Childless or Childfree?

As a woman who chose to not have children, I have to say, I’m glad I’ve reached an age where my decision isn’t much of a topic of conversation anymore. In the past, it was. A lot. I never started these conversations, but rest assured, I was always the one who finished them, pushing back when people assumed I wanted to be a mother. This led to a childhood of being told I was too young to know that for sure, and judgement for my ‘selfishness’ during my fertile years.

Now, though, nobody much cares. I’m too old to start popping out babies, after all, and am generally accepted as a lost cause by those rude enough to push the motherhood ideal onto a woman clearly neither interested in nor suited for it. And while I realize I’m at the start of a whole other problematic phase of life – the increased invisibility and marginalization of people as they age – when it comes to the whole Not Being A Mom thing, I find I’m okay with no longer being a part of of that discussion.

Well … mostly.

See, I’m cool with not being asked when I’m going to have kids. I’m even cooler with no longer needing to carry the flag into battle when facing criticism about choosing not to. I feel a certain pride for having taken firm control of my reproductive choices from a young age. There’s been real satisfaction at pushing back against harmful societal stereotypes towards motherhood. Having several younger women tell me that my outspokenness on the subject has helped give them the agency to make their own choices without apology has, quite frankly, blown me away.

But one thing that still gets under my skin has to do with language. Specifically, are those who don’t have children childless? Or childfree?

I first ran across this question over 20 years ago, while participating in a study being done about couples who had chosen to not have children. It was an interview-style study, and while I don’t remember a lot of details about it, I do recall the researcher asking whether I preferred to be called childless or childfree.

I expect the main reason I remember that part of the interview was more because of the instant dislike I felt for both terms than the question itself.

Take childless. The ‘less’ indicates there’s some sort of lack or loss inherent in not having children. And sure, for people who want them, this is reasonable. But for those who don’t want kids, it isn’t a loss at all, and those who insist on using childless to define people like me are, intentionally or not, making a value judgment against us. There’s a transitive property at work – an implication not only that people who don’t have children are missing something in their lives, but also that they themselves are somehow ‘less.’

Personally, I take exception to that. I’ve long lost count of the number of people who have told me that, because I didn’t procreate, I’m a worthless failure of a woman. It’s horrifying how many of them continue on to tell me I’d be better off dead – some to the point of suggesting I should end my own life.

So yeah, I’m not fond of wording that comes across as yet another dig.

But that’s just about me, and I’ve always had a pretty thick skin on this particular subject, so that aspect doesn’t rate much higher than an irritant. No, what really pisses me off is when the term childless is used to define those who want children and are unable to have them, or who have been predeceased by a child. The phrase, “salt in the wound” leaps to mind, a cruel reminder of what they want but, for reasons beyond their control, can’t have.

Which leads us to childfree. What I just said about childless? My objection to childfree is essentially the same thing in the opposite direction. The term itself implies that people with children are somehow trapped. Equating ‘no children’ with ‘freedom’ seems rude. It’s thumbing one’s nose at others – I’m free while you’re shackled! – and carries with it an underlying assumption that anyone who has kids must regret it.

And, once again, it’s incredibly disrespectful to those who want, but don’t have, children, whatever the reason. I’ve watched enough friends go through miscarriages, failed adoptions, and the death of a child to know that ‘free’ is hardly a term they would use to describe themselves.

Long after I participated in that study, I learned the intended usages of childless and childfree. Childless, it turns out, means not by choice, while childfree means chosen. It’s all a bit binary, in a world that’s anything but. (What about those who are physically unable to have children, but decide not to adopt, for example? Which term applies to them?) Also, it’s disclosing an awful lot of personal information that’s nobody’s damn business. It’s debatable that anyone ever needs to know that someone doesn’t have kids, let alone why.

But there’s a more serious flaw here than just oversimplification. The bigger problem is the inherent judgement built into the words that perpetuates the adversarial nature of the conversation surrounding having children vs. not having children. And after experiencing a lifetime of scorn and judgement for not being a mother, I can say with confidence that the last thing we need is terminology that further divides us.

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