Life on our own terms
Ok people, I don’t know about you…but I’m feeling a bit uninspired by terms like childless, childfree and non-parent circulating in the media.
These terms are all very lacking. They define us by what we do not have and by what we are not. And while the term childfree attempts a positive spin, it actually puts out a pretty negative vibe. It implies that people who choose not to have children are completely ‘free of them’…as if children are an undesirable food additive, or hazardous to your health like breathing second-hand smoke. Of course there are a small percentage of people who truly dislike all children. But I can guarantee that a large percentage of the childfree actually have some pretty special kids in their lives.
Even though my husband and I chose to not have children of our own (for a number of personal, social and environmental reasons) we are certainly not living a childfree existence. In fact, I write and illustrate children’s picture books, and the two of us are a dedicated team of aunt and uncle. In the past we both worked with school children as mentors and teachers, and in my early twenties I was a full-time nanny of two. As a married couple we even had a recent stint in fostering as we liked the philosophy and felt compelled to contribute something meaningful in this way. So the term childfree simply does not apply.
And the term childless or even childless by choice which is sometimes used, still seems to miss the mark. Childless implies that we are ‘less than’ because we don’t have children of our own. Or like we are missing out, or wanted to be parents but couldn’t. And while this is the case for some people, using a term like childless surely makes these people feel like tragic failures. And for the childless by choice, the term evokes shame or guilt…as if we made an ill-informed decision that we are destined to regret or like we squandered our last chance at true happiness.
We are thinkers and planners, my husband and I. And our decision to not procreate was one that was made with great introspection and contemplation. We were not always entirely sure of what we wanted. There was a lot of discussion, and a lot of emotion. And I’ll admit there was a time when I thought I could hear my biological clock ticking. But in the end it was our shared and united desire to remain a family of two humans (plus two cats, three pigs, four ducks, and countless chickens) that felt the most true and right for us. It’s a choice that makes us both happy, and one that we do not regret.
Aside from the obvious concerns about overpopulation and the state of the planet, there are a myriad of personal reasons that contributed to our decision. But I won’t go into those exact personal reasons here. And besides, you wouldn’t fully understand them anyway unless you’d been a fly on our wall for the past several years, or unless you’d lived the exact same experiences as us. But as non-parents, we still lead rich and meaningful lives. There are so many things that we are, and so many things that we do (instead of parenting), that it hardly seems fair to have the prefix non as part of the language that describes us as a couple.
Our sense of purpose comes from many places, and we find meaning in our abundant and bountiful garden that we care for and nurture together. We get immense satisfaction and fulfilment from helping create this kind of life. From watching things grow, develop, and diversify. From the seeds we plant to the bounty we harvest, our garden is our pride and joy. And speaking of joy, we also get plenty of that from our three Kune Kune pigs, our two feline family members, and our entertaining group of feathered friends. And then of course, there is the love and joy that we get from each other. Now… imagine if our lifestyle choices were assigned the highest value by society— a value by which to compare everyone else. Imagine if people were then given labels like pigless, feline-free, and non-gardeners, with the implication that there was something lacking in their lives.
Of course this all sounds ridiculous and absurd in these contexts. And yet this is the exact manner in which childless childfree folk are described. The non-parents of the world….doing a whole lot of non-parenting with our empty childless, unfulfilled ‘child intolerant’ lives. Right? Because that’s what the language being used is telling us. But why must we be described on the basis of whether we have brought human life into this world? As if that’s the only act that matters, the only contribution, the only form of legacy, the only way to love and be loved. There should be new terms created for people without children. Terms that are positive and pleasant sounding. Not these terms that sound pitiful, negative, flippant and polarising.
To the people with children, I imagine you probably haven’t given this much thought. With affirming labels like Mother and Father, with positive assumptions about your levels of joy and fulfilment, and with special days on the calender each year to have your choices celebrated and your actions appreciated, it’s probably hard to see what it might feel like being on the flip side of the coin. It’s sometimes a sad and lonely place. And NO — not because we are lamenting our choices, but because we are not respected for them.
We are deviants, outsiders at best. We get told that we will change our minds, that we will come to regret our decision, that we are selfish, that we don’t know real love, that we will have nobody to look after us when we are old. It is the common assumption that our lives are unfulfilled and meaningless. Society doesn’t celebrate us. We have to explain and defend ourselves time and time again. Because we are part of the ‘non’ group. We are part of the ‘less’ group. It’s no wonder that somebody came along and decided it sounded better to be part of the ‘free’ group.
But we as a society should never seek to be free of children. There will always be people who want to have children, and who want to be parents. And we as non-parents still have an obligation to the young people of today. We still have things we can teach them. We can be role models, aunts and uncles, friends and mentors. We can be the people that listen to them when their parents won’t. The people they turn to, or look up to that are outside of their immediate families. And we have plenty to offer to parents in the way of support and community. We are contributors. Part of a vast network that helps to carry children through childhood, that helps carry parents through parenthood.
