Next Person to Say They’re ‘Childfree’ Gets a Time-Out

I published a book about choosing not to have kids. But I’m not gloating and neither should you.

Credit: Westend61/Getty Images

The word “childfree” is everywhere these days. You see it on T-shirts and coffee mugs. You see it in the steady influx of news articles and think pieces about how millennials are too economically insecure and/or afraid of world collapse to procreate. It’s in the title of several books, most recently Childfree By Choice, by sociologist Amy Blackstone.

I get why this term has caught on. It’s concise, looks good with a hashtag, and makes a crucial distinction between people who choose not to have children and those who, for whatever reason, wish to be parents but cannot. It’s also extremely relevant. Recent data shows that not only are U.S. birth rates at an all-time low but that 37% of childless adults never planned on being parents in the first place.

Those on the extremes will greet this as either good news or terrible news. On the good news side are anti-natalists who see planned human extinction as our only hope for avoiding environmental catastrophe. On the bad news side are white nationalists who are obsessed with reduced birth rates among Caucasians. The man who murdered 51 Muslims at a New Zealand mosque last February complained of the so-called great replacement of whites with people of color in a document that began with the phrase, repeated three times, “it’s the birth rates.” (Presumably, he wasn’t talking about Japan, where birth rates are so low that there’s now a crisis in eldercare.)

“Childfree” needs to be relegated to the throwaway bin of 2010s neologisms with “glamping,” “webinar,” and “listicle.” I am hereby calling for an immediate ban.

The catastrophizing aside, I’ve spent enough time around this issue to know that most people who choose not to have kids do so for one simple reason: they just don’t want kids. It’s easy to hide behind moral principles (or immoral ones), but find me someone who truly longs for a child but purports to opt out sheerly for environmental reasons and I’ll show you a liar. Conversely, any white nationalist who doesn’t want children but has them out of racist obligation is, well… I can think of any number of words. Most of them unprintable.

But back to the word at hand: “childfree.” It’s a terrible term. It needs to be relegated to the throwaway bin of 2010s neologisms (you know, that giant dumpster than contains “glamping,” “webinar,” and “listicle”). I am hereby calling for an immediate ban.

I may have no right to do this, but I feel a responsibility. Though I’ve never uttered the word myself, I might be partly to blame for its emergence. In 2015, I published an anthology called Selfish, Shallow & Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers On The Decision Not To Have Kids. It was comprised of essays by 13 women and three men who’d decided, for all manner of reasons, not to become parents. The book’s title was ironic; the contributors’ reasons for not having kids were no more selfish and shallow than most people’s reasons for having them. (I daresay that, like most deliberately childless people, they’d put considerably more thought into the decision than most people who become parents.) I imposed no restrictions on my authors other than to refrain from using words like “breeders,” “brats,” and, most of all, “childfree.”

The timing of the book couldn’t have been better. Suddenly it seemed everyone was talking about choosing not to have kids. My collection was one among a spate of books, articles, and documentary films exploring the idea. I fielded more speaking and interview requests than ever before (or since) in my decades-long career as a writer. I was even invited to give a keynote speech at something called the Not Mom Summit, a conference in which women from all over the world gathered to talk about the joys and difficulties of bucking this particular social and familial expectation. I hadn’t been sure what to expect (“no baby on board” bumper stickers?), but hearing the participants’ stories and observing their fellowship with one another was a genuinely moving experience. Some had endured family and community alienation because of their choices. Others had been told they weren’t real women if they never became mothers. The chance to come together and feel less alone in their decisions was in some cases life-changing.

Not only has choosing not to have kids lost its stigma, it’s become almost fashionable.

Four years later, the mood around the issues has gone from revelatory (Guess what! It’s okay to not have kids!) to celebratory (Look at us! We don’t have kids!). Headlines like “Childless and Loving Every Minute” and “Nine Things I Love About My Childfree Marriage” abound. Type #childfree into Twitter and you get an avalanche of results that range from poignant statements about reproductive freedom to snarky, even gloating, memes about the horrors of children and the joys of adorable “furbabies” (another term that should be outlawed, but one thing at a time).

