A New Column: 'Childfreeness'

"This column was born out of an eagerness to create space for other stories, other versions of life living to be told, because we need more."
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Welcome to our newest column about "childfreeness", by choice or by circumstance. In our desire to speak to women's stories in all of their nuanced and complex nature, we are eager to have Gretchen Jones sharing the experiences of those who have often felt stigmatized and overlooked. 

This is a new column dedicated to conversations on living without children. With brave fellow travelers, I hope to explore the topic in a new way, one that I haven't yet heard or read about. And maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll get into what “it” really means in a macro way, rather than just what each of us individually assumes (or presumes) it to be.

In this first installment of Childfreeness, I answer the questions myself. Then I’ll ask these same questions of all kinds of women: Those who’ve chosen not to have children, those who can’t have children, those who have had children. Sometimes, men too. Gay and straight people, non-binary people… I want to hear all the stories. Reproduction is a big deal for everyone whether we do it or not. Thanks, in advance, for expanding our horizons.

What was the impetus for this project? Why do you want to talk about not having children?

This comes from feeling a bunch of tension, or tensions, really. Girlhood verses womanhood. Endless possibility verses settling down. Inclusivity verses exclusion. Whooo! Let’s take ‘em one at a time.

Girlhood, as in our young adult lives, is... not womanhood. Girlhood allows us all to dream big, try on different versions of ourselves, playing dress up, in a sense… but rather than clothing, we try on lifestyles, professions, romantic partners, friendships and sometimes communities or locations. Our minds are most open when young and free to explore new modes of operating, living, being. We are more open to alternatives, our circle of friends is perhaps the most diverse it will ever be, our potential seems endless. While young, we strut around with an air of experimentation and a willingness to expand — and then we start to contract. When we are young we are more inclusive. With time, we start fencing ourselves in.

Womanhood changes us. We begin to settle into ourselves, our views become more rigid, our behaviors and communities become more refined, but also more limited. Our choices, then, begin to significantly impact the lens we view life. Endless possibility shifts into the beast of obligation. We don’t have time for new fill-in-the-blank and for many, unfortunately, an air of judgment sets in. For some, the clock starts ticking, drastically shifting our attention towards procreation. For others, hearing and feeling the clock ticking drives us toward not procreating.

I’m nearing 40 now. What I find myself questioning is a narrowing setting in among my peers, and myself. The cultural dogmas, especially exasperated and pronounced on social media, of what success looks like are real, if rudimentary. These expressions of expectation, or pressures to perform, feel far more regressive than progressive in my humble opinion. The American Dream most definitely remains rooted in "having it all" and then some: husband/wife? Check! Beautiful home that you own? Check! Instagramable career? You must! Children? Yes, of course! But we know there are so many narratives missing and in so many directions.

This column was born out of an eagerness to create space for other stories, other versions of life living to be told, because we need more — more diverse narratives, more fully shared. Limiting narratives, or showing only stage-managed, super-curated versions of what life is all about/should look like limits us all. Hearing and really listening to women who are child free – by choice or circumstance – in their own words is needed. And not just for women without children, but for us all.

Let’s talk nomenclature. What do we even call this way of being?

Childlessness: The definition of “-lessness” is the quality or state of being less or of less importance (i.e., INFERIORITYThis is spot on for how I feel our culture feels and treats women without kids. Women with children not excluded.

Child-free: “Free” has many connotations, but in the context of “child-free”, these definitions stand out as most relevant to the presumptions or judgements attached: not determined by anything beyond its own nature or being; choosing or capable of choosing for itself; having no obligations or commitments. My grief with this term is that it feels put upon me, not created by me. Which is the opposite of being free, by definition.

Neither of these terms work for me. One is literally telling me I am less than, the other is wildly presumptive. Both are wrong. The reality is, all of the terms we use describe women in terms of the absence of motherhood. And that feels like bullshit. How about just calling me, Gretchen? 

What's your story? Break down how you came to know this was your non-parenting path.

I didn’t play with dolls as a child, and I wasn’t into playing house. At nine, my mother had a hysterectomy and after learning what that meant, I wanted one. I was a late bloomer (didn't get my period until I was 17) with breasts making their (tiny) appearance a year later, just one month before graduating from high school. Leaving for college, my mother pulled me aside and said, “Be careful, we are a very fertile family.” What!? I just got my period, I thought I might be sterile! More disgusted than informed, I barely understood what she was insinuating, that were we cursed? Maybe. Better not take any chances! I immediately went on birth control, knowing then what I always knew — I never wanted kids. Birth control options were more limited then. I started taking the pill before ever having sex, bought a Casio watch with an alarm clock, setting it/myself up for a responsible foray into sexual freedom.

At 19, I fell in love for the first time. I had already lost my virginity, barely, but this love was my first regular sexual relationship. I wasn’t good at taking pills, and the birth control pill was no different. As the rule-abiding, responsible young woman I wanted to be, I marched myself back into the health clinic, demanding another option for birth control. The IUD was still only available to women who had already had children, the ring was still being vetted, the patch hadn’t came out yet, but the Depo-Provera shot was an option. I took it. Bonus: No periods, after the injection. Hell, yes! Sign me up. Who knew the doctor/nurse was supposed to give each candidate a pregnancy test before initiating the injections? Not me. I trusted the medical professionals to know what they were doing.

