I Traded my Biological Clock for an XBox: Understanding the Childfree

We’re going to start this one with a statement of fact: not everyone wants to have children. If this fact confuses you or causes you great moral outrage, proceed with caution. It’s only going to get bumpier from here. If you’re capable of processing that first fact, but are still kind of tilting your head, wondering if it’s really necessary to point out that very simple, basic notion, let me assure you: it is. I just want to make sure everyone’s clear on that before we go any deeper. Mostly because life experiences have taught me that way too many people have a notion in their head that having children is not a decision; it’s a predetermined fact. And for someone who has decided not to have children, that notion is equal parts infuriating and exasperating.

People who have decided not to have children call themselves a variety of things, but “childfree” and “childless-by-choice” are the two most common. Some don’t call themselves anything special, because they are optimistic enough to believe that making a personal decision like that doesn’t need to be given a name. Unfortunately, it sort of does. Because being a parent is seen as the default, and anything that is different from the default seems to need a name so people can process it better. If I have to use a name, I prefer “childfree,” because any version of “childless” implies that children are the desired result, and I am lacking in them. There’s also the fact that “childless” is often used to describe someone who is infertile, or who wants children and does not have them, for whatever reason. While the childfree may be infertile, it’s usually by choice.

When I was younger, I would have classified myself as “militantly childfree.” It was a defense mechanism, really, since at every turn, I was being told I was wrong and young and stupid and didn’t know my own mind. Being part of the over-30 set now has brought me a little bit of credibility, I guess, because while the questioning and the insulting still exist, they’re a lot less overt. So I’d say my current stance is more “gently childfree.” I don’t begrudge the people I know who are parents any happiness with their children, but it still doesn’t mean I want any of my own. And it really doesn’t mean I want to try to be convinced otherwise.

Childfree people get a lot of shit from other people about making this choice. You know, because other people totally have the right to pass judgment on what is, at its core, a very personal decision. Here’s some of the crap we hear:

-“You’ll change your mind.” This is probably the most infuriating, because it assumes that someone doesn’t know their own mind well enough to make a major life decision. And yet, no one says this to anyone who, at 19 or 25 or 30, decides that the only possible way their life will be complete is to have children. Why is that? Why are people who decide the “default” given the benefit of the doubt that they know what they want, while those who decide something that requires an awful lot of contemplation are assumed to be flighty and immature? Do you tell someone who’s pregnant that she’ll change her mind? That it’s permanent and you can’t undo it? That a baby is a big decision that affects the rest of her life and she can’t possibly know at 19 or 25 or 30 that it’s something she’ll want forever? Of course not. But try being a woman who wants to get her tubes tied before having any children. Try telling people that your life plan doesn’t include reproducing. Then, suddenly, you’re an idiot who doesn’t know her own mind, regardless of age.

-“It’s different when it’s your own.” This one comes in response to someone saying they don’t like kids, or don’t have the patience for them, or any other reason that involves not actually wanting a child around in your everyday life. The argument is that when it’s your own child, those things don’t apply. You love him or her no matter what. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. Plenty of parents can’t stand their own kids. And even if there’s a possibility it’s true, should someone really take that chance? That maybe they won’t hate kids once they have one? Seems awfully unfair to the hypothetical kid if it doesn’t turn out that way.

-“You’re selfish.” So? Quite frankly, I have the right to be. If I decide that free time, discretionary income, peace and quiet, and flexibility with various parts of my life are important to me, then it would be awfully dumb to think I could still easily have all that with a child. As parents are fond of telling anyone in earshot, having children changes everything. And if someone doesn’t want everything to change, then why do we try to force that? Plus, isn’t having children one of the most fundamentally selfish things one person can do? What are the reasons people give for having kids? “I want someone to love (or to love me) unconditionally.” “I think my DNA is special enough that it needs to be propagated.” (That one’s clearly a paraphrase. Save the angry emails.) “I want a little me.” “I want a perfect combination of me and my spouse.” I want, I think, I want, I want, I want … I have rarely, if ever, heard a reason to have kids that doesn’t start with “I want.” So don’t call me selfish. Everyone’s selfish, and we’re allowed to be.

