As a woman in her 30s, it’s no surprise that my social calendar is filled with baby-related events: gender reveals, baby showers, hospital visits, and sip and sees. I have become, at least conversationally, fluent in new-mom lingo and am more familiar with the Target diaper aisle than I ever envisioned I would be without my own child to tote through the store.
And I love it! I’m thrilled for my friends and the exciting season they’re entering. I’ll play the corny shower games with gusto and gladly send a meal (and a bottle of wine) your way once you’re settled at home with your new bundle of joy.
But as someone who’s been happily married for nearly a decade, when another guest turns to me at these celebrations and asks “So, when’s it your turn?” and I politely smile and reply, “You know, we’re enjoying life as just the two of us so much, I’m not sure we’ll ever have children,” they nearly fall out of their chair.
Some of this is contextual. I live in the South, married young, and was raised in the church. The seemingly obvious next step for most women in my demographic is “baby carriage.” And since it hasn’t happened yet, many people begin to assume there must be something wrong (A former teacher direct messaged me to let me know she had been praying for my ability to have children. I believe the intent was kind, but it was completely misdirected). The heartbreak of infertility is real, and I’m surrounded by dear friends who are bravely walking that road, but it’s not my story. Mine, at least to those around me, feels a little more inconceivable: I don’t want kids.
Choosing to be Child-Free
I might feel lonely within my own social circles, but it’s a choice we’re seeing more widely adapted throughout the United States. Women are marrying later, directing financial priority to paying off student loans, and building careers—many of which were hardly possible a single generation ago. In fact, according to a report by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, fertility rates in the U.S. dropped 4% in 2020 from 2019, hitting an all-time low.
There are plenty of other reasons to live a child-free life that are much more nuanced. Some people grapple with a really painful upbringing, one that’s marked by abuse or neglect, and few realize how much parenting brings out your own inner child. Others struggle with the decision as it relates to their genetics and family medical history. And some just feel like the desire skipped over their DNA. They didn’t play with baby dolls and they never really envisioned their own family. It’s as simple as a void of want.
Between the two of us, my husband and I check a number of these boxes. It’s an ongoing conversation we regularly have, checking in to see if either of us has had a change of heart. And there’s a part of me that wishes he’d say, “I think I want to take the leap,” providing me with the nudge I’d need. But then there are moments, like after a challenging day at work or a slow weekend following a hectic season, that I’m relieved we’re responsible only for ourselves, recognizing I wouldn’t have the energy to pour into another human being in the ways they would deserve.
But then there are moments … that I’m relieved we’re responsible only for ourselves, recognizing I wouldn’t have the energy to pour into another human being in the ways they would deserve.
I’ve found that the perception of the child-free (those who have proactively chosen not to expand their family) versus that of the childless (those who wish to have children but, so far, have not been able to conceive) is profoundly different. Understandably, many mothers can identify with the longing for a child but not so much the choice to forgo parenting altogether. Here’s what I wish I could freely share with the mom friends in my life.
I Don’t Hate Kids
I absolutely don’t hate kids. I think toddlers are cute, newborns smell divine, and I’ll never pass up the chance to converse with a precocious elementary schooler. I adore my niece and nephew, my favorite neighbor is 4 years old, and I’d jump in front of a train for my goddaughters.
For me, I’ve evaluated what’s required to be a healthy, loving parent, and the hard truth is that I’m not entirely sure I have what it takes. I’m a highly sensitive person as well as an introvert; I draw energy from my environment and I’m more sleep dependent than most. I enjoy getting to pour all the energy I have into the kids in my life when I’m with them, then step away and refuel. It would break my heart to live in a world without children, but if I don’t have that “off and on” balance of exposure, I deteriorate.
I Want to Contribute
In my world, I’m definitely the odd one out in this area. I don’t mind it—that’s simply the reality of the choice I’ve made. Plus, I want to hear about your kids! I want to see the latest pictures and know the developmental stage they’re entering. I’m your friend, and whether you’re struggling or celebrating, I want to be there for you. I’ll complain about your child’s school administration right alongside you, I’ll laugh at the funny words your little one makes up, and I’ll do my very best to empathize with your sleep depravity with as much self-awareness as I can muster.
But once the girls’ night conversation has gone the route of diaper-rash remedies, I’m a little helpless. I can’t contribute to sleep-training strategies or stroller evaluations, so if the evening stays focused on parenting topics, I begin to feel a little lost and disconnected.
But … I can’t contribute to sleep-training strategies or stroller evaluations, so if the evening stays focused on parenting topics, I begin to feel a little lost and disconnected.
I don’t need to be involved in every conversation, but I do want to contribute to the connection, and I’m sure your childless friends do too. Next time the girls are getting together, check in to make sure everyone’s included in the evening’s topics. While isolation can be tough, a childless friend in the group could really be struggling with conversations that are triggering their grief.
I May Not Change My Mind
If someone’s bold enough to ask about my child-free status and I give them my elevator-pitch response, the usual follow-up is, “You’ll change your mind one day. You’ll see.” And that may be true. I’m regularly evaluating and doing my own work through spiritual exploration and therapy to ensure that this is the right road for me. If I find that I do really want to have children, I’m not above changing course and sharing that my feelings have evolved.
There are many days that I want to want children. But it’s also very possible that I won’t, and that choice is honorable, too. But the only person who can make that call, the only one who knows what I really want, is me. And it’s hard not to feel invalidated when someone tells you indirectly that your desires are illegitimate.
I’m Not Selfish
Society can be quick to label those who have chosen not to grow their family as self-absorbed. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a level of self-awareness that’s required for this decision, and what would be truly selfish would be to move forward with having a baby if I knew it wasn’t the right choice for me.
As often as the situation can warrant, I wholeheartedly believe all children deserve to be wanted. If I ultimately do reach the conclusion that I can’t offer that to a human being who’s looking to me to provide that need, then I owe it to them to set aside my vision of what that life could have looked like. It’s an act of love for the children I will never have but know they would’ve been worthy to receive.
Mother’s Day Can be Triggering
It may sound surprising, but that second Sunday in May can catch me off guard. Last year, I sat on my back patio under a blanket and cried with my husband because I was so full of doubt and confusion about my place as a woman in the world if I didn’t have a child to whom I could invest my life in. Mother’s Day brings such beautiful celebrations, heartfelt commercials on TV, and the most loving social media posts honoring so many worthy women, and I’m glad we have a dedicated day to recognize the profound impact mothers have on our world. But as someone who loves kids, who wants to make an impact but feels—at least for now—convicted to live life child-free, it can be a disorienting day.
If there’s a child-free woman in your life who’s positively impacted your kids, could you reach out and let her know? Maybe even thank her for investing love into your family? She may not have chosen to have children, but she’s absolutely on your team and part of that village that’s loving and raising your child.