Childfree or Childless, We’re All NotMoms

“Are you childless by choice or by chance?” That was the question women asked each other at the NotMom Summit last weekend in Cleveland, Ohio. For once, no one was asking how many children we had or when we were going to start having babies. We already knew that the answers to those questions were none and probably never.

A vast gray area exists between women who have never wanted to have children and women who would give anything to have them, between women who rage about how difficult it is to get a doctor to tie their tubes for permanent sterilization and women who spend thousands of dollars on fertility treatments in the hope of getting pregnant. Keynote speaker Jody Day, founder of Gateway-Women, has published a list of “Fifty Ways Not to Be a Mother”  and says she could probably list another 50.

We shared stories of troubled childhoods; physical problems such as fibroid tumors, endometriosis and cancer; spouses who did not want to have children; choosing art over motherhood, and women who just plain didn’t want to have any babies. We laughed and cried at different places depending on where we were in our childless “journey.” When you desperately want a child, it’s difficult to applaud someone who just got her tubes tied or who boasts about being happily childfree.

In her talk, Day told us about an abortion she had early in life when she truly didn’t want to have a child. Later, when she wanted to conceive, she was never able to get pregnant again. Over the years, she said she has worked through her grief and come to a place where she can embrace being childfree.

The other keynote speaker, Marcia Drut-Davis, a bit older than most of us, told us about how she was vilified when she admitted on television that she did not want to have children. Her presentation was hysterically funny, and yet I knew that we had opposite views. Not only do I still wish I had children, but I’m oh-my-God Catholic and actually agree with Pope Francis and his views on family life. And yet, I loved her, and she was sweet to me when we met.

I heard later that Drut-Davis was criticized by some as not really being childfree because she had stepchildren. That’s nuts. Stepchildren are not the same. I expected criticism to come from the childless side. I keep thinking about the woman from Montreal who froze her eggs before having surgery for cancer and has never been able to get pregnant. I see her tears and think, hold on Marcia, do you know how hard it is for her to hear what you’re saying?

We had a pajama party Friday night to view a rough cut of a film titled “To Kid or Not to Kid,” produced by and starring Maxine Trump (no relation!). In the opening scene, she lifts her shirt to show us the scars from surgeries in her teens on her Fallopian tubes and uterus. She is not even sure she can get pregnant, but she wants to make sure she never does because she does not want to be a mother. In the film, she tells her husband and her mother how she feels about having children. We watch as her husband has a vasectomy. She meets with a young woman who has seen one doctor after another trying to have sterilization surgery. No one will do it.

The film is very pro-childfree. I considered going to bed instead of watching the whole thing. After all, so much of it clashes with my religious beliefs and my personal desires. And yet, I was mesmerized and sympathetic. Maxine, sitting there with us in her pajamas, has clearly suffered over this issue and knows how risky it is to open herself up to how the world at large might react in our pro-motherhood society. Her film uncovers many issues that nobody ever talks about.

By choice or by chance? Once we have made our choice or accepted that we will never have children, we have a lot in common. People say stupid things to us: “Why don’t you just adopt?” “You’ll change your mind.” “Women without children are immature and selfish.” We all feel left out when our parent friends are too busy with their kids to spend time with us. We all get sick of looking at other people’s baby pictures. We all worry about ending up old and alone. We’re all minorities in a world full of mothers.

There was considerable talk about the journey from “childless” to “childfree,” about reaching a place where one can celebrate the freedom that comes with not being a parent. I don’t expect to ever declare myself “childfree.” I wanted children and I still feel bad about not having them. The best outcome for me is simply to be at peace with how life turned out and enjoy the many blessings that I have.

At the end of the conference, motivational speaker DeLores Pressley, childless by early hysterectomy, got us dancing and shouting affirmations along the lines of “I am wonderful.” Then she had us form two circles facing each other. Oh boy, one of those touchy-feely exercises, right? We were to look directly into the eyes of the woman across from us for 10 seconds, until DeLores rang a bell, then move to the next woman. At first we giggled and squirmed, but then tears appeared in many of the women’s eyes and we started hugging each other before we moved on. As instructed, I tried to send a silent message. “It’s okay. It’s okay.” My eyes filled with tears, too. It’s okay to cry. It’s also okay to dance.

I will be posting thoughts from the conference for weeks to come. There’s so much to talk about. I gave a general overview of my trip on this week’s Unleashed in Oregon blog post. Read it here.

Let me know in the comments what you think about this childfree/childless situation. Can you be friends with someone who is happy to never have kids? Or does it hurt too much? Could you ever reach a place where you declare yourself happy to not have children? Let’s talk about it.

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12 thoughts on “Childfree or Childless, We’re All NotMoms

  1. Its sad that what should have been a safe place for women, there were women ready to criticize. When looking back at my husband’s son when he was little, I was nothing more than a glorified babysitter for my husband who refused to have anymore children. Now as his son is an adult, I have not contact with him. So to say that I’m not really childless because my husband has a son is ludicrous. There are always people in this world ready to criticize anything and that is sad. People need to learn to take what they like and leave the rest…. and then keep your mouths shut on anything negative.

