Childless, Child-Free, or Just No Children?




New in the Associated Press Stylebook, bible for all journalists: “Avoid the terms child-free and childless other than in direct quotes essential to the story. They may be viewed as loaded or demeaning. If you must mention a newsmaker’s parental status and if it is relevant, use a neutral description such as ‘has no children.’”


My husband and I have no children. To call us childless seems a little pathetic; I do not refer to my single friends as husbandless or wifeless. But that horrid “child-free,” invented in hot defense, has always rubbed me the wrong way. Children are not burdens to be freed from (though I am sure it feels that way when warming a bottle at three in the morning). While I do not appreciate recent efforts to force all pregnant women to carry and deliver, I would never want to slight those who are eagerly continuing this dubious species.

The friend who alerted me to the new policy has a different take. She hates “has no children”; she prefers child-free. I ask her why.

“‘Has no children’ gets ‘the look,’” she texts back.

No further explanation needed. I have gotten “the look” many times. The “was it a medical problem there are so many procedures now and surely you could adopt or do you just hate children” look.

I actually rather like children. So much so that I was terrified I would be too absentminded a mother, too bored by the repetition and structure a little one needs, too inexperienced and inadequate. And that we would not make enough money or have enough time to do it right. Add that to some technical reasons and my husband’s equal hesitancy (we were both only children, keenly aware of our parents’ sacrifices), and…we did not have children. Sometimes we joke and say we forgot. In truth, we debated so long that we realized, If it’s this hard a decision, we probably should not do it.

The puzzle was why so many parents wanted us to.

I suppose it is no different than married people fixing up their single friends, marriage being, in Montaigne’s opinion, “like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside equally desperate to get out.” What he forgot was the birds that insist on luring other birds into the same cage with them.

We leave the asphalt playground of our youth, but not its taunts, its nervous insistence on conformity. Wikipedia’s entry on “voluntary childlessness” notes that “in most societies and for most of human history, choosing not to have children was both difficult and undesirable.” Already, my feathers are starting to ruffle. The entry notes that childlessness is now “an option for some people, though they may be looked down upon in certain communities.” Then the writer says that childlessness “as a trend” is a contemporary phenomenon.

A “trend”? It was a big decision, not an embrace of pop culture. Gritting my teeth, I read on. Apparently “the meaning of the term ‘childfree’ extends to encompass the children of others”—I must tell my friend, who is an amazing aunt as well as a small-town mayor who shows up at all the school celebrations and games. The article includes a list of reasons people do not have children and manages to make every one of them sound either shallow or pitiable. We did not make this choice because we were afraid our sex life would suffer. Nor was it a fit of existential angst, worry that my breasts would droop, a scorn of soccer moms, a belief that reproducing is narcissistic, a fear that our child would grow up immoral, or the fact that we already had enough problems of our own.

Deep breath, exhale the defensiveness. Why should I blame Wikipedia for listing every possible reason? Many people still have trouble with the decision not to have kids, seeing it as in some way pathological or unnatural. “Some women are told to first have a child before being able to properly decide that they do not want one,” the article notes. I have to read that sentence twice.

Still, we had best get our thinking straight. In a 2012 survey at Wharton School of Business, only 42 percent of the female undergraduates said they planned to have children someday. Slowly, some people are becoming more used to this (it is, after all, a trend) and developing a better repertoire of responses. I would like to argue against “But you’d be a great mother!” and I am relieved to no longer hear, “Well, you might change your mind.” But the worst is the well-intended consolation, when you try to ease the tension by saying nope, you just have a dog, “Well, that’s just like a kid!”

Trust me, it is not.

Wikipedia closes with the helpful note that “the novel Olive (2020) by Emma Gannon includes several voluntarily childless characters.” I will rush right out to get it.

Seriously, though, it catches my heart, all the pain that could have been avoided, for centuries now, if we just knew how to chill out about other people’s lives. Imagine, if people had been kind all along about divorce, same-sex marriage, staying single, joining or leaving a religion, not having kids—lord, any number of life choices. Why not enjoy the presence of those who made different decisions or wound up in a different sort of life? Those of us without children make great courtesy aunts and uncles, and we have nice quiet houses as a refuge for our friends. People in same-sex marriages have a ton of objective insight into the trap of gender roles. Married friends can give you instant advice from two different perspectives. Single friends can play at a moment’s notice.

Instead of enjoying lives unlike our own, we label them inferior. And now we are back to legislating against them.

I wriggle at “childless,” hating the suggestion that I am too selfish to bother, but I am just as uncomfortable with the cold, scathing label of parents as “breeders.” It is tiresome to be asked, “You’ve got kids?” as a precondition to understanding what the speaker is about to say. It also stings to hear people say that “you just don’t know the meaning of love until you’ve had kids.” There are a million ways to love.

We just forget to practice them.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.