What Women Without Kids Are Teaching This Mom

Friday, February 24, 2017 - 5:00 am

What Women Without Kids Are Teaching This Mom

Last week I wrote about the choice to have children or not, a topic I anticipated being sensitive, but one that I felt compelled to address nevertheless. I’ve been having so many wide-ranging conversations with friends about the topic — often an indication for me that there’s something worth exploring in writing.

A few commenters felt that I’d assumed more insight into the choice not to have kids than I should have; always grateful for feedback, I looked back at my language and realized that I taken some empathic leaps here:

“Just as parents inevitably wonder how their days would have been shaped without little ones, you’ll wonder how your days would have been shaped with them. We’re all peering over the fence, wondering what the path not taken is really like.”

Turns out — many people who don’t have kids aren’t peering over any fences. I stand corrected. When I asked for reflections on what it’s like not to have kids, I received a flood of responses. Many expressed feeling anything but ambivalent about the decision:

“Being without kids feels pretty great. I don’t feel any lack. Being child-free means I turn the love I have to family, friends, and my animals. It means I was able to be a good daughter to my dad as he became unwell and then died, and can also be to my mom as she ages. It means that I don’t worry about finances the way parents do. It means my eight godchildren look at me as a cool adult in their life. It means my partnership is happy, intense, and without distraction. We lead a life of fulfillment and purpose.”

“Deciding not to have kids was never a big decision, nor a fraught one. It was hardly a decision at all. I enjoy my friends’ kids and my nephews and niece, but I never wanted kids of my own. I’m 63 and never once looked back and wondered whether I made the right choice. It seemed self-evident.”

“I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. I feel so busy that I appreciate having control over my time. I can’t imagine having responsibility for another human 24 hours a day!”

On the other hand, some shared a sense that child-free women feel so judged by a society still hell-bent on seeing women’s worth as rooted in our capacity to procreate that they don’t have room to peer over the fence and/or admit that they do publicly:

“If you feel like you have to defend the choice as a good one all the time, there’s not a lot of room to talk about maybe being sad or confused about it not being a part of your life.”

Others pointed out that there also isn’t a lot of permission for women to express relief or gratitude for not having kids:

“There’s no room to celebrate women not having kids. People post pics of their kids all the time, but this morning when I thought of posting ‘I give thanks every morning that I’m childless,’ I didn’t do it because I could only imagine the backlash. Moms are very sensitive about their job and I get it; women’s work, especially motherhood, is undervalued. So I don’t often talk about my choice out of solidarity and it’s always seen as shade on motherhood. Which makes me want to actually throw shade at moms for dividing women. But I keep quiet and hold the baby (seriously, please, let it be me!), and stop the meeting until we find the breast pump, and pick up the soggy Cheerios from the floor, because I stand with my sisters or die.”

Some pushed back on the notion that it was a decision at all — pointing out that we don’t really have the right language for what is often an evolving journey full of the unknown, not a check box:

“The Western world loves the concept of free will. But I’m not buying it anymore. Half the women I know didn’t even make a choice to get pregnant. They had sex, got pregnant, and decided now was as good a time as any and opted to have a baby (or perhaps, if they were pro-life, felt as if they had no choice). Frankly, it’s an accident that I’m not a mother… I don’t really think about it that much! And that blows people away.”

“Not every woman has a choice. From both sides of the fence, there are millions of women for whom having children is not under their control. Not just the unintended pregnancy or infertility, but in both the U.S. and across the globe, the cultural expectation, for men as well as women, to produce the next generation. That expectation does not negate the intense loving bond between parent and child, in fact it may support it, but choice in childbearing is not universal.”

“It’s often not a choice but just the way life unspools. At 69 this all seems so long ago. But many career women of my generation never married; having it all wasn’t yet a concept.”

Many people expressed not wanting to have kids because they feel like they’ve already raised “kids” in their family of origin:

“I was the third oldest of 14 children and simply had enough of raising children by the time I was 21. I had a lot of responsibility for taking care of my younger siblings starting at the age of six and simply wanted the freedom to ‘be me’ in my adulthood. That feeling never really changed for me (though there were moments of few misgivings along the way).”

“I grew up in a really dysfunctional household with poor boundaries. I think part of the decision to not have kids comes from the feeling that I already raised two parents.”

In the same vein, multiple teachers wrote me, explaining that their days are so filled with kids that they can’t imagine also coming home to their own. Many worry that they wouldn’t have any nurturing energy left after a day in the classroom.

