Inspiration for childless and childfree women

Thoughts and ideas to inspire, uplift and affirm the childless and childfree, by circumstance and by choice

Childless: Reflections on Life’s Longing for Itself

Made curious by the buzz around Gillian Guthrie’s recently released book Childless: Reflections on Life’s Longing for Itself I had been looking forward to reading it. I’d mistaken the title (a line from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet) for a phrase with a clever double meaning, imagining that it could refer both to the longing to create a human life and to the longing to live one’s own life fully and without children. I liked it. But as I read on, it became fairly clear that the title had no double meaning, despite the fact that the book’s cover implies relevance to the lives of non-mothers generally.

In fact, the blurb on the back of the book offers several heavily loaded statements:

“One-quarter to one-third of Australian women are now, and will most likely remain, childless. Here is a book full of intimate insights that take the reader beyond the many myths about why women are going without and how they feel about it.

Forget selfish, ambitious, uncaring and tough. Childless: Reflections on Life’s Longing for Itself is about longing and loss, grief and resilience. In it, Gillian Guthrie delves deftly beneath the childless woman’s armour of top job, financial independence and oh-so-exciting lifestyle options, finding more often a sadness that is seldom shared – a silent longing for the intangible presence of a child that never was and never will be.”

Because, in my opinion, the blurb somewhat misrepresents the book, I want to critique them separately.

The implication in the blurb that such a large proportion of Australian women are silently longing and privately grieving their non-motherhood makes an obviously ill-founded statistical leap. It is also tiresome that it presents no other avenue for the life of the childless woman than the ‘myth’ of uncaring ambition or else an assumed reality of grief-laden resilience.

But the most insidious part of the blurb, in my opinion, is the reference to “the childless woman’s armour”. What a reductive, demoralising, miserable way to negate the choices and discredit the accomplishments of women who are not mothers, representing our achievements, interests and passions as something we have donned merely to cover an underlying  lack. Is it grief-masking ‘armour’ when men who are not parents rise to the top of their fields and achieve financial success? Is it not possible to argue, if you’re comfortable with second-guessing other people’s contentment, that babies are armour under which failure to succeed in other fields might lurk? Would it be acceptable to refer sarcastically to the choices of mothers as “oh-so-exciting lifestyle options”?

There are good odds, I think, that Guthrie did not write the blurb presented above. It is not a good match for much of the content of the book which, though it presents a very particular angle on childlessness, does not really pretend to do otherwise. The author describes and analyses her own unhappiness and relates very personally to many similar feelings she finds among the women she interviews.

To her credit, she includes some of the incredibly leading questions she posed to her interviewees, which provide some useful context for the material she presents.

“And what about fulfilling your body’s potential?”

“Have you ever thought that not having children reflects badly on your personal worth?”

“So what went wrong? Because that was part of your reason for not having children, wasn’t it?”

“You don’t feel as though there’s a lack in your life?”

It seems fairly certain that a researcher wishing to present a positive angle on the issue of non-motherhood may well have been able to do so with a different set of questions. But to point out obvious bias is not, in itself, a criticism of a book which must, after all, be written from an angle of some kind. And it is important to note that Guthrie does consider the experiences of some women who are genuinely happy not being mothers. They come across as the exception to the widespread underlying grief she emphasises, but then perhaps they are.

I would have loved, however, to find some discussion in the book of the enormous personal and political implications of the views of Dr Kristine Mercuri, a consultant psychiatrist at the Centre for Women’s Mental Health at The Women’s Hospital in Melbourne. Her expert opinions are cited, without critique, a number of times throughout the book. Dr Mercuri states:

“ ‘I think when people make a decision not to have children it’s really important to think about where that has come from, because the female body is designed to reproduce … At a very basic level that’s how we’re built. Therefore the conscious decision to override that basic biological given is often related to things that have happened since birth.’ Among those things could be a difficult, ‘dyssynchronous’ parent-child relationship, a significant death in the family, or severe emotional, physical or sexual abuse – the latter in particular, she says. All are examples of what might contribute to a decision to negate our natural tendency towards motherhood.”

I actually despaired a little to read this – to find women’s lives reduced so unquestioningly to their biology and to find women so easily and readily pathologised for stepping outside of gender norms. And not by some stuffy academic of the 1960s trying to undermine the idea that women really are sane and rational beings, capable of making real choices and decisions that might sometimes be at odds with the expectations of the society around them. The quoted ideas were expressed very recently by a person currently providing mental health services to women at a reputable institution in a large Western city.

