Inspiration for childless and childfree women

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

form


I’ve written here before about my sense that we live in a culture which offers lots of information about how to be a mother, but very little information about how to be an adult woman in any other way.

In part, I think of it as a blessing. For example, I’m grateful that the minute details of my life are not policed (inwardly and outwardly) for endless possibilities that I am depriving/being indulgent, causing SIDS/flat head baby syndrome, encouraging childhood obesity/anorexia etc. I’m also grateful not to be so bombarded with images of happy, idealised non-mothers that I have to question whether or not I’m ‘doing it right’. It’s good to have something that resembles a blank slate.

But on the other hand, I think one of the difficulties some of us are facing arise because non-motherhood lacks form. It speaks volumes that the handful of labels available to us (non-mother, childless, childfree, DINK, PANK, GINK, nullipara, sparent etc) define us entirely according to what don’t have and are not. They are labels that carve something away from an identity, but then they just linger in that empty space. They don’t say anything about the contours of the shape that is created.

To some extent, we can get around this problem by defining ourselves as something else altogether (an aunt, a writer, or a human rights activist for example). But this is a maneuvre which still seems to me to leave a huge part of a woman’s life gaping open and unaccounted for, perhaps especially during and after her thirties. Speaking only for myself and my own identity, somehow it doesn’t seem to me to answer the question.

One of the reasons I’ve poured such a lot of time and energy into creating the pinboard is that, for me, it helps to lend shape to my life as a non-mother. Even though the women there could hardly be more different from each other, learning about their lives is helping to build my understanding of non-motherhood as a way of life that does have some kind of shape and form – that doesn’t just hover in negative space.

I read so often that we are part of a large and ever-increasing demographic. Those statistics are cited whenever childless and childfree women express their sense of feeling alienated or marginalised or daunted by the feeling of exploring uncharted territory, to belittle the discomfort some of us express. But it isn’t numbers that create norms, it’s culture. And at the moment, I think ours has some catching up to do.

If you’d like to read about some associated problems with the way non-mothers are represented in the media, you might find this post interesting. If you’re interested in speculating about the contours of the life of the non-mother, you might like to read some thoughts about our involvement in charity and social justice or the pressures some of us feel to succeed.

But in the meantime, how about you? Do you experience non-motherhood like me, as a concept that lacks form? Or does it seem, for you, as solid an identity as motherhood?

[The beautiful image above is shared with permission from Yataro.]

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32 comments on “form

  1. olivia
    April 19, 2012

    For some very interesting discussion of the history of non-mothers, this post (on a gorgeous new blog) is well worth checking out: http://honeymyrtle.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/is-childlessness-just-a-late-modern-phenomenon/

  2. tiffanylo
    April 19, 2012

    I wish that non-mothers could have “playdates”. After all, parents do it all the time with their kids. 😉 They get together for a common reason–to talk about parenting, have a sense of community/closeness, and so that their children can go off and play together.
    I guess for me, I do not feel a sense of form at all. I mean, I do within myself and within my own family and work life, but I do not when it comes to society (or even within my town/larger “community”). Nor do I feel a sense of form when hanging out with the people in my life who have children–or, at least, not in general.
    I have to say, a comment I frequently hear from parenting folks is, “Why do we need to TALK about it so much–mothering, non-mothering, etc.? Why can’t we just BE and accept the various choices?” I would say “Hear, hear!” to that if I felt that parenting folk actually subscribed to that way of living/communicating, but, um… That is just not the case. Just one peek at a Facebook status of “I was up till 3 dealing with X’s explosive diarrhea!” or “Look at my sonogram!” reminds me that there is no “just being” going on. None whatsoever. 😉 It is because of this that I need more of a sense of FORM in my own non-mothering/childfree world within the larger society… I don’t think it’s too much to ask for, quite frankly. I am respectful of my parenting friends/family. I understand their need to vent via social media about parenting woes, joys, and the like. However, I also would appreciate having a forum (or form!) for my own joys and woes, and have them be celebrated and respected by parents and non-parents alike. YES, we do need to talk about such things–we also need to talk about what it’s like for the childless/childfree of the world. We are not “just” aunts, volunteers, high-powered career women/men, nonprofit managers, dog parents, etc. We have SO many titles, definitions, hats, etc.! Most parents talk all the time about their parenting experiences, and I completely understand their need to do so. I just wish for the same opportunity, respect, and for(u)m. 🙂

