Inspiration for childless and childfree women

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

not a real adult?

I see this quote often enough on facebook and pinterest to guess it resonates with quite a few people, as it does with me. It is attributed to Margaret Atwood.

“Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age
is an adult, whereas I am just pretending.”

Margaret Atwood has a daughter and lots of the friends I’ve seen sharing the quote have children, so I’m definitely not suggesting the feeling is a non-parent thing. I also think it’s generally shared in a positive way, i.e. “I hope I still possess the special qualities people associate with childhood, like a capacity for wonder and creativity and ingenuity.” But I wonder if the quote might have another resonance for non-mothers, to do with the idea I’ve sometimes heard expressed that you’re not a real adult unless or until you become a parent.

For example, a major Christmas charity drive I support asks contributors to mark a gift tag to indicate the best recipient for a chosen item, with the choices girl/boy, mother/father, or grandmother/grandfather. (I’ve written to them for the past two years begging them to rethink this labeling system, especially in light of how difficult Christmas can be for people who are excluded from these categories.) All the organisation is looking for, of course, is information about gender and age, so I think it demonstrates a very interesting blind spot in relation to adulthood and non-parenthood.

Alongside this conceptual conflation of parenthood and adulthood, there are lots of social situations that seem to leave the adult status of the non-parent hanging and unconfirmed. The norm of parenthood at a high school reunion can seem the most tangible reminder that people’s lives have moved on, and therefore, perhaps, that some people’s haven’t. Many non-mothers write about the awkwardness around the common holiday arrangement of gifts-for-children-only, since it either means feeling shortchanged, or else being categorised with the children to receive a gift – a kind of festive no-woman’s-land. More generally, perhaps procreation is a rite of passage to adulthood for which non-parenthood lacks any real equivalent.

Yet at the same time, my own decisions regarding non-motherhood are the first I’ve ever consciously made that I understand as completely irrevocable. Although I don’t know if I can really explain why, that seems to me to mark out some new territory in my life. Jobs, homes and haircuts can, at least in theory, be abandoned and started over. Even tattoos, sacred vows and marriages seem to leave some wiggle room. But like the decision to be a mother, the decision to live as a non-mother (by choice, by circumstance, or by some combination of the two) determines a great deal of the shape of the rest of our lives. In my own case, it’s the first door I’ve ever carefully and fully closed behind me (or, to use Lionel Shriver’s analogy, the first page I’ve ever consciously and completely turned).

It was a good, decisive feeling and although the ‘rite’ is definitely missing, I think the passage happened just the same.

If you’re interested in some of the ‘blindspots’ around non-motherhood you might like this post about the biology of the non-mother or this post about the parenting gaze.

But in the meantime, how about you? Do you ever have the sense, as a non-mother, that your adulthood is unconfirmed? Do you think others might perceive non-parenthood in that way? Or do you have some other take on the idea altogether?

[The beautiful image accompanying this post is presented with
permission from the Sophia series by artist David Hayward.]


36 comments on “not a real adult?

  1. valkyrie5959
    May 8, 2012

    I suggest…. the myth that non motherhood makes one any less an adult than any one else is a carry over from propaganda aimed at creating emotional insecurity
    in women and making them less choosy in their choice of mate.
    Look around you, emotional immaturity is not cured by the act of giving birth.

    • olivia reading
      May 8, 2012

      Hmmm, interesting about the choosiness factor! I recently saw an interview with the author of a book from a few years ago called ‘Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr Good Enough’. I think it definitely supports your thesis, valkyrie5959!

  2. Kaitlyn
    May 8, 2012

    Most “true” adults I know DON’T have children. They can support themselves and their spouse/partner with little or no help from government assistance, they don’t live with their parents and pawn the kids on them, and they sure as hell don’t whine about stupid stuff the way most of the parents I know do. Maybe I know the wrong parents, but I believe it’s easier to grow up when you can have more time WITH adults and engage in adult conversations more often. Believe me, pumping out a unit and knocking someone up doesn’t magically make you an adult.

    • olivia reading
      May 8, 2012

      I like the idea of a ‘true adult’ Kaitlyn, and I think you must be right – that a kind of self-reliance and self-sufficiency might be a key aspect of what it means. I do agree too that giving birth certainly doesn’t, in itself, make you an adult – the British press in particular seems to keep finding younger and younger mothers and fathers to do sensational reports on, like 12yos etc! Thanks for your thoughts :).

