I have a confession to make. I don’t have children.

You read that right. I’m a woman, of childbearing age, who doesn’t have children, and I have no plans to.

You might read this and think, “Hey, that’s fine, this is 2019, lots of women do that.”

But that is not my personal experience.

My experience when meeting someone new, either personally or professionally, is that the conversation goes along these lines:

Me: Hi, I’m Beth Pontius.

Other: Hi, I’m Jane Smith. What do you do?

Me: I’m an Emergency Physician. I work a lot with resident and medical student education. What do you do?

Other: Oh, that’s nice. Do you have kids?

Me: Just the four-legged furry kind.

My husband and I made a choice to not have children before we got married, but not everyone has that luxury. When you ask someone if they have children, or if they plan on having children, you have no idea what the other person is facing. Maybe they’ve had infertility struggles. Maybe they don’t agree with their partner about whether to have kids, when to have kids, or how to raise kids, and the topic of having children is stressful and emotional. You may think this is a benign question, but you have no idea what emotions are going on behind the smile projected by the person you’re questioning.  

I have had coworkers say, “Well, because I have kids, it’s so much harder to do…” I have news for you: being a woman physician without kids is not the same as being a man. There are struggles and barriers women face in medicine, regardless of whether they have children or not. Just this week, I received an email from a visiting medical student directed to “Dr. Xxxxx (one of the male physicians in my group) and Ms. Pontius.” I’m not trying to make light of the sacrifices you make when you become a parent – parenting is hard work, and takes a lot of time, effort, and tears.  But I think we are remiss in focusing all our attention on the unique struggles of women physicians who are mothers, and not recognizing that all women physicians continue to fight an uphill battle for recognition, promotion, and equal pay.

When other women promote National Women Physician’s Day, or tweet about gender inequality in the workplace, and use the hashtag “#PMG”, they are actually alienating a large percentage of women who don’t have children.  Of the thirty women my group, eleven of us do not have children. Take a moment, and think: how are you promoting your fellow FemInEMs when your statement automatically excludes one-third of us?

I often hear the refrain “But you and Andrew would be such good parents!” as someone’s argument that we should reconsider our decision to not have children. I agree – my husband and I would be awesome parents! We love children, we have a ton of fun with our fifteen nieces and nephews, and we are kind, generous, smart, caring, and responsible people, who work hard to make this world a more loving and equitable place. We can still be those people, and strive to do those acts, without having children.