    • olivia
      April 19, 2012

      Tiffanylo, I love the idea of non-mother playdates :D.

      Virtual is never quite the same as ‘irl’, but one of my favourite parts of the day is waking up, making myself a cup of tea, bringing it back to bed and seeing if there are any new comments here. It means each day begins with a sense of connectedness.

      That ‘why do you need to talk about it?’ question is funny, isn’t it, in light of the massive portion of mass media/conversation/facebook dialogue etc devoted to being a mother. I suppose it reflects that same misunderstanding that we are just ‘not’ something and therefore there’s nothing to discuss – as though we’re forming groups around our shared non-ownership of squirrels, our collective lack of a nose job or our common experience of never having been to Iceland!

  3. Maybe Lady Liz
    April 19, 2012

    What an interesting point that all of our category names center around what we do NOT have. I wonder if that will ever change? Maybe when not having kids is equally common as having them, but I suspect that even then, these terms will linger.

    • olivia
      April 19, 2012

      I wonder about this too Maybe Lady Liz, and I frustrate myself by not being able to come up with a term I like. I feel as though the equivalent should be something like vegetarian or vegan as opposed to meat-eater. It doesn’t just evoke a patchy meal with a big space on the plate where the steak should be – its understood as a complete meal that is formulated differently and there are loads of good cookbooks!

      • Anonymous
        April 19, 2012

        As a vegetarian, I completely love this analogy!!! Would love to through some names out there for fun… maybe one will catch that does not include the word “child” in it.

        • olivia
          April 20, 2012

          I’m 100% all ears for any suggestions anyone has!

          Jody from Gateway Women uses the term ‘nomo’ (which gets rid of some of the ‘non’ and some of the ‘mother’!)

  4. Luisa
    April 19, 2012

    In my humble opinion and in an attempt to be fair, I think that mothers also battle with form. You have the overachieving mom, the stay-at-home mom, the step-mom, the too-young mom, the too-old mom, the attachment-parenting-evangelist, the “breastfeeding-nazi” (this one I’ve heard over and over) and each of these have really negative connotations. I’m guilty of chastising stay-at-home moms. In my opinion (which I know is subjective and not fact supported but merely observation of many acquaintances) it does not do the kids any favors. Today it just send women into tailspinning self-doubt. Many women I know who choose to stay at home feel trapped after the first year and if they choose to stay at home for good, they tend to justify it by saying that they do it for their children. And then they browse and browse the web feeling horrible at what other women are doing.

    The advantage of mothers though, is that they find each other. The attachment-parenting-evangelists will find their peers easily and feel supported in their decisions. Which is not the case for us childless/childfree people. We can’t seem to bond “in person”. Or at least I haven’t been able to. I’ve seen lunches and picnics being organised for childfree people but I just don’t feel like going. I feel I will present myself as “childfree” first instead of who I am.

    Personally If I must describe childlessnes or my childfreedom I choose the term non-mother. And then smile.

    • olivia
      April 19, 2012

      Luisa, I think its so important to keep in mind, as you have, that motherhood is FAR from an easy trot. But I still feel that those different kinds of motherhood you describe help to create a form for the role, giving mothers a chance to identify themselves and each other in particular ways, take on certain conventions and reject others etc.

      I feel just as you do about the childless/childfree finding each other. I’d really love to have some friends like me in this respect, but I’m a bit daunted by the idea of those lunches and picnics. I’d like to know non-mothers in the same way as I know mothers – as regular people to talk with about all kinds of things.