  3. Angie
    May 8, 2012

    I think many people equate parenthood with adulthood, but as evidenced by the number of teenage mothers and othwerwise incredibly immature parents we see on television (at least here in the U.S.), I don’t think that is true. My dad always told me that I could call myself an “adult” when I paid my own bills. I have been doing that for a while now, but adulthood didn’t really sink in until my husband and I bought our house. Getting married didn’t even really make me feel like an adult in the same way buying a house did. In fact, when my husband and I decided to get married, we both questioned whether we needed anyone’s permission to do so! (We didn’t, as I was 29 and he was 28 at the time.) Like you, Olivia, I also felt very grown up when I took an affirmative step in the direction of non-motherhood and childfreedom. Being sterilized closed that door completely and forever, and it felt like one of the most adult decisions I ever made.

    The childfree/childless/non-mothers are often viewed as immature because parents don’t see us dealing with our own adult issues and problems. I may not have children, but I still have a job and many other responsibilities. I have a husband and a house that require tending, and I have worries and fears just like anyone else. Mine just don’t involve children, and for many children are seen as the ultimate responsibility and they are certainly the most visible to others.

    Most of my friends and family members have children and their lives are totally consumed by them. Everything they do is for or with the children. In contrast, I feel like I have a much more “adult” life because I do “adult” things. There are no brightly colored toys cluttering my floors, and I don’t spend my weekends at children’s birthday parties.

    • olivia reading
      May 8, 2012

      That’s an interesting observation of your dad’s, Angie! And interesting too about buying your home – and that you recognise your very definite decision about non-motherhood as a distinctly adult act as well. Your thoughts made me wonder if adulthood is something that emerges in phases, rather than through any particular rite of passage. And now that you’ve put that idea into my head, I feel quite certain of it :). How I love blogging and gaining insights from wonderful readers such as yourself!

      • Angie
        May 9, 2012

        For me adulthood definitely emerged in phases, and while I feel very grown up now, I do still have a silly, somewhat immature side that I really only share with my husband. 🙂

  4. abby
    May 8, 2012

    Interesting. I wouldn’t know if having children makes you feel more of an “true adult” since I don’t have any. Being an artist, I am very aware of my “inner child” self – it is important in the creative process I think to always try to maintain a sense of wonder and newness about the world. That being said, I also feel very much like an adult. I don’t know if it my virtue of my age (I’m will be turning 43 next month) or what I’ve dealt with in my life (serious illness for a *long* time) that makes me feel quite adult. I think being a 42 year old woman without a child makes me think more about how to define myself in society and about who I am really, which is very adult “stuff.”

    • olivia reading
      May 8, 2012

      I really agree with you Abby, about identity-definition being an especially self-generated process for non-mothers. And I can imagine that serious illness creates mature thinking like almost nothing else.

      I’m so interested in the idea of the ‘inner child’ too, especially since lots of my own creative work is for real children. I really value being able to keep those parts of myself alive and kicking.

  5. IrisD
    May 8, 2012

    On the one hand, parents have been responsible for raising another life, and that is a huge commitment. Some do not do it very well, or do it without really maturing themselves, which creates huge problems. Speaking exclusively about those who have done it right, then parenthood, in so far as it entails huge responsibility can be symbolic of one dimension of adulthood. I think responsibility here is the key. On the other hand, it is often said that one good thing about parenthood is about seeing life again through the eyes of your child, and I think this leads many parents on a sort of rebirth of their adolescence. I’ve seen quite a few mothers of teenage girls become avid fans of tv shows meant for teenagers and almost relive all the teen drama, the cheerleading, first high school boyfriend, etc., and being as concerned as their teen daughters about keeping up with the fashion, and yet have very little knowledge of important social, political, or economic issues.

    • AE Vorro (@witavorr)
      May 8, 2012

      Great point that “responsibility here is the key.” That’s exactly what it boils down to – you either do or do not live up to your adult responsibilities, whether it’s a child, a mortgage, elder care or just showing up and doing your job. This is why it’s so frustrating when one’s status as non-parent is disparaged when labeled as “unadult.” (I haven’t experienced it personally, lucky me.) I really wonder why parents crow about how they never learned patience or never grew up until they had kids. Is that really something to admit or take pride in? I accomplished it without kids — without being boxed into a corner, on my own terms, entirely through my own effort, but would never wear it as a badge and why should I? Growth and development are what we’re supposed to do.