From a certain angle, birthing and nurturing children is an act of hope; after all, one has to believe that this is a planet worth bringing a baby into. Some aren’t so sure:

“I feel like the world is self destructing. Climate change is creating a space that makes the future of the planet and humans as a species precarious, and I don’t want to bring a generation into that suffering.”

The pattern I felt most inspired by and that, ironically, got my own ambivalence churning, was reflections about how not having kids freed women up to pursue meaning without as many limits:

“On my 36th birthday, I breathed a great big sigh of relief. I’d always worried that I’d live an ordinary life. I was relieved that at age 36, I’d reached none of the typical milestones. I was now operating in terra incognita. A true explorer; or at least that’s how I like to see it.”

“I am now living the creative life I have always wanted. And it’s hard, and awkward, and my heart is open, which means my heart gets broken, and I am happy and frustrated and embarrassed and it’s so great. I feel like my creative life is both my partner and my child. I got married to it and gave birth to it around the same age as most of my friends were doing those actual things.”

I read these reflections and I’m, quite frankly, jealous. Parenting inevitably narrows your focus and devours your time. How would my days take shape were they not so filled with the relentless labor of caretaking for little ones? I would write more, for sure. I would certainly read more. I would travel with less heartache. I would stay longer. Beyond that, I’m not sure; how can one possibly imagine what one might have been? Or as one person wrote in:

“The worst part of not having kids is that I will not personally experience birth, and that there are parts of myself that I will never get to know, never grow into. On the other hand, there would be parts of myself I WILL get to know and grow into because of not having kids.”

Exactly. We are the sum of our experiences and mothering is one important possibility (for some, not all). Nothing more. Nothing less.

My biggest takeaway is this: These conversations aren’t happening enough. We need more spaces where women who don’t have kids, whether they define that as a choice or not, can talk about and celebrate their lives without fear of judgment or reprisal. Like this documentary film in process. Like Rebecca Traister’s fantastic book All the Single Ladies. Like the NotMom Summit.

And what’s more, I think mothers like me have to make an effort to ask more truly open questions (meaning the kind we genuinely don’t know the answers to, not advice or opinion disguised as a question) of our friends who aren’t mothers. We need to listen. As I sat on a long flight, reading over nearly 100 messages I received, I felt lucky to be trusted with these reflections and struck by how much of my life is filled with conversations about and among parents.

This strikes me as one more area where our liberation is tied up together. When women without kids get the respect they deserve and the freedom to shape their own lives without societal backlash, women with kids are also released from feeling like their worth is defined by their mothering. Or as one commenter put it:

“I love dreaming that we could eventually take down the ‘fence’ and just be loving witnesses to each others lives.”

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

Share Your Reflection


  • JenR99

    I have been admonished for saying I wish I had not had children. I should not have married and only had kids to fill the void of a marriage that was a mistake. We had little money and I wasn’t emotionally equipped to be a mother. I look back at my life and always wonder what I might have done if I had remained single and child free.

    • Courtney Martin

      Thank you for sharing this. Really powerful.

  • Parker J. Palmer

    I deeply admire what you’ve done here, Courtney. Instead of ignoring readers who took you to task for parts of your last column, or getting defensive about the issues, you reached out to your critics: “Tell me more. Help me understand what I’m missing.” Then you shared what you heard and learned with the rest of us, and summed up by saying, “My biggest takeaway is this: These conversations aren’t happening enough.” As I’ve told many people, at less than half my age, you’re one of my finest mentors: I want to be like you if and when I grow up! This column makes me double down on my resolve to start and carry on with open, vulnerable conversations in the many areas of our common life where learning to listen and trying to understand is the only way forward. Thank you, dear friend!

    • David

      Brilliant response. Thank you for taking the time to write. There were some nuggets of wisdom in there that I will carry along.

  • Gabby

    This is a wonderful thing you have done here, Courtney. You have a platform with wide reach, and you have used it this time to let wise, experienced, and thoughtful voices reach us whose words we otherwise would not hear.
    If there were ever a question that is best addressed by bringing in the voices of people who have made other choices or lived other or longer lives with the same choice, it is this one. Thank you.

    • Courtney Martin

      Thanks Gabby. So appreciate that it spoke to you.