Grief with some healing seems to have been Guthrie’s experience of childlessness and though my experience is different, I respect hers entirely. I also feel certain that there will be lots of women within the quarter-to-a-third of the population of Australian non-mothers who will value the validation of grief around childlessness very deeply. However in my view, neither this book, nor the non-mothers of Australia, should be judged by its cover. And certainly, no woman should be judged according to what Dr Mercuri regards as ‘our natural tendency’.

If you would like to check out some seriously impressive ‘armour’ do feel free to look here :).


27 comments on “Childless: Reflections on Life’s Longing for Itself

  1. M
    March 20, 2012

    I have legs, but I have no urge to run…
    Since when did personal choice become anyone’s business? What I do with my body is up to me, whatever someone else thinks it was designed for. And what if I started passing judgment on whether some of the women I know should really have become mothers? Why does my choice have to be linked to some sinister past, rather than a fabulous future?

    • olivia
      March 20, 2012

      I love the running comparison, M, and the rest of your thoughts too. Here’s to a fabulous future!

  2. Just passing by
    March 20, 2012


  3. Jodykat
    March 20, 2012

    Hi Olivia

    Thanks for reviewing this book and bringing it to my attention. I’ve tweeted and shared it with the Gateway Women Facebook community.

    I really appreciate your subtle and gentle way that you untangle the differences between childfree by choice or circumstance whilst continuing to hold in mind that our ‘similarities’ are greater than our ‘differences’. This has always been my hope and mission for Gateway Women and it feels so good to have company!

    Your site is gorgeous and I recommend it to all my followers. I look forward to getting to know you more.

    Hugs, Jody x

    • olivia
      March 20, 2012

      Thanks so much for your support, Jody! And for such kind words about the site. I feel very honoured when Reading in the Bath is compared with Gateway Women. I think the work you have been doing there is really wonderful.

      Olivia xx

  4. dinkschildfree
    March 20, 2012

    Parts of this post made me ill, especially the quote from the psychiatrist. Here in the United States we give free handouts from the government to people who are poor and have children. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to ask why a woman who does not have a job, who does not have a husband, who does not have skills and abilities, who does not have an education, feels the need to have FOUR children? Isn’t that a more viable thing to discuss? How dare someone say that I have chosen not to have children because I must have been abused as a child! I think “at the very basic level” women want intimacy and love, which does not mean a desire to reproduce.

    • olivia
      March 20, 2012

      Dinkschildfree, I love the way you’ve separated the desire for love and intimacy from the desire to reproduce here. It’s such an important distinction, isn’t it?

      And I agree, if we’re going to go back a few decades in our political awareness and start pathologising women based on their reproductive choices again, it seems a very peculiar decision to begin with the childless-by-choice!

  5. dinkschildfree
    March 20, 2012

    Would you mind if I used that quote in my blog?

    • olivia
      March 20, 2012

      Of course not, I’d love to read more of your thoughts on it!

  6. Angie
    March 20, 2012

    “I actually despaired a little to read this – to find women’s lives reduced so unquestioningly to their biology and to find women so easily and readily pathologised for stepping outside of gender norms.”

    Me, too, Olivia. It is even more disturbing to think that another woman, presumably an educated, successful woman, would reduce other women to nothing more than a vessel for incubation. I had a wonderful childhood full of loving caring family members and never suffered abuse of any kind. My choice to remain childfree is not a reflection on them, but a decision I made based on my own hopes, dreams, and plans for the future. Biology isn’t destiny. Women do have options.

    • olivia
      March 20, 2012

      So glad to read your thoughts on this issue, Angie, and to find that your experience challenges the claim so strongly.

  7. Joy Aimee
    March 20, 2012

    Thanks for your review Olivia. You are certainly entitled to your view. However, I think you have missed the point. ‘Childless’ is a discourse on the many and varies reasons that women are not having children – by choice or because of circumstances or biology. The book contains several stories about women who have chosen to remain childless and remain happy with their decision.

    The author is not childless by choice but by circumstance and she explores the nature of her own grief around this, coming out of the experience with a far greater acceptance of her situation and compassion for others.

    The book is not an attach on any life choice, it explores them all and the result is a very readable and informative book that has received much acclaim.