-“You don’t know real love until you have children.” Yeah. Fuck you very much. Who are you to decide that the love I have for my husband, or my parents, or my friends, isn’t “real?” There are lots of kinds of families, and the ones created from choice are just as meaningful and full of love as the ones created by biology.

-“It’s a miracle.” Every living organism ever since the beginning of time begs to differ. Everything alive reproduces. One could argue that it’s the least miraculous thing possible. It’s happened billions and billions of times and will happen billions and billions more.

-“You’re not a real woman.” Yes, I’ve heard this. Yes, the person was serious. Yes, I did somehow manage to stop myself from telling the person to go fuck themselves. Aren’t we as women, hell, as people, past deciding for other people what makes them a “real” woman?

-“Who will take care of you when you’re old?” Do me a favor. Go to your local nursing home or assisted living facility. Talk to some of the residents. Ask them when their children last visited them. Producing offspring doesn’t guarantee you security when you’re old; money does. Most people end up having to pay people to take care of them in their declining years. Plus, fifty years sounds like an awfully long time to wait for a payoff, and frankly, the investment is too high for the potential return.

-“But you’re such a good dog mom!” Last I checked, you can’t crate kids while you’re at work. Not to mention, dogs are pretty self-sufficient, except for the feeding and walking stuff. They amuse themselves. I don’t need to teach them values and spelling and how to use a fork and stuff. The dogs = children thing is not even a thing. Seriously. I love my dogs; hell, I love them more than I like most people, but they are not a substitute for children.

The point I’m trying to make here is that all the choices are valid. Just because you don’t agree with mine doesn’t mean you need to belittle me, infantilize me (and how’s that for some irony?), and insult me. And take a moment to think about this: if someone has decided that they really don’t want children, why would you spend so much time trying to convince them otherwise? Does it minimize your choice as a parent if someone takes a different path? If you feel that children are The Greatest Miracle Ever and being a parent is The Most Important Job In The World, wouldn’t it be preferable if every child were born to parents who are 100% certain that they want them? After all, a child is a permanent decision, and I’d rather take the very very small chance that I regret not having one than risk the more likely outcome that I would regret it if I had one.


This post originally appeared in PoM’s blog, Nice Girls Don’t Swear.


39 replies on “I Traded my Biological Clock for an XBox: Understanding the Childfree”

And when I mentor the girls in our Sorority’s leadership program, I am quick to dissuade them from having kids too young. It seems a lot of our young women are umder te impression that having kids after 30 is either dangeroua to mother and child or flat-out impossible. I wonder why that ? (rhetorical question)

As a single, childfree, career-oriented, African American woman, I’ve heard it all from family, friends, and the media. And while I’m only 40% sure I might want children, I’m 100% sure I don’t want them NOW. But all I hear is “hurry up! Before it’s too late!” from eveyone including my mother and my gyno.

One of my Bible-beating male cousins even said, “Why else would God make you a womam unless it was to carry a man’s seed?” We aren’t speaking anymore.

Great point about how no one questions the motives of people who choose to HAVE children.

Also, my mother used the ‘Real Love’ argument on me before. I have a lot of love in my life. I love my parents, my brother, my SIL, my nephews, my grandmother, my friends. And I love them deeply. I would kill and die for them. I don’t need to give birth to understand this concept. I already do.

Great article, PoM, as always.

I have many friends without children. Some by choice, some by biology. Of those who are by choice, there was one who I believed would change their mind when they got older and met the right person; and they did. But I never said anything to them beforehand because it was really none of my business.

Also… ”You don’t know real love until you have children.”