  • EbonyinOjai

    This was a great follow-up. I wish there had been some mention of how educational level/race/class affect motherhood or the choice not to become a mother. So much to ponder…

    • Courtney Martin

      Good point. I think that all of those demographic intersections hugely affect both our individual decisions and they way they are seen by society.

  • lauren

    i have never seen this topic discussed so eloquently (if at all) ; it feels like it was written for me. thank you so much!

    • Courtney Martin

      You are so welcome. Thanks really goes to all the women who wrote in!

  • Linda

    I knew at age 13 after my first babysitting job that I did not want my own children. I have never wavered from that, never had a moment where I wondered if I had made the right decision. I have led a rich and successful life. I married a man who already had a grown child, and I became a grandmother to a wonderful little boy. I loved and cared for him and protected him from his dysfunctional parents, but never once did I reconsider my decision to remain childless. I am grateful that I lived in a time when I could make that choice; my mother, who never wanted children either, ended up with 4.

  • Lana

    I was touched to read someone describe “not having children” as a creative experience. In our lives, my husband and I gave ourselves permission to shed the template that society handed us, and create the life that is uniquely ours. Though we have been branded self-centered navel gazers at times, the journey has been alternatively scary, exhilarating, disorienting, and profoundly sacred. My abiding hope is that I have honored, and continue to honor, this precious life, however, I’m unable to know how I’ve done without a template.

    • Courtney Martin

      Beautifully worded. Thank you Lana.

  • Judi Beck

    A friend with 4 grown children has made the observation that – of her friends’ marriages – the happiest are those without children. Is she right? I don’t know. My husband and I are childless. Through all the ups and downs of 40 + years of marriage, we have worked through each challenge and continue to do so. We have a lovely, exciting, enriching life of ongoing discovery. Though we sometimes contemplate the richness of grandparenting, we have never regretted not having the experience of parenting. In fact, I’m not at all sure our marriage would have survived the challenges of childrearing. We were able to ask ourselves “what is enough?” in our late 40s and then “retire” to the artistic careers that provided “enough.” Had we had children, I feel certain we’d be much “older” than we are now… This is our happy reality.

    • Courtney Martin

      Fascinating to hear. A quick google search indicates that married couples without children are, on average, happier. Would be fascinating to delve into that research more deeply. Thanks for piquing my interest.

      • Judi Beck

        You’re so welcome!

      • Allison Wilkinson

        the research can be very deceiving on this topic. It depends on how you measure happiness-there are many roots to happiness–finding meaning, having joy, seeking pleasure. Most of the studies I’ve read suggest parents are less happy day to day but over the long term, they report a lot of meaning in their lives. Great book that explores this topic is by Jennifer Senior, called All Joy, No Fun. Thank you for opening up this important topic–like many things in our culture, there are a multitude of assumptions and polarities–and not enough seeking to understand differing viewpoints.

    • Barbara Saunders

      I’ve thought, too, that I’d like to be a grandparent but did not want to be a parent!

  • Gisele

    raising the next generation of workers comes directly OUT OF the mother’s income/pension 🙁 “the lack of workplace policies such as flex-time and caregiver leave—often forces women into career choices that severely limit their earning power. That’s why many women refuse overtime and promotions, and select careers that promise to be ‘family-friendly.’ Women’s domestic responsibilities also make it harder for them to return to school or attend training sessions that could advance their career.
    • Women who interrupt their career to care for children or other family members have much lower earnings: in one study, women aged forty who had interrupted their careers for at least three years for maternity leave or family leave were earning about 30% less than women with no children.27
    • The double-duty demands of home and workplace force many women to sacrifice their long-term economic security. This is a high price to pay for being a mother” I love my children but I will likely die in extreme poverty
    because of them …

    • Courtney Martin

      Thanks for reminding us of the many structural components to these decisions.

  • Siren3

    I was sixteen when I had my first abortion. Twenty when I had my second. Little did I know those pregnancies would be my only opportunity to give birth. My body closed the gate to motherhood when I felt “ready” in my thirties, found the right partner, had enough money, and most of the boxes checked. Not having children has still been my one regret in this life. As I enter my sixties I have had plenty of years to reflect this empty corner and for me, despite the freedom and financial stability of my life without children, there is still a quiet haunting of what might have been.

    • Courtney Martin

      Thank you for sharing so honestly and bravely. It’s really moving.

    • BeesKnees

      Siren3, I feel for you because I can only imagine how distressing that has been for you.

