Living as a Woman Without Children

Talking about infertility, identity, and living as a childless woman.

Through my experiences with infertility treatments and inevitably ending up childless on the other side, I’ve realized on a profound level that our society is obsessed with women as mothers.

Woman = mother, and womanhood = motherhood.

As I’ve confronted this I’ve felt a drive to share my experiences and reflections with others who may be going through the same struggle to remind them that they are not alone in this experience and that there are a million other valid ways to live as a woman.

It is evident in the simplest of exchanges, such as upon first meeting a women, most often one of the first questions she is asked is, “So, how many kids do you have?”, or “How old are your kids, or at least “So, do you have kids?”.

After getting married it is almost immediate that people will ask, “When will the babies come?”. Even in selecting one’s future partner it is common for people to comment, “He’d make pretty babies”, or “He’ll make a good father”.

Babies and children, motherhood, is an inevitability, an assumption.

But where does this pre-occupation come from?

I think the predominant source of this obsession is of course the patriarchy. Systems of patriarchy rely on women being mothers (and really more generally caregivers) because this can in certain ways make them more susceptible to being dependent on men and keep them in more traditional and subservient roles. For example, if you are busy raising and caring for children you will likely work less, therefore earn less money, and as a consequence of both of these have less power in personal relationship dynamics and also in the larger economy.

As a result of this patriarchal ideal, we as a society are more generally obsessed with families. Nuclear families that is – a wife, a husband, and 2.5 kids. If you pay attention, nearly everything is created for and around being a family and having kids. The number of bedrooms in houses, the number of seats in a vehicle, even the presence of baby seats in grocery carts. Everything is designed with the 4-5 member family in mind.

Something that further fuels this obsession is our adherence to extremely binary understandings of gender and sex and has roots in heteronormativity, homophobia, and transphobia as well (another part of patriarchy). Non-hetero families do not always have children, or they come to having children in different ways (adoption, fertility treatments, surrogacy etc.).

Motherhood and mom-culture has also become yet another excuse for the endless consumerism driven by capitalism with every women dreaming of the day she can buy matching kids outfits and just about every other item labeled “Mom” or “Mama”, and a million other perfect products for her little mini-me.

There are also very problematic implications of ableism in the obsession with motherhood as many women are not physically able to have children.

So, what happens as a woman when you don’t have children?

Society really doesn’t want us to be anything else, or rather you can be anything you want as long as you are also a mother.

As someone who is infertile, I have had to fight through distressing thoughts and feelings of, does this mean I am less of a woman? And, who am I if not a mother? Or, what will happen to me and what will my life be about if not kids?

When you can’t have this “perfect normal”, even if you want to and you try everything it seems to get it, you end up feeling profoundly disconnected from society, others close to you, and also from the way your life was “supposed” to go.

And to make matters even worse women who don’t have children who are represented, are relegated to less desirable roles and depictions. The “cool” aunt that everyone keeps trying to find a partner for, the fashionable but sort of vapid party friend “who never wanted the responsibility of children”, and the crazy cat spinster lady. These are often one-dimensional characters that we sort of laugh at, cringe at, or even pity.

This obsession and assumption with motherhood is problematic and harmful for so many reasons.

Not all women want children, choose to have children, or are able to for a variety of reasons and circumstances to have children. I believe that children should be wanted. Raising children is a difficult and lifelong task and no one should have children because they think it is what they are supposed to do.

Some women are infertile, some never meet the right partner, some have financial or health concerns preventing them from having children, and many other circumstances that might mean they end up childless.

Motherhood is only 1 experience of being a woman. It is reductive to the complexity of women and the concept of woman and womanhood.

But the truth is of course, that not everyone lives this way. Not everyone has kids. In fact, if you stop to think about it, a lot of people in your life probably don’t have children and they don’t have sad, laughable or pitiable lives.

The answer I am slowly but not always consistently coming to is, no you are not less of a woman because you have not carried a child. No, you are not less of a woman because you have never given birth.

No, you are not less of a woman because you do not have children.

So, the next time you meet a woman for the first time maybe ask her something different like “What do you do in your free time”, or if you must for some reason ask about her family circumstances try asking the question in a more open ended and inclusive way like “What does your family look like?”, or “Who do you call family?”. Honestly anything other than, “So, do you have kids?” would be a step in the right direction. Even if she does its nice to not have your entire existence and identity subsumed by your role as mother.

And if you find yourself a woman and childless, by choice or not, know that you are just as much woman as any other and your life is valid, worthwhile, and purposeful. You are not alone and generations of childless woman have come before you. Stand tall and by kind to yourself, find joy and meaning in your beautiful life.

Write soon,

Hannah B.L.

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