My direct superior was using this argument with a co-worker who does not care to have children. I really would love to have them, but it’s fairly well known that it isn’t likely to happen. So he says this in a group of us, pauses and turns to me and says, “I’m sorry, OBP, but it’s true.” What. The. Hell? It’s wrong in the first place to say it to someone who doesn’t plan on having children, but to rub salt in the would of someone who does? Not impressed.

The real kicker here was the fact that the conversation started because he has an in-law who expressed regret at ever having children. So, no… ”You don’t know real love until you have children.” isn’t a blanket statement for all parents.

Oh god! What an awful thing to say! I’m so sorry. Your supervisor sounds like a dick. I hate that argument. I won’t be having children either, but I know what love is. I have 6 brothers and sisters and 10 nieces and nephews. I’ve been in love and I have friends who I would die for. I have a cat who sleeps with me and licks my face every morning to wake me up. That is love!!!! Sorry again about your boss and his stupid comment.

I had my tubes tied at 23. It was hard to find someone who’d agree to do the job, and the doctor I ended up going with was the sketchiest sort imaginable; no one else thought I was old enough to make the decision “alone” or by myself or some such stupidity.

I didn’t meet my now-husband until years later. Imagine my delight when, early on in our dating relationship, he “confessed” that he’d had a vasectomy in his teens.

Match made in (child-free) heaven, people. And I think people who heap their panic about such decisions upon me are just letting their insecurities show. God forbid I might present a challenge to their unquestioned ideology! God forbid there might be other options than to breed! I’m all about parenting (I had great parents and love mine very much) and all about babies (they turn into people! I love people!) but just don’t want to be personally involved myself.

What serendipity! I’m surprised you both found someone to do the procedures. I have a friend who ended up getting married after a surprise pregnancy and when the relationship turned into a nightmare he went to get a vasectomy because he didn’t want any more kids and he certainly didn’t want to put himself in a position where he felt like he had to commit to another woman he didn’t necessarily love. He could not find a doctor who would do a V on a man under 30 (I think he was about 27 at the time). Even though he already had a kid. It was brutal. Voluntary sterilization and the lack of access to it is a whole side of reproductive rights that a lot of people don’t think about.

It is beyond absurd to me that, as a culture, we allow for teenage pregnancies, but don’t allow young adults the ability to decide not to have children. The doctor who performed mine was on the verge of retirement and didn’t seem to care much one way or the other, but you’d not believe how much hunting it took to find someone. My husband reported the same. Insane.

I am a committed childfree person who doesn’t plan on reproducing, so I definitely hear one side of your pain regarding getting the tubal done. And as I committed family planning specialist, you know I believe in every woman’s right to excellent birth control.

However, as an OB-Gyn who is personally being named in a lawsuit for ‘deprivation of fertility’ by a patient I did a tubal on (after full counseling, good documentation, they won’t win but every lawsuit sucks), knowing several other docs who have been in the same boat, and treating several patients who tied their tubes early after 1-2 kids, then met another partner in their 30’s and struggled with now being infertile with surprising desire for children with the new partner, I know too well the other side of the reluctance to permanently sterilize a young patient. Its a complex question, and please don’t reduce it to an assumption that it is a patronizing doctor assuming you don’t know yourself or what you want. Remember, the laws that govern tubal ligation (waiting periods, multiple consents, witnesses to consents) were instituted in response to MD’s sterilizing patients at the time of delivery without disclosing to the patients what they were doing, and all gyns practicing today are painfully aware of that history. There is also good medical literature that supports that women who have tubal ligation at younger ages, especially if they have had one or fewer children, are highly likely to express regret about that decision later. It might seem patronizing for someone to tell you that you don’t know what you will want later, but there are many many cases where women end up sorry they sterilized themselves, and as a doctor I have to weigh very carefully my role in that decision.

I’m not saying that I would never do a permanent procedure on a childless, young woman, But I would make that decision very carefully, and if there was anything that gave me the wrong vibe about the patient or the situation, I, too, would probably decline and refer her elsewhere.

