The Truth About the Childless Life
Aashna, a single 43-year-old marketing director for an international jewelry designer, looked down at her glass of Cabernet Sauvignon with a familiar melancholy I've seen before. "I absolutely don't want to have a baby on my own," she said. "But I also can't imagine never becoming a mother." At age 39, Aashna broke up with a man she was not deeply in love with. She knew she was not only saying goodbye to him, but potentially to ever becoming a mother. "As much as I want to be a mom, I couldn't marry a man I'm not in love with," she said. "And now, I may never have kids."
Joanna, a single 38-year-old attorney who left the partner track to move into the less demanding (and lower paying) role of legal marketing in order to attract men who did not find her profession competitive with theirs, is frustrated: "Here I am, almost 39, and I gave up so much potential in my career and frankly, in my income, just so that the men I dated no longer assumed that because I went to an Ivy League law school, I don't want to be a mother. Now, not only am I heartbroken that I'm still single and not a mom, I regret taking a major step down in my career. People still call me a so-called 'career woman' as if I don't have to work, and by taking myself off the partner track, I don't even have a walk-in closet to show for it."
Jake, a 42-year-old single man in magazine publishing, knows what people think of him. "They assume I'm a player because I haven't married yet," he explained over drinks. "But I'm not a player at all. I want to be married and I really want to be a father. I just haven't met that woman yet. Becoming a father is really important to me. I've even considered having a child with a friend, but in the end, decided to wait for the right relationship and have kids with the woman I love."
In my upcoming book, Otherhood (Seal Press / Penguin Canada, early 2014), I look at the unrequited love story of our generation. Aashna, Joanna and Jake are among composites of dozens of women and men I spoke with who want so much to be in love, married (or at the very least, in a committed relationship) before becoming parents.
However, the August 12, 2013 TIME Magazine cover story: "The Childfree Life: When Having It All Means Not Having Children," presumes that the decreasing birthrate in America is mostly due to a choice by many modern American women and men to be childfree, i.e., to remain childless by choice. After all, with all the choices available to women -- the gender the piece correctly identifies as the one that carries the brunt of societal negative attitudes towards childless people -- it's assumed by many that we've made childlessness a choice. "If you really want to be a mother," I've been told, "you'd be a mother. Nothing stops modern women from becoming mothers if that is what they really want." But at age 44, never-married, I still choose love over motherhood, as do most American women -- and men.
The heartache over what I call our "circumstantial infertility," childlessness due to being without a partner, is exacerbated by the inexhaustible myth that we have chosen not to be mothers -- and fathers.
The CDC reports that of the 19% of women who remain childless between the ages of 40 and 44, half are childfree by choice. The remaining are unable to have children, by biology and by circumstance. (Note: some late-age biological infertility is a result of not finding a partner until one's fertility in compromised by age, i.e., it is also circumstantial) In my exclusive 2012 interview with Gladys Martinez, PhD and author of the National Health Statistics Reports entitled "Fertility of Men and Women Aged 15-44 Years in the United States: National Survey of Family Growth," Martinez explained that while 80 percent of unmarried women are childless, 81 percent of those women plan or hope to have children one day. Only 14 percent of all childless women are voluntarily childless, i.e. 'childfree.' About 5 percent are unable to have children. The rest intend to become mothers one day.
As the Time article reports, childless women are among America's wealthier and more college-educated women. Unfortunately, that data helps propel the myth that we are too career-oriented, too self-centered and too selfish for motherhood. But what it doesn't say is that we are also more likely to be married at the time of our first birth, late in our fertile years as motherhood may come. When a childless woman marries at age 35 or older, the CDC reports that these women have at least two children, surpassing the birthrate for all American women; the mean number of births to women ages 15-44 is 1.3, but for women who have a child between ages 40 and 44, the mean number of births jumps to 2.1.
Simply put, many childless American women over 35 are simply waiting for love before motherhood. And once they are in the right relationship, they quickly move into motherhood, usurping the average mother's birthrate.
While, of course, there are women and men who do choose never to be parents, indeed a very valid choice, this group does not fully explain the declining American birth rate. So, what is the reality? The women of Generation X expected we'd have the social, economic and political equality our mothers did not have, but naturally, the husband and children then did. Only here we are, among the most well-educated, most successful women in America, wondering how our valid choice to be in the right relationship, to be in love before motherhood, has left us often single and childless as we near the end of our fertility.
As the Time article suggests, there is indeed what I call a mom-opia in America, an uber-focus on motherhood as if all women are mothers, or should be mothers, or can be mothers. For those in the Otherhood, those whose hearts break to be mothers, those who feel misunderstood and sidelined by those who assume their childlessness is due a lack of desire for children or a lack of maternal (and paternal) yearnings, there is a fallacy that must be overturned.
This is the truth about childlessness in America: most (not all) women -- and men -- desire to be parents. But love, commitment and the right partnership come first. We choose love over parenthood. It's not an easy choice to make; we know the risk of waiting for love means we may become parents much later in life than expected, or, for some, never become parents at all.
In the meantime, we are childfull; we choose to fill our lives with the children we love like our nieces and nephews and friends' children. And we find other ways to 'mother.'