      • rantywoman
        April 21, 2012

        I think the thing about gatherings of mothers is that they can focus on their kids and parenting and then over time naturally bond with the few others in a crowd they gravitate toward.

        Getting together with a group where the only thing you have in common is not having children means that, until you find out what activities you do have in common, you will all just be staring into each other’s faces with no activity to distract you.

        I do however like the idea of a support group for non-mothers, but it’s difficult because we are all coming at the issue from so many different places– married but infertile, childfree, childless due to lack of a partner, still hoping, and on and on. One thing I am finding though as I read these blogs is that there are some commonalities to the non-motherhood experience that cut across all categories.

        • olivia
          April 21, 2012

          I feel that way too, about the commonalities. After all, lots of mothers’ lives are very different from each other too, especially in terms of how they got there – mothers of 18 children, teenaged mothers, mothers of one, single mothers, mothers by accident, mothers after years and years of waiting, mothers of multiples etc – and yet there are still books and and magazines aimed at them as a collective.

    • Karin
      April 19, 2012

      My mother didn’t work and devoted her life to being the ‘perfect mother’, then couldn’t cope with myself and my younger sister becoming adults and taking our own paths. She ended up, sadly, making it extremely painful for us to be around her because of her obsessive, at times quite destructive, attention and anxiety. She never accepted the fact that role in her life, as primarily a mother, had ended, never moved on and has been very unhappy (very possibly depressed, although in stubborn denial that this is the case) for a good twenty years now, refuses to work or even have hobbies, and, sadly, does not have a good relationship with us, her daughters. So, in short, yes, I tend to agree with you, for quite specific personal reasons, on the stay-at-home thing. It may well be one of the reasons why both my sister and myself have not had children (sad, too, for my mother, because I think her pride would only allow her to move on if it was into the role of grandmother which is not going to happen).

      One of my best friends is a reasonably new mother and also newly moved from the UK to Europe for her husband’s job. In the city they are based her entire social circle is other mothers with children roughly the same age and she socialises with a big group regularly. She finds it stifling and boring and says she misses hanging out with people like me and talking about interesting, non-child-related stuff, having a ‘real’ conversation. She worked until her mid-thirties when they moved and had a baby and I think she really misses that too.

      I think in some ways we are lucky that we are forging our own form so to speak. I think it will always be a bit confusing, moveable, and hard-to-pin-down, but at least the process of it, ups and downs, is ours forever. No fear of future empty-nest syndrome. I can see, though, that having in common motherhood is a much easier way to be able to flock in this increasingly atomised, often loneliness-making modern world we inhabit.

  5. Angie
    April 19, 2012

    I totally agree that as a concept non-motherhood lacks form, and I think it is because without that major identifying role, we are open to define ourselves in seemingly infinite ways. I will proudly call myself “childfree” if someone brings up the subject of kids, but I don’t really use that label unprompted because the fact I have never given birth to a child is not my defining characteristic or achievement. It may sound odd, but I love reading how people define themselves on their Twitter profiles. It’s interesting to see the words one chooses when the total characters are limited. Almost all of the mothers I follow, define themselves first at “Mom” or “mother”, and usually as “wife” second. I am happily married for going on eight years now, but I never define myself as “wife” because that is not who I am. Law school, and my subsequent career, have shaped me like no other thing I have ever done, so I define myself first as an attorney, then comes “traveler” because that is my passion, followed by “obsessive planner, political junkie, voracious reader, aspiring potter” because those are the things that fill much of my time and where I tend to focus my energies.

    • olivia
      April 19, 2012

      Angie, that is so interesting about twitter profiles! They could be the basis of such an interesting study about identity, couldn’t they!

