Child free AND also a stepmother—it’s a thing. According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, almost one in five (19%) American women in remarried stepfamilies have no biological children, yet have stepchildren living with them at least half the time.
It’s been hard to gather data, at least at this point in my research, because we haven’t had mechanisms as a society up to this point to report on less classically- embraced demographics. There’s all sorts of statistical information out there about traditional nuclear families, and there’s certainly no shortage of anecdotal stepparent experiences, but sussing out the facts around women who are child free by choice or circumstance as a cohabiting partner in remarriage took me doing rough math to try to connect dots. While the proportion of women that have never given birth has risen by 80% since 1976–just as women’s higher education rates and entry into the workforce have expanded rapidly–one out of two marriages ends in divorce, and 75% of divorcées remarry at least once. Research from The Stepfamily Foundation reports that 50% of all women—not just mothers—will live in a stepfamily relationship at some point in their lives. Over 50% of all US families are remarried or re-coupled, generally speaking.
Though the information I am attempting to contextualize here can seem either overwhelming or inconsequential, when combined and contextualised, nuanced numbers become profound representations of a culture in motion. Suddenly, societal shifts start to make sense. Most importantly, you can start to see “new normals” growing in scale and worth our collective attention. Because of that, the 2020 US Census will for the first time be adding new data points that will broaden our understanding of the American experience. Times, they are-a changin’… and the child free—by choice or circumstance—as a cohabiting partner in remarriage with kids may finally get its due.
Childfree by choice is most definitely different than by circumstance. Earlier interviews in this series articulate the polarities quite well, while also addressing the societal impulse to combine the two. After all, this series is meant to uncover, engage, and explore such nuanced differences and their relevance to today’s adult female experience. Now we arrive at a new category of complexity: child free by choice being upended by circumstances beyond our control, namely marrying into stepmotherhood.
This week’s interview feels both incredibly relevant and terrifyingly raw. What would it mean to select—truly choose—a pathway forward that was child free, only to fall in love with someone whose life and circumstance completely disrupt that choice? What if that disruption not only surprises you, but takes you down an entirely different professional track? This month I was fortunate enough to speak to Erin Franklin, licensed professional counselor intern—she just completed her master’s degree in counseling. Erin is about to be a child-free-by-choice-cohabiting- partner-in-remarriage-with-stepchildren, and her honesty and candor shines a light on the importance of self-acceptance, flexibility, and letting go without giving in.
Don’t have children, and/but…
Select all that apply.
❏ Didn’t know if I wanted them or not, then landed on not.
What's your story? Break down how you came to be childfree/less.
I can still see my sister’s pale face, streaked with sweat and mascara, as she screamed for more ice chips and something to kill the pain the day my nephew was born. For hours, I watched her body writhe, rip open, “push, push, push,” and then collapse into a heaping pile of birth. The tiny infant who appeared in the aftermath was purplish-blue from a bad umbilical cord situation, and immediately plopped onto a metal cart. I resisted any of my own attempts to breathe until my nephew finally shrieked, wailed, and was welcomed into the world.
This was my first encounter with motherhood. I was thirteen.
I used to joke that witnessing birth at such an impressionable age was great birth control. It’s hard to know how much this particular event impacted my desire not to have kids. But I’m sure it played a part. I remember feeling so desperate and angry when my nineteen-year-old sister suddenly announced her pregnancy. “Noooooooooo.” I was scared that I would lose my chance at a relationship with her – but what I probably feared the most was that her life was over.
My sister’s young husband took off when my nephew was two. I saw firsthand the difficulty of being a single mother. It seemed so hard. Daunting. The lesson I learned was to pick a reliable man before making a baby. If not, bad things could happen. Like ending up with an enormous amount of solo responsibility. My childhood had already been far too solitary because my entrepreneurial parents were rarely home. Early memories include more individual pursuits than family time. I must have known intuitively that someday I’d need a secure base more than a baby.
As an adult, I never yearned to have a child. What I always craved instead was a relationship that inspired the question, “Should we create a life out of this amazing love that we share?” The answer to that question in all of my past relationships was a resounding “no!” I am mostly at peace with this outcome today, and at times I feel like I might have even “bucked the system” by not having kids in a culture that is consumed with them.
