Call me ‘childless.’ I won’t think less of myself.
I was only trying to make conversation, as one does at a party. But when I was introduced to a reality-show star, the conversation ended just as quickly as it began.
We started with the customary “Nice to meet you’s.” Since it was clear I knew who she was, she asked about me. I started off with what we have in common: “I’m an author, like you. ... And I have a media company called Savvy Auntie designed primarily for childless women like us who love the children in their lives.”
In a lounge full of housewives and ex-husbands, pretty single ladies and prettier gay men, photographers and reporters, you could hear a pin drop.
“Childfree,” the reality star responded with an admonishing tone. “We say ‘childfree,’” emphasizing the last syllable as if I had broken some social code.
"Childfree" is the hot term for non-parents these days, a word that intends to push back against the notion that all women are born to be mothers. For many, it's an empowering alternative to "childless."
But what about women, like me, who are childless by circumstance, not by choice? I’m single and, like millions of other women, I am waiting for love before motherhood. I’m not free of the children I have so deeply yearned for, as if it's good thing I'm not a mother. To me, the word is antithetical to my reality.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve been called “childfree.” An infertility advocate once labeled me “childfree” in a gracious post on my Web site, Savvy Auntie. She explained her rationale when I asked her to change it: Since you have chosen not to be a single mother, she said, you made the choice to be childless. “And that makes you ‘childfree,’” she explained.
With this logic, should I also refer to myself as “husband-free”? Of course not. Choosing to wait for a partner before motherhood does not make a woman childless by choice. I'm choosing love, not the childlessness that comes with not yet finding that love.
More women today are childless than ever before. In 1976, 35 percent of women of fertile age were childless; by 2014, that number was nearly 48 percent. Of this cohort, the majority are single. The CDC reports that 80 percent of single women are childless, and of those who are childless, 81 percent expect to become mothers. Only 14 percent of single women are childless, or “childfree,” by choice.
Despite this data, the term “childfree” has become the more acceptable term these days. When an author and blogger I know labeled herself “childfree” in a recent tweet, I asked her why. I knew she'd suffered through infertility, so it seemed odd that she would take on the moniker of those who are childless by choice. She replied that “childless” implies “less-than,” so she adopted the more liberated term so many others are using.
No doubt, the term “childless” has its critics because of the suffix, “less.” Americans' obsession with the notion that all women are meant to be mothers -- from the Hollywood baby bumps that grace magazine covers, to the conversations about “having it all” -- can make some believe that not being a mother is less-than. I know that I am not less of a human being because I am not mother. But calling myself “childfree” isn't correct, either.
For those who are unsatisfied with either term, what about “childfull”? For those who don’t have children, many of us fill our lives with our nieces, nephews, godchildren and other children we love. We find other ways to be maternal.
Originally published in The Washington Post