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Opting out of Motherhood

Growing up, I was more of a Barbie doll kind of girl. I loved her tiny pink high heels and glamorous grown-up wardrobe. I wasn’t big on baby dolls and their strollers, so I can’t say that I've wanted to be a mother since as far back as I can remember. However, somehow I knew that I wanted to be one, and when my kids arrived, I was in heaven; I knew that I had made the right choice for me.

Nobody ever asked me why I decided to have children because so many believe that it's a natural “woman thing” to do, and people seem beyond comfortable questioning a woman who has decided not to have them.

I spoke with two women who have happily opted out of motherhood, and to journalist (and mother) Lauren Sandler, whose recent Time magazine article explores the bias against women who choose to be child-free. We went over some common misconceptions in the hope of creating a little more understanding for what's so far been considered a female taboo.

1. Not having children doesn't mean they don't like children, so please don’t ask them that. Many women have strong relationships with other people's children and form bonds that are often extremely important in their lives. “More than a few women have told me, ‘I love children, I just don't need to own one,’” says Sandler. “It's remarkable how many child-free women I interviewed have chosen to work with kids as teachers or counselors. Or how many take their aunt-hood really seriously, or have close relationships with friends’ children, sometimes even starting up their college funds!"

"Then again," she adds, "some people aren't big fans of all the noise and mess that come with kids—and as a mother, I have plenty of days when I can't blame them.”

Meryl Salzinger, who is in her 40s, has one of the most child-centric jobs around. She is a baby wrangler (the people who make kids happy on photo and commercial shoots). She loves kids, but just never felt the need to have them. “I have always been interested in working with children and have always been the one who can catch the shy kid’s eye and make them laugh,” she says. “And when I think about why ... I still never wanted to have my own, I can only think of the many adults that I had in my life who were not my parents. Those people had, and continue to have, such a great effect on my life.”

Jackie, who works in publishing and wanted to give only her first name, resents the portrayal that her choice has anything to do with not liking children. “I think children are great and I am supportive to family, friends and co-workers who have children,” she says. “I just did not have the ‘mother calling.’ Instead, I had the longing to have a career that would break ground in corporate America for the next generation.”

MORE: Is There a "Right" Number of Kids to Have?

2. Let’s remove that “selfish” label, shall we? “It amazes me that non-mothers still get the selfish brand," Sandler says. "Don't most of us mothers have children for ourselves?”

Sandler's point is well-taken. While most moms probably don't have children for a selfless reason (as in, "maybe my daughter will grow up and find a cure for cancer!"), we usually have them because we want them, which is neither a selfish nor a selfless act. And wouldn't it be more selfish to have children knowing that you couldn't devote proper attention to them?

Jackie, who is now 50, says yes. “One day a close family female friend whispered in my ear after church, ‘Don't be selfish; get on with having children.’ I was still in my 20s and had been married less than two years. I had never heard that married women without children were selfish. I was shocked and kind of hurt, even though I know she said it with love and thought she was helping me.

"But the fact of the matter was and is," she says, "I didn't want to bring a life into the world if I wasn't 100 percent on board with being a parent."

3. Please don't insult a woman’s choice by insisting that she will change her mind. Rarely would anyone dare say to a mother, "You'll change your mind about having that kid." By that same standard, child-free women wonder why someone would say something similar to them.

“What could be more patronizing than thinking you know better than someone's own fiercely debated life choices?” says Sandler. “Plenty of women make this choice with the right guy (or woman); others make it on their own."

No one has ever told Jackie that she would change her mind, but she honestly doesn't believe that she’s missed out on anything, and she has gotten to experience what it’s like raising a child. “One of my sisters became a widow at 35, and she was left with two beautiful daughters to raise. They were 3 and 5 at the time. I believe in that saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ and, as a result, I have always been a very involved aunt. My family is very close, so I don't feel I've missed out on anything when it comes to the raising of my nieces or nephews. I've been around for the good, bad, ugly and lovely.”

4. Yes, they know that the workplace can be a minefield …

Your colleague may not have a child waiting for her at home, but don’t make the mistake of thinking she’s happy to stick around to pick up your slack.

Sandler points to a recent survey by the Center for Talent Innovation, a nonprofit research organization focused on workplace issues, which found that 60 percent of childless women ages 33 to 46 believe that mothers are permitted more flexibility at work.

“It's hard to compete with the hard deadline of having to pick up your son at soccer practice—after all, you can't just leave him there!" Sandler says. "Anything else it seems can be canceled or postponed but parental commitments. And this workplace culture breeds plenty of resentment.”

Honest conversations must be an option in the workplace, so that each side can come to an understanding about realistic and fair expectations.

I don't know anyone who likes picking up the slack of others, especially on a regular basis. Be they parents or not, that's just not fair," Jackie says. “We all need help and understanding at one time or another. The important thing is not to abuse it.”

MORE: Does Workplace Flexibility Make You a Better Parent?

5. Newsflash! Child-free woman are often as busy and stressed out as you are. When I asked what one of the most irritating assumptions was, both women piped up right away. “Assuming that a woman without children has free time to spare is ridiculous,” says Jackie. “I am married, have a demanding job that requires long hours, am the caretaker of my elderly mother who is aging at home, have a hand in the caring of my elderly mother-in-law, who is in assisted living, and sit on two boards—one corporate, the other civic. I am constantly short on time and long on stress—just like everyone else.”

Salzinger understands this. “I sometimes feel that those who have kids believe that, if you don't, your life could not possibly be as busy or stress-filled as theirs. They complain on and on about how hard life is with kids, and I sometimes want to say, 'You know you had a choice? And you chose to have children.'

"It is so strange that women still don't seem to see that having children is a choice; it is not just something that you necessarily do," she adds. "And making having kids a conscious choice is, I believe, better for everyone involved.”

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