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  2. Thank you so much for sharing your experience at the Notmom summit. I have a very close friend who is like a sister, that I met when I was only 3. I do not ever remember a time that she wanted to have children. I used to find it so odd that she would never have them, then here I am today without any and not by choice. I am of the mindset, that everyone is entitled to their opinion as long as they do not try to force their opinion on me. Experiences in life make women uninterested in having children and a lot of women, simply do not have the desire to have children. I am surprised to hear that there were such judgemental people at the event. I certainly do not consider myself the mother of my husband’s daughter. Incidentally, I know a few people who have raised their spouses children and consider them to be their children, but not all of us with spouses that have children, also consider them our children.

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  3. I am childless not by choice and will never consider myself childfree. That is because I have nieces & nephews, a fur baby, and an exchange daughter who has become family. I so appreciate your post because as I have started blogging and joining in group conversations, I’ve worried that I’ll get “kicked out of the club” so to speak if I talk too much about Bruna, our exchange daughter. It’s silly, really. I could never get pregnant and we didn’t adopt, so I am childless. I grieved for years. Now that I’ve found joy in a plan B that works for me, I want to share this story with others. I know that I risk judgment from some. But truly, we get enough of that from the rest of the world. We need to embrace each other and not try to figure out who is the most “childless.”

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  4. My half brother and sister would have been devastated if my father, as their stepfather, referred to himself as “child-free” before I was born simply because they had a different biological father. Maybe not all step parents consider themselves parents, but I wonder what those step-children think if they hear their step parents refer to themselves as “child-free”. If my donor egg IVF would’ve worked or our adoption program hadn’t been closed, simply because there was a genetic connection to the child that I didn’t share would not have made me “child free”. I was always devastated as a child when my father remarried and my stepmother made zero attempt to have a relationship with me… Maybe those are the women who consider themselves “glorified babysitters”, but I would have loved for my stepmother to have actually wanted to mother me in some way shape or form. 37 years later my father is dead and my stepmother hasn’t lifted a finger to stay in touch with me – she moved and didn’t even give her forwarding address. There was a woman who had the opportunity to parent and shat all over it.

    So yeah I would have been one of the women who would have been offended that someone who had the opportunity to be a stepmother considered herself “child-free”. As an infertile woman I’m very aware that there are differences, but if you’re in a relationship where you have the opportunity to parent a child, and refuse, that’s on you. It may not be what I would have dreamed of (but then again neither was using donor eggs to try and get pregnant 6 different times) but if my husband had a child from a previous relationship, I would consider it an honor and a gift to be a stepmother.

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    • EcoFeminist, I’m so sorry for your pain. You’re right. Being a stepmother is an opportunity to mother. And I can see how it would hurt for your stepparent to declare him/herself childfree or even childless. I’m glad you brought this up. For me and many others, though, we tried with all our hearts and could never break through the walls to love our stepchildren the way we wanted to. There were certainly times when I thanked my husband for giving me this family to love. But they shut me out, not the other way around. Yesterday was my youngest stepson’s birthday, and I feel horrible because I don’t even know where he is, so I couldn’t do anything to help celebrate his special day. I they would have letme be a mother to them, I would have loved it.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I agree that if a woman had an opportunity to mother, but chose not to, then that is heartbreaking. But we do not know these women’s stories. We do not know if the child didn’t want a stepmom in his/her life, we do not know if the dad of the kids allowed his new wife to fully embrace a motherly role, etc. Before we judge these women and place the blame completely on them, we should get to know them.
      I am sorry that your stepmom did not embrace her role and try to develop a relationship with you. And I am sorry that you are having to go through fertility treatments with no success. This infertility / childless journey is a tough one indeed.

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  5. “Can you be friends with someone who is happy to never have kids.”

    Yes, I could – if they weren’t spitefully and in your face happy about it. Recently I saw a facebook meme that said something like, “Enjoy your precious children, In 20 years I’ll be enjoying drinks on a beach while you are paying for college.”

    I couldn’t be friends with someone who puts something like that out there. It’s very mean. And narrow-minded. It lumps childless people into some sort of luxury chasers who will be laughing at pathetic parents who are all forced to pay, pay, pay for their children.

    I’ve paid attention enough to know that lives don’t always work out as we plan. A great parent might have a child that gets hooked on drugs and must accept that the dreams they had for their child aren’t going to happen. That person would love to pay for college but instead – rehab bills. Or a child-free woman thinks she is going to travel the world and cancer has another plan. Her carefree days are full of doctors appointments and lining up rides to chemo.

    At best we should strive to be happy where we are. In whatever state we find ourselves. I forget this often as I look at the lives of other people. I often wish I had another life. Or that I could cope better with the challenges I face. But reality wins. There are lessons to be learned everywhere. Opportunities everywhere – so long as we don’t give up.

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