If you don’t have kids – especially if you are a woman – you have probably had the experience of someone learning that fact about you for the first time, and then assuring you that there is no need to worry, it could still happen. Professor Rachel Chrastil, author of the important new book, How to Be Childless: A History and Philosophy of Life without Children, has had those kinds of conversations too many times, and she has a thing or two to say about them.
Chrastil doesn’t want children, but her new acquaintances do not accept that answer. In her twenties, she said, people would tell her, “Wait until you’re thirty. Then you’ll want to have children.” Then in her early thirties, they would say things like, “Wait until you’re thirty-five.” For those over thirty-five, other people trot out their stories of women they know who had children after forty.
At a conference when she was 36, a fellow professional assured her: “Well, you never know! A lot of people in their forties have children, or adopt, or fall in love with someone who has children. That’s what happened to my niece – she swore she’d never have children, then she married a man with two kids.”
Maybe these people “mean well,” but Professor Chrastil thinks they should knock it off. Here are some reasons why.
It’s none of their business. For some women and men, not having children is their choice. But for others, it is not. Everyone deserves privacy. Women who want kids and don’t have them, for example, “should not have to delve into their struggles with infertility, failed marriages, or miscarriages.” For some people, getting asked – by strangers, no less – about these deeply personal matters can be a miserable experience.
For men and women who have chosen not to have kids, those kinds of conversations are presumptuous.
They have a narrow and conventional view of the psychology of happiness. “These exchanges suggest that there is only one path to happiness, and it requires raising children. Any other life will lead to regret.”
They think they know you better than you know yourself. When new acquaintances tell a woman who has said that she does not want kids that she will change her mind, they are assuming that she “will eventually feel an inevitable urge to motherhood, against her own experiences and ideas. They deny [her] capacity to take responsibility and reflect upon her actions. The only personal growth these acquaintances foresee is an acceptance of motherhood.”
They are challenging your own personal values. “The assumption that a childless person should have children implies a devaluation of her current use of her body, time, and resources, whatever they might be. It suggests that the childless person is selfish, making the wrong decision about what to do with her life, failing to contribute to the good of society, or even actively harming society. It claims that there is just one path to living a good life – not just a happy life, but one that is worth living.”
If you are single, and especially if you are single past the age when other people think you should be married, you have probably heard variations of all of these examples. People ask you inappropriate questions, starting with why you are single. They don’t always consider the possibility that it may be a painful topic for you. And if you have chosen to be single, sometimes they will still insist that they know you better than you know yourself – even though they have known you for about a hot minute. And they will presume that you are missing out on the royal road to happiness (you are not), and by implication, devalue whatever it is that you have chosen to do with your life. And of course, they will think you are selfish. (They are getting that exactly wrong.)
Staying single and not having kids are variations on the same psychological dynamics. You are going against the grain, against the prevailing narrative about how we are supposed to live our lives. Many people are invested in those stories. They want to believe that people who have married and have had kids are not just happier, but that they are actually better, worthier humans. They are upset by people who are not following the script – especially if they are doing their own thing and they are happy about it! If you don’t tow the line, you are supposed to be miserable.
One last thing. Whenever I write about single people or people without children and focus on women, men let me know that they feel left out. I get it. Research and writings about single people and about people with no children are overwhelmingly about women. I think that should change. My own books about single life are always about single men and single women (and going forward, singles who do not identify as men or women). When I write about other people’s research and that research is about women, then that’s what my articles are about. But I’m always looking for new understandings of men and new voices.