You decided on your own not to have children; now you find yourself with someone else’s children in your life. How has this changed your perspective on being childfree (if at all)?
Being in a relationship with my fiancé, who comes with two children from a previous marriage, has not really changed my childfree perspective. What is has done is complicate, twist, contort, upend, as well as validate and confirm that viewpoint in more ways than I can articulate. Sometimes all in the same week.
I never questioned my choice to remain childfree until I fell in love with my fiancé. I always felt empowered. Independent. Free. Like Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way.” I created a life on my own terms opposed to what may have been expected of me. However, I would be lying if I said that dating a bonafide father didn’t cause me to rethink those beliefs. My fiancé proves to me each week that he knows how to be a good parent. I have altered my previously childfree life/schedule/home/time to include two boys who aren’t mine, which sometimes feels like a lot of the work without the biological perks. So it certainly makes sense that instead of settling for vicarious parenting, I have considered becoming a “real” one.
No doubt, my fiancé and I have had impossible conversations. Surprising conversations. There was a period of time in the not-too-distant past when I was both absolutely certain that I wanted a child with my partner (yippee!), and in deep mourning for the possibility that perhaps I didn’t, not even with him. That maybe what I have wanted all along was to want to be a mother. To know something without a doubt. While I may never end up 100% certain, I am grateful for a partner who has stirred up new possibilities for me to ponder.
I’d love for you to articulate further “wanting to want,” as I believe many women struggle with this sentiment, especially in modern western culture where choice is inherently connected to our procreative potential. I also think it would benefit the collective to better understand what exactly it was about falling in love with your fiancé that made you have to reckon with such an internal struggle/circumstance...
My internal experience has been messy at times but the reasons are simple. I had finally met the proverbial man of my dreams. But instead of a white horse, he showed up with two kids. I now had weekly evidence of what life might look like if we had children of our own. As I watched my guy snuggle with his kids or tuck them in at night, I found myself wishing that somehow biology could tie us all together. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was somehow an interloper in a family that wasn’t mine. I figured if kids were going to be a part of my life, then they should at least be my own. Even in a full house, I felt very alone. Neither my brain nor my hormones could reconcile a childfree life under those circumstances. I began to crave a shared familial experience with my partner rather than being the odd woman out.
Ironically, many of those painful, conflicted feelings stopped when my fiancé said that “yes,” he would have children with me. This is when I realized that I wasn’t truly interested in giving up life as I knew it to have kids. I didn’t really want to trade in wine dates for play dates, and those gnawing pains in my gut didn’t necessarily mean my clock was ticking. The truth is that I “wanted to want” to have children so I could be in the same club as my partner. But his willingness to welcome me as a member ended up being enough.
Research for this interview made it glaringly obvious that the focus of most writing on the topic [dating people with children] centers on integrating into the partner with children’s life, not even glancing at the importance of supporting (or understanding, or empathizing with) the partner who has been childfree up to that point. I wish I could say it was perplexing, but, unfortunately, this was just disappointing. How have you approached the complexity of entering a partnership with additional responsibilities including parenting in some manner, while still ensuring your needs are met?
Yes, the internet is a disappointing place for childfree stepmothers. With the exception of some anonymous online forums, much of the “support” only perpetuates common (and insulting) stepmother myths. “Love the child like it’s your own” means nothing when you don’t actually have one of your own, or worse, when you risk pissing off bio-mom because you baked cookies with her kid. There is no how-to manual for stepmothering. But research substantiates what many stepmothers already know to be true – the role is a total mindf-ck and the “blending” thing is bullsh-t. Of course, I was naïve to this when I fell in love. So to answer your question – trial and error. I knew early in the relationship that I would not settle for second place. I would do my best to respect my fiancé’s need to be a parent, but I wouldn’t abandon my own needs in the process. The beginning was especially hard. As a couple, we endured our fair share of discord, clashes, and breaking open. Endless discussions. And some battles. Mostly about priorities and boundaries. Even though I was getting my master’s degree in counseling, this stuff was way beyond my scope. So we got help. Therapy not only empowered us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and reestablish much-needed boundaries, it actually inspired me to specialize in the stepcouple population as a therapist.