    • olivia reading
      May 8, 2012

      That’s so interesting, IrisD. I’ve had similar thoughts but the other way around, wondering if children can sometimes provide an appealing opportunity to engage with popular culture (e.g. the Twilight series!) aimed at a younger audience. When non-mothers have such interests (and Twilight isn’t a particular one of mine, but I love lots of children’s literature – I was terribly sorry to read about Maurice Sendak today!) they can sometimes seem harder to justify.

  6. valkyrie5959
    May 8, 2012

    My opinion is that the true “rite of passage” between adolescence and adulthood
    occurs when the individual takes responsibility for them selves and in particular
    their own happiness and self-fulfilment. many people grow old, less people grow up but my favourite quote on the subject of growing up comes from the
    wonderful Ethel Barrymore “you grow up the day you have a good laugh at your self!’ I like this too “We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we move from the passive voice to the active voice–that is, until we have stopped saying ‘It got lost,’ and say, ‘I lost it.'”–Sydney J. Harris.

    • olivia reading
      May 8, 2012

      Gorgeous quotes, valkyrie5959! If only I didn’t have quite so many opportunities to demonstrate my maturity on the final point…

  7. valkyrie5959
    May 8, 2012

    I also believe children deserve to be raised by a grown up and not someone
    in the throes of it. I inwardly cringe when parents announce” you grow up with your children”

    • olivia reading
      May 8, 2012

      When I was twelve I remember being thoroughly discouraged by a history teacher who knew nothing about the era we were studying and said she would benefit from learning alongside us. My parents, who were paying for this privilege, were unimpressed too!

  8. anna3101
    May 9, 2012

    I can totally relate to this post. A lot of people around me think (and don’t hesitate to make it clear) that for as long as you don’t have children, you have no idea about “real life”, “real responsibilities” and you are most certainly not a ” real adult”. This is actually quite annoying. I also happen not to have a car or a mortgage which makes me a total outcast 🙂 But then again, does being a grown-up mean ticking off certain points of a questionnaire? Got a husband – tick, got a child – tick, don’t have any time for myself – tick, moan about how difficult my life is – tick? If that’s so, than I don’t want to be adult, thank you very much.

    • olivia reading
      May 10, 2012

      It’s funny how moaning and adulthood are perceived as somewhat related, isn’t it! I used to work with children and often noticed that when they were playing at being adults the play involved lots of moaning – how tired they were, how the phone wasn’t working, how the ‘house’ was such a mess etc. I think there is some association between being a proper grown up and being a bit miserable!

  9. llanwyre
    May 9, 2012

    I often refer to myself as “not one of the real adults,” and I do think it has something to do with not being a parent. The people I tend to think of as ‘real adults’ are the ones most likely to make careful, very moderate decisions, partly because they are paralyzed by fear–fear of losing a job, fear of not being able to pay the mortgage or grocery bills, fear of needing to uproot their family, fear of upsetting someone in their neighborhood, etc.–which keeps them from exploring all possibilities. While parents aren’t the only ones to have those fears, parents seem to have those fears much more often that non-parents because their decisions impact the lives of their children. On the one hand, I think a need for stability can keep a person grounded and sensible, and it’s probably what keeps society chugging along. On the other hand, that need for stability can also keep one from being creative, from speaking truth to power, and from following his/her desires and getting to know him/herself–all of which I think are incredibly important.

    • olivia reading
      May 10, 2012

      I think so too Ilanwyre. I suppose there is an inherent connection between the responsibilities lots of people have associated with adulthood and a feeling of being tied down and restricted. Stability is a bit of a mixed blessing, perhaps…

  10. NadaMom
    May 10, 2012

    I found out in my early teens that I could never have children. The ” not a grownup ” belief also hits those of us who have always been single. As in a person I know describing his 20’ish year old daughter’s wedding, ” She’s a real grownup now ! “, for example.

    • olivia reading
      May 10, 2012

      That’s definitely another key rite of passage isn’t it, NadaMom, and another one I haven’t gone through!

      Earlier this year I had that ‘she’s a real grown up now’ feeling about a girl I used to look after when she was a baby, now fourteen (so I don’t mean that I think she is an adult, obviously). I heard her giving some very good advice to one of her friends about how to deal with nasty people talking behind your back at school. I hadn’t thought of her in that kind of role before and it made me realise that as well as being creative and interesting and lovable and all the other things I already knew about her, she’s now a wise and sensible and compassionate person too.

