This article was originally written for Thoughts & Ideas. Tw: mild references to transphobia.
If you’re a teenager (or younger) and you say you don’t want to have children people tell you: of course you don’t. You’re still a child. You don’t know what you’ll want in the future.
If you’re in your twenties and you say you don’t want to have children people tell you: you just don’t know yet because you have so much time. You’ll want to settle down later on, when you meet the right person.
If you’re in your early thirties and you say you don’t want to have children: you just think you have plenty of time left. But you don’t. You better make a decision and hurry up.
If you’re in your late thirties or beyond and you say you don’t want to have children: you’re just saying that because you don’t want to admit it might be too late. Or that it already is too late.
So, really, when are women* allowed to say we don’t want children? At what point are we permitted to state our preference not to spawn tiny 50% replicas of ourselves?
Why are some people so intent on gatekeeping who can have preferences regarding their own reproductive capabilities?
Why is it assumed by many that childless women either secretly want kids or don’t want to admit that they resent not having had them?
(This is mostly just the case for women. For men it seems to be more a case of ‘your partner/future partner might want kids’ or ‘you might accidentally get someone pregnant and have them want to keep it.’ Both of which are obnoxious arguments and kind of assume that it can only ever be a passive choice, despite the reality that a lot of men actively want kids. Anecdotally, most of the childless men in their twenties/thirties I’ve asked about this are relatively confident they would want kids if a partner did and they were in a good financial state, whereas most women seem more ambivalent.)
We view femininity and fertility as interchangeable concepts
In the 1950s, Christine Jorgensen became the first person to become widely known for having sex reassignment surgery. She was born a man but experienced profound discomfort in her gender identity from a young age, feeling alienated from her peers and wanting to grow her hair long. In her twenties, she travelled to Denmark and had a series of surgeries, alongside hormonal treatment.
At the time, this was a new procedure and the risks were high, yet Christine suffered few side effects and went on to live a long, healthy life.
Upon her return to her home in America, Christine became a media darling and her story was splashed across every newspaper and magazine. Compared to much of the coverage of trans people decades later, the media was kind, even admiring, to Christine. Her family were glad she was happy at last and threw a party to celebrate.
In an era where it seemed science could do anything and everything was possible, people made an assumption that seems ludicrous in hindsight: that Christine would be able to have children.
When they read that Christine had surgery to become physically a woman, people unthinkingly equated this with fertility.
Only later did it emerge that the surgeries Christine underwent were cosmetic and she was not able to bear children. Such a surgery would be impossible even now and may never be feasible due to the health risks.
As soon as people learned this, the tide of opinion turned. Many people stopped accepting that Christine was a woman and the media stopped using feminine pronouns for her.
My respect for Christine’s lifelong efforts to encourage people to rethink how they thought about gender is hard to articulate. Her story illustrates how strong the cultural link between femininity and fertility is.
While much has changed since the 1950s, that idea is only loosening in tiny increments. Fewer women have children and many wait until later, yet we still struggle to disentangle the two concepts and to envision a version of femininity that doesn’t involve motherhood.
Never has having kids made less sense for so many people
I recently read Willing Slaves, by Madeline Bunting, a critique of the overwork culture we live in and of the misery that originates from allowing earning a living to dominate every aspect of our lives.
One of the author’s core assumptions is that a major cost of the overwork culture is that it forces women to defer having children, or to spend less time with them. And that a solution to this cultural dilemma is to provide better childcare options — affordable and beneficial for the kids.
The edition I read is about fifteen years old and at this point in time the author’s view of having children as the default seems utterly antiquated. It seems bizarre that one of her main quibbles with overwork culture is that it is harmful to children and prevents people from starting families when they want to.
Bunting’s suggestions for better childcare are valid, her assumption that having children both is and should be the norm is not anymore. She doesn’t even, as far as I’m aware, acknowledge that women can be childless.
It’s a dated idea because we are rapidly reaching (or have already reached) a point where having children makes little to no sense for the majority of people.
The planet is dying. It’s not underpopulation that threatens our species, it’s overpopulation. However people paint their motivations for parenthood, let’s not forget that it all comes down to the biological drive to keep the species going. That drive is now not just at the point of diminishing returns, but of negative returns.
