I Lost a Baby -- and Found A Community of Women Who Won't Be Mothers
Those of us who are not mothers do not fit into any of society's convenient boxes: We're not slaves to carpools or homework. At the same time, we are not necessarily obsessed about our careers or even ourselves; nor are we anti-family. Our days are simply lived according to a different rhythm: Children don't tug at my clothes and beg for attention; I don't leave my cellphone on during films or dinner parties in case the babysitter needs me; I travel; I read books -- lots of them -- as well as the newspaper.I'm a firm believer that even those who have dealt with infertility (or, in this case, an unfortunate stillbirth and divorce) can properly join the ranks of the childfree. Although they once wanted children, many of us have changed our minds from society's 'default' position. When someone makes a positive choice to stop trying - to forego fertility treatments or adoption- they have made a decision not to have children regardless of the fact that one path to parenting was involuntarily closed.
I am also a filmmaker, and a few years ago I began to work on a documentary about childless women -- not only those of us who have lost or can't have children, but the growing number who don't want to have them. Their reasons vary. In the most devastated areas of Baltimore, I found women who told me they had chosen to be childless because there were simply too many children in their families or neighborhoods who needed looking after. An immigration lawyer told me she had done motherhood when she was a teenager, helping her mother with her younger sibling. Many reflected the attitudes of an academic who told me that her decision to remain childless made her feel like "an outlaw."
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Just as some women talk of a visceral urge that propels them to have children, others speak of an equally visceral urge that propels them not to. Laurie, a transplanted southerner who teaches history in New York, began to realize at an early age that she didn't want children, as she watched wealthy mothers in Richmond hire other women to care for their children. "These people compelled to have trophy babies in certain socioeconomic echelons don't want to face the realities of raising a child." She is now infuriated by what she calls "that Mother Right" -- the assumption that everyone will make way for a woman with a stroller or a child in tow. She goes on to challenge me: "If we believe that this is the hardest thing that anyone can do, then why should it be assumed we should all be doing it?"
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But almost all the women I've talked with describe feeling acutely aware of what they see as our national obsession with motherhood: "The Bump Watch" hounding Jennifer Aniston and Jennifer Lopez; "Celebrity Babies" like the elusive Suri Cruise; and "The Ultimate Hollywood Accessory: A New Baby," popularized by Brangelina. Some use the term "child-free" to differentiate those who choose not to have children from those who had been unable to have them.
It's hard to find accurate data on the percentage of women who choose to be childless, but the National Center for Health Statistics confirms that 6.6 percent of women in 1995 declared themselves voluntarily childless, up from 2.4 percent in 1982. These days, at least in industrialized countries, we no longer need to "go forth and multiply" to provide children to work our farms. Although the United States has the highest birthrate in the developed world, it hovers around the natural population replacement level of 2.1 births per woman.
After all, lurking inside many fecund young mothers may be the same mindset - one which would - if forced to confront the decision head-on - likewise stray from the flock. Many do fall into the decision, sometimes by accident, sometimes by 'purposeful accidents' (deliberate carelessness?) and some because they just followed what society tells us is life's natural progression without giving it deep thought. Perhaps it would be better if all women gave their parenting options the thorough consideration that results from infertility. Nature, however, doesn't always force the issue. . .