What I say to kids when they ask me why I don’t have children & why these conversations are important
As a former teacher and proud auntie, I’ve spent a lot of time with a lot of kids in my life. Kids of diverse ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, political and religious beliefs — kids from all walks of life. Which is why it has always shocked me how universally they respond when they find out I have no children.
I still have a vivid memory of a conversation with a 5th grader who asked me about my kids. When I told her I had none, her mouth dropped open.
“Aren’t you, like, 35 or something?”
Indeed I was, I confirmed.
“My mom had 6 kids by the time she was your age,” she continued. “Why haven’t you had any yet?”
This was not the first time I had been asked this — nor would it be the last.
I wasn’t at all hurt by her comment. Annoyed, yes, but not hurt. In fact, for the most part, I relished these moments when I could open a student’s eyes to the different options women had in life. Even on days when I grieved deeply that I hadn’t had a child, I kept a smile on my face. I wanted these kids to know that life wasn’t as simple or perfectly packaged as rom coms made us think it was.
So I told her that women can do all sorts of things in life — that motherhood is just one of our countless options. There are lots of different types of women leading different types of lifestyles, I said, and every one of them is valuable and worthy.
Somehow, I took it for granted that I would never have this kind of conversation with my nieces and nephews. They have all been raised by progressive parents who I am certain have never uttered judgmental words about single or childless women. Further, I’ve been childless for as long as they’ve known me, and single for the past five years — as far as they know, this is just me, just my life, just the way I’ve always been.
I was surprised one day, when my 3-year-old nephew asked me when I was going to get married and have kids. This time, I told him something even more honest than the answers I’d previously given to my former students: that I didn’t know if I would, or not. That life is different for everyone, and sometimes things don’t turn out the way we think they will. But that somehow, everything will turn out okay.
A few months later, again to my surprise, my 8-year-old nephew said, “Don’t you think it’s weird that you’re the oldest in your family and you still aren’t married and don’t have kids?” I said, very honestly, “Kid, life is weird. You never know what is going to happen, even when you make the most elaborate plans.” My sister chimed in at that point and then we moved on.
Looking back, I wish I had prolonged the conversation. We, as a culture, just don’t talk about this enough.
While it’s true that many children naturally grow up wanting to emulate their parents — which means getting married and having kids — I think we, as adults, contribute to the cookie cutter notions about marriage and motherhood.
I see and hear this (and have been guilty of perpetuating it) so many times. When a little girl showers love and devotion on a younger sibling, we brag about her, saying “She’s going to be such a good mother someday.” I’ve known many young girls who were given monikers like Mama and Little Mother by well-meaning family members. But with boys, we say they are “good big brothers,” or “strong protectors.” Typically, we don’t call them Little Daddy or brag about what good fathers they will be someday.
We ask girls questions about what they want their wedding dress to look like, what they want to name their future children, how many kids they want to have, what they want their engagement ring to look like. So much of it is said in a spirit of fun — I don’t believe anyone means any harm when they do this. But it perpetuates the idea that getting married and having kids is the greatest aspiration a woman can have — and therefore that it’s highly unusual for a woman to make different choices or accept other circumstances in life.
I hope to see the conversation broaden as we become more aware of the ingrained cultural beliefs that we’re passing on to the next generation, and I get excited when I see evidence that we’re moving in a healthier direction. The 8-year-old nephew I mentioned above was the one in their family who was, for a time, nicknamed Mommy, for reasons I still don’t understand — and I loved it. If we’re going to call kids Mama or Mommy, let’s at least defy gender stereotypes while doing it.
Meanwhile, Mommy’s older brother has proudly declared that he doesn’t want to get married or have kids. He wants to be a paleontologist, spending his days in the field, then retreating to a quiet house each night. (And I couldn’t help but confirm that living alone can be pretty awesome.)
So there’s hope. Maybe one day, kids won’t be so universally shocked to meet an adult woman who doesn’t have children. Or who isn’t married.
But until then, they can react and I can respond with honesty:
Yes, there are lots of women like me in the world. Sometimes, I’m happy with my life. Sometimes, I’m not. Just like your mom and all the other women in your life. You can be like them or be like me or do anything else you want.
Because the greatest joy in life is not being a mother — it’s just being.