Choosing to be childless is more than okay



Statistics and cultural trends indicate that the nuclear family model is losing its veneer. Fewer people are getting married. Couples without children are on the increase. Single women have found ways to have children without husbands. LGBTQIA+ couples are redefining not only how to start families but also broadening what a family looks like. And mothers are revealing that parenthood isn't all it's cracked up to be.

An illustration of young girls in Edwardian dress at different types of play - one with dolls, the other with construction toys. Illustration by Chris JohnstonYet despite this and all the noted physical and psychosocial side effects of having children (it affects one's marriage, career, finances, mental health and body), the ideal of the nuclear family persists.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a cisgender woman in possession of a healthy reproductive system must be in want of a child. Society has conditioned us to view women without children as an abnormality. I specify women, as the stigma and shame are predominantly applied to women. Historically (with the exception of nuns), unmarried childless women were 'spinsters' and unmarried childless men were bachelors. Women also have a 'biological' deadline for marriage and babies. There's never really been such a time limit thrust onto men.

The modern 'old maid' is no longer confined to the attic. She's in the workforce, the senate and leading in the community. But the spinster stigma persists, and the Modern Old Maid still faces scrutiny from coworkers, friends, family and the wider public. Former prime minister Julia Gillard was once described as a 'menopausal monster' and 'deliberately barren'. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk's 'frivolous' nature is a result of her absence of progeny. And one can only speculate how much income tabloid magazines have made from bemoaning Jennifer Aniston's childless state.

It's irrelevant that these women are powerful figures in their respective fields. Their success is invalidated by their childlessness. By virtue of not being mothers, they are to be pitied. They are unfulfilled. They aren't grounded. And worst of all, they don't understand real love.

There are many reasons why people cast shame on women without children. Internalised misogyny. The idea that people should continue a legacy or bloodline. But ultimately, it comes down to that knee-jerk reaction to anything counterculture. Being childfree goes against the cultural and social expectations of womanhood. It's expected that you'll get married and have babies.

Sure, gender norms are being deconstructed and cultural ideas of femininity are evolving, but the idea that women exist only to nurture and procreate still persists. Women are not only supposed to have children, they're supposed to want to. To 'just not want kids' is an insufficient excuse. A parent can talk about the struggle of having children, as long as they jauntily assert that they would never trade it for anything. The world doesn't look kindly on non-parents affirming that their lives are perfectly fine without children.


"We need to stop seeing having a child as the 'most wonderful thing a woman can do'."


We've spent thousands of years depicting women without children as being unfulfilled, selfish and loveless. It's quite shocking when we realise that those cultural narratives aren't always true. For many women and men, the state of not having children is a place where there's real grief. Infertility, or other circumstances of involuntary childlessness, can be heartbreaking for those that would have adored children of their own.

Those who are childfree by choice are being honest about why they don't want kids. And their reasons surprisingly extend beyond 'being selfish'. Many believe that circumstances like climate change, personal physical and mental health concerns and overpopulation will create an unsustainable future for any hypothetical offspring. These concerns are dismissed by those who want them to breed.

They might experience pressure not just from your nosy relatives but also from the government. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott thinks that middle class women need to have more children. Several countries with declining birth rates are taking steps to convince women to have more children. Italy, for example, now gives fruitful Italian couples financial bonuses. But according to the BBC, an €800 baby bonus isn't enough to coax Italian women into producing more citizens. Italian women are deterred by the state of the economy or underwhelmed by the options available to new Italian parents (e.g. no decent paternity leave, limited career flexibility for working mums and a lack of affordable childcare).

And many women in Italy are aware that the provision of baby bonuses doesn't mean that gender inequality has been tackled. There's a strong cultural expectation that all women will become mothers and there's a staggering gender gap in Italian employment. While it's valid for countries to fear the repercussions of declining birth rates, it's still intrusive for a government to tell their young, fertile populace that it'd be groovy if they had kids. Doubly so if they're only addressing white or middle-class citizens.

For the childfree community to shake the stigma, being honest about why they live sans enfants is only half the solution. Living one's truth needs to go hand in hand with society reforming how it perceives the lives of childfree people.

We need to expand our ideas of what a fulfilled life looks like. For many people, the joy found in travelling, cultivating friendships, building a successful career or adopting 12 dogs is enough. Even being single is enough. Your life doesn't have to look like an Anne Geddes calendar in order to be complete. For many childfree people throughout history, creating great literature, designing alternating current systems, or being one of the greatest artists of all time was enough.

There are so many wonderful things in life that don't require a child. We need to stop seeing having a child as the 'most wonderful thing a woman can do'. And whether they're trying to fly solo across the Atlantic or focus on their careers, childfree women should be allowed to live their lives without stigma, not in spite of it.



