In this season’s House of Cards there’s a memorable scene between first lady and VP candidate, Claire Underwood and the presidential opponent’s wife, Hannah. The two women are sitting across from one another drinking coffee in the White House residence and although they are on opposing sides, they are finding common ground around gun control and making the role of the first lady meaningful. Hannah manages to soften the normally rigid Claire by telling her she is a role model and that if she wins she’ll make an excellent vice president.
This moment of female bonding is interrupted when Hannah’s son jumps up and loudly asks for a drink. When Claire says that Hannah’s son is cute, Hannah unthinkingly ask Claire if she regrets not having kids. Claire’s stony face makes Hannah immediately apologize for asking a question that she admits is “too personal.” Claire pauses and responds pointedly in between sips of coffee: “do you regret having them?” And the scene ends.
This scene was so striking for a couple reasons:
First, it brings into sharp focus the assumptions our culture has about women who do not have children: they regret it.
It was actually on an episode of Oprah that I first confronted the powerful narrative of “woman pursues a career and regrets her decision not to have kids when it’s too late.” I was so frightened by this possibility that I remember the moment like you remember where you were when someone important died. I was in my late twenties, lying on my faded couch, hungover, in my Brooklyn apartment watching Oprah. I didn’t typically watch Oprah, but it was the comfort food my hangover brain craved. On Oprah’s stage sat a group of sad women in their forties; whether they were or not, I remember them dressed in suits. These women, in pursuit of their careers, missed the baby train, and they were gathered on stage to share their stories of regret. While I don’t remember their individual stories, the emotional weight of their collective regret stuck with me, and ten years later it motivated me to jump off the fence and get pregnant.
While this narrative helped nudge me in the direction that was right for me, for women who do not have kids it can be painful to have people assume you live in regret. (See Ambivalent and Grieving and My Mother’s Day Wish.)
Second, the moment between Hannah and Claire depicts the divide between women who have children and women who do not. Perplexed by a woman’s choice to remain childfree in a pronatalist world, many mothers don’t really know how to talk to childfree women and as a result we judge, we say things that are unintentionally disparaging, and we ask questions we shouldn’t ask.
My husband and I both cheered at Claire’s response to Hannah, which was dubbed a “feminist moment” by Bustle Magazine.
But while her response rang feminist, at another level this show is just reinforcing the confining narratives that exist for childfree women. Claire fits into the stereotype of the cold childless woman whose DNA is sequenced for ambition rather than motherhood. Just as there’s the virgin/whore binary, there’s the mother/ice queen. As if to emphasize how anti-maternal she is, Claire’s character has had not one, not two, but three abortions. Claire is ruthless in her ambition–while she does not commit, she does condone the murder of people who stand in the way of her and her husband’s ascent to the White House.
So established is the stereotype of the selfish childfree woman that Meghan Daum titles her edited collection of essays of thirteen childfree women writers, Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed to mock the negative stereotype of women who chose careers (in this case creative careers) instead of motherhood. This book shows us that the decision not to have children tends to be responsible rather than selfish. After all, what good does it do a child to have a half-hearted mother? While Daum’s collection turns the selfish stereotype on its head, as a collection of essays by successful women writers, it reinforces a parallel narrative that has emerged: the super successful childfree woman.
This is the story, too, in Hillary Frank’s recent interview of Terry Gross from NPR’s Fresh Air about her decision not to have children on the wonderful podcast the The Longest Shortest Time. Gross explains that she did not have any models for leading a successful career AND having a family, so she decided to pursue a career. She feels that her decision not to have children and pursue her career was a feminist act. I agree. Gross was a maverick.
That said, there was an underlying if unintentional message in this interview and in Daum’s collection: if you are a woman choosing not to have children then you better be EXTREMELY successful, otherwise, how do you justify your decision? How do you justify your life?
So what roles are available for childfree women?
There’s the spinster and/or cat lady. One of my unmarried childfree friends who LOVES cats actually googled “how many cats can you have before you become a cat lady?” When the answer came back as “three,” she decided not to adopt a third cat.
There’s the successful woman–selfish or not– and she typically dislikes children. Then, there’s the woman who has achieved success but regrets not being a mom.
The stories we tell are powerful. These stories shape us for better or worse (I had a child and my friend didn’t adopt a third cat), and they shape how we interact with one another. It is always the case that when a group is marginalized or othered, the roles available to individuals in those groups are limited. Acknowledging these limits and checking our assumptions when we interact with people from marginalized groups is a step in the right direction. What else do we need? We need more stories of typical childfree women who are just living their lives.
Sure there are wildly successful childfree career women, and some of them, like Terry Gross, might not want to snuggle babies. Sure there are old, childless women who have houses full of cats. Sure there are women who are consumed with regret for not having kids. But I don’t know these women.
The childfree women I know live rich and meaningful lives. There’s my friend Shoshannah, a metalhead with a black belt in karate, who regularly visits her mother who has had Alzheimer’s for nearly ten years. There’s my friend Melissa, a teacher who adopts and fosters dogs and regularly visits a youth detention center to offer pet therapy. There’s my friend Kerri, STEM teacher of the year and tireless Zumba instructor. There’s my friend Stephanie, writer, editor, bartender, PhD, and trailblazer. There’s my friend Jocelyn, a vegetarian, an animal lover, and an artful wedding and family photographer whose calming presence enables her to capture genuine moments of connection. There’s my friend and co-editor for MotherShould?, a teacher, writer, knitter, sewer, crafter, perpetual student, and convener of porch nights for a community of friends.
The lives and stories of childfree women I know don’t adhere to the stereotypes yet the narratives persist. Likely, as more and more women make the choice not to have kids, childfree women will be able to just be. And that’s a good thing.
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