“So, when are you going to have kids? … Wait, why not? Don’t you like kids? You’re total mother material! You just haven’t found the right partner. You’ll change your mind one day…”
For women like me without children, hereafter referred to as “childless” (while this may seem callous, this is the term most commonly used throughout the literature), these types of questions and comments are incredibly common, despite their invasive nature. These interrogators assume that children are such an obvious inevitability in a woman’s full, healthy, normal life, that they have no problem grilling a complete stranger about her reproductive choices and challenges.
Women are childless for three main reasons: choice, circumstance, and biology. And, while every childless woman has a unique life story that has led her to reach this point of childlessness, this story is hers to share– or not– at her discretion. I am childless by choice, and have a multitude of reasons why my partner and I have chosen this path; however, fully recognizing that my reasons might be offensive to other women who have chosen to (try to) become mothers, I really do prefer to keep these reasons private, as they apply only to me and I don’t really feel like engaging in a debate over my uterus’s potential tenants.
This is exactly the problem, however — reducing a woman’s value to what her uterus does or does not provide. We are all so much more than our uteruses, and what we decide to do with them is our own business. And yet, society views childless women as deviants, a second sex within the female sex, going against nature by not being a mother — we’ve been relegated from mothers to Others.
The term “otherhood” (in contrast to “motherhood”) was coined by a woman named Melanie Notkin, and pithily encapsulates the intense stigmatization and isolation of childless women. Despite the fact that one in five US women is childless (and that number is rising!)1, childless women are pushed to the societal periphery, leading to poorer physical and mental health when compared with mothers.2 At work, childless women are frequently subjected to unfair schedule requests, and in even our families, those of us without children are often expected to bend over backwards to accommodate others’ schedules, as if our meal and sleep routines are less important. The list of daily microaggressions is long, and takes its cumulative toll.
Why bring this topic up at all? Society seems to have already made its choice on which women are the most valued. We can all do better to help support each other, though. All women are more than their uteruses and, thusly, discussions about gender inequity in the workplace must also include conversations about income parity, promoting women into leadership, and eliminating gender bias in the way we teach and evaluate trainees, in addition to the perennial (and important) topics of parental leave and pumping space. We as women, whether mothers or others, need to support each other in our reproductive roller coaster rides, recognizing that childlessness is not a static concept, and isn’t always where a woman intended to be, but that we are all valuable, badass, complete contributors to society.
Watch the FIX19 talk below!
- Abma JC and Martinez GM. Childlessness Among Older Women in the United States: Trends and Profiles. Journal of Marriage and Family. 2006;68(4): 1045-1056.
- Graham M. Is Being Childless Detrimental to a Woman’s Health and Well-Being Across Her Life Course? Women’s Health Issues. 2015;25(2): 176-184.