Vivienne CowburnVivienne Coburn is an eclectic writer and ardent coffee snob from Brisbane. Her work has been featured in Junkee, Ibis House, PASTEL Magazine and on her mum's fridge. She is also the host of 'Spookzzz' on 4ZZZ (102.1 FM). You can follow her on Twitter @pearandivy

Topic tags: Vivienne Cowburn, parenting, motherhood, gender equality



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Existing comments

Thank you, Vivienne. As a mother of four (grandmother of five), I sometimes ponder the question "How many children had Lady Macbeth?". That other Shakespeare quandary "Where was Hamlet at the time of his father's murder?" also intrigues me. Talk about creating great literature! Seriously though the question of having children is definitely one of those personal questions. Which people should respectfully stay away from.
Pam | 31 January 2020

Well said Vivienne. The expectation that 'real women' must have kids is long past its use-by date. In any case, the world doesn't need more kids and Abbott's pathetic remarks have a strong whiff of eugenics about them.
Ginger Meggs | 31 January 2020

I think this article is about alternative pathways. Some negotiate them very well and live very fulfilled lives. It’s sad when people desperately want to be parents and yet that doesn’t happen for them. It is a sadness for those people but, even for them, it need not be a loss that cannot be overcome. Life is so rich, so wonderful and such a gift to us all. We should not put all our eggs in one basket ... there are so many paths to a rich life.
BPLF | 31 January 2020

How sad that we live in a society that spends time creating unnecessary stigmata in the pursuit of the fable of gender equality.
john frawley | 01 February 2020

"We need to stop seeing having a child as the 'most wonderful thing a woman can do'." I disagree. Be hide every person, creating great literature, designing alternating current systems, or being one of the greatest artists of all time. There was a mother who enabled the creation of that person 'first'. Take Leonardo, who was illegitimate by birth, son of a illiterate housemaid. Motherhood is the most wonderful thing a women can do. And unless you are a parent, a mother or father- it is inconceivable to comprehend. How wonderful is Cherry Blossom time in Japan? I cannot tell you. And yet, it is certain, the initial seed of the Cherry Blossom tree, deserves as much admiration, once in full bloom. Perhaps more.
AO | 01 February 2020

There may well be "many wonderful things in life that don't require a child", but unless my mother had children, then I and my siblings wouldn't be on this earth to experience them! I just hope that in an effort to eliminate stigma for childless people we don't stop seeing that having children is still "a wonderful thing to do". I know lots of women and men without children and I've never heard any of them talk about experiencing stigma or rejection. And neither do they underestimate or undervalue what having children means to others around them. I'm a proud uncle and godfather and I might add that pregnancies of a couple of my siblings were not always the expected blessing at the time due to obvious challenges and lack of maturity. This is such a common yet very little spoken of stigma in Catholic culture. With unexpected pregnancies in young unmarried women there is a real shame and stigma. Instead of embracing the reality with compassion, young women are often driven towards secret abortions they would otherwise not seek. It's the unrealistic Catholic cult of guilt and virginity that drives them to this - not selfishness and malice.
AURELIUS | 02 February 2020

Whilst the goal of allowing respect and enabling of women to chose to be childless is admirable & worthy of pursuit, it shouldn't come by diminishing the many women that chose parenthood as a career. I once went to a seminar that was very much miss titled/promoted as "Educators & Employers, getting together to ensure Education delivers what Emplyers need" Unfortunately the actual thrust of the presentation was to address the promoters view that there was an imbalance in the age that Males & Females started their 1st full-time employment. The statistic quoted that Males start 1st job (on average) at 21 Y.O. & Females start their 1st job at 42 Y.O. The whole point of the seminar was to discuss how to "fix" this problem. The fact that the choise of Motherhood as a career was completely not counted as a legitimate career choice, by not having motherhood included in that statistical amyalis is/was an insult to those women that make that career choice..
Russell Camel Wattie | 03 February 2020

Pleased to see you back, Aurelius. I missed your presence on ES over the last year or so and pleased to see it wasn't due to some permanency! Agree with your comment today.
john frawley | 03 February 2020

When I was married in 1970 the PP told us that we should consider having children as soon as possible. Back then I was an obedient Catholic and so we had two children. Of course, NFP was the only way of birth control, which did work, but I won't go into any other details!!!! So, the idea of not choosing to be a mother wasn't on the radar - you just had to be. Thank goodness this has now changed, after all, not every woman is crazy about babies and small children (I would rather have a cat) and this should be respected. Still, my kids are both in the late 40's and of course I love 'em to bits.....but if I had my time over again, I wonder if I would have chosen motherhood. I will never know.
Helen Oxenburgh-Lowe | 03 February 2020

Thank you Vivienne for writing this article so thoughtfully and sensitively. I completely agree with your words from my own personal experience. As a childless Catholic unmarried woman, who would have loved to have been married and had children but did not 'meet the one', I feel the stigma from society and my family and it does make me feel second-class. Despite having spent my life in ministry to those in need, travelling and having successful careers, it still doesn't seem to be enough for others that I have lived a fulfilled life. It still is the case that as single unmarried women, we are seen as different and strange and people pity us!
Dana | 03 February 2020