Thanks for the perspective! Am I correct in remembering that OB/GYNs and fertility specialists have higher than average malpractice numbers in general, due to complications in fertility treatments, birth defects, etc.? I can absolutely see wanting to make sure that the patient is fully committed, which is why, every yearly exam since I was 20, I had my doctor note in my chart that I was asking about permanent sterilization options, even when she refused to even discuss it with me before I was 30/got married/already had children. I ended up leaving one doctor because of a particularly horrible and condescending nurse, but my new doctor (who is awesome) was able to see that I had been consistently asking about options for a long time. My current doctor told me that he would have done a tubal on me long before others would have considered it, but even so, he probably would have made me go through a waiting period and possibly counseling, just to protect himself, which I totally understand. I would have been willing to sign any kind of release just to have a doctor take me seriously.

Thank you so much for this!!!!! I hate hearing “You’ll change your mind.” Really? I am 33. Don’t tell me I don’t know myself. I’ve known this for a good 20 to 25 years and I will not change my mind. My ex-husband and I were in total agreement on the issue of children, and together we bravely faced all the nosy questions childless couples hear. No one would do tubal ligation for me so my ex got a vasectomy. It was a major problem with his family. We were called selfish and soulless, and his mom liked to tell me I was not a real woman. Constantly defending myself to family, friends, and strangers really wore me down but I guess I got used to it. Then when I was 26, I got endometrial cancer. I went through chemo, my husband left, and my life fell apart for a little while. Finally my doctors and insurance company allowed me to get a hysterectomy. After going through years trying to get my life back together, I’m ashamed to admit that it just became easier to sometimes use my illness and surgery as an “excuse.” Most of the time I defend my decision to not have children, but people are so much nicer when you say you can’t have kids as opposed to won’t have them. Many people immediately bring up adoption when they hear I’ve had a hysterectomy anyway, so even that doesn’t deter them from trying to tell me my business.


“You’ll Change Your Mind”: not until I met someone I actually wanted to reproduce with. Out of everyone I’ve dated and been with, Mr. Cupcake is the only one I’ve considered reproducing with.

“It’s different when it’s your own”: wanna tell that to my friend Sereva, who’s adopted several children from Russia and is a wonderfrul mom to them?

“You’re selfish”: yeah. Pretty much. Like you’re not?

“You don’t know real love until you’ve had children”: Ummm, I do. It’s from my dad. And my partner. And my cat. Don’t mistake “real love” with “survival dependence” – there’s an evolutionary reason babies are cute.

“It’s a miracle”: No, it’s biology. You’d know that if you’d paid five minutes attention in biology class.

“You’re not a real woman”: Ha. You know what’s real. My fist. In your face.

“Who will take care of you when you’re old?” The state, as long as I qualify. But, my genetic disposition to cancer will probably take me before that, so what do you care?

“But you’re such a good dog mom!”: Yes, and pets don’t ask to borrow the car, or get report cards, or expect to poop in a toilet. When a pet’s medical expenses get to be too much, it’s acceptable to have the pet put down. Don’t equate pet ownership with parenthood.

I agree with everything, except that I’ll spend any amount of money on my dogs’ medical bills. Just ask Boy Dog, who should be bionic at this point with all I’ve paid out in emergency vet bills.

That and there’s no person anywhere who I would want to reproduce with. “Mr. Right” (Mr. PoM) does not want kids. If he did, he’d be Mr. Wrong.

Thank you SO much for sharing this :)

I wish I had this sentence ready to fly off the cuff when I get the “look” and the “You’ll change your mind” speech: “Why are people who decide the “default” given the benefit of the doubt that they know what they want, while those who decide something that requires an awful lot of contemplation are assumed to be flighty and immature?”

