Writer and producer Tracy King, 41, lives with her partner in London and has no children. With recent studies claiming fewer women are having children than ever before, here she explains why the distinction between the terms ‘child-free’ and ‘childless’ is an important one – and for her, as a woman who has made a decision not to have children, one promoting choice over shaming.
How do you know if a woman identifies as child-free? Don't worry, she'll tell you.
Turning the joke back on myself is a good way to recognise the slight absurdity of having a label to describe the absence of something, rather like calling baldness a hairstyle. But I find it increasingly important to talk about my choice to not have children, because there are still many women who don't know or trust that it’s OK.
Society demands that being a woman is tied to motherhood. Beyond the basic fact that the oppression of women as a class has been along biological lines forever, women without children tend to be portrayed in the media in two ways: either emotionally driven by maternity (think of Top of the Lake’s Robin, hallucinating her miscarried babies), or childless vixens lacking some basic ability to love and be loved (like House of Card’s Claire Underwood, who when asked by a mother if she regretted not having children, acerbically replied, “No. Do you regret having them?”).
While Robin can't escape her destiny to be a mother, reconnecting with the child she gave up and instantly being a better mum than the girl's adoptive parent, Claire eschews all maternal emotion in ruthless murderous pursuit of her goal: the presidency of the United States. I love them both, but identify with neither. Why can't I be happily child-free and also be a super nice caring person who achieves professional success?
This is why I advocate for the use of the descriptor ‘child-free’ instead of ‘childless’ for women like me. Child-free implies a choice that many women don’t know they have. A freedom – it’s right there in the name. More than that, it’s a rebellion against societal expectations and community norms.
Historically, society doesn’t like women taking freedoms for themselves, especially when the survival of the entire species is apparently at stake, so it’s vital to express solidarity, be a role model, and promote preferred terminology like child-free. It’s a way to own my status.
Claiming freedom from societal norms is never without cost. Having children is perceived as a duty, first to the individual family or genetic line, secondly to the immediate community (at a family funeral a few months ago, the religious leader informed us mourners that a woman’s job was to have babies) and lastly, to the species. There’s an implication of “What if every woman thought like you?” – as though I personally am supposed to be responsible for the continuation of the entire human race.
Motherhood is a default and women who have chosen to be without kids are so often portrayed as emotionless or, worse still, secretly unfulfilled, when the truth is we’re just normal people.
That’s not to say the having of children is without caveats either. Women must have babies, but not too many babies, lest our vaginas be compared to clown cars and our only hope of income a reality show. Twelve babies is too many, but no babies is not enough. The perfect number of babies is the average number of babies – two-ish, at least if you're an average British woman with average income.
The child-free label, like all such labels, has an online community, because some of those choosing to be child-free are marginalised by their families or peers and the internet is a good way to find other people in the same boat.
This is more of an issue in religious or traditional communities, where children are seen as a blessing and moral obligation, and solidarity is hard to come by. Some families are quicker to criticise than others. I personally volunteer my child-free status upfront, and keep my social circles small enough to avoid the barrage of questions other child-free women frequently get, such as “Why don’t you want kids?” and “Don’t you worry that you’ll change your mind when it’s too late?” Then there’s my personal favourite: “Who will look after you when you’re old?”
The things about my life I value most are things I would have to sacrifice to have children, a sacrifice for a benefit that I don’t feel is missing. I’m not short of love, or company, or ambition, and I’ve never noticed any biological clock or tugging desire to reproduce my genes.
Yet because procreation is seen as a public duty, it’s apparently OK to grill a woman on the state of her uterus or mental health, digging to find what’s wrong with us – because surely something must be.
However, those who try to find a motive forget that our motives are as complex and individual as women themselves. There is no simple neat answer that would satisfy whoever is doing the asking. I have stock flippant answers for the rare occasion I get a baby query, such as “Oh man, I wish I could have kids but I don’t want to” and my favourite “I really shouldn’t pass on this axe murderer gene”.
But while the media portrays women who have chosen not to have children as bitches, while the first question female politicans get is about kids, and while a woman’s worth is measured by the pitter-patter of tiny feet, there will be a serious need to let women know that we have choices beyond those society pushes on us – and that includes choosing to live child-free.
Images: Netflix / Tracy King