Why Even Feminists Don’t Want to Talk About Childlessness
In late 2018, I left my job to pursue freelancing full time. One of my biggest goals as a freelancer was to create more space for the voices of childless women — a seriously underrepresented demographic. However, I was surprised to find that nothing received a faster rejection email than a pitch about childless women. Even feminist online publications weren’t interested.
I realized I might need to try another strategy, so I started doing some research. I would visit women’s magazines and search their archives for articles on motherhood and then do a second search on childlessness. If you’re a childless woman, you won’t be surprised to find that the numbers were something like this: 695 about motherhood, 1 about childlessness in one publication; 1,233 about motherhood, 0 about childlessness in another; 2,478 about motherhood, 3 about childlessness in a third. I’m sure you see the trend here.
If you’re a mother, you probably won’t be surprised, either. Maybe you’re thinking, Well, of course those numbers make sense. Almost all women are mothers.
So here’s a number that might shock you: 43. That’s the percentage of women of childbearing age in America who are childless (according to the most recent US Census Data). Yes, that’s almost half of us.
Granted, many of these women will go on to have children, eventually. But a rising number of us will not. Currently, according to PEW Research data, 15% of women my age (40–44) do not have children, and realistically, it’s not biologically likely that a large percentage of us will go on to reproduce. While 15% isn’t a huge number, it’s not small, either.
Clearly, there are a lot of childless women in this country, and clearly, our stories and experiences are not often part of the conversation. We’re not well-represented in books, TV shows, or movies. You don’t hear many stories about us in the media that aren’t focused on infertility and the “happily ever after” of finally getting pregnant or adopting.
I was determined to see that change. I brought all my research and data to my new batch of pitches. I wrote to dozens of publications with some well-researched ideas about women and childlessness. And soon after, I received another tsunami of rejection letters.
Here are subjects that have made it past an editor’s desk for me: body image, skincare, racism, and civic engagement. But anything related to being a single, childless woman? Absolutely not.
Now I know there are a handful of women pressing forward, making themselves heard on behalf of the rest of us — Jody Day, for instance, and Shani Silver. But look at those numbers again, the striking disparity of articles about motherhood vs. childlessness, despite our significant population of childless women.
Why the imbalance? Why aren’t feminist (or even mainstream, for that matter) media outlets recognizing the gaping hole and rushing to fill it?
The truth is, I suspect we (feminist or not) are all still uncomfortable with singleness and childlessness. Both seem to be something we feel we need to “fix” somehow — that being in these circumstances is just something to ride out until we finally walk down the aisle or make it to the delivery room.
To be blunt, being single and childless just isn’t marketable.
The people who aren’t in these circumstances don’t want to read about it because it feels like moving backwards. We’re supposed to achieve certain milestones in life — like getting married and having babies. Why, then, would a married mother want to “look back” when she’s already ticked these successes off her list?
And for the people who are in these circumstances, it can feel scary to approach an article about being single and/or childless. Is it going to reinforce our worst fears about ourselves? Will it make us feel wrong? Broken? Behind? Can we trust the author to make us feel welcome and seen? Is she one of us or is she only pretending to accept her circumstances while waiting for a partner or a child to come along and rescue her?
So okay, I get it. It’s hard for people to talk about this. And what publication is going to want to give up prized real estate for articles that might be ignored?
This is actually the reason why I think we should push even harder. We’re never going to move past the cultural stigmas of singlehood and childlessness if we don’t. This has to be about more than marketability. This is about seeing as much value in a mother as we see in any other woman, no matter her circumstances. This is about opening the cultural dialogue to include all women. Every one of us deserves to participate in the conversation.
There was a time, shortly after receiving this series of rejections, that I felt like giving up, and just going along my way. Silently. It often feels like the wheel of feminism moves so damn slowly. I didn’t have any hope that I would get to tell my story, take a seat at the table, feel like a valuable member of this world.
I have since realized that I actually need to do the opposite. The last thing the world needs now is for me to be quiet. Single, childless women deserve to be heard.
So I won’t stop. I will keep screaming into the wind as long as I have to. I want my nieces to grow up in a world where they feel they can do whatever they want. Marry. Don’t marry. Have kids. Don’t have kids. And no matter what they decide, I want them to feel differently from the way I’ve felt. I want them to know they have a voice. I want them to be able to search a publication using the keyword “childless” and be able to find hundreds of articles, instead of just one.