Let’s Stop Pretending There Is a War Between Mothers and Child-Free Women

by robinhardwick

I am a women in my thirties and I am child-free by choice. I had always suspected I would choose to be child-free, but when I turned thirty it seemed that it would permanently be a part of my life plan. I’ve been happy with my choice and for the most part have benefited from this decision. However, there are those pesky societal messages that creep into my consciousness; I was not fulfilling my role as a woman. I’d die alone with no one to take care of me. I’m selfish. My life is pointless without children. I’d lose all my friends once they became mothers. And so on and so on.

When I decided my child-free identity was forever, I became more indignant about it, and started actively seeking out materials and issues on being child-free, specifically the child-free community on Reddit. As with anything on Reddit, you some ugly with the good. As I continued to rely on that community, I found myself reading anecdotes about how other people’s children ruined someone’s dinner, how women’s friends and families were judging them for their child-free life, and how having children would have ruined their life, and how having children have ruined other people’s lives. This started to influence me and how I self-actualized my child-free choice.  I wallowed in my perceived persecution and other-ness, and got sad when a friend got pregnant, assuming I was losing another friend.

My brother and sister-in-law have had two children in the last five years, and I think spending time with them made me realize that I was was defining my child-free identity with something approaching hostility. Firstly, I never hated children; my niece and nephew are loveable and I miss them every day (they live on the other side of the country). Spending time with my brother and S-I-L through the triumphs and tribulations raising young children and understanding their thoughts brought me to the realization that I had created an arbitrary and unnecessary divide. What was the point of dividing women into opposing groups, and what about my commitment and strong belief of women having choice in how they want to live their lives?

It is futile, petty, and just damn unnecessary to create this divide and hostility. Why would I, as a feminist,  not support all women in their choices? Child-free or not, it’s apparent that there are immense institutional obstacles for women who want a career and children, and despite my choice to be child-free, this affects womanhood and contributes to obstacles for all women.

I’m obviously speaking from my own experience, I can’t and won’t speak for other child-free women and the obstacles they are facing. I think it is important to share both the grievances against women with children and how I’ve tried to change the way I now try to think about it. Below are some common assumptions I used to buy into:

1. Mothers only care/talk about their children and raising children, and they are no “fun” anymore. This is an easy go-to rationalization. Listen, they are talking about their children because it’s a main part of their lives at that moment, and they are invested in it. Why wouldn’t they talk about it?  I could talk about obscure French Horror films, because that is my interest, but I don’t talk about it all the time because it is not their interest. We have to face that people talk about what they are most invested in their lives at that time.

Some new mothers have told me that they are aware they are talking about children a lot but wish they weren’t talking about it all the time. A mother with small children, if she’s not working outside the home, spends all her day with her children and rarely with adult company. I am sure she would love to talk about something else, but her focus has been elsewhere. Take the time to talk about yourself, ask her some advice, ask her about something other than her children; she will likely be be grateful for the change of pace! Take some responsibilities for the conversations you were having and be honest with the person, even saying “hey I’m having this problem and I want to talk about with you,” “I want to tell you about my week”, etc. And, of course, honor equal airtime for her to talk about what’s going on in her world of motherhood.

2. Child-free women have the freedom to do anything they want, and women with children are resentful of that.There’s definitely a stigma against women admitting that they miss their lives before children, that sometimes they wish they were child-free again. And I’ll bet that almost all women think this at some point and guess what…that’s okay! Raising kids is hard and isn’t rainbows and bunnies the whole time. Neither is any big life decision, why would raising children suddenly be a flawless process? Too bad us child-free women are just shoving our commitment-free lives in front of them. We can go out for a drink at a moments notice! We can stay out until 3am and We can sleep until 2pm on Saturdays!

Firstly, nope. Being child-free doesn’t mean that we are wanton party animals. Every woman has a commitment to her health, family, job, etc that takes work. Let’s just stop with the woe- is me contest of who has a harder life. Both child-free women and women with children have life-altering struggles that can’t compare; It’s a contest without any clear winners.

