When Having It All Includes Being Childfree

     The American perception of women having it all usually includes motherhood along with the magical mix of high-level career, great salary, and a wonderful partnership.  The following quotes extol the motherhood aspect of the good life:

       “It is not until you become a mother that your judgment slowly turns to compassion and understanding,” – Erma Bombeck, American Humorist.

       “Mother: the most beautiful word on the lips of mankind.” – Kahlil Gibran, Lebanese born American essayist, novelist and poet.

       “Having children is what a woman is born for, really.” – Nastassja Kinski, actress.

You don't have to have kids in order to live a fulfilled life.

Time magazine cover, August 12, 2013. Photo-illustration by Randal Ford

      Challenging the America that worships motherhood, the August 12, 2013 TIME magazine cover story, “Having It All Without Having Children,” by Lauren Sandler, reports that about one in five women in the United States ends their childbearing years without being mothers, and still manage to feel fulfilled.  

  Even though the birthrate is falling, Sandler points out that this hasn’t resulted in a waning baby biz industry. In fact, buying for children is at the record high of an “estimated $49 billion for 2013.” This proves that parenting continues to be a prevailing value for women (and men) in modern American culture.

     Although highly educated white women are those most likely to opt out of parenthood, a 2010 Pew study reported that women from the Hispanic and African American cultures aren’t far behind. Some women in these groups make the difficult decision to be childfree despite the risks of inciting conflict in their families of origin.  Said one childfree Latina woman interviewed for Sandler’s article, “family is your pride, your success,” and the risk of immigration that many of their families took was for “the generations that continue.” She was fortunate to fall in love with a Latino man who acknowledges her choice not to bear children, and supports her in being true to herself.

     Those who have decided not to be somebody’s mom are frequently left out of discussions about having it all. That’s because, Sandler says, America often “equates womanhood with motherhood,” and assumes that ambitious women are, and will be, professionals with offspring.   

     Sandler notes that even with America’s strong cultural bias to have kids, childfree women are carving out new paths to acceptance. As we point out in our book, Enough of Us, many realize they can lead meaningful progeny-free lives by putting more time into advocating for elderly parents, being activists for children or animals, and helping families via professions like psychotherapist, teacher, or social worker.

     Sandler’s article is worth reading not least because it proffers a great emotional feel for what it’s like to be out of the loop simply because millions of us have listened to our own drummer.

     Her article, however, focuses almost entirely on the “I like my life and career the way it is” reasons for foregoing motherhood. What she has failed to report on are the many women who have made the decision to be childfree based on other more-selfless factors, including our own Mother Earth. She needs a lot of help with her already-seven-billion of us, which she cannot vigorously sustain.  Many women have decided not to bring more humans into this world in order to reduce their impact on the environment for the good of everyone, including the young people who already exist.  Many childfree folks have considered the physical and mental problems that might have carried over from their families to their unborn children.  They have thought twice and realized quite unselfishly that there are already Enough of Us.

While Lauren Sandler’s article is thought provoking and engaging, we wish TIME had used its platform to consider the broader range of reasons why many choose to be nonparents.


  1. Rachel Tyrel says:

    I just read the “Time” article yesterday, and completely agree with the criticisms offered here. I too found it interesting that the author (Sandler) failed to mention all of the environmental and medical (not wanting to carry on a hereditary health condition) for chosing the childfree lifestyle.

    I have a theory on that, which is that if these more selfless reasons were more widely publicized, it would become more and more difficult for our media establishment to paint childless females as “cat ladies” and/or somehow social misfits.

    When faced with the cold hard truth that there are very many childfree women who choose not to reproduce in a thoughtful, studied manner, the media would then have to accept that their rosy portrayals of motherhood are nothing but pro-natalist fantasies, designed to keep women pregnant and barefoot, continuously producing a permanent underclass of Americans who can be tapped for military service by our government-industrial complex, and exploited for slave-labor at rock-bottom wage prices. They would finally have to admit that being a parent isn’t the selfless labor of love that it’s made out to be, but rather a series of callous financial transactions designed to transfer tax credits from workers without children to parents.

    • Rachel:
      Well said.
      You sure don’t pull any punches. While we agree with the ends of all you propose, the last proposition may be true in fact but we don’t know if it’s true in intention for most parents. While they do benefit from the financial transactions, for most folks we don’t think that’s the conscious intent. But I guess we’re just splitting hairs here.
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful input.

