Do We Secretly Envy the Childfree?

Or is childlessness still a taboo?

woman pushing a stroller
We know of course that we are not supposed to judge other women for something like not having children, but we do it all the time

Photograph by Pulvret80/iStockPhoto.

Rationally, of course, we know that not everyone should have kids, and that not everyone wants to have kids, and that life without kids is an entirely plausible and even pleasant possibility; and yet, do many of us secretly feel sorry for or condescend to or fail to understand women who don’t have children? Do we assume they are bravely harboring some deep disappointment, do we think they can’t possibly be happy with things as they are, that there is some brittleness, some emptiness at the center? This is the argument of the French feminist, Elisabeth Badinter, and I think she is probably right.  

A recent Pew Poll found that one in five women in her early 40s has not had a child. So the decision, or the situation, is not exactly exotic, and yet to many, a woman without a child is still a tragic or at least disappointed figure.  

Taboo is a strong and unsubtle word, probably, for how we feel about childlessness; it might be more precise to say that the shrewder, wilier form that taboo takes is probably something closer to pity, as if the childless woman has somehow not pulled it together, as if she is damaged or thwarted. Especially if that childless woman conforms to our clichéd narrative, and say has a dog or cat, or a dog and a cat, or multiple dogs or cats: the general interpretation is that she is sad, not that she is doing a different thing.

We know of course that we are not supposed to judge other women for something like not having children, but we do it all the time. We know the decision is intensely personal, but we sometimes can’t help but involve ourselves. I know that I have found myself ardently encouraging a woman I know in her late 30s to have a baby, and then I have to catch myself: What is my investment in this, and how can I possibly know if she should have a baby? I can’t make an argument for children generally, and why would I want to?  I wonder if part of this is that having children is such a transfiguring and defining experience, that one has trouble imagining those transfigured or defined by other things: That it is a lack of imagination at the core.

And what about men? Do we look at men who have somehow not procreated as missing out?  Probably not, or at least not on the same level. Thinking of men I know who have decided not to have children, there is often a belief that they are immature, Peter Pan-ish, and somehow clinging unnaturally to a freer state, an unseemly perpetual adolescence. The criticism of them is not that they are failures, as is the implicit judgment of women, or somehow unfulfilled or empty, but that they are not growing up.

A man in his 40s who decided against having children emailed me:

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

“The immaturity verdict—I got that a lot in my 30s. The theory behind it is that every man wants a kid but some won’t admit this to themselves on schedule, and so need to have their narcissism exploded by all these terrific new Moms and Dads.  Forget the question of whether men are qualified to make their own decisions at age 35—I’d say most are.  And forget that you have to be mature at least in some ways to withstand so much social pressure. The most unattractive thing about my friends at this time was that they seemed indifferent not only to my happiness, but to the happiness of my children. These kid-pushers had none of my reluctance to sentence a child to life with an ambivalent, disengaged and possibly unloving Dad.”

The semi-moral imperative to grow up does seem sort of arbitrary and unfair. After all, why should you have to grow up if you don’t want to? Why do we feel the need to impose or foist this very particular variety of grown up life on other people?  It seems likely that there is an element of envy in those who have taken on responsible, burdened, parenting lives. Do these people who stay out at parties until three if they feel like it, who sleep late, and can spend an entire day lost in a book, or suddenly take off for a few weeks in Amsterdam, seem like they are living on a richer plane? Even for those of us who wouldn’t give up our maddening burdens in their striped pajamas, that freedom can be something of a reproach, if we are honest. If we weren’t taking this freedom  personally, as a sort of criticism of dullness or drabness or routine, a kind of red pencil in the margins of our more mundane stories, we would be a little better, as a culture, at letting the childless (or as Badinter calls them, “the childfree”) go in peace. 

I remember, in high school, reading with great horror the account of what happened to Tolstoy’s flirtatious Natasha when she had happily settled down and had her four children: “She had grown stouter and broader, so that it was difficult to recognize in this robust, motherly woman the slim, lively Natasha of former days. Her features were more defined and had a calm, soft and serene expression. In her face there was none of that ever-glowing animation that was formerly buried there and constituted its charm.” And I am wondering if it’s the “ever-glowing animation” of the childless, the desire, or pursuit of desire, that gives at least some of them their provocative radiance.