Compulsory Motherhood vs. Being Childfree: Sexual Healing


ColumnAre you meant to be a mother? That’s a question many women don’t truly ask before they plunge into the world of nappies and sore nipples. Lots of us do it because after all – isn’t it just what we do after we graduate from college, spend a few years having fun, and eventually get married? Not so fast — childfree women have a lot to teach the rest of us about consciously choosing our path to parenthood.

People always say that having a kid is the best thing they’ve ever done, and I’m sure that’s true. But it’s not a given that all women want to be mothers.

Much of today’s column is adapted from a piece I wrote a few years ago called “My Uterus is Officially Closed for Business and I Have No Regrets”. Since I wrote it, we’ve collectively deconstructed “Leaning In” and “Why Women Can’t Still Have it All.” During the debates about each of these books/articles, childfree women were mostly ignored and overlooked. Let’s look at them them now.

When I first started the research for “Eco-Sex: Go Green Between the Sheets and Make Your Love Life Sustainable” (Crown Publishing/Ten Speed Press, 2010), I was still planning to have 2.0 kids, au naturel. I have always cried at the sight of infants and love crawling on the floor with my friend’s toddlers: having at least one biological baby seemed like an inevitable step. But then I wrapped my brain around the relationship of overpopulation to climate change, especially in the West, and made a big decision: my body won’t bring more kids into the world. I learned that even if I spent the rest of my life recycling, having even one biological child would increase my carbon legacy by 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide. My uterus is officially closed for business. I’ll probably be adopting kids when the time, money, and living space is right. But if I don’t, it certainly won’t be the end of my world.

As a freelance writer and sex columnist who makes her living in New York City, my life doesn’t exactly suck. I’ve got family, friends and endless culture at my fingertips. I can travel, go to dinner parties and parties that end long after dinner is finished. I can take a yoga class when I want to, dance till the wee hours, or just cuddle up in front of the TV. I have the time to be passionate about my various causes. I make my own hours and live a life built on my own needs and inspirations. Ain’t bad at all. In fact, childfree couples may be happier than couples with children, at least according to a recent study in the UK.

But if you hold my life up to the lens of our baby-bump-obsessed culture, there’ s a planet-sized chasm in my world: the lack of a child. Some parents seem to hold me simultaneously in contempt and awe, something few are willing to verbalize. One friend with two kids once let it slip that he believes choosing not to have children is “selfish.” Even though I’m not a traditional childfree woman (because I plan to adopt or foster a child someday), I still get constant questions from people of every age: “But when?” and, “Why wouldn’t you want your own kids?” as if adopted children are somehow less lovable than one’s “own” kids. “You’ll change your mind,” is a classic comment, usually from older people with teenagers or grown children.

So what about women who’ve decided that child-rearing, both biological and otherwise, is not on their agenda at all? Imagine how they they feel every time someone says, “But don’t you want kids?” or, “Don’t worry, you’ll change your mind.” People react to the idea of women not having children with total incredulity, shock, and worst of all, pity. They assume it’s a case of infertility in disguise, a lack of a relationship, or that women without kids “hate children.” In the majority of cases, it’s none of the above. I’m in a weird in-between category because I do plan to bring kids into my life one day. Still, I feel like it’s incredibly important to defend my sisters who are childfree or childless by choice, depending on your preferred parlance.

Lisa Hymas, Grist writer and coiner of the acronym GINK (green inclinations, no kids) has written an enlightening post: “Say it Loud: I’m Child-free and I’m Proud,” one in a series all about living child-free. Laura S. Scott, the author of “Two Is Enough: A Couple’s Guide to Living Childless by Choice” (Seal Press, 2009) does a wonderful job of profiling this burgeoning movement of women (and men) who are loud and proud about their child-free status. Especially in a political climate like the current one, where a woman’s right to choose is under the most serious threat in history, women who have chosen not to have children need to come out of the childfree closet. Worldwide population will hit the nine-billion mark by the middle of the century, and the GOP is fighting the war on women with unmitigated zeal. They’re especially hard on Planned Parenthood, the organization that does the most to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Hello, outrageous hypocrisy.

It should be acknowledged that there are plenty of people who desperately want kids but can’t have them easily — infertile couples, gay couples, singles who don’t want to do it alone, etc. This isn’t to diminish their very real emotions about having children. At the same time, we shouldn’t be afraid to look at how unhealthy our obsession with children has become. Children are, of course, precious; however, in our society, they are deeply fetishized. Isn’t it possible that the massive sadness and mourning that infertile women experience is built, in part, on society’s view of them as “barren” women? Why do they think their lives will be empty without biological kids? This is something we should talk about openly and often, especially with young women.

Take a group of girls between three and five, playing house. Inevitably, one girl will always want to be the mother. Another will dig the “older sister” role. Another will prefer to be the baby. Some even want to be the dad. None of these choices are wrong — they just are. But as young girls grow into tweens and teens and then young women, our roles are constantly defined in smaller and smaller terms by a society that insists that we’re probably not of much value unless we have children. And this socialization is so deeply built into our understanding of our self-worth that it’s almost impossible for women to know where they end and being a mother begins. Having a child is a deeply personal decision and no cultural standard or cycle of shame should have any part in determining it.

Plenty of us are probably not meant  to have children — maybe our art is our baby, something to be nurtured and then sent off into the world. Maybe we have a house of rescued pets. Maybe we’re off in a developing nation helping people to lead healthy, sustainable lives. We need to be conscious first — to know ourselves, our values, our deeply felt, real wants and needs — not those that have been constructed by the culture we’re immersed in. Compulsory motherhood makes every woman feel that choosing NOT to give birth is exceptional — or worse — something to feel guilty for. Choosing to be a mother (or not) is complicated — but it needs to be a choice, not something women do because it’s the thing that everyone else does.

Think about all the abused children whose parents’ baggage has become their baggage — simply because there was no consciousness around having kids. They just did what they thought they were put here to do. Babies and young children are wildly intuitive in ways that we can’t even imagine. If they’re not exactly treasured — or worse, seen as a burden — it’s a good bet that they can feel that in their tiny bodies. And even though they can’t process it intellectually, just wait until they’re grown up.

After a deliberate, conscious period of grappling with whether or not we truly want them, the children we do bring into the world will be happier and more psychologically sound — because they’ll know we weren’t ambivalent about having them.

Got a question for Stefanie? Email stefanie at ecosalon dot com and she’ll answer it in the next Sexual Healing column.

Keep in touch with Stefanie on Twitter: @ecosexuality

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Image: Chris JL

Stefanie Iris Weiss

Stefanie Iris Weiss is the author of nine books, including her latest title–Eco-Sex: Go Green Between the Sheets and Make Your Love Life Sustainable (Crown Publishing/Ten Speed Press, 2010). She keeps her carbon footprint small in New York City, where she writes about sustainability, sexuality, reproductive rights, dating and relationships, politics, fashion, beauty, and more. Stefanie is a regular contributor to British Elle, and has written for Above Magazine, Nerve, The Daily Green, Marie Claire, EcoSalon and Teen Vogue, to name a few. Her HuffPost blog is sometimes controversial. Stefanie is an on-and-off adjunct professor when not busy writing and teaching about sustainable love. A vegetarian and eco-activist since her teen years, Stefanie has made her passion into her work, and she wouldn't want it any other way. She believes that life is always better when there's more pleasure, and sustainable satisfaction is the best kind. Learn more about her various projects at and follow her on Twitter: @ecosexuality.