      I love your description of yourself too, especially ‘aspiring potter’. What a lovely thing to be :). For now, except obviously for blogging purposes, I wouldn’t put non-mother on my definition of self either (maybe introvert, writer, feminist, tea drinker, person who is fond of family, a good handful of friends and cat) but I feel as though if there was a better term, I would. As I wrote in a comment above, if there was a good word to fill the blank in meat-eater:vegetarian, mother:? – a term that evoked something full and complete and developed, then I suspect I would strongly identify with it and feel strengthened by it too.

    • Dienna
      April 19, 2012

      Or their e-mail address will be “MomOfTwoKids [AT] [domain].com and user name will be MomofTommyandMolly, or something like that. Yep, I’ve seen it.

      These women really pour their whole identity into their husbands and kids, and I never want to give up my individuality for someone else in that way.

  6. Melissa
    April 19, 2012

    I remember an episode of “Designing Women” when Dixie Carter’s character, Julia Sugarbaker, discussed newspaper headlines regarding women, particularly older women. It said something along the lines of, “Grandmother Involved in Accident.” They wouldn’t say “Grandfather Involved in Accident” if it was an 80 year old man, who also happened to be a grandfather. It would simply say, “Man Involved in Accident.”

    A recent local tragedy reminded me of this episode. News headlines were talking about a “grandmother who fell while hiking.” Yes, the woman was a grandmother, but saying that made her sound like a frail woman hobbling down the trail with her cane. The woman was a very active, experienced hiker who was in her sixties. Not the frail, gray-headed woman one might imagine when hearing the word, “grandmother.”

    It made me wonder, though. What if it were me in the accident? What would the headline say? Would the newspapers simply say, “woman,” no matter my age? Why didn’t they call the woman a hiker? What if the woman had not fallen, but rather won a prestigious award? Would they still call her “grandmother?” What if the woman had not been a grandmother or mother? What then?

    I know newspapers and television stations are trying to increase circulation or gain ratings, and the word “grandmother” does tug at one’s heartstrings, perhaps making one more likely to read the tragic story. Women are treated differently by the media, and women who don’t fit society’s norms are certainly treated very differently, making us wonder at times where we fit, exactly. To me, it seems that in the media world, motherhood is first and foremost. After that, your hobbies or your occupation then define who you are. If you are not a mother, then you can be defined as a “hiker” or “nurse.” If you are a mother, you are defined as one first, then they eventually say you were a “hiker” or “nurse.” Thus, reinforcing the idea that motherhood is first, and all else falls behind.

    • olivia
      April 19, 2012

      Those are such interesting points, Melissa. I think you’re absolutely right about the order of identity labels and motherhood/grandmotherhood being the most prominent in descriptions of women where they apply, especially if sympathy is to be evoked. Slightly depressingly, I’ve noticed an exception – that when a suicide of a woman over thirty is reported, or certain sorts of particularly nasty crimes, it is often stated early on in the piece if she is childless.

    • Lisa
      May 9, 2012

      Melissa’s comments about how we are defined by the media were very interesting. I wondered too what the alternatives to the description of the hiker might be, and if there is still a sort of reluctance to describe a woman as a woman in our not-very-female-friendly society. At the place where I work we are referred to (and refer to each other) as “girls” no matter what our age, and it almost feels as if calling someone a woman would be not quite polite. Sometimes we are referred to as “ladies” or even “guys”. I wonder if at some level just the fact of being female is less acceptable than it should be, simply because the society at large is so male dominated in thought, language, ideology, imagery and just about everything else.

      I think also that newspapers tend to aim for maximum emotion and sensation, because that’s what sells. A recent article in the Guardian by Bibi Lynch where she spoke about the pain of childlessness and her exasperation with mothers complaining about their lot sparked a discussion thread that was at times less of a discussion and more like a brawl. Some of the comments were quite unkind, but that sort of adversarial exchange, with lots of polarised opinions and heightened emotion, seems to be what newspapers look for. The sort of thoughtful, empathic discourse that takes place in blogs like this one doesn’t seem to figure much in the mainstream media. But perhaps I’m reading the wrong papers (any suggestions gratefully received)!