The cultural pressure and/or presumption is that the obligation of a ‘step’ parent is to sacrifice their needs and place in their partner’s life is almost oppressive.With all your training and expertise, can your further expand on why you think it is vital not to “settle for second place” and how you came to the realization that this position was worthy of taking?
It’s totally oppressive. Is a stepparent someone who gets stepped on, or stepped over? Or, is it a step in the wrong direction? Four years ago, I had no reference point for any of this. My own parents were married for nearly fifty years, and I had never dated a man with kids. So it did not occur to me to take a step below anyone else in a relationship, and I was quite vocal about it. I knew that I risked upsetting the status quo but second place was simply not an option for me. I was far too independent and protective of my time and space. It wouldn’t have been sustainable for me to succumb to stepparent myths. I think that every person in a stepfamily deserves priority status, not just the kids. What I have learned through training and research is that all stepfamily members are better off when the couple is on the same page. Like a first family, kids can thrive and feel safe when the adults are secure in their relationship. But this is not automatic when people re-partner. Biological parents enter new relationships with a primal need to put their kids first, while their partners expect to land the top spot. You can almost hear the sound of swords clanking as these couples take on the task of reprioritizing. In my experience, it’s worth the effort.
When we spoke prior to this interview, you mentioned there’s been a lot of “me versus them” and outsiders/insiders tension, but also the ever pressing “what the f-ck did I get myself into?” discussions between you and your partner. Given your profession as a relationship counselor, tell us more about that: putting your counselor cap on, what would you say to yourself and even your partner as though ‘they’ were clients of yours?
Prioritize the adult love relationship. Period. And before I ruffle feathers, I’m not implying that we neglect any kids in the process. I’m also not only referring to stepcouples. We all know people whose lives revolve around their kids. It seems almost culturally expected at this point. But hold up! This is decidedly not the case for stepcouples. Their common bond is not kids. So from the start, stepcouples will stand for, and be asked to sacrifice, very different things – even more so when you pair someone who never wanted children with a partner who already has them. Their pre-existing priorities are very different. Big life decisions made in the past impact the new relationship. Someone inevitably feels left out. So what do we do? Through personal experience and research on stepfamily dynamics, I believe it is imperative for the stepcouple to first acknowledge the realities and struggles that come with this way of life. Realize that divided loyalties and competition for finite resources like time, attention, finances, or space can be a painful but natural part of the package. Anger, resentment, jealousy, anxiety are totally normal. In addition to recognizing and talking about these complexities, and having patience for all parties, calling on a qualified therapist can provide much-needed help. If a stepcouple can ultimately learn to better understand and support each other’s positions even if they must “agree to disagree,” everyone else in the stepfamily can benefit from their united front.
In the last “Childfreeness” column, Lisa McNally talked about the ability to invest in oneself and the lessons of love–for ourselves and those around us–opened up space to begin exploring new modes of living, including working through curiosities with adoption later in life. How do you feel your experience of a more self-oriented mode of operating has prepared you to undertake the task of entering a relationship that includes blending of childfreeness and family?
My self-oriented mode made it much harder to blend childfreeness with being plopped into another person’s family unit. And there’s that word again. Blend. It somehow implies smooth and consistent. Fully integrated. The “blended” paradigm just sets people up for expectations that can rarely be met with anything but feelings of failure and guilt. My personal experience is no exception.
I came into stepfamily life with a very strong childfree identity. One that grants me a kind of superpower – full control over my time, money, and meaning-making. An identity based on freedom of choice. Spontaneity. The relentless pursuit of self-growth. Opportunity. To be in my current relationship is to constantly wrestle with what pieces of my identity I get to keep, and those I must give up for love. And to let go of anything that has been part of you forever comes with some amount of grief. It’s a real reckoning. Every week, what I was quite certain I never wanted comes flying through the front door. Two suddenly become four. Quiet disappears. Time and attention get split into smaller chunks. Confidence is sometimes usurped by doubt. What should be obvious by now is that there is no right answer for how to combine childfreeness with some semblance of family life. I am absolutely still in the process of exploring what it means, and doesn’t mean, to be childfree by choice but not circumstance.