  11. valkyrie5959
    May 10, 2012

    I am so glad NadaMom raised her point. More patriarchal propaganda making
    women feel less grown up if they don’t choose marriage.
    Personally I would like to see bridal gowns come with washing up rubber gloves
    because that is what happens after marriage.
    “It begins when you sink into his arms, it ends with your arms in his sink”LOL.
    Look around, the act of marriage hasn’t made anyone grow up nor does it stop it.
    There are many role models who led full active lives including full active sex lives
    without every marrying.
    Mae West is quoted as saying “marriage is a great institution but I am not ready
    for an institution yet” Coco Channel never married and I LOVE her famous quote
    “you can have sex or children but not both!”

    • anna3101
      May 11, 2012

      I agree, valkyrie. I thought it was different in other parts of the world? I always envied women living in Western Europe or U.S. for having more freedom, less society pressure. Being unmarried in Eastern Europe equals being a freak, an old maiden no one wants, someone worthless and utterly weird. The question of “When will you finally marry?” doesn’t ever stop popping up, with all of its variations. “Why aren’t you still married?”, “Don’t you want to get married and have kids?”, with my favourite one, usually asked 5 seconds after seeing someone for the first time in my life “Are you married? Do you have any children?” I don’t mind the questions – but I do mind the contempt certain people show after you say no to both. Like I am less of a person because I do not fit in into the “normal society roles”. Like my whole life, with all the things I do in it, doesn’t matter at all… Being unmarried and without children is bad enough for most people, but if you venture into saying you don’t want either of those, at least for the time being, that’s when you get a full-blown attack. Urgh. And if you also happen to have no man… you are a total pariah then 🙂 People think you are not only weird, but also suspicious. I know something about that – I had no boyfriend/partner for most of my (not so long) life and I had to face all kind of humiliations and comments because of that.
      But I’m glad to see finally things are starting to change. And I would like the society to accept men and women as they are, without forcing them into ready-made roles and ready-made life scenarios.

    • Angie
      May 11, 2012

      Getting married certainly didn’t make me feel more grown up, and in general, I don’t think it is what differientiates adults from non-adults. I know so many people who are on marriage number three, so marriage, as an institution, has lost all significance for them. They simply marry, rather than date, or spend any time getting to know a person.

      In my case, we lived together for many years before getting married, and I never intended to marry him or anyone because I knew I would never have children. In my mind, the two were equated and marriage was not necessary unless you were having children. I also had no interest in being anyone’s “wife”, with all of the connotations that go along with that title. Several significant events made me start thinking more about marriage and it’s legal implications, and I spent a lot of time thinking about what marriage meant to me and how, if it all, our relationship would change. We decided that our relationship wouldn’t change, and that there was no expectation that I would assume a traditional role as “wife”, but we really wanted the legal protections that marriage afforded our relationship, so we decided to do it. We chose to forego all of the pomp and circumstance inherit in most U.S. weddings, and got married by an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas, which could explain why I didn’t feel like a grown up doing it. It was so much fun though.

      I certainly don’t think anyone has to get married, or that there should be any expectation that anyone does, but I do think once you take kids out of the equation, you are more free to have a non-traditional marriage, while still enjoying the legal benefits of it.

  12. Beam_Me_Up_Scotty
    May 11, 2012

    I’m 28 now, and I have never felt like an adult – I have always felt like a big kid, just faking it. Everyone treats me like an adult – I pay bills, I know about investing and saving, and I’ve amassed enough knowledge from school and books that I sound older than I am. It might be the 2 years I spent in the US Marine Corps – it fast-tracked me to knowledge and skills that left my peers behind in the dust. Among those skills is “Fake it ’til ya make it,” the skill of just LOOKING like you know what you’re doing.
    Maybe it’s because of my introvertedness – I stand back, listen, then speak when I’m fairly confident where the social interaction will go, and I know what I’ll say beforehand.
    Perhaps I just think too much – having a serious look on your face most of the time tends to make one look a bit older.
    I may be an adult, but I feel like an impostor most of the time.


  13. valkyrie5959
    May 11, 2012

    We spend our lives growing up Audrey. I think you are awesome and much more
    grown up than you think.

  14. Jana
    May 12, 2012

    I can’t count the number of parent-teacher conferences that I have attended where the parent in question interrupts and asks me if I have children. When I respond that I do not, she (it’s almost always the mother) makes a comment along the lines of “Well, then you can’t possibly understand children,” or something similar. Everything that I have to say is completely invalidated, and I am no longer considered a true adult or professional based solely on the fact that I haven’t spawned. The first-year teacher who is younger than I am by a decade is treated as an adult and an equal by said parent because she does have a child. It’s infuriating to constantly be told that because you haven’t birthed and raised your own child that you know nothing about them, aren’t to be trusted in your analysis of their behavior, and are generally unworthy of attention.

