Choices: Childless, Childfree, and Why Distinctions Are Important

Ah, people without children. They’re obviously selfish, for not having children. Or, they’re enduring endless tragedy, because they don’t have children. They have no idea what they’re missing out on. They will forever remain only half-people because they don’t have children, and having a child is the defining moment of your life, the moment which makes you complete. If you don’t have children, you don’t understand! That’s why the term for someone who doesn’t have children, “childless,” focuses on the “less.” Less than. Lesser. Inherently deprived by nature of not having children.

It’s time to talk about some important linguistic distinctions, and to discuss the larger framework of what it means to belong to any movement which promotes personal autonomy and the freedom to make choices about your life. I believe that people have the ultimate right to control their bodies and what happens with them. People have the right to choose the timing and spacing of children, and they also have the right to choose not to have children.

I have chosen not to have children. I identify as childfree, not childless, to stress the fact that I don’t have children, don’t want them, and am not interested in them. Numerous other people also identify as childfree. There are lots of reasons to be part of the childfree movement or to identify with it, and I don’t really want to get into those reasons right now, because the fundamental issue is this: people have the right to choose not to have children. People have the right to be childfree, and they have the right to not be asked probing questions about it.

I also know people who are childless. I would define “childless” in a number of ways beyond simply not having children. In the first sense, someone who is childless is someone who does not have children, but is planning on it at some point. I know plenty of people who are not ready for children right now, but are definitely intending to have them. In the second sense, someone is childless because he or she wants to have children, is trying to have children, and is struggling with infertility which is making that impossible.

There’s a huge difference between being childfree and childless. As a childfree person, I am happy that I don’t have children. I don’t plan on having them, and I don’t feel “less” or bereft because I don’t have them. I become extremely irritated when people refer to me as childless, because that implies that there is some sort of desire or longing on my part for children. Childless people, on the other hand, do want to have children, are sometimes desperate to have them, and do not feel complete without children. They do not appreciate being called childfree, because that suggests that they are happy with their existence as it is, when that is not the case.

It’s important to distinguish between these two terms, because I see them being abused rather a lot. And it’s all a larger part of the society we live in. Especially for women, children are a contentious issue. Women who choose to have children are sometimes criticized for being selfish, usually with the specter of the straw mommy to back up the assertion that all mothers are the same and they live in some sort of uniform borgbubble. Women who choose not to have children are almost uniformly criticized for being selfish. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, apparently. A common problem for women in general.

Childless people are often interested in children. They want to see your baby pictures and they like the YouTube video you send of a child doing something you perceive as “cute.” They enjoy having children around. They like having children thrust in their faces, they don’t mind being asked to watch the baby, they like the children in the neighborhood. Because they like children.

But that isn’t always the case. For someone who is childless and struggling with infertility, having children constantly thrust in the face can be a cause of extreme emotional distress. For a woman who has just lost a baby in a miscarriage, being asked to watch the baby is like having a knife thrust into her stomach. For a man who can’t conceive with a partner, the neighborhood children might be a constant reminder of personal failure.

Childfree people are sometimes not interested in children. But that doesn’t mean they actively dislike them or hate parents. I happen to be a childfree person who dislikes children, although I will be perfectly courteous to them, and I will intervene if I see a child in danger. In other words, I don’t mind being asked to watch the baby for a minute, but I do mind the intrusive neighbor children who constantly pestered me when I moved in until they figured out that, hey, maybe it’s not a good idea to bother strangers. Other childfree people may like children just fine, and enjoy spending time with them, acting as surrogate uncles and aunts, etc. They just don’t want them for themselves. Not having children, in other words, doesn’t necessarily mean that you hate children, or are planning to pour on the haterade for anyone who has them.

I think it’s important to distinguish the fact that while I don’t like children, that doesn’t give me the right to be mean to them. And it also don’t mean that I judge parents. I, personally, do not like children and know that parenting is not for me. But I accept that the human experience is radically different for everyone, and that means that I don’t have a problem with parents. I’m not just saying this. I really do not have a problem with people who do decide that they want to have children, and who pursue that. I do have a problem with the subset of parents which judges me for not having children, which makes assumptions about me on the basis of the fact that I am childfree, which shoves their children in my face, which assumes that I don’t lobby for child/maternal welfare. I am tired of the parents who drag me into the mommy wars with their own myopic bullshit which forces me to respond when I just want to be left alone. I don’t make judgments or assumptions about parents: why can’t they return the courtesy?