At this point, my answer to, “You’ll change your mind” is either, “It’s really none of your business,” or “I’m really stubborn. I don’t change my mind.” I do have a stock list of sarcastic responses to some of these statements. Maybe in a future post . . . ?

I’m so glad I’ve only once or twice run into people who are like “Gasp! Why would you ever want to adopt kids? Why wouldn’t you want to have your ooooooown baaaaaabies?” Or, even worse, “But you won’t know what you’re getting!” Um… ALL babies can have surprises.

I’m infertile by choice (thanks, Depo for the rest of my life!) because I am high-risk for post-partum psychosis (thanks, PMDD that primarily expressed itself in aggressive manias!). I have auto-immune disease. I have a congenital heart disease. Now, apparently, I may be developing nerve problems. I still want babies, but I recognize that it would be ridiculously foolish for me to have biological babies. The chance for everything-going-wrong is astronomically high.

This is all nevermind the fact that I’m 24, single, and not likely to have baaaaaabies anytime soon (although the fact that the decision to adopt has already been made definitely makes me feel like I’m not in any rush.)

I just shared this with a childfree friend on Facebook. She’s been dealing with a lot of crap lately from “friends” who tell her how much they pity her because she doesn’t want (and can’t have, for that matter) children. Whenever she talks about being childfree people tend to accuse her of being “anti-mother,” which she simply isn’t. I’m sure she’ll appreciate this.

You know what’s bizarre? Hearing all these things when you already have a child, just because you don’t want ANOTHER child. I’m not saying it’s to the same in-your-business extent as what you’ve experienced, but the looks I get when I say we don’t plan to have more than one (and I’ve heard all of the above, too)! It’s as if the default is to have two children, and anything less than two is unacceptable to the Nosy Nellies of the world.

That’s really interesting! (And infuriating.) It never really occurred to me that having one child still isn’t good enough for some people.

Although now that I’m thinking about it, my dad told me a story from when we all went to his parents’ anniversary party when I was a toddler. Apparently a friend of the family came up to him and asked if he and my mom were going to have any more children because it would be really sad if something happened to me and then they didn’t have any. THE FUCK? Who SAYS that? (And the lady didn’t know this, but my mom had two miscarriages before they had me, and they both felt like they should stop while they were ahead.) My dad says he just turned and walked away.

This is my best friend’s situation. She has a daughter, but that’s it for her. She and her husband do not want any more, and that is their choice. Yet she has all these “friends” who tell her the kid will be a freak if she’s an only child. They act like they are better mothers because they have multiple children. I’ve heard one of these moms make comments like “I guess some people just can’t handle it!” and “OMG how selfish to deprive your daughter of a brother or sister!” It is appalling.

Oh! You should have kids, you should have more than one, you should have them close together so they grow up with a playmate, you should spread them out because it’s easier, you should have another so you can have a son/daughter… people are never happy, and they seem to think it’s their place to tell you about it. I don’t understand why what goes on inside a woman’s body is anyone’s business but hers, and perhaps her partner’s.

I’ve heard all of those and then some. Many women lament getting older. I, on the other hand, have embraced it because finally, now that I’m almost 40, the questions and commentary have depleted to an occasional comment once or twice a year. I may be one of the few women out there who wants menopause to set in since 15 different doctors refused to give me a permanent BC method (tubes tied or Essure)–and every one of them was a woman who stated that for “ethical” reasons, they just couldn’t do that for someone who doesn’t already have children. WTF?

I haven’t gotten the “it’s a miracle” one yet. Definitely the “you’re selfish” comment is the best.

I find it humorous when people, upon learning that I am married, ask “When are you having kids?” like it’s a given. On one occasion, upon finding out I do not plan on having children the person followed up with “Then why did you get married?”

The “you’re selfish” comment is my favorite. I just take it as a compliment. “Yes, dahling, I know, it’s cruel of me to refuse to pass on this glossy hair and brilliant mind, but that’s just the way I am!”
I don’t understand why some people see childfree people as such as threat.