What parts of your childfree experience do you think may bring depth and even possibly elevate the modern familial experience? And… in turn, what parts of family life do you think might alter your understanding–or what you value–as to your personal identity as a childfree individual?
My partner and I agree that putting our relationship first has given us the best chance for success. This was not new to me but sort of a revelation for my partner who spent a decade prioritizing kids. It’s safe to say that both of us surrendered parts of our identity to be together. But we have gained a lot, too. When it’s our week off from kid duty, we celebrate our relationship. We enjoy our hobbies and go on dates. Everything is a collaborative effort. I view this as an elevation of the modern familial experience, for sure. Of course, my “semblance” of family life has also reconfirmed my need for independence and space. (Laughing). I won’t give those up but I feel more understanding, adaptable, and patient now – a positive expansion of my personal identity.
Life is never as binary/polarizing as we so often try to make it out to be. Rather than unpacking further the differences between ‘childfree’ and ‘with child’ to better ground our positions in childfreeness, I’d love for you call out what similarities you’ve discovered that have been surprising and/or softened this life transition for you?
This is an intriguing question. But nope! My experience has proven the opposite to be true. This dynamic calls out the disparities on a regular basis. It can be brutal. In a romantic relationship, you typically want similar things as your partner. You want to be batting for the same team. What my fiancé and I were both surprised by is how difficult it can be to know that our teams are sometimes opposing. So we must contemplate what brings us closer together. If raising children does not define our relationship, then what do we stand for? What are we about despite our differences? And this is where the softness comes in. In those tender times where we both accept the choices we’ve made in the past and aim to better understand each other in the present. Our relationship has no doubt endured many emotional hurdles, but those same difficulties have helped us to deepen our vulnerability with each other. Win/win.
Which stereotypes, if any, have you dealt with related to childfreeness? How have they impacted your life? (Cultural/media, familial/heritage, colleagues/peers, etc).
I am fortunate that stereotypes rarely impacted me – until I became a future childfree stepmom. Ouch. The stepmother stereotypes cut much deeper. I have always been able to brush off childfree stereotypes because, remember, I believed I had somehow bucked the system. But just the other day, a colleague remarked, “Oh, cool, you get to experience the joys of having kids now.” A few months ago, I ran into an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in a long time. I gave her my brief update which included that I had met a man who has kids. She didn’t hesitate to say, “Aww, that’s so sweet. Now you get to be a mother.”
I really need to work on my rebuttal to these quips because they happen All. The. Time. When people – mostly women – find out that I am marrying a man with kids, they are eager to express their happiness for me. But not necessarily for my engagement. “At last, you have the opportunity to be a mother!” OK, folks, let’s finally set the record straight. I am not a mother simply because I live part-time with my partner’s kids. Besides, those kids already have a mother. No one is more aware of this than me.
These presumably well-intended sentiments imply that what I, and every other woman on the planet, must want is to be a mother at all costs– even if the child does not come from her own womb. They imply that a woman does not choose a childfree life. If she is childfree, theen her body or mind must somehow be broken. This faulty thinking couldn’t be further from the truth. Can we all get on board with this, please?
You really hit the nail on the head here in terms of some of the passive aggressive, presumptions attached to childfreeness. Why specifically do you think it’s so hard societally for us–as a whole–not to attach lacking and brokenness to childfreeness? And furthermore, I wonder if you have more thoughts as to why choosing not to procreate is so difficult for most, and especially women with children, to actually swallow or trust?
There are people far more literate on this topic than me. But I think it’s as simple as women have wombs and therefore we must use them. We must take our rightful place in society as the nurturers. We must keep the species alive! If we do not fulfill this obligation then we must be broken. This idea is so deeply-rooted in the collective unconscious that everyone is affected. I am no exception. I fully trusted my decision to be childfree until my circumstances bestowed me with kids. I felt compelled to “prove my womanhood” to myself, my partner, and society. But having the chance to consider all my options allowed me to recommit to a childfree life with more conviction.
