts is workplace discrimination. One overheard two colleagues talking about how cold and unnatural she was for not wanting kids. Some laugh it off. Some brush it off.

Some feel harassed, indignant, angry.

Because she feels this is an important issue, Wellington events manager Krystal Waine agreed to talk openly, even though she's worried about "ruffling feathers" and "the whole you-don't have-kids-what-do-you-know attitude". Now 31, Waine found the pressure to have children intensified when she married eight years ago.

"Everyone said, 'when are the kids coming?' I mean, seriously, there are reasons to get married other than to reproduce: love, commitment, shared values and companionship for starters. Likewise, there are lots of reasons not to have kids: lifestyle, economic, environmental or, in my case, I just don't have the maternal gene."

Her family now accepts her decision. "My husband's aunt told me she wouldn't have had kids if it wasn't for societal expectations; she was the first one in our combined family to understand and support our choice. My mother-in-law did go through grandma-envy a while back, but she respects my decision. My mother is the hardest: she still talks like I'm going to have a child, even though I've told her clearly that I never want to get pregnant."

But most of the pressure comes from acquaintances and relative strangers, she says.

"One woman told me that women who don't have kids end up with 'women's problems', with 'complicated insides'. I said that women who have kids also have 'women's problems', and at least I can sneeze without losing bladder control."

There's another myth she'd like to bust. "People assume if you don't want kids, you must hate kids. Not true. I love kids. But I'm scared to show an interest in children, particularly babies, because then I get the knowing looks, then the comments about being clucky, then the insulted looks when I tell people I don't want babies, then the sanctimonious it's-different-when-they're-your-own spiel, then the comments about when I'll change my mind." Humour helps - her go-to joke is that babies are terrible conversationalists - but years of pressure have got to her. "I'm so sick of it that I now tell people I'm infertile, though then I have to suffer the pitying, poor-you looks."

To Waine, this is a matter of respect. "Some couples go through fertility treatments to have children and I respect their choice, so please respect mine.

Don't judge or ostracise those of us who choose not to have kids. It gets annoying because what if I turned the tables and said to someone who was choosing to have children: 'why? Don't you know we're over-populated? Have you thought about the carbon footprint? Can you afford a child? Do you really think you're responsible enough to take care of someone else? Are you scared of being alone?

Don't you think it's selfish to have children so they'll have to look after you when you're old?'" But these questions remain merely hypothetical, as she'd never presume to know what's best for another person.

Neither would Gala Darling, a 29-year-old blogger, writer and speaker. She's never wanted children and although her family supports her decision, she's copped lots of pressure to procreate since marrying two years ago.

"Marriage seems to send out a cultural beacon that it's okay to start harassing people about having children. No one ever asks people why they're having children, so I don't know why it's okay to ask someone why they're not." It's not just the double standard that annoys her. "People think I'm delusional, or they say, 'Just you wait, you'll change your mind.' I find their disbelief incredibly frustrating; it adds insult to injury. Society acts as if it owns women and our bodies."

Whether or not that's true, Auckland psychologist Sara Chatwin puts the pressure to have children down to deep-rooted social norms.

"We're socialised to believe that getting married and having children is the acceptable passage through life. Yet more and more people are making different decisions, and these days it pays to consider the implications of bringing children into this world."

Chatwin isn't surprised that people with kids often react negatively, sometimes defensively, to the childfree. "There'll always be a percentage of people who believe in the traditional family unit and who put pressure on others to conform to what they believe is the 'norm'."

Most of these people, she says, truly want children. "But some may be unsure and, to make them feel better about their own decisions, they try to convince others they need children."

Are these isolated incidents of pressure to procreate or does research back them up? The latter, says University of Auckland PhD student Theresa Riley. For her University of Waikato masters degree thesis in social science, Riley interviewed 10 childfree couples aged between 23 and 56 and, in 2011 turned her thesis into a book, Being Childfree In New Zealand: How Couples Who Choose Not To Have Children Are Perceived.

Her research uncovered worrying details about how childfree couples are stereotyped, disbelieved, pressured and harassed. "The participants frequently encountered negative perceptions, cruel comments and stigma such as being money-hungry, career-obsessed, lazy, selfish, immature, cold and child-haters," Riley tells me. "Reactions to their decision range from those who were accepting to the outright rude - being castigated, or considered less of a person."

They also felt harassed to change their minds. Eight of the 10 couples experienced pressure from their extended family, including siblings and parents.

"Some parents really aren't fussed, others can't talk about anything else," says Riley.

Colleagues didn't hold back, but the most common pressure came from strangers and acquaintances, who were mostly parents themselves. "Participants reported feeling harassed by other people's disbelief in their choice, and assumptions that despite what they said, everybody wanted children,"

Riley explains. "Some were explicitly told that they should be having children, and all were repeatedly in the position of having insensitive and unwelcome comments and questions directed at them.

"People would question their decision, try to persuade them with promises of fulfilment, or warn them of the [negative] consequences of not having children. If one sort of question appears unsuccessful, the person may try a different angle."

Not only are these tactics unlikely to work - studies shows very few childfree people change their minds - it insults their intelligence.

"Typically the childfree person feels unheard, disbelieved, criticised, as though the decision to not have children wasn't carefully or thoroughly thought out," says Riley. In a culture that idealises parenthood and expects women (should that be superwomen?) to juggle their career with children, her participants felt less valued by employers, society and the media. They also reported that people assumed, wrongly, that they disliked children or were implicitly criticising the decision to parent.

Facing such negativity, childfree people have to develop what Riley calls "coping mechanisms" such as ignoring or avoiding the topic, confrontation, and humour.

"They learn to expect and prepare for these reactions, and deal with them in ways like finding humour in the situation and being selective about friends." To find like-minded friends, share information, discuss issues and socialise, some join online communities and social-networking groups such as thechildfreelife.com, childfree.net, whynokids.com and nokidding.com.

Nokidding.com, a global organisation that facilitates social events for the childfree, has groups in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch. "When being childfree is such a stereotyped and judged choice," Riley says, "it's valuable to have others to connect with, to share stories and feelings with, in an accepting, supportive environment".

While Riley has been speaking as an academic, she's also willing to speak as a childfree woman. In fact, it was being treated as a "hormonal uterus on legs" that prompted the 34-year-old's research.

"Women are expected to want to be mothers, and I felt pressure to be 'normal' as a woman: to be clucky. But because I didn't respond 'appropriately' when babies or children were around, I'd get these horrified looks."

At 27, she decided against having children, only to find that people tried to change her mind, even refused to believe her.

"There's the expectation or assumption that even if you don't want children now, one day you'll change your mind, and if it's too late, you'll regret it."

She hopes attitudes will eventually change. "The issue remains a crucial one, but hopefully one day people will understand and respect a woman's right to decide what she wants to do with her life, in every respect."

As for Krystal Waine, she'd like to see more people come out as childfree, but understands why they don't. "Society needs to change the expectation that just because a woman can produce babies, she should do just that. We'll soon have marriage equality, yet people can't accept a woman not wanting kids. It's like the last taboo."

- NZ Herald

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