As a child-free by choice woman, I can tell you that “the grass is always greener” definitely applies in this situation. Sure, I have more flexibility in pursuing my hobbies, interests, and taking a new path in life, whether it be in career, relationships, or moving to an entirely new city than I would if I had children. That is something I treasure, but I’ll be honest, it can be confusing and frustrating, and can fuel my depression. Often times, feeling untethered is the cause of much anxiety for me. I am constantly questioning: where am I going? What is my purpose? Is it really worth living here where rent is 10x more than the next state over? I do envy women with an immediate family who loves her unconditionally and she has a commitment to, and can come home to that makes all the crap she goes through worth it. She has a direction and a focus when she makes decisions, always having to consider her family. So yes, in that sense I envious, just as someone with a family may be envious of someone that can make choices that don’t have to consider children in. There are aspects of both choices that are both desirable and not to the other person.

3. In the workplace, women with children get more leniency in taking off to deal with children than child-free people. Child-free people’s free time is not considered as legitimate as people with children. It’s not fair! Firstly, I want to point out the obvious; this is not the case in many work situations, and I am speaking from a place of privilege. I work at a general 9-5 career position, certainly not something all women have the opportunity to do. Furthermore, women with children in the professional world  who can’t work the long hours or socialize/”network” with colleagues after work suffer less career promotion overall. But on a micro-level, some of my peers have expressed frustration in that they are expected to work later shifts/holidays because the time their colleagues spend with children is more important than whatever it is child-free people do with their time.

If you are in a situation where you are taking on significantly more work than someone else who has to take time to care for her children, that’s a tough situation and I suggest embarking on a formal resolution, whether it be talking with supervisors and/or human resources. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, and that’s a damn shame for everyone involved.

A lot of times these complaints come from child-free women people whose colleagues leave, say, half an hour early to pick up a child, or perhaps gets the vacation time she asks for because her children are off from school, or takes time during the day to deal with making doctor’s appointments, talking with their school, etc etc. Maybe you are asked to stay late to finish a project and your colleague with children is not. Sure, it’s frustrating. I would challenge anyone with this frustration to really think about if this is truly a problem for you, or if you are frustrated because you want to play the martyr? Is someone leaving a bit early every day really affecting your work in the long run? Have you even asked if you can take off early to get an errand done?  Are you both equally productive during the time you are at work? How are you so sure that the mother is not doing work at home after she picks up her children? How is taking to a doctor on the phone wasting more time than you perusing Facebook?

Look, we already know there are immense institutional challenges for women who choose to work and have children. It’s easier to support them in this struggle than to worry about inequities at work that really don’t make a difference in the long run. It’s also easy to play the victim, but sometimes there’s nothing to make someone a victim. Sure, the principle may be in effect, but sometimes it’s not worth our energy if the end result is not truly detrimental. If this may be a concern, be clear and up-front with your vacation and work schedule needs, and don’t assume anything. Better to provide support to your colleagues who are mothers, to understand their needs as children, and consider expressing your needs. Maybe you can come in later than your colleagues one morning because you want to sleep in a bit more to compliment your colleague on the days she leaves early.

How about this: offer to cover someone who has to take care of something for their children, and she may offer to cover you at another time (like those early mornings when you are tired from your crazy-partying the night before, you crazy child-free woman!).

I’m not ignorant to the fact that there are mothers who are going to act as insensitive assholes to child-free women, and vice-versa. If these people are set in their ways, they are probably not worth knowing.  My previous defensive attitude didn’t help me, nor any other women with different family choices than mine. Women with children and child-free women can both take responsibility over their actions and be proactive about expressing their needs to the other.

Exploring a child-free identity and finding and joining communities where you feel supported are still great. As a child-free woman, I am especially interested in learning about the struggles mothers feel from society about what motherhood is, and the barrage of messages from the Motherhood Consumerism Complex. There is so much to read on the subject, but I’d recommend two books I read recently:

I Can Barely Take Care of Myself, by comedian Jen Kirkman, is a collection of essays of her life and how her decision to be child-free has affected her relationships and career choices.

Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids? is inspired by her own struggles to birth and care for her baby the “right” way. It contains thoroughly researched information about different women’s perceptions of motherhood and pressure to conform to the way they think they are expected to raise children.

This piece, and other advice-related writing can be found at Pouring Lemon Juice On a Paper Cut.