  7. honeymyrtle
    April 19, 2012

    I completely agree about the lack of shape and form that seems to be part of our experience as non-mothers. Early on in We Need to Talk about Kevin, Eva talks about how having children would ‘turn the page’ for their life, and I could so relate to that. Maybe that sense of opportunity without the constrictions of parenthood is almost too overwhelming. Like standing in front of all the different toothpastes in the supermarket and feeling bamboozled by choice.

    And that defining by not-having – isn’t that so annoying and yet seemingly unavoidable? We’ve fairly recently moved to a new, small town, and so in meeting lots of new people the question of children inevitably comes up. I always answer “No – just the two of us”. I don’t like putting the ‘just’ in that sentence, as though its an admission of something lacking. But I keep on saying it, and I can’t figure out how to answer this question in a way that is slightly more sociable than a flat out ‘No’.

    Oh, and thanks for the link above! : )

    • olivia
      April 20, 2012

      Oh, that page-turning idea really caught my attention too, honeymyrtle. It’s brilliantly expressed, isn’t it!

      I don’t know how to get rid of the ‘just’ either. I wish I did. With enough of us mulling it over, I guess the odds are good that one of us will come up with something one of these days!

    • Fuzzy
      June 26, 2012

      I have been thinking a lot lately about “turning the page” (although I didn’t have a name for it until now). It seems to me that mothers have insta-form in their lives — a child who gets older, hits milestones, needs new activities, etc. As a non-mother, what are those milestones or new pages in my life? I get to define them and decide them, which is fantastic, but this can indeed be a little overwhelming — like the toothpaste analogy. However, I am convinced it is doable and wonderful, it just takes a little more work, maybe. It will take more creativity and inspiration for me to create my own new pages than to have them created for me by another person (a child). I want to rise to this challenge!

  8. Jennifer
    April 19, 2012

    Melissa’s comment is so interesting — there certainly is a double standard in the news media that people seem to perpetuate in their self-descriptions. Women almost never fail to mention that they are mothers, but men don’t seem to feel the pressure to identify their parent status. It’d be interesting to do a Twitter description survey for sure! I’ve noticed that I prefer to use gender neutral terms in talking about myself or my life: person instead of woman/girl, spouse instead of husband. I wonder sometimes if my childfreeness comes from not having a pronounced sexual identity (in my head, I think of myself as just a person, not as a gender, though I have no particular objection to being biologically female) and sexuality. Maybe our culture ties femaleness to motherhood so strongly that I couldn’t really ignore the former without rejecting the latter.

    You’ve given me some very interesting things to think about. Thank you!

  9. llanwyre
    April 20, 2012

    Great conversation! I, too, feel as though these ‘family identifier’ labels don’t apply in the same way to me. They often don’t apply if I’m in a social group largely made up of men. I’m involved in many male-dominated hobbies. When I introduce myself in those crowds, there’s nothing weird about leading my introduction with a nod at my academic background, my career, or my passions: “I’m a medievalist,” “I teach,” “I’m a nerd,” “I run roleplaying games,” etc. But among women, it’s completely different–I often feel pressure to define myself by my family (husband and lack of kids) because THEY’VE often led the conversation with those identifiers. Also, previous experience has taught me that it can seem like an aggressive political statement if I steer the conversation towards careers and hobbies that many moms don’t have time to develop.

    • Dienna
      April 20, 2012

      “But among women, it’s completely different–I often feel pressure to define myself by my family (husband and lack of kids) because THEY’VE often led the conversation with those identifiers.”

      At a volunteer meeting I went to last year, not only did everyone introduce themselves by their jobs (I was unemployed at the time so it was awkward for me), they also introduced themselves by whether or not they were mothers (the sole man in the group mentioned being a father). I don’t know why I gave a nervous laugh when I said I had no kids, but the scenario was awkward to me.