    That adulthood is achieved in stages, though not with a checklist, sounds right. I never thought that I was even close to a true adult until after graduating college. Though my parents never told me so, I didn’t think that I could be one without being completely self-sufficient in every way. The second adult feeling came with my first teaching job and my first solo apartment. Today, I’m honestly not sure at what stage of adulthood I am. At the age of 37, I still refuse to put away childish things. I watch cartoons and anime. I read comics. I play games like Dungeons and Dragons. I follow professional wrestling with a fanaticism bordering on the disturbing. That said, my bills are paid on time. My dog is properly fed, walked several times a day, and current on his shots. I stay after school until almost 6 pm every weekday to work with students. My bookshelves make the libraries of university history departments weep with shame. I participate actively in politics and current events issues. I help my brother and his wife at their comic shop when they need it.

    How exactly does my not having children change anything?

    • Jen
      August 8, 2012

      “Well, then you can’t possibly understand children”… oh that old line. Yes, we’ve all heard something like that and it stings us to the core. Which is interesting, as it comes directly from an untrustworthy, ignorant insecurity that some people are just naturally blessed with. I feel for you Jana, and anyone else who has so much to do with kids on a daily basis and still have to put up with hearing this sort of insecure garbage at your day job. It’s a shame people feel like that (and have the indecency to voice it) and we can only look at them in pity and assure them that they have no real idea of what they are talking about – that we understand children as much as any person who has once been a child themselves.

      If anything, I am more in tune with some people’s children than they are with their own kids. Because the things they do bring back memories of things I remember doing (or similar behaviours). It’s an interesting viewpoint we have – quite unique and completely misunderstood by evil-ignorant-types.

      Being in touch with our inner-child is something to relish.

  15. Pingback: timetables « thebitterbabe

  16. rantywoman
    May 15, 2012

    Reposted on “thebitterbabe” under “timetables”

  17. Kay
    May 26, 2012

    I have seen many articles that say that women who dont marry and have children feel younger because they havent completed the next milestone of life. Its an interesting thought.

  18. sharon
    May 26, 2012

    or it could be equally argued that the milestone is a millstone preventing women from achieving potential. In my opinion it goes back to choice. My young friend
    informed me yesterday that many Indian girls are forced to marry against their wishes. This is not the traditional “arranged marriage” where both parties have the right to say no, but rather a completely forced marriage. She is 15 yrs old and has
    some Indian friends she is studying with.

  19. esterhazy
    November 3, 2012

    Hi, sorry I’m a bit late to the thread, but I just discovered this site; it looks really good.
    Four years ago my best friend got ill with cancer and died within a few months of diagnosis. I supported her as best as I could through that time, and afterwards I remember thinking, “I feel like I am an adult now.” So for me, tackling painful and difficult challenges are what makes one grow up.

    Like Jana with her D&D playing/bill paying: I still go to metal concerts at age 45, but also I’m a trusted baby-sitter. Maybe the un-childed ‘young at heart’ attitude gets confused with immaturity by people who no longer have the same opportunities?

  20. monaharris
    January 17, 2013

    I think all sorts of things are milestones, and that not everyone reaches each milestone in his or her life. The first time a doctor saves someone’s life is something I always think about. How must that affect a person? What appreciation for life and death does that build that most of us will never see or feel? I also have struggled with very serious health issues since I was a child, and spent a great deal of time in hospitals. I certainly feel like more of a grown up than most people my age (25), and I always have. I lost the feeling of invincibility that seems inherent in the young at a very very young age, and that does something to you. Many people never fully experience that.

    I suppose I look at motherhood in the same way, it must change you, it must be a milestone, but all milestones are not mandatory (or even desirable). Beating cancer is a milestone, achieving enlightenment is a milestone, getting divorced, buying a house, losing your virginity, running a marathon, witnessing a murder, or even opening a business, are all milestones depending on your reaction to them.

    An adult arguing about the “adultness” of someone else sounds like a child. It reminds me of how kids say things like, “I’m not 11, I’m 11 and a half!”, or how older people often say to me, “Everything is easy for you now, wait until your older!” They both come from a place that lacks world view, that lacks understanding or empathy or perspective. I suppose that’s why it doesn’t offend me, it just makes me a little bit jealous.

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