    Joy Aimee,
    ‘Childless: Reflections of Life’s Longing for Itself’

    • olivia
      March 20, 2012

      Thanks for commenting here, Joy. I’m pretty sure I haven’t missed the point. My review carefully notes that the book presents examples of women who have chosen not to be mothers and also contextualises the angle the author has taken in terms of the personal situation she has written about (very readably, I agree).

      I certainly don’t think the author has deliberately attacked other women’s life choices, only that the book inadvertently makes some very problematic assumptions which it is important to speak back to.

      I am glad the book is receiving acclaim, both because I think it will be helpful to lots of non-mothers who will relate closely to the author’s experiences and views and also because it is creating such interesting and valuable discussions about non-motherhood.

  8. Laura
    March 20, 2012

    I feel frustrated whenever the decision to not have children is put down to some sort of past psychological trauma such as abuse. In some cases it may be related but the suggestion that there’s frequently a negative reason for not wanting children is an inaccurate one. Hopefully psychiatry will catch up though; after all, women having the choice not to have children is a fairly recent development – only in the past 30 or so years has a child free life become a realistic option. Non the less it’s frustrating when remaining child free is seen as something of a last resort or the outcome of a difficult childhood.

    • olivia
      March 20, 2012

      I think that’s a great view to take, Laura – that the idea of choice is, historically speaking, a very recent one.

      Connecting any kind of outcome with a probability of trauma in early life is difficult, I think, because there’s not really any meaningful way to collect stats on this kind of thing. For the connection to be meaningful we would have to a) all be agreed on what constitutes trauma and b) have a reliable control group, i.e. What proportion of the wider population (including mothers, in this instance) has also experienced the same kind of trauma? If there was a significant disparity, that would be interesting, but this would have to be demonstrated very persuasively.

      I guess it’s also important to say that psychiatrists may not have cause to factor into their statements people who are content with the choices they’ve made, since their interest is primarily in people who are unhappy or uncomfortable and have sought help. I imagine this could skew their impressions considerably.

      Because of the authority with which these claims are sometimes made, I find it frustrating too.

  9. Gillian Guthrie
    March 20, 2012

    Hi Olivia and others,

    Perhaps i left it too late in the book to bring up the really strong stories about women who don’t have and never really wanted children who are extremely happy and fulfilled that way.
    The reason I left them till later is that I wrote this book in an effort to understand my feelings first – get all my misery out of the way (yes, it felt like that) and then progress to women who were having a good time, perfectly happy in themselves and the lives they led.
    I knew I wasn’t alone in my grief, but i also knew that quite a lot of other childless women felt very differently. A lot of books about happily childfree women have been written. This one’s different. I concede the emphasis on the cover blurb was about grief but by the same token, to negate it would have been dishonest. The ‘armour’ referred to is how childless women are often defined – that we’ve got it all, are envied, we’re tough and don’t have time for kids. My experience is that there’s more to us than that and it’s annoying that such is how we’re regarded.

    The thing about childhood or other trauma in life being a possible deterrant to having kids is borne out by significant stories in the book. Mercuri’s words were used because they supported stories which had already been told to me by a number of the women mentioned. Those stories weren’t concocted, nor did I seek them out just because a psychiatrist, who deals in that specific area, referred to them. Mercuri’s comments and the women interviewed were unconnected.

    Yes, I would have liked to have had children, in spite of having grave doubts when I was a teenager, about the wisdom of bringing kids into what then appeared to be a world doomed to nuclear destruction. As I grew older my feelings changed and when I met my current partner at the age of 45 the desire to have children with him hit me hard and brought up a very wide range of issues that I wanted to write about.

    I don’t want to apologise for feeling the sadness I’ve felt and the frustration and guilt for leaving it too late … I have felt all of those things, and so have some other women but I’ve also acknowledged loud and clear in the book and a) I’m not alone and that b) there are a heap of women out there who think being woeful about not having kids is a total waste of time. I make no judgements about whether we should or shouldn’t have children and I wish other people wouldn’t either.

    Cheers – and thanks for the review Olivia – well, sort of!

    • olivia
      March 20, 2012

      Gillian, I’m delighted that you’ve stopped by. Many thanks for your thoughts above.

