I went to my local indie bookshop on Small Business Saturday, and as I checked out, the bookseller handed me an advance copy of Without Children: The Long History of Not being a Mother by Peggy O'Donnell Heffington (So sorry to report, it is not to be published until April 2023, but you can always preorder! Authors love preorders!).
"This advance copy came in and I immediately thought of you!" she said as she slipped it in my bag. How cool is that?
I looked at the table of contents when I got home, and it made me even happier:
Introduction: We're not having children
Chapter 1: because we've always made choices
Chapter 2: because we'll be on our own
Chapter 3: because we can't have it all
Chapter 4: because of the planet
Chapter 5: because we can't
Chapter 6: because we want other lives
Conclusion: And, if you'll forgive me for asking, why should we?
I was FASCINATED. This is not a memoir, although parts are the author's experiences. She is a history professor, and it is a history of how women have, throughout CENTURIES, not had children for various reasons, and how society has looked at it over time. It was interesting to have a historical lens for the topic.
Here are some of my favorite nuggets to give you a taste.
From the Author's Note:
"We have a term for women with children, which is mother. What we don't have is a great term for a woman without children other than "a woman without children"; we can name her only with a description of what she does not have, or what she is not (i.e., a non-mother)."
Another note that the author agrees with but comes from the sociologist Adele E. Clarke: "we need legitimating vocabularies for not having biological children -- both 'childless' and 'childfree' are already inflected/infected. We need an elaborated vocabulary for making kin and caring beyond the 'pro- and anti- and non-natalist,' and that does not use the binary-implying 'choice.'"
Heffington ends the Author's Note with this: "The fact that we lack good terms for a life lived without children--that it is on us to explain and define and invent words for this sort of life, a life that has never been uncommon and is becoming increasingly common -- is part of why I wrote this book in the first place."
AMEN, lady. Call me hooked.
From the Introduction:
"In my own life, I have felt a creeping distance between myself and mothers my age...Women I got graduate degrees with, drank too much whiskey in bars with, ran marathons with, have been transformed, literally overnight, into Adults, with Real Responsibilities and Meaning in Their Lives. Meanwhile, I have remained a child, failing to feed myself properly on a regular basis, killing houseplants, and indulging in wild, hedonistic pleasures like going for a run every morning and having a clean living room."
I literally snorted my coffee on that. But, the point is that there's been a divide that's been perpetuated by society, in particular patriarchal society. Heffington explores how women are put into a category of population-creators, that "mom" becomes the most important role because it creates more humans and so more hope (but also more voters, more patriots, more people like you, etc) and women who don't have children are somehow less, deviant, broken, because they aren't contributing to society in this way. Ew, society. So much elaboration on the social, political, and historical contexts of these beliefs.
She brings up sexism too -- "It is, of course, equally possible for a man to live his whole life and produce no children, and if fewer women are having children, presumably fewer men are fathering them. But a man who produces no children is not usually identified with that lack." Hmmmmm, so true. Why is not having children always put on women? (hint: patriarchy)
As I read on, I felt like I was reading a kindred spirit.
For instance, this piece that explores how we look at the word "mother": Today, we benefit from the wisdom of Black, queer, and Indigenous feminist thinkers who have taught us that "mother" is best used as a verb, not a noun: mother is something that you do, not something that you are."
And, "As [social scientist Stanlie M.] James frames it, mothering need not have anything to do with a uterus producing a child, or even with whether the person doing the mothering has a uterus or identifies as a woman. bell hooks called this "revolutionary parenting," stripping gendered associations from her term altogether."
Heffington also talks about how not having children is increasingly common: "Overall, nearly half of millennial women, the eldest of whom are in our early forties, have no children, and an increasing number of us don't ever plan to." HALF! No wonder the patriarchy is freaking out!
The author then introduces