Because, whether we want to admit it or not, we are all in this together. And while it may not seem like it, even the most staunchly childfree person is making their contribution — through funding that goes to education, health, and families via their tax dollars. And none of us should begrudge this, because we all benefit from healthy and educated children being part of society’s future (so long as it’s not too many children for the planet to support). It’s both irrational and illogical to expect that nobody procreate. Unless of course you are of the mind that you would like the species to die off within the next few generations. But it’s equally irrational and illogical to expect that everybody procreate. While having children contributes directly to the future of the species, not having them contributes to that future as well. By freeing up some very limited resources, curbing overpopulation and shrinking the carbon footprint.
But let’s be honest with ourselves…nobody has children, or doesn’t have them, strictly based on those reasons alone. Most of us have children, or don’t have them, for reasons that are personal to us. Because it’s what we wanted for our lives. Because it’s what we imagined for our own personal futures. Not simply because we were trying to keep the species alive or save the planet. And since the reasons people have are personal, why are childless, childfree non-parents still required to justify the lives and futures we have chosen? It is time we embrace a more tempered ideology. One that does not rely so relentlessly on pro-natalism. People who have children are being over-valued. And people who do not have them are being over-looked.
And this is how things get ugly. The group who feels slighted fights back against the group who is doing the slighting. But they fight back by trying to make everyone else wrong just so they can feel like they are right. And so a war of words ensues. And people say things that are unfair and misguided. Generalisations are made. Stereotypes are cemented. And we descend into self righteous rhetoric, rivaling back and forth, trying to prove that the other will come to regret their choice more. Doing studies to determine who is ‘scientifically’ happier. But why must we seek this kind of proof for our deepest most profoundly personal feelings? Why do we need the science to tell us whether we’ve made the right choice?
Ultimately for the non-parents it’s not an even playing field. There are fewer of us, and more of them. And they certainly have a way of getting under our skin…because they have their ‘before and after’ argument. And they do not use this sparingly. And we have learned to politely smile and nod, while we listen to the parents of the world preach about the right of passage into a superior realm. About how becoming parents suddenly transformed them into more knowing, more loving, more enlightened and fulfilled beings. Who they were before having children, and who they became after…an experience which we have not personally had, so consequently cannot relate to…presumably because we must be emotionally stunted, intrinsically inferior, and inherently naive. Because they have unlocked the doors to a state of higher being which we will never be able to achieve…
Because we don’t have the key.
Though looking around at all of the unwanted, unloved, abused and neglected children…seeing evidence of irresponsible, frustrated, exhausted unhappy burned out parents…it seems clear that being a parent doesn’t automatically make you anymore enlightened or fulfilled. It doesn’t necessarily bring you more joy or happiness. And it doesn’t fundamentally make you a better person, with a higher capacity to love. Indeed it can do all of these things, and there is plenty of evidence of that as well, but procreation is not a prerequisite. Society makes a lot of assumptions about this, and paints a very clear and seemingly indisputable picture. Yet the reality of that picture is much more like an inkblot test — complex and convoluted, and subject to individual interpretation. The experiences we have in life are all seen through our own personal lens. The joy, the happiness, the fulfilment, the love that we give and receive, these are all weighed up and measured within our own minds, against our own experiences. But maybe these things can’t truly be measured at all. And perhaps we should stop trying.
We are all on a different journey through life, and we all have our own roadmap. And that is the biggest problem with the labels we’ve been given, with the language that describes us, the childless, as people. Yes, we are people without children. Yes we are non-parents. And yes, some of us identify as childfree. But all these terms still have one common denominator. One defining measurement. One road to take through life. One door to open. And if you don’t have children then nobody really knows what you have instead.
If you never become a mother or a father, then who are you? What are you? Do you have anybody to love? Is there someone there to love you back? Can you look at your childless life and say with certainty that you are achieving your full potential? That you are having the true human experience? Who will be there for you in the future when you are old and lonely? If having children is something you didn’t do, what if you come to regret your decision? Afterall, as the saying goes, we often regret the things we don’t do in life rather than the things we do…
But in the very act of not doing, there is something we are doing instead. Something with meaning and purpose. Something that fulfils us and makes us whole. We are not loveless, joyless, aimless and idle, sitting and staring longingly and regretfully from the depths of the childless abyss. We are doing. We are being. We are loving. We are living. There are things we are creating, producing and achieving. There are ways we are nurturing, mentoring, and contributing. Our lives are not neatly divided into a before and an after, but that does not mean we aren’t making plans for our future, that we are not reaching our full potential, or that we are missing out on the true human experience.
We are making our own adventure and writing our own story. If only we had a name for it that did it justice.