Inconceivable: in defence of childfree women like me

Author Sam George-Allen is feeling singled out. She's about to turn 30, pays no attention to her biological clock and has had it with society telling her motherhood is the defining feature of womanhood

I’m about to turn thirty, and I still don’t want children. As I near the stage of life at which mainstream culture would have me believe the ticking of my biological clock is supposed to become so loud as to drive me insane (and then to the fertility clinic), all I feel is a profound relief that I’ve made it this far without giving in to the absurd pressure placed on young women to have a baby.

It’s not often that one encounters a childless woman depicted in a positive light, at least as far as popular culture and conversation go. From fairytales (where childless queens plot to murder their beautiful stepdaughters) to The Simpsons (poor Patty and Selma, those hairy-legged, lizard-loving objects of ridicule) to the enduring trope of the murderous un-mother (looking at you, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction), childless women are constructed in culture as child-hating, monstrous, deviant, selfish, unfeminine and evil.

Conversations about women who are voluntarily childless – or, as many now choose to self-identify, “childfree” – are where the most ugly, retrograde and sexist ideas about women’s bodies show themselves most visibly. The stigma and derision directed at childfree women demonstrates that deep down, much of our culture remains convinced of an old and dangerous notion – that to be a woman is, necessarily, to be a mother. A woman’s other achievements, her talents, her generosity towards others, her creativity, her leadership, all pale in comparison to her monstrous, voluntary barrenness. The idea of a woman choosing herself over her (non-existent) children is simply inconceivable.

It’s a tired, regressive social norm that for some reason has remained largely unexamined until recently. But, like so many regressive social norms, the myth of mandatory motherhood makes people miserable.

The tone of media coverage when it comes to publicly visible childfree women swings from sniggering innuendo to paternalistic pity – poor Jennifer Aniston, whose preternatural beauty and eye-popping wealth must be no compensation for the family (it’s implied) she’ll never be whole without.

childfree women

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Then there are the multitudinous ordinary women who have neither wealth nor fame to serve as insulator between their carefully-made choices and the well-meaning relatives or gabby taxi drivers or patronising doctors, who all repeat variations on the same, tired theme: You’ll change your mind.

Is there anything more paternalistic, infantilising, infuriating, than someone wagging their finger at you, eyes a-sparkle, and blithely implying that you, a grown, adult woman, have the self-awareness of a sea cucumber? You’ll change your mind. As if, in a birth-obsessed culture, we’ve had the luxury of not thinking about it. As if our choice to remain childless – our active, pill-taking, IUD-inserting, condom-purchasing choice – is a mere whim.

The pressure to reproduce comes from all directions, and more than anything it serves to remind women – all women, childfree or not – that their worth can be reduced to nothing more than their capacity for breeding. It’s the slippery flipside to outright denying women reproductive rights – we tie motherhood to feminine identity so closely, hector and cajole and threaten and coerce women towards parenthood with such determination, that for many it becomes almost impossible to resist.

But research has shown that, compared to both mothers and involuntarily childless women, childfree women ‘show higher levels of overall well-being, rate themselves as more autonomous… and are less likely to have a child-related regret.’ Because while people will endlessly tell you that you’ll regret not having children, no-one ever seems to ask if you’re sure you won’t regret having them. In fact according to research last year, single, unmarried woman were the happiest subgroup of the population.

There’s no doubt that motherhood is profoundly satisfying and fulfilling for millions of women the world over. But the way we treat women who decide not to follow that path is the last holdout of uninterrogated, open sexism, and it’s exhausting. It’s time we recognise the childfree woman as what she really is: a human being. No more selfish, deviant, unfeminine or wicked than the next – just a person who’s made a choice, just like any other.

childfree women

* Sam George-Allen is the author of Witches: The Transformative Power of Women Working Together out now from Melville House. Her essays, memoir and cultural criticism have been published in the Guardian, the Griffith Review, the Lifted BrowLitHub, and Overland. She’s also a musician and lives in a haunted village in the south of Tasmania with her partner, a dog, a cat, and five chickens. Witches is her first book.

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