I agree that a woman isn’t defined by whether or not she has children. I can’t agree, however, that our society generally tries to so construct them. Where I live, the general culture is quite accepting of a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have children - and very supportive of her decisions not to conceive or bear them. It must be at least fifty years since I’ve heard the word ‘spinster’ used, probably by one of my parents’ generation. The counter- cultural opinion is that of individuals - politicians, media hacks - who think have some advantage to gain by name calling and baseless insinuation. (And some who perceive a limit on the ‘right’ to terminate a pregnancy already begun). My own experience is that my baby boomer generation of women saw, and helped bring about, a massive change in the culture. Now, it seems to me, it’s the women who freely choose to have children within their heterosexual partnerships who are on the outer. That really wasn’t what we old-style feminists were hoping for. I think we were hoping for more inclusiveness, not less.
Joan Seymour | 03 February 2020

"There are so many wonderful things in life that don't require a child." Somewhere, I’m told, St Thomas Aquinas wrote that a third of the human race should be marrying and procreating, while about two thirds should be in religious life or the celibate priesthood. So this strict 13th century Doctor of the Church – echoing Catholic teaching down the centuries – certainly sides with the author on the having of children not being the overriding priority/obligation of women, or men. The sticking point is not whether there are worthy life projects to pursue which are incompatible with the serious task of raising children. It’s about what sex is for, and about whether you can implement your choice not to raise children by, say, killing them.
HH | 03 February 2020

As someone who has two nearly adult children I agree totally with Vivienne here. there is nothing wrong with making an alternative choice, for whatever reason. I have quite a few friends who have made such choices and have no regrets. I don't think this argument is exclusive to women though. I remember very clearly as an 18year old apprentice that the incoming CEO of the company I worked for was around 40 and single. He was labeled by the staff as probably gay. Why else would a man of that age not be married and have a family. While women may feel those comments more strongly, I am not sure men aren't on the receiving end of them as well. Let people make a choice and be happy because there is nothing worse than an unhappy parent
geoff | 07 February 2020

While having a child is an enormous responsibility, the title of this article suggests a reduction of this question to a matter of rational choice theory (RCT). RCT (Amartya Sen, 2008), also known as choice theory or rational action theory, is a framework for understanding and often formally modelling social and economic behaviour. RCT's sole focus is on the determinants of the individual choices (methodological individualism). RCT then assumes that an individual has preferences among the available choice alternatives that allow them to state which option they prefer. RCT is widely critiqued by feminist ethicists, such as Martha Nussbaum and Judith Butler, as a faulty principle to appeal to in deciding something as important as having a child or not. It is, moreover, premised by the most perniciously selfish and unjust notions of possessive individualism, instead of a self-assessment of a couple's capabilities. Granted that women's bodies should never be used as chattels, the matter of having a child or not cannot be discussed in terms of the cost benefit analysis ideas outlined in this perspective. Regardless of biological or any other form of determinism that should never foist a child on a woman, what about children as love's fruition?
Michael Furtado | 08 February 2020

well I still shudder as I thought the world had stopped " when in 1966, my wife and I where told to take the first born out of the church, during Mass , by the pp. Hence my wife (convert) and I , lost our sense of direction and faith changed our view of what the Catholic direction was for some in peoples minds, at last the world has decided well at least the Australian way has , to accept others of all genders to and religions to live ones own life in peace with others. Now I can sit back and smile and enjoy my Family, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren . and encourage them all to enjoy life in what ever the chosen field and life style , but respect all others as well. remember adoption is also a hard calling but good for family fulfilment.
Chris Reynolds | 09 February 2020

The 'sticking point', HH, is not 'about what sex is for', because there is no way that you and the author will ever be reconciled on that. The question at the centre of this article is why politicians, shock jocks, and some journalists, feel free to describe childless women, but not childless men, as, for example, 'deliberately barren'. There is, I suggest, more than a whiff of misogyny and 'alpha male-ism' behind such descriptors.
Ginger Meggs | 10 February 2020

“We need to stop seeing having a child as the 'most wonderful thing a woman can do'.” When you convert something profound into something utilitarian, you make it banal. If to have a child is a ho-hum, so-so thing you do if you feel like it, children become only a privatised good, not a common blessing. Why should taxpayers in common fund childcare? Let the individuals who want to feel ‘fulfilled’ by ‘childing’ (a made-up word to reflect a utilitarian process of manufacture) fund their private hobby themselves. But the banal hints at more because today’s taxpayers need their multiple in tomorrow’s taxpayers to look after them. What seems utilitarian is not. Even at the most banal level, the logic that having a child is not the most wonderful thing a woman can do is, to borrow something from the latest Neve Mahoney article, ‘ouroboros-like’. The answer lies in justice. Societies, like individuals, cannot free-lunch. If a society benefits from a woman’s childbearing, it should subsidise the gap caused by the potential in her brain frequently requiring life-cycle paths that do not mesh well (without wider support) with the paths arising out of the potential in her reproductive system.
roy chen yee | 15 February 2020

At no point in Vivienne's article did she say or imply that 'to have a child is a ho-hum, so-so thing you do if you feel like it'. To suggest otherwise Roy is to misrepresent what she actually said, that is, that 'we need to stop seeing having a child as THE 'most wonderful thing a WOMAN can do'.
Ginger Meggs | 25 February 2020


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