      I don’t think you left the stories about the happily-childless-by-choice too late in the book. I thought they were strong case studies and my review acknowledged them. I hope that, in time, the issue of not being a mother will have been written about (without apology) from every possible angle. The issues I raised were with the blurb, which I don’t think does justice to the content of the book, and with the generalisations made by the psychiatrist, which I don’t think do justice to anyone.

      Cheers – and thanks both for an interesting and valuable read and for joining in the discussion on this site – wholeheartedly!

  10. Claire
    March 20, 2012

    This is a great post on what sounds like an atrocious book.

    The concept of some stranger telling me I am not living up to my reproductive potential is insane. If this is true, then every woman should be constantly pregnant thoughout childbearing years!

    For some reason, it seems even worse that this kind of statement is coming from a woman. :-/

    • olivia
      March 20, 2012

      Thanks Claire. I don’t think the book is atrocious, just very problematic in places and for me, the quoted expert view of ‘our natural tendency’ towards reproduction is definitely one of them. I very much hope others will read the book, including those whose own circumstances are better aligned with the situation of the author, and post their views here too.

      I must admit that like you, I wondered how many children should be decided upon by a woman with a healthy parent-child relationship and an optimum state of non-trauma, according to the psychiatrist’s proposition!

  11. Gillian Guthrie
    March 21, 2012

    Hey – give us a break! How can you say a book’s atrocious when you haven’t even read it? No one’s telling anyone what to do with their bodies or reproductive potential. Not in my book, anyway. It’s not judgemental and it exists on many more levels than those being discussed here on the strength of an isloated quote.
    Perhaps it’d be best to read it first.
    Cheers from me – thanks Olivia.

  12. Maybe Lady Liz
    March 22, 2012

    Those interviewee questions are ridiculous! As someone who started (but didn’t finish – oops) grad school to become a mental health therapist, those would have been textbook examples of how NOT to get a patient to truly open up and give you their REAL answer. Absurd!

    • olivia
      March 22, 2012

      Maybe Lady Liz, they bowled me over too. My background is in the social sciences where, as with your training, this style of research would certainly be challenged strongly. According to the book, the author’s background is mainly in journalism, so perhaps the rules are a bit different there.

  13. Living my Life
    March 28, 2012

    “Is it not possible to argue, if you’re comfortable with second-guessing other people’s contentment, that babies are armour under which failure to succeed in other fields might lurk?”

    This quote really resonated with me, as someone who always thought I would have my own family and who longed for nothing more than to raise children well, I now really feel the lack of that armour. I have no desire to be a ‘career woman’, the thought horrifies me. I’ve always done okay career wise and changed jobs regularly (I seem to have a short attention span for paid work, it all seems so meaningless to me, but maybe that’s my defecit) I now find myself lost in regards to what I’m going to do with the rest of my life. I’m currently studying psychology but really question whether that’s where I want to go. Being childless/free certainly puts more pressure on you to find other meaning in your life and I’m far from there yet.

    Thanks for your website I particularly enjoy your posts on mindfulness, which is an interest of mine.

    • olivia
      March 28, 2012

      Hi Living my Life. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. It’s lovely to meet someone else to whom the idea of mindfulness is important and resonant. It has made such a difference to me. I wonder if that could be where your studies in psychology are heading?

      One of my favourite lines attributed to George Eliot is this one – “What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult for each other?” There seem to be women all over the world just now exploring just that feeling you describe, of being ‘lost’ in terms of knowing what to do next. But in writing about it (I clicked on your name and found your lovely blog, btw) there is a growing sense of companionship in exactly that feeling. I think it’s of huge value, that we’re all muddling along together, pooling our ideas and helping each other to move forward.

      Thank you so much for your kind words about my own site. I hope so much to see you here again.

  14. Onely
    March 30, 2012

    I knew that the rhetoric aimed at childfree women was similar in dynamic to the rhetoric aimed at people who choose to be single, but this post really demonstrates just how similar it is. As a single person, I find my choice questioned almost every day, by acquaintances and the media (mostly the media), and my other choices devalued.


    • olivia
      March 30, 2012

      Hi CC. It’s really interesting to compare these two choices, isn’t it, especially since there must be quite a lot of overlap.

      Do you think it’s to do with the easily demonstrable tendency, historically speaking, to pathologise women whenever they step outside of the roles ascribed to their gender? Choosing to live a life with a good degree of autonomy and independence would fall into that category much as preferring not to have children does.

      Thank you so much for making such an interesting connection! You’ve given me lots to think about 🙂

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