In a decade noisy with child-centric conversation, listeners might conclude that living a child-free life is hopelessly outdated and on the decline. Yet, in 2003, researcher Rosemary Gillespie writes from an opposing viewpoint. In her paper "Childfree and Feminine: Understanding the Gender Identity of Voluntarily Childless Women," Gillespie cites studies revealing increasing numbers of women (in countries with accessible birth control) choosing to remain childfree: "In the United Kingdom, it is estimated that as many as 25 percent of women born in 1973 will not have children (Social Trends 2000)."
Beyond numbers and data, Gillespie interviews 25 childfree women. All the interviewees strive to define, 30 years after the height of the women's movement, their lives in roles other than Mom.
Societies still stereotype voluntarily childless women in widely negative terms: deviant, tragic, abnormal, unfeminine. Gillespie's interviews and research shows that women are able to transcend authoritarian media and power structures seeking to define them. They are able to rise above media chatter and embrace a life that feels more authentic, moving beyond traditional ideas of femininity.
Gillespie seeks asks intriguing questions: "Why do some women, and not others, reject motherhood? What aspect of motherhood do they reject, and what is the appeal of a childfree lifestyle?"
Her interviews reveal a range of reasons for choosing not to reproduce: freedom of choice, freedom to travel, peace and quiet, freedom from the "drudgery" of motherhood, financial considerations, maintaining strong relationships with partners, friends, and community, fear of loss of valued aspects of life.
One interviewee states, "For me, it (motherhood) is almost like being not quite subjugated, but at everyone else's beck and call except your own. I think in part you need to lose your identity as an individual person to cope with looking after children and ferrying them here, there, and everywhere."
And, we've all witnessed relatives and friends who do become subjugated to kid-culture: Moms as noble servants - vague, indefinable people entirely devoted to the needs of others.
Yet, the ability to care for others isn't a negative attribute in it's own right. People sometimes ask me, "You spend so much time caring for your dogs, why don't you just have kids?" I reply, "Human kids fill up more mind space." And, that's really it - my dogs allow me to have freedom-of-mind space. Children come with baggage filled with the most current media/cultural nonsense. When I come home, I enjoy quiet time unfilled with chatter about kid culture and kid media.
On visits to friends with kids, conversation is invariably filled with stories about day care, teachers, cheerleading uniforms, gymnastics, kid fashion, kid television, kid games. One friend can hold an hour long conversation about Dora the Explorer, but when I ask her a question about interests outside the realm of children her eyes glaze over and she stares at me as if I started speaking an unknown language.
This is a woman who was once active in her community - interested in art, the environment, nature, the news. Now, when I visit her I sit and listen. I gave up long ago talking about my own life. My friend is exuberant chauffeur, social director, media mediator, fashion designer and cook for kids. Her husband seems marginalized - a vague, shadowy character hopelessly lost in the commotion of kid culture.
An aversion to consumer culture constantly reminds me to value my childfree life and marriage. And, kid-oriented consumer culture is ubiquitous. It's impossible to bypass without making extreme lifestyle choices.
I had the pleasure of actually meeting some families striving to completely reject consumer culture on a visit to northern Canada - a community completely disconnected from television and the Internet. Children are home-schooled. There, I had surprisingly pleasant conversations with kids - untainted by the artificiality of consumer culture. I was reminded how magical childhood is when outdoor work and play is the focus of every day activities.
Obviously, it's not practical for most people to live in remote settings easily removed from mass culture. So, I create my own haven away from our incessantly child-crazy culture. I'm happy to come home to a quiet house, have time to read, relax and curl up with my dogs, take walks and focus on my artwork. I don't envy friends caught up in the hectic, noisy runaround of American child rearing.
And, it's comforting to know - in spite of mass media marketers' depiction of women as robot-dolls eagerly waiting for programming by the newest trend - there are women out there carefully considering how childbearing choices impact their lives and the world. Scholarly research gives us a balancing point of view - women rejecting the role of perpetual people-pleaser and seeking to find an authentic concept of self.
As a young woman interviewed in Gillespie's paper wisely observes, "The girls who I meet with at work...All they become is this...child. They become the mother, and the whole of the rest of their personality is just gone. Some girls can't talk about anything else. Trying to talk about something else it's like: I don't know about that or I can't cope with that. They go back to talking about kindergartens or what (kids) do at five months and what they do after a year and all that business...It just makes you think. It is not just the big congratulations at the hospital and all the cards. It's the years and years afterwards."