Fast forward four months: Following a severe skateboarding accident (I was 19, young and dumb) and multiple intense surgeries, I found out I was pregnant. Very pregnant, like pregnant back when that nurse gave me my first shot of Depo. Reflecting on how I got into this incredibly perplexing situation was intense. Each time I discussed symptoms with my doctors, they brushed it off as side effects from all the medications they had given me. I was so out of it and in pain, I believed them, just like I had the clinic nurse, months before. Finding out I was pregnant was a trauma in itself. I was devastated, not just by the circumstances, but for failing myself, failing the life I wanted for myself. The disappointment I felt for being unable to avoid the doom and dread my mother imparted on me was immense. Motherhood was not in my future, never would be, I just knew it. My first love and I, without a blink of hesitation – and in full support of each others’ desires – knew an abortion was our only option. But time for that was running out.

My abortion story — the first one, anyway — is a long, wild, traumatic, sad and wildly fortunate one. I’ll leave that for another platform, another interview somewhere, someday. What I will say now is that it solidified my core beliefs and feelings about motherhood — not for me. My experiences with termination, having and exercising my right to choose, have deeply informed my life as well as my political views. What’s more, it has made me stronger, louder and prouder of myself and the efforts I have made to do what is right for me, body, mind and soul. I don’t want to be a mom, I don’t connect to traditional representations of family, I am not missing out on anything, you can’t miss out on something you never wanted, right? Maybe. Just maybe.

When you presented the idea of a space dedicated to "Childfreeness" to your community, how was it received?

For context, my friends and following are 85% female and based mostly in NYC, Portland and LA. Being vulnerable and sharing my perspective is what I’m known for. I am a firm believer in Brené Brown’s sentiments about vulnerability, so I lean into letting it all hang out. Publicly exploring modern child free-ness has come with the utmost enthusiasm, actually, which was encouraging enough to make this column happen. I feel like our stories are necessary for moving us forward, both as a gender and a whole society. We can and should be more open on all fronts.

When I speak of not wanting children, I tend to get a lot of thanks for sharing my perspective, but also a handful of direct messages belittling me for not honoring the importance of children and motherhood. My not wanting children is not an affront to children, or mothers. It’s just my row to hoe. Unfortunately, the most intense and incredibly aggressive responses come when sharing/discussing the right to choose and my abortion stories, all of which I expect and honor as another, valid perspective because we all should be entitled to our own opinions. Just as we should be enabled to act on those opinions without legal repercussions, shaming or worse. 

What’s surprising, rather, is how negative some of the responses can be, and from whom. The most shameful, negative responses come from my female peers, not wildly conservative religious women, but artistic, hip liberal women who consider themselves progressive, or at least liberal-leaning. Most often I hear vitriol from women struggling with fertility in some capacity, who take my fertility and my choice to terminate as an outright attack on their own circumstances. This me versus you approach leaves no room for connection, empathy or reciprocity.

As I age out of my fertility, I can certainly say that had the discussions I hope to foster here existed more publicly when I was younger, I might have donated my eggs, been a surrogate or something similar for a woman in need. I sense I’m not the only one who may be coming to such conclusions. Stigmas hurt us all. We fail each other when we don’t remain open and share, explore and care for all our different modes of operating and our needs and choices — without judgement. 

What do you hope to achieve by talking about this publicly?

My goal is to create a safe space to start meaningful dialogues about a handful of subjects that we often keep hidden. My hope is that in sharing stories about childlessness, we can shed light on how many different versions of child free exist. We cannot, should not, all be lumped together. A woman who couldn’t have children is not the same as a woman who doesn’t want children, even when moving on into a meaningful existence without. (Similarly, all mothers’ stories — from conception, to birth, to nursing, child rearing, balancing work, etc. are not the same.) 

My hope is that our perspective and experience is honored as valuable… as valuable as those of women with children. You don’t know what you don’t know, and the shame and prejudgements or conclusions made about women without children is absurd. Sure, we might not know your fill-in-the-blank, just as you likely don’t know our fill-in-the-blank either. It’s time for inclusivity on a deeper level. Just like so many other narratives needing an invite, childlessness needs a seat at the table. Seats, because I intend to use this space to engage with all of us, being child free for all reasons, in all forms.

What are your thoughts on the following assumptions about women and motherhood? 

“All women are mothers.” 

I really, really, really hate this ideology. It is shortsighted and presumptive, which is unfortunate. I don’t connect with my womb in the way I feel is necessary to identify with this sentiment. I find it insensitive, too — it makes me less than, or at the very least, brands me unfairly. You don’t have to connect with motherhood in order to connect with womanhood.

“All women without children hate them.” 

Personally speaking, I don’t hate children, but I also don’t love them. There are a handful of kids I simply adore and enjoy spending time with, but they are special unicorns and they ebb and flow with interest in engaging with me as they evolve and grow, just like I did with the adults I connected with as a child.

What bothers me about this presumption? When I hear or read it, I actually see a revealing, nuanced proclamation along the lines of I don’t like that you don’t have children, or your not having children offends me and insults my choices. That’s certainly how it feels, anyway.

“All women without children want to be an ‘Auntie.’"

Nope. I don’t think we all yearn to help form children into people. To be honest, most of my close friends don’t have children. The few that do, including myself and my partner’s siblings, don’t live next door or anywhere near us. Most of my close friendships are with those who are also child-free. Devoting energy to enriching the lives of other people’s children directly doesn’t resonate with me. Sometimes there’s that magical connection, but I don’t feel the need to be closely involved in the lives of the children just because. I prefer to march to the beat of my own drum and let that be what a child is drawn to, if only from afar.

That said, I do feel strongly in investing in young people through recalibrating how we as a society approach childcare, education, medical care, etc. I feel the people we vote into office are failing our children and future as a whole. Doing what I can to help all of us fix these issues at scale is where I see myself fitting most earnestly into the equation. 

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