Not only has choosing not to have kids lost its stigma, it’s become almost fashionable. Not in the sense that everyone’s doing it (millennial trends aside, the majority of people do want kids and eventually have them) but in the sense that it’s cool to be cool with it.

That is precisely why it’s time to retire “childfree.”

The idea, after all, was to get society to see the choice as so normal as to not warrant comment. But here’s thing: if we want the choice to be seen as unremarkable, we need to stop congratulating ourselves for it. And if calling yourself “childfree” isn’t the ultimate example of giving yourself a trophy for something you didn’t do, I don’t know what is.

I get that there’s a certain well-earned joy in shaking off a stigma. If you’ve had to do enormous battle in your own head as to whether the “less” in “childless” carried the sting of moral judgment, then it’s nice to be able to type a #childfree into Twitter and find some meme-ific relief. Moreover, if you live in a place where there are real social penalties for not having children, a suffix like “free” can mean everything. I noticed that the childfree meetup page for Nairobi’s childfree meetup page has 466 members. Not so surprising considering that despite poverty exacerbated by overpopulation, there’s a stigma in most African countries — and, indeed, in much of the developing world — against not reproducing. But “free” as a suffix nearly always throws a negative connotation on its antecedent, à la smoke-free, gluten-free, and conflict-free (as in diamonds). The childless by choice crowd already has to live down the ridiculous stereotype that we dislike children. So why are we reinforcing the stereotype by adopting nomenclature that puts children in the same category as public health hazards? After all, people without pets don’t call themselves pet-free.

Can you imagine if society started viewing deliberate childlessness as a thoughtful way to live rather than a declaration of eternal selfishness?

That’s because even though pet owners make up the majority of the population — about 68% of American households — there’s no moral judgment cast upon those who don’t have them. (And from a purely ethical standpoint, maybe there should be judgment cast upon them, since 6.5 million animals enter U.S. shelters every year and only about half that many are adopted.) I’ve even heard people who opt not to have dogs, for instance, described as more mature and responsible, because at least they’re realistic about being too preoccupied to walk them.

Can you imagine if that was the assumption made about people who choose not to have kids? Can you imagine if society started viewing deliberate childlessness as a thoughtful, responsible way to live rather than some kind of permanent vacation or declaration of eternal selfishness? Can you imagine if not wanting to be a parent was seen as just one aspect of your personality rather than as an identity category requiring a label and a full complement of T-shirts and accessories?

I believe this is possible. When it comes to this topic, I’ve seen enough changes in public attitudes even in the last four years to believe that choosing not to have kids will eventually be seen as a natural alternative to the norm rather than an abdication of personal responsibility and rejection of a reproductive imperative. But I also believe that a term like childfree, while it makes a few people feel better in the short run, slows down the process of larger acceptance in the long run. If the idea is to get to a place where making this choice is no big deal, we need to do just that: not make a big deal about it.

I happen to love not having kids. Sure, there’s a ton of life experience that I’m missing, but there’s also a ton of stuff I’m able to do with my life because I’ve opted out of parenting. I may well die alone (and so do plenty of people with kids, unfortunately), but until then not caring for children is the main thing that makes my life work as well as it does. I consider the freedom to have made this choice among the greatest privileges of my life. But I’m not “childfree.” I’m a person who has certain freedoms because I’ve chosen not to be a parent. There’s a big difference.

So can we think of a better term? I’ve been trying to for years and coming up… barren (though I have wondered if happily childless men and women might call themselves Barrens and Barrennesses, respectively). “Childless by choice” is a mouthful. “Childfree by choice” (and not to throw shade on Blackstone’s book, which is quite good) is even worse, since it not only contains the dreaded neologism but also sounds as redundant as “final outcome” or “free gift.” “Voluntary nonparent,” sounds like some twisted version of agreeing to take a later flight when your plane is overbooked. We’re going to need some volunteers to give up their seats in furthering the human species. It’s worth a $300 voucher!

The answer, it seems, is abundantly clear. We don’t need any term at all. If happily childless people can stop obsessing about ourselves, surely those around us will do us the same favor. After all, the true sign of progress is when you no longer need to announce yourself by holding up a sign.

Weekly blogger for Medium. Host of @TheUnspeakPod. Author of six books, including The Problem With Everything.

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