      • olivia
        April 21, 2012

        IIanwyre, I would be so interested to discover that the person I was talking to was into those things! Why am I never seated next to people like you at dinner parties?? By roleplaying games, I wonder if you mean things like Dungeons and Dragons (I guess that’s considered a very dated example by now…) or the computer kind, like WoW? I can imagine it is a very male-dominated scene.

        Dienna too, I feel I know just what you both mean about the difficulty of those introductions/identifiers. I try to figure out what people are interested/excited about and talk with them about that and I’m always so grateful when people I’ve just met take the same approach to me.

    • olivia
      April 21, 2012

      I would be so interested to discover that the person I was talking to was into those things! Why am I never seated next to people like you at dinner parties?? By roleplaying games, I wonder if you mean things like Dungeons and Dragons (I guess that’s considered a very dated example by now…) or the computer kind like World of Warcraft? I can imagine it is a very male-dominated scene.

      I feel I know just what you mean about the difficulty of those introductions/identifiers. I try to figure out what people are interested/excited about and talk with them about that and I’m always so grateful when people I’ve just met take the same approach to me.

  10. Nicole
    April 20, 2012

    It is true. There are not a lot of knowledge or press given to women without children. I have noticed in the infertility community how women often post on famous women, living or dead, who did not children – I think we are all looking for inspiration and hope on this.

    I was lucky growing up to know a really wonderful woman who was happily married but never had children. So, I saw what a great life this could be. I too wish there was more portrayals of these women, but I guess it allows us to make it up as we go and stand up and be role models for those around us.

    • olivia
      April 21, 2012

      That’s so lovely that you had a role model of this kind Nicole. Like you, I love that we get to create these roles for ourselves and its a wonderful thought too that we might even inspire others!

  11. rantywoman
    April 21, 2012

    Here’s my take. We no longer seem to have a vision of adulthood in this country; instead we glorify both childhood and adolescent rebellion and our pop culture focuses its attention on those demographics.

    I think back to, say, the Rat Pack era, when being an adult was seen as glamorous and fun and something to aspire to, and there were things like cocktail parties where kids were kept out of sight. Today adults instead imitate teenagers by wearing the same clothes, attending the same concerts, etc., I think because there are no other options.

    The only real markers we seem to have for adulthood are marriage and parenthood. If you don’t participate in those things, it’s hard to feel as if you have “grown-up” because it seems there is nowhere to “grow up to.”

    I think our culture has it backwards in our glorification of youth. We should be giving youth something to aspire to– adulthood should be seen as the prize.

    • olivia
      April 21, 2012

      Rantywoman, this is such an interesting angle you’ve taken. And yes, there’s no way adulthood is seen as any kind of prize. To ‘get old’ has come to be seen as a kind of failure (often a failure to consume appropriate amounts of youth-maintaining products!)

      I certainly dreaded it when I was younger. I wish I’d known how much I was going to enjoy it when my time came!

    • Angie
      April 23, 2012

      I have been thinking about this concept of adulthood recently and actually had a converstation with my mother about it when she visited a couple of weeks ago. I cam to a slightly different conclusion though. I feel much more “grown up” than any of my friends with children. Their lives are solely focused on their children and the children’s things and activities are so all-consuming that they never socialize with other adults or do adult things. When I was a child, my parents often went out with other couples and I loved watching them get dressed for the evening. “Going out” just seemed so exciting and glamorous, and I couldn’t wait to be an adult so I could do it myself. Since none of my friends with children ever go out without their children, those kids are never going to have anything to which to aspire.

    • Jen
      August 9, 2012

      Wow – this is such an interesting comment. It is true – we no longer celebrate adulthood in those ways. I feel as though the only way we can take back the night is by celebrating our individuality and uniqueness. This excludes labels like ‘wife’, ‘girlfriend’, ‘mother’, ‘grandmother’, etc – what about just marking our growth by saying we have found our own path? Unfortunately as adulthood is no longer the prize, becoming “real me” in all it’s uniqueness could be the next best thing.

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