      I too have waited for the right partner, but for me everything has happened later in life. I’m in my early 40s and really the only way I can look at my situation is if we conceive we’ll have a wonderful life, if we don’t have a kid we’ll still have a wonderful life.

  • doggypaws

    I had an abortion at the age of 21 and never had any children. I think that dynamic is even more of a taboo. I live in a rural, red part of the country where god, guns and motherhood are sacred. I am 58 and surrounded by a culture that expects women to reproduce. I am often given a glazed-over look when people ask me how many children I have and I tell them none. They do not know how to respond and some seem to convey pity. No one in all the 23 years I have lived in this part of the country has ever gotten past that first question. No curiosity about what It is like to be childless, but sometimes I think there is some envy on their part because they know I have more choices about what I do in my free time.

    Not having children is a big elephant in the room. For me there is some bitterness in the happiness. Some reflection on what it might have been. But that seems true with so many choices we make or don’t make throughout life. Thank you for embracing the elephant.

    • Courtney Martin

      Thank you for sharing about your experience. It’s amazing that people haven’t been more curious to get past that first question. I guess it’s another testament to the power of our conditioning. Brava for staying true to what you wanted.

  • Roy Reichle

    Turns out — many people who don’t have kids aren’t peering over any fences. I stand corrected.

    I don’t know if you need to stand corrected, Courtney. If you do, you could be dismissing all the others who did connect with what you said and the way you said it.

    It is an illogical facet of our times that people expect everything published to connect with everyone, and that just is not possible. The world is and has been too diverse for every modicum of communication, written or spoken, to not be outside someone’s experience. This is where tolerance comes in. This is where understanding comes in. This is a time for compassion. This is a time for education, and I’m glad many did politely educate you on the many other possibilities for living a life. I wish more would remember the light that can arise from disagreement.

    • Courtney Martin

      Thanks Roy. I appreciate this perspective. I didn’t write that with a self-abnegating connotation. It became clear to me that I had overstated it originally.

  • I think we all grew up with “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage.” This is our romantic script. People who off script are judged harshly by others, whether it’s living a poly life, not marrying or not having kids (or heavens forbid, all three!) It’s hard not to internalize those judgments. That said, I see more people choosing to live their authentic life, and this is encouraging. And technology is rapidly changing the romantic script. I agree, we need more conversations — and include men in them, too. Honestly, I also think we need to embrace collective caregiving (what I call carenting); that way those who are solo don’t feel socially isolated, and help be part of children’s lives without having to be a mom or dad, parents can rely on a “village” so they’re not so overwhelmed, and children can benefit from numerous mentors with various backgrounds and experiences. That would remove a lot of the stigma and judgment.

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  • Lindsay Knake

    “I’d always worried that I’d live an ordinary life.”
    This is me, too. I’m nearly 29, and I’ve realized with gratitude I’ve also avoided that life so far. To me, an ordinary life is getting married and having kids. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, it’s just not right for me. When I was younger, there was a sense of inevitability that I had to do those things. That’s the model of a normal, appropriate life I saw among family members and people I knew. But for my whole life, I’ve known it’s wrong for me, even if I couldn’t articulate the reason. I’ve always felt defensive about my feelings and choices in this matter; even now, I don’t know how to let go of that defensiveness.
    It’s powerful to hear other women talking about their reasons for not wanting kids and also their gratitude for not having kids. I learned female fertility starts to decline in the early 30s, and I rejoiced! I’m not far away from that.
    Above all, I appreciate people who respect the choices of others regardless if it’s their own.

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  • Kate T

    I realize I’m a bit late to this discussion but just wanted to say thanks for your open approach to this topic. It is so incredibly hard to discuss this topic because of the defensiveness and nerves it touches on both sides. I’m in my 30s, so in the prime time for making the decision of whether to ‘have or not have’. It is a huge weight on me and something I think about almost daily. One of the major things I think about is how I will be leaving one ‘club’ to join another, and that there is no turning back. It feels so black and white. I don’t really feel like I fit firmly in either camp, so that last quote you ended with really resonated with me. I feel good knowing there may be others like me out there.

  • Karen Malone Wright

    Thanks very much for these posts, and for allowing us all to learn as you bust assumptions left and right. And of course, THANK YOU for including The NotMom Summit as a resource for women without children to experience what it’s like not to be asked ‘Do you have kids?’ for two days. You might may be interested in exploring one more dimension of our growing community: With media spotlight on the “modern” phenomenon of women choosing not to be mothers, women who once dreamed motherhood get lost in the shadows, all over again. The difference between the words “childless” and “childfree” matter to many women. My vision is to prove the ends of the spectrum have more in common than they think.