  2. Childfree Woman says:

    I agree with your excellent post, Ellis & Cheryl, and with Rachel’s comments. I’ve been noticing what I call the “hidden childfree” — selfless people who may or may not have been childfree originally, perhaps were childless, but lead active lives in their professions and in their hobbies that help others. Cat ladies provide important help to society too IMHO — healthy feral communities keep down rats and other disease-carrying vermin — and the more cats have homes and vaccinations the better off the public health is.

    Those who are parents probably don’t have the callous financial transaction in mind when they decide to have children but there are a lot of breeders and many of them do employ callous financial transactions when they choose to breed IMHO.

    I would like to see government monies meant to help children be handled in a way that assures that they are helping the children more and allowing the “mothers” less opportunity to use it for themselves rather than the children it was meant for.

    I do not think that child support money ought to be in the hands of the custodial parent AT ALL. (And, yes, I have ideas about how that could be handled.) And, no, I have no axe to grind, not being personally involved in any child custody at all, except insofar as being a taxpayer who is tired of hearing of people being shot at McDonald’s or some such public place by a parent handing over a child who decides to get at the ex and sometimes kill the kids too. I think there should be a handover place and neither ex should lay eyes on the other one.

  3. I found the quote from Erma Bombeck particularly shocking. I suppose there’s no chance it was made in jest. Woe betide the individuals who haven’t learned compassion and understanding before they have children. When I was little, back in the Dark Ages, a childfree couple used to take me to the circus and welcome my visits to their house with great delight. Another childfree couple treated me every Sunday to lovely food and the Sherry Lewis Show. Neither couple had pets, but they cherished me. No lack of compassion and understanding, quite the opposite. Later, as a teenager, other childfree friends of my parents acted as beloved mentors to me. Though anecdotal, I certainly have experienced, in multiple cases, compassion and understanding from childfree people–sometimes more than from my own parents.

    My personal experience also tells me that the woman who has it all–a high-paying job, a perfect partner, and thriving children, is a lie. Most frequently what happens is a broken family in a myriad of forms–divorce, severely stressed family members, alienated children, and worse. One of my childhood friends was murdered by his distinguished father when my friend was eighteen.

  4. Just read this. http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/life/9035087/Should-you-have-kids

    We need a mix of all families to make the world work. I am happy you have chosen what is right for you. Obviously you wrote this book because you felt unsupported, or some stigma, from society and wanted to support likeminded people.

    As a parent of a two year old, however, I could not help but be amused by your saying having a child is a “selfish” choice.

    I understand your rationale. But believe me, raising a child responsibly in the tricky world you yourselves have fretted over – that is the very pinnacle of all lessons in sacrifice and selflessness. And there is no “save games” or returning to the shop. It’s done. You say in this article that you can’t imagine you are missing anything, and that is right – I used to be there, and you can’t imagine. It is a totally unique experience bringing a helpless innocent into your life, and the world. I’m not trying to persuade you of anything, or that one choice is right or wrong, just saying: with a baby, the world transforms.

    What no one tells you though, about how much you learn from watching your child grow. you learn what is really important in life, so much about human nature. Raising a child does consume time and energy as well, and contrary to what you think about society, the brutal global capitalism underneath ain’t family friendly. It is based on indivdual actors producing and consuming, and has no empathy for parent time. Day care or whatever is the very evidence of this. So much of the “free market” caters towards our infantile entertainment and distraction, so you have to think, raising childen was nature’s way of keeping us out of trouble
    But we’ve got too clever for that, which our technology, etc.. There are a lot of people out there in the world who have accrued great money and power and they throw it around like greedy destructive infants – causing so much of the world’s troubles. 100 people have the wealth to feed, clothe and shelter the world 4 times over! Population ain’t the problem. If they had raised children (and I don’t count leaving them with a nanny, whatever) at least they might have grown up.

    • Paul:
      Thanks for taking the time and making the effort to comment.
      We find it interesting that you have analyzed what motivated us to write the book without having even read so much as the introduction.
      We stick to our guns (please excuse the expression) concerning reproduction being the single most selfish choice otherwise moral people make. In fact we have never heard an unselfish reason for making children. What separates that choice from all other selfish choices in life is that reproduction involves creating a new experimental life in an already overpopulated world.
      We respectfully suggest at the very least that you read the free sample of the book on the ordering page of this site.
      Again, we thank you for your participation.

      Ellis and Cheryl

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