What do you feel you’ve gained through choosing not to have children that may not be known to women who are mothers or are childfree by circumstance?
It should be coming through loud and clear that I do not have it all figured out in this department. It is an ongoing process. This article is an opportunity to voice my experience and be an advocate for other women who are fumbling along as childfree stepmothers. I hope to continue this dialogue on a larger scale someday, as well as make it a part of my therapy practice.
I have gained both humility and strength as a woman who is childfree by choice. My fiancé once mentioned that having kids teaches humility. It feels important to point out that the same is true for not having kids in a culture that downright demands it. To take the motherhood road less traveled is not easy. It’s humbling. It brings up questions about what it means to be a woman and from where we derive our sense of self-worth. It brings up longing, guilt, and grief. Fortunately, I found that going through these struggles gave me a better understanding of myself and allowed me to grow stronger.
‘Childfree stepmother’ feels fresh and real, and dare I say, new in terms of personified identity (not in experience, as we must presume this archetype has been around far longer than we as society could* allow as a forward facing person) we need to create space for in [pop] culture. If you were given the opportunity to write a definition of this archetype, describing their characteristics and value to the world, what would you say?
I play with Jungian archetypes in my work so I like this question. Childfree stepmothers include two competing personas – the woman who does not want children, and the woman who shares her life with someone else’s children. This archetype is a renegade. Independent. A free spirit. She charts her own course. She is expansive. Motherhood is not for her but she makes room for it out of love. That’s it. This archetype stands for love.
Any ‘by choice’ (or childfree x blended family) questions/issues I missed that you’d like to address and think are vital for this column ???
Yes. It is vital to include a special note about stepmothers. It’s time for a stepmother revolution. But I would settle for a rebrand. The old fairytale myths and media portrayals are destructive. Damaging. Shameful. Stepmothers are not inherently wicked and evil, nor are they intentionally cruel. What they are is misunderstood – at times by our culture and other times by the women themselves. Research indicates that stepmothers have higher rates of depression and anxiety than biological mothers. A combination of role confusion, continued contact with an ex, extended family (dis)loyalties, stepkid conflicts, ridiculous expectations, and a lack of validation can create the perfect storm for a stepmother breakdown. Of course, there are variations on this theme. Plenty of stepmothers are blissfully happy and content. However, I am referring to the countless stepmothers out there who feel silenced, sad, pissed, voiceless, frustrated, confused, and alone – women who struggle to find anyone who “gets” them. Well, I get you. You are not alone.
“Women without children will never know what ‘love’ really is.” Discuss.
Oh, gosh. No. Not even close. That this is even a “thing” is preposterous. It fuels the resentment I have about being considered inferior or “less than.” I have known deep love for people, for pets. And even for myself. Love comes in way too many forms to be confined merely to kids.
“Having it all must include children.” Pro or con this ideology?
Oooof! Con! “Having it all” feels to me like creating a life on my own terms. A life filled with passion, meaning, love, purpose, inspiration, curiosity, compassion, spirituality, and unforgettable experiences. The notion that children are the Holy Grail means you cannot really live a good life without them. Of course, this is utter bullshit. And I think it’s about time for a new paradigm.
“All women without children are selfish.” True or false?
False. I also do not believe that all women with children are selfless.
“All women without children live stress-free lives.” Pro or con this ideology?
Wow. Did someone really say this? To be human means to experience stress. Life is inherently stressful. Loved ones die. Hearts are broken. Work takes a toll. Finances are tight. No one is immune to life’s endless pressures. Not even the childfree.
“All women are mothers.” Pro or con this ideology?
Con. I do not feel comfortable labeling all women as mothers. The message is that even if you don’t have a child, you better at least be “like a mother.” Nurturing and patient. Tender. Those women who don’t fit the mold are pathologized. I’m not down with that. I believe is that women have the power to experience motherhood on their own terms – with or without children. Or not at all.