Quite honestly, and I’m saying this as a parent who loves her children, I think it’s jealousy. I think a lot of people are socially conditioned to think they have to have children when deep down they really don’t want to. When they see friends or family members deciding not to have children a part of them becomes jealous and they lash out or feel like they’re taking on some kind of societal burden that you get to opt out of, feeling like they didn’t really have a choice to do anything but opt in.

I agree (as someone who is also a parent). My favorite part of childfree – FREE is right there in the word. You’re free to sleep in, stay out late, and generally have a whole hell of a lot more disposable income. This doesn’t so much strike me as selfish, as it does sane.

I’ve been forthright about not wanting to have kids since I was in my early 20’s. My mom used to give me the most crap about it. Finally one day I asked her, “mom, when I was young and played with dolls, did I play mommy with them?” She thought for a few minutes, and the answer was rarely, and it was usually when a friend was over. Most of the time I played school with them. After that conversation she backed off. I think she finally believed me when I said I don’t have any desire to be a mom, ever.

I used to think I was alone in being childfree until I looked around my own family and noticed that 2 of my aunts were also childfree by choice. In their 50’s, they were still happy with their choice, which gave me confidence that I will be too.

A question just came to me that I’d like to throw out there. When you’ve been dating, have you had prospective partners not believe you? Eventually, I’d like to find someone who shares my desire to be childfree, but I wonder if men are more skeptical that we’re going to change our minds? As though I’m just saying it now to get him to like me, but after we’re married I’ll try and talk him into it?

My husband and I discussed it on our second date. We were both clear that were either of us to change our minds, then our relationship wouldn’t be able to continue. It was non-negotiable for both of us, and neither of us have changed our minds in the very long time since that date. At that stage in my life, I was still vocal and militant enough about it that I don’t think he could have possibly thought I was going to bait-and-switch.

My experience may not be representative, but no. I’ve only been in one serious relationship, which is the one I’m in now with future Mr. paperispatient; we were friends for years before we got together, so he knew my feelings about having kids and he felt the same. I’m trying to remember if I ever mentioned that I didn’t want kids to other guys that I dated / hooked up with; if I did, they didn’t doubt me, because I know I’d remember that because it would make me angry.

I’m an only child, and my mom has always been 100% supportive of my not wanting to have kids (I do wish she could somehow still get to be a grandmother, though), but I do remember her saying when I was 19 or 20 or so that she wondered if I’d find someone that also didn’t want kids and if that would make it harder for me to find a lifetime partner. That made me more sad than irritated, though.

Dating can be rough when you are my age and have to rule out people who want or already have kids. I once dated a guy with a son and although he was a wonderful man, I just couldn’t handle a child in my life, even part-time. However, Mr. Lizzie and I met through a mutual friend who set us up based solely on the knowledge that we both liked Top Gear and had no interest in children. Ha!

I was in my (women’s studies) department yesterday and heard some professors talking about the decision whether or not to have kids. One of them brought up the condescension and harassment many young women face when they want to get sterilized, and someone else said, “But what if they change their minds? When you’re young…” And that’s coming from a group of people you would think/hope are used to looking very critically at cultural expectations and narratives.

The “that’s selfish” idea is my favorite. Nobody has ever dared say it to me in person but I’ve run into it online before, and I always reply, so? Having a child and becoming a parent changes the rest of your life in profound, permanent ways, so you’re goddamn right that I’m going to be selfish and think first and foremost of me and how I want my life to be.

If being a mother has taught me anything, it’s that people who don’t want children should not have them. I really wanted kids but I still often pine for the days before they were around. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to feel pressured into having kids when you really don’t want them in the first place. They really take over one’s life and if you’re not overjoyed by the prospect of the good things they can bring, you are not going to be able to muddle through the challenges. I think it takes a pretty wise person to stand up and say that something simply isn’t for them.

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