Childfree by Choice, Regretting Parenthood and the Taboo of Freedom

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An increasing number of people are choosing the childfree life. Still, many say they feel judged by their families, friends and even their doctors when voicing a desire to not have children. (Loic Venance/AFP via Getty Images)

A growing number of adults are choosing to pursue a life without children. Still, many people — especially women — say that they feel judged by their families, friends and even their own doctors when they vocalize a desire to be childfree. In addition, some parents say that to express regret, even over certain aspects of parenthood, is entirely taboo.

On June 3, KQED Forum guest host Seema Yasmin talked to the following people about the societal taboos around parenthood, why these taboos are so pervasive and how the conversation may be shifting:

  • Mona Eltahawy, feminist author, commentator and self-anointed disrupter of patriarchy. She is also founder and editor-in-chief of the "Feminist Giant" newsletter.
  • Jill Filipovic, journalist, lawyer and author of "The H Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness."
  • Caroline Sten Hartnett, associate professor of sociology, University of South Carolina.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Expectation Versus Choice

For some people, especially women, there was no choice about having children, no bodily autonomy. It was an expectation, even something that was forced. Mona, did you feel you had a choice?

Mona Eltahawy: When it comes to my family, my maternal grandmother had 11 children. She was pregnant 14 times. The eldest of my maternal grandmother's children is my mother, who has three children. And I'm the eldest of her children, and I am happily childfree.

It wasn't so much that someone was on my back saying, "have children, have children." But this is the lineage from which I come. Interestingly enough, my own parents never pressured me to have children.

I want to hear more stories from people who are from my own cultural and faith background — I'm of Muslim descent.

We have so many sayings of Prophet Muhammad that elevate mothers. We're told that paradise is under the feet of mothers. Motherhood is almost deified. So to reject that, even if there isn't direct pressure, is a massive, massive amount of stigma and taboo to fight.

Making the Decision to be Childfree

Mona Eltahawy: When I was 7, we moved to London. And when I was 15, we moved to Saudi Arabia. It was really the move to Saudi Arabia that clinched it for me. I say often that I was traumatized into feminism in Saudi Arabia because of extreme patriarchy.

It is not exclusive to Saudi Arabia, of course, but patriarchy in Saudi Arabia is especially sharp. I made a vow to myself soon after we moved to Saudi Arabia that I would never allow myself to be in a situation I couldn't walk away from. I felt like I had been sentenced to prison in Saudi Arabia as a teenage girl. And part of that vow to myself was not to get married and not to have children.

Jill, you authored a May 11 essay titled "The Things We Don't Discuss," which asked the question, "Why does the very concept of parental regret engender such outrage?" Can you tell us about the vitriol and backlash that you faced?

Jill Filipovic: The one aspect of parenthood generally, but motherhood specifically, that seems to remain entirely taboo is maternal or paternal regret — not in the sense of, "Oh, I hate my kids and wish they never existed," but just opening up about the ways in which mothers may look at a parallel un-lived life in which they didn't have kids, or had kids later, or had fewer kids and think maybe it looks nicer over there.

And it was an immediate avalanche of overwhelming outrage. You know, essentially people saying that if parents and mothers in particular do regret having children or regret some aspect of parenthood, they're essentially monsters who should keep their mouths shut.

And it was so striking that the conversation about a taboo resulted in this very strong and very angry social enforcement of that taboo. I had many, many women sending me private messages and emails saying, "I wish that there was a space for women to share the complicated feelings around parenthood."

Explaining Why

There is this pressure to explain why you may not want children, but rarely are people asked to justify why they do want children.

Mona Eltahawy: This is Pride Month and I identify as queer. And this is kind of like when someone straight asked someone who's queer, how did you know you're queer? Well, how did you know you were straight? Because the assumption is always in one direction — that the power goes in one direction and never in the other.

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There are some people who really, really do know they want children. But I think the majority of people just kind of drift into it. They don't sit there and say, 'I really want children.' They just do it because they think they're supposed to.

What are reasons people aren't having kids? And is climate change a concern?

Caroline Sten Hartnett: It's a combination of a lot of different factors. On one hand, you have the costs associated with childbearing going up — so the cost of child care, the cost of housing, the cost of college. And then simultaneously, you have the ability of young people to bear those costs going down — you have student debt that makes it harder for people to bear those costs. Young adults hold a lower percentage of the country's wealth compared to previous generations. Also, employers used to provide certain types of things that supported employees and sort of indirectly supported childbearing — like reliable work schedules, low-cost health insurance, pensions — and those supports have also gotten weaker over time.

There are a couple of studies that investigate reasons that people cite for not having kids. And climate change is something that people mentioned sometimes, but much less often than other reasons. So it's usually more concrete things like they can't afford child care, they can't afford a house, they haven't found a partner or they're just not interested.

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Will You Regret It?

You've heard a lot say, "You're going to regret it when you're older and when it's too late." What have you said to them in response?

Mona Eltahawy: I'm 53. I'm perimenopausal (transitioning to menopause) and going up and down that roller coaster. But I tell you, one of the best things is that it means my menstruation is ending and no more scares about pregnancy. I was very clear in my essay, people will tell you, "you're going to regret it, you're going to regret it." And I'm here to tell you I'm on the other side and I do not regret it. And we really need to say that. If choosing me makes me selfish, I'm selfish. We also need to say I do not regret it, very clearly.

It's really difficult and taboo often for people to even share some of those nuances about what they do and don't regret?

Jill Filipovic: Many of us do have these parallel imagined other lives. There's the me who had children or there's the me who didn't. There's the me who married someone else, lived in a different country, took a different path. And that is sort of the most resonant way of thinking about this question of regret. I think there are a lot of mothers or fathers who do look at that "ghost ship" of their lives and think, maybe this would have been better if I had boarded that other boat. It doesn't speak to not loving your children, it doesn't suggest that those parents are any less dedicated to the kids that they have. But I do think it complicates our very simplistic narrative around parenthood, and motherhood.

What are some challenges to this conversation?

Jill Filipovic: These conversations are inherently political. I think it's important to talk about because when you hear women and men — but mostly women — articulate what it is about parenthood that they regret, most of it centers around these external conditions of parenthood that we create, whether that's legally or culturally.

A lot of it centers around these tremendous outsized expectations of constant and total maternal devotion that doesn't leave women a lot of room for their own individual identities, interests and lives. A lot of it centers around the fact that here in the U.S. we give mothers virtually no support. We expect mothers to be full-time workers, and also full-time parents, while we ratchet up expectations for workers and parents at the same time.

Can we feel optimistic and hopeful about a future with liberating choices for all?

Mona Eltahawy: I'm a tenacious optimist. I really want us to create that future — that is why this conversation is so essential. I think that is how we bring about change, by making space for us all, by seeing us all, by saying that we deserve to be free in the way that we want to be free.

Listen to KQED Forum to hear the full episode.

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