Why I Choose To Call Myself Childless

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Why I Choose To Call Myself Childless

“Don’t call yourself childless,” someone said to me last year. “That’s so disempowering. You’re childfree.”

While I appreciated the intention behind the suggestion, I am not interested in calling myself “childfree.” I’m not childfree. I’m childless.

It took me years to find my place in this. What the hell does one call oneself when she doesn’t have children in a culture that doesn’t know what to do with women who don’t have children? There isn’t really a name for us. “Auntie” doesn’t fit everyone. And what else is there?

When I started writing about this subject, I didn’t know what to say except “childless.” As it turned out, I found that there’s a whole community of women out there who don’t have children and who use this moniker.

And there’s a whole community out there that uses the term “childfree.”

At first, I wasn’t aware of the distinction. As we humans tend to do, we don’t always see beyond our own experience. My experience was that I had wanted children, but didn't end up having them. Therefore, I'm childless 

But at the time, I hadn’t thought of the fact that many, many women deliberately make this choice and that the term “childless” doesn’t recognize or celebrate that choice. At one time, the term “childless by choice” seemed to be the standard, but over time, that has evolved into “childfree.”

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Within the childless group are other labels, as well: childless by circumstance, childless not by choice. In general, it all means the same thing: Sh*t happened and we didn't get to have the children we had hoped to have.

I find that many who are mothers are confused by all these terms. And there are many who insist that we should not use the term “childless” because, again, it’s allegedly disempowering.

But mothers are not always aware of what women without children experience — again, we often can’t see beyond our own perspectives. And to add to that, there just isn’t much cultural competence around childless and childfree women.

So let’s correct that.

For most of my adult life, I believed that when it came to motherhood, I did not have a story. I don’t have living children, after all, so I couldn’t have a motherhood story, right?

I felt very conflicted about this, because I also believed I did have a motherhood story. Even my desire to have children felt like a story I wanted to share.

But at every turn, I was told that I didn't have a story. Not that it didn't matter — but that it didn't exist. If I didn't have living children, then I couldn't have a motherhood story.

A part of me felt like I had to accept this. There was some logic to the fact that having no living children implied something about me — a blankness, I suppose, an unwritten story.

But what about the years that I had dreamed about having a baby? The years that I had pondered what to name the daughter I wanted? Or all the imaginings I’d had of her infancy, her childhood, her adulthood, even?

And what about the very real fact that I had been pregnant once, though it ended in miscarriage? Surely, that was part of my story — one I increasingly wanted to tell as I got older and my chances to have a child dwindled.

I hadn’t told anyone about the pregnancy when it happened. At 19, I was mortified — I was too young. I also knew, somehow, that that pregnancy would not make it to term, that I would lose the baby, and so I wanted to save myself from all the well-meaning drama that I knew any revelation of my circumstances would inspire.

I was 25 before I worked up the courage to tell anyone. Of the two people I confided in, one commiserated with me — she’d been pregnant and had a miscarriage at 19, as well — and the other shamed me so severely for keeping my pregnancy a secret that I never spoke of it again until I was in my forties. I pretended it hadn't happened. In conversations, I told people I'd never been pregnant. I toed the party line: No, I had no story to tell as a mother. 

In my forties, I knew my chances at motherhood were slim and fast disappearing. Suddenly, I found myself reeling back into my past, grasping at every moment of my journey, trying to stitch together all the pieces that fel like they were about to be lost. Every conversation with a lover about where I was on my cycle. The few late periods that came with both panic and hope. The many revelations from my partner that he needed “a few more years” before he was ready to become a dad.

And yes, the miscarriage. The miscarriage that I had erased from my story.

I am still stitching these pieces together, trying so hard to hold on to the memories, to what might have been, to what was. As I bring this tapestry into being, I can see the story spread across its surface, like magic.

They all lied to me. I do have a story about motherhood. And I have a right to tell it.

This story is the reason I choose to call myself “childless” or “childless by circumstance.”

I realize this is objectionable to people for two primary reasons:

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1. Many feel that I did, in fact, make a choice to be childless.

It’s true that one could argue that I waited for seven years for my partner to be ready to have a child, when a smarter woman might have left early on and found someone more willing. But what can I say? I loved him.

It’s also true that if I really wanted a child, I could have adopted, pursued IVF, or surrogacy.

However, this is the usual oversimplification that we use in our arguments when we’re trying to dictate another woman’s story to her (which our culture loves to do).

Some of us don’t feel ready or willing to pursue motherhood without a partner. That’s not selfish or weak — respecting that knowledge is the mature thing to do, for all involved (especially the child). And some of us don’t have the financial wherewithal to make those choices. Adoption, IVF, and surrogacy are extremely expensive.

So I will continue to insist that investing my hope in an ill-fated partnership out of love and loyalty was not a failure on my part. I will stand firm in the belief that opting out of single parenthood was not an indicator that I didn’t want motherhood “enough.” And I can say with all certainty that not having enough money to pursue these alternative roads to motherhood was also not a “choice,” but a circumstance.

2. As I mentioned before, many well-meaning people feel the term “childless” is disempowering and/or that it perpetuates the idea that a woman should feel less-than.

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Rest assured, I do not feel disempowered by this label. I chose it deliberately.

You see, I am not childfree. I always wanted to have kids. I always thought I would have kids. Some part of me still nurses that dream, though with little motivation to pursue it at my age and without a partner.

I did not (no matter what people will argue) choose not to have children. My life just unfolded that way.

I know we really hate to talk about this but the truth is, this is very common, whether we’re talking about motherhood or anything else. We like to think that we can set goals and achieve them. That it’s as simple as that.

But in truth, life rarely goes the way we hoped and dreamed. Even the goals we pursue so tirelessly don’t always pan out the way we’d envisioned.

I choose to say “childless” because that label aligns with my story of motherhood. And yes, I have a story.

Though most women today are mothers, the term “mother” doesn’t cover everyone or everything. There are endless experiences of motherhood and the fact that our culture doesn’t acknowledge that is something we need to address.

The amount of women stepping up and claiming descriptors to help them tell their story of motherhood is an exciting movement to witness. We aren’t just “mothers” or “not mothers.” Some of us are childless. Some of us are childfree. And there are a million shades of those descriptors, as well.

Because we have stories, too. We are very deliberately choosing labels that help us tell those stories, and that insist that we are able to tell them. Just because we don’t have children doesn’t mean we don’t have a reproductive history just as interesting, valuable, and important as a woman who has living children.

It’s okay that I’m childless. You don’t have to worry that I’m choosing a descriptor that’s going to disempower me. Trusting that adult women can choose their own experiences and feel good about doing so would do more to empower them than constantly questioning their decisions.

Instead, ask us. Childfree or childless, come join us at our campfire and say, “So what’s your story?”

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Yael Wolfe is the editor of Wilder and Liberty and just wants to be a big, bad wolf. 

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.