I recently watched a TED talk by Melanie Notkin, “Welcome to the Otherhood”. Melanie spoke about the grief of being single without children. For Melanie, the grief was one of “circumstantial infertility,” that is, grief of not being able to have children because of her relationship status.
One thing I liked about Melanie’s TED talk was the way she highlighted our mum-obsessed culture. Melanie described mums as national heroes, celebrated by society and media and praised and supported by churches and employers. Not to mention the hype of Mother’s Day.
Another point that really hit home for me was Melanie’s suggestion that childless and childfree women can be treated as second-class citizens or even like a different sex. There’s two classes of women: childbearing women and non-childbearing women. How sad that this resonates with me.
Women without children can fall prey to terms like “career woman”, as though women only have 2 choices of what they can pursue in life: kids or career. If you’re not a mum, then by default you must be a career woman. But I’m childfree and I only work 3 days a week. I have no ambitions to work longer or harder. I would not call myself a career woman. (Interestingly, men do not get delineated as “career men”.)
I think there is a perception of childless and childfree women as being somehow lesser females than mums. I’ve been the recipient of extensive questioning by women with children as to why I do not have kids. I’ve even had some women vigorously attempt to “convert” me. They have gushed over their child-rearing experiences in an effort to change my mind about having children of my own. I find this fascinating.
There is an assumption that people without kids are unhappy and want to have kids someday. It’s somewhat similar to assumptions made about singles, ie. that single people are unhappy being single and that they want to be married someday. But some single people will never marry. Some married people will never have children. And that’s not always the worst-case scenario we assume it to be.
Melanie suggested there are alternate ways in which otherhood can be fulfilling. I would like to echo this sentiment. Often we speak about childlessness with the tone of lament, appropriate for those who are grieving. For some of us, however, it is possible that we have exaggerated the positives of having children as well as the negatives of being without them. It is worth remembering that having children is not all roses, and that being childfree can be a blessing in other ways.
Some of the positives I have discovered in being childfree include: being available to help others; being happy to hold and help with other children; having the time and resources to travel; having the freedom to change jobs as needed; having the option of pursuing ministry opportunities and other interests such as writing; and having enough energy at the end of the day to invest in relationships that matter to me.
Children are one possible chapter in the story of our lives. While nothing can replace the absence of a wanted child, we do have ways of re-writing our stories and pursuing ideas for new chapters. It is possible to re-invent ourselves beyond parenthood. Let us pursue full and meaningful lives in the otherhood.