When someone does not have children, you usually don’t know the reasons behind it. You don’t know anything about ou attitude to children. And until you do, you should probably keep your mouth shut, because you may cause offense or heartbreak. I strongly dislike being asked when I’m going to have children. I strongly dislike being told that I’m going to “change my mind” when I tell people I’m not going to having children. I strongly dislike being told that I am not a real person and never will be until I have children. It makes me extremely irritated when people thrust their screaming, smelly, squirming spawn in my face even when I have politely expressed a lack of interest in children. I become livid when I am told that I am missing out and will never truly understand. There are a lot of things I’m missing out on and won’t understand, like what it’s like to be a person of colour, what it’s like to be an astronaut, and what it’s like to perform open heart surgery. I’m ok with that. I can’t experience every single human experience there is, and I accept that.

Conversely, someone who is childless may not appreciate having ou infertility dragged into the conversation for public discussion. Someone who is childless may feel deeply uncomfortable when ou choices to wait to have children are questioned. Someone who is childless may not appreciate the patronizing tones from parents about how they had better get started soon.

Having children or not having children doesn’t give you any grounds for personal or social superiority. It doesn’t give you the right to be a jerk about it. It doesn’t give you the right to question the choices of others, to drag personal issues into the public eye, to make people feel uncomfortable for situations they have chosen, or situations which have been forced upon them by biology. It doesn’t mean that everyone who does/doesn’t have children is exactly the same, and has/doesn’t have children for the same reasons. It also doesn’t mean that everyone’s experience of parenthood/lack thereof is identical: the human experience is diverse. Get used to it.

If you support reproductive freedom, you need to deconstruct your views about children, because having/not having/waiting to have/wanting to have children is a key facet of reproductive rights. Failing to understand nuances is a great way to cause offense or upset, as is drawing broad generalizations about huge groups of people on the basis of whether or not they’ve had children.

4 Replies to “Choices: Childless, Childfree, and Why Distinctions Are Important”

  1. And in an argument, the childless/childfree can’t win over “Well, you can’t understand until you have your own children.” It’s used as the trump card.

  2. Okay, I see your point, while certain words like “guiltless” have no intonation of “lesser” associated with them, other words, dependent upon context, can. As with the word “harm”, if a weapon is harmless, that is a lesser weapon.

    I had figured that the word “child” had no inherent value; that if a person wanted children, “childless” was a negative, but if they didn’t want children, “childless” would be a positive. As such, it was a neutral term. But there is a line of thought in which a woman or a couple is viewed as having limited or no purpose outside of progeny, then childless would have negative connotations. And in much the way that Republicans control the tone of debates by getting people to use the phrase “death tax” instead of “estate tax”, there is power to using words that are not neutral. “Childfree” is unarguably a positive term.

  3. Exactly, “childless” has come to have negative connotations, even if those aren’t necessarily intended, for people who do not have children. So many value judgments are made about having/not having children that people who have made a deliberate choice not to have them are often marginalized by “childless,” is in “you are half a person without a child” or, as me pointed out above, “you will never understand until you have children.” Since language can be and is used as a weapon, it’s important to see the ways in which it is weaponized.

    However, it’s important to note, as I did here, that “childfree” isn’t always necessarily positive. Someone who wants children and does feel incomplete without them could be offended or upset if someone called them “childfree.” I tend to err towards “without children” when I don’t know how someone feels, because that’s pretty neutral.

  4. THANK YOU, THANK YOU! I just found this link, and is a much needed pick me up after a really shitty weekend of parties with children, and assholes with children. My husband and I are infertile, and I had some older woman make the comment “You have no idea, and cannot possibly understand what I got through, YOU DON’T HAVE CHILDREN.” it was less of a statement, but more of a jab intended to be cruel. After 10 years of unsuccessfully trying for children, we’ve decided that being childfree is actually pretty nice. And in those 10 years, I’ve learned to develop a pretty thick skin when it comes to peoples [cut for ableist language] remarks. Well I thought I had, I casually had to excuse myself and go cry in the bathroom. Not that I’m longing to be a mother anymore, it’s just that people can be that horrible. And still after all this time, I have no idea how to deal with these people, other than just blowing them off, but when you are not expecting an insult of that caliber, you have no time to armor yourself. I implore people with children to read things like this. Being a parent isn’t the be all end all of human experience. It’s one small part of it. I still want to punch that [cut for sexist language] in the face though.

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