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  • Needtospeakup

    Beautiful and collaborative article. The ability to step back and “really appreciate the experience of the other” is a gift. It reminds me of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Mysteries, Yes”.

    For me, becoming a mom was an expectation of my family of origin. As number 11 of 12 children, you became self sufficient very early in life, and by 18 you needed to have a job or be married. I was emotionally immature, and married an equally immature man. As we look back at the cultural phenomena of divorce, many women were willing to do their own emotional work. There is no need to look back and regret, whether having children was a choice or just life.

  • Eileen Shore

    I am almost 70, married at 19, divorced at 30, no children and am grateful to have had the opportunity to be involved in the lives of a grand-nephew and niece. It seems to me that there is today more pressure for women to become mothers than during my own early adulthood. One aspect of that pressure that is too-often ignored, I think, is how it affects the children. My mother probably should not have had children. I suspect that I would have been an ok mother, but know that I am a pretty great aunt. And at the family reunions, the mothers always commented that I liked being with the kids, more than they did. So I am not child-hating or even child-indifferent. As I used to say again and again as a divorce mediator, “What’s best for the kids?” I think it’s a relevant question to ask before we continue to pressure every woman with a womb to use it to create another being.

  • Deb

    I knew from a young age that I didn’t want to have children. When I married I was very clear about that and my husband seemed to accept this weirdness. Then later when we toyed with the idea of having a child or I should say he wanted to explore the idea more fully he added into the conversation that of course he would come first the kids second. Really! In hind sight that was how it was in his family. I knew if I agreed that his premise of ‘me first’ wouldn’t be the basis for a very rich or happy family life so once again I’m content with the decision to be childless.

  • Machka

    “I’d always worried that I’d live an ordinary life.”

    I don’t think being a mother is a ticket to an “ordinary life”. I’m on my second career, have lived abroad, traveled extensively, have 3 college degrees, have many animals that I dote on, and became a mother in my early 40s as a foster mom. Most of my friends have kids graduating from high school and I have a 3 year old but I have done a lot before becoming a mom. Not the ordinary path but one full of adventure. My husband of 22 years and I decided not to have our own children but to be foster or adoptive parents when/if we decided to parent. So choosing to parent isn’t necessarily the equivalent of ordinary and doesn’t have to be done in the traditional path and at the usual life stages (although there is nothing wrong with that choice).

  • Katie

    The thing I find hardest about being childless and happy about it are the countless times I hear people say that a person doesn’t know what love is until they’ve had a child. I absolutely believe and accept that parental love is a special kind of love – but equally, my parent friends don’t know what it’s like to keep on loving the people around you without the life-marker of a child. They cannot know how the love of family, friends, and community deepens and changes as we age in the way that I know it. The love of anyone is precious and meaningful, and I wilt at the constant assertion that one is incomplete without parent-child love.

  • Andrew

    Loved reading these comments, both in the story and on this article. I especially empathize with the one who felt they had already had their fill of raising kids by raising their younger siblings. It is so much responsibility to raise your siblings, and parents. I’m the 3rd oldest of 9 kids and by the time I had the opportunity to get out of my parents house at 19 it felt so good to finally be able to live for myself. Now at 24 I still feel the same way and I don’t fault any woman, or anyone period, for not wanting kids. There are many of us who feel completely fulfilled in our own lives and don’t need children to feel complete. As someone else said, i could not imagine being responsible for another human 24 hours a day. No way no way! Great article, and great discussion.

  • Angie

    Wow, great time to run across this! Exponential thanks, Courtney, for your humility and strength, in creating space for a tangly topic. You could have chosen not to do anything with the flood of responses to your first writing. But you did, and I’m so grateful. Just the other day, I was biking home and a fear flashed bright and hot in my mind: For sure, people will harshly judge me if I decide not to have children and I don’t know if I can continue to absorb the perceived or actual judgment. I’m 34 and have no idea if my partner and I can procreate, still suspended in the realm of yes/no/maybe, accompanied by uncertain/confused/curious/scared. The mishmash of thoughts and emotions paired with the innumerable complexities are real and very difficult to openly discuss, sometimes and especially among other women. So again, thank you for cultivating necessary space for many to experience connection in a safe and affirming way.