A lot of the older people who nag those who don’t want kids seem unaware of the privilege that made it easier for them to do so — being able to buy property, having a stable and reliable job, having family members willing to help with childcare.
For Gen Z-ers like myself and millennials, such things are in short supply.
If you’re draining every bit of your time trying to stay afloat financially, adding a kid to the mix is not always plausible.
If you have little chance of ever being able to retire, the cost of a child might not make sense.
If you’re lucky to be able to rent somewhere with a window, the idea of housing a child seems silly.
And if you straight up don’t want kids, that should be just as valid. Because it doesn’t need to be the default decision any more. It should be a choice people make because they have the means and they really want it, not because it’s expected or they’re scared of regret.
It’s no longer a case of finding reasons not to have kids. It’s now a case of finding reasons to have kids.
I don’t expect to ever to own property, my career is always going to be precarious and both of my parents have made it clear that they don’t want grandchildren and certainly don’t want to look after any.
When I think of what I could do with the time and energy and money even one child requires, it doesn’t make sense. I’d much rather invest in my career.
My maternal instincts are non-existent, I need plenty of time alone, and I can’t spend 5-minutes in a room with an under-ten year old without starting to Google the cost of private sterilisation.
Sure, in my late teens I did think I wanted kids.
Except, all of my reasons for it were beyond flawed. I figured it would prevent my partner from leaving me. And that it would give me something to love and be loved by. And I wouldn’t be lonely in old age.
All of which are terrible, selfish justifications.
It doesn’t help much when people hiss something to the tune of: ‘Just wait until you have kids. Everything you own will be coated in vomit and shit. You’ll get 2 hours sleep a night and be grateful for it. You’ll have no money and have to watch your kid destroying everything and your entire body will hurt all the time and you’ll have no friends. Just you wait.’ As if it’s some kind of inevitable sentence or a threat.
I don’t bother articulating that I don’t plan to have children to anyone who does because they inevitably act as if me being 21 invalidates that. Despite there being no age where women are really allowed to say they don’t or didn’t want them.
It’s always telling when people argue so vehemently against the life choices of others and try so hard to persuade others to take the same path they did.
The fact that I feel the need to justify here why I don’t want kids is also telling. I shouldn’t need to justify it. I shouldn’t need reasons not to have children.
If you have kids and are happy with that decision: awesome
No really, I am super happy for you. I do not doubt that they bring unimaginable joy and meaning to your life.
I hope that you are secure enough in your decision to have children not to feel the need to try to persuade childless people to do the same.
A guy in his seventies with five children told me that holding his first child was the happiest moment of his life. He knew in that instant why he was put on that planet. My mother didn’t think she wanted kids and only changed her mind quite late in life. Despite the ridiculous sacrifices she made to raise my brother and I, and the amount of bullshit she put up with from both of us, she is adamant she has never regretted it. I’ve heard similar sentiments all my life and never disbelieved any of them.
So I get it. I get that it’s an experience nothing else can replicate. And I do worry that we might reach a point where women with children are looked down upon or not catered for, as opposed to given the respect and support they deserve.
But when we’re content with our life choices, we don’t feel the compulsion to persuade others to do the same.
Fear is a bad reason to bring another human into the world.
You can argue for and against all of these points all you like, yet the main point remains: the list of reasons not to have children is growing, as is the number of people who have the means and education to prevent unwanted pregnancies. It’s time we loosen the association between femininity and motherhood.
For women it seems like saying you don’t want to ever have children is still a little bit taboo. At a minimum, no one takes you seriously or quite believes you. Never mind your reasons or the justifications.
My point here is not that having kids is bad or invalid or that we shouldn’t do it. My issue is with those who are so quick to dismiss anyone who says they don’t want them, without considering how bad a choice it can be.
*Throughout this post I’ve used ‘women’ to mean AFAB (assigned female at birth) individuals, i.e. those who are technically capable of bearing children. I’ve used ‘men’ to mean AMAB (assigned male at birth), i.e. those who are not technically capable of bearing children. I recognise that not everyone with the physical capacity to get pregnant is a woman and that in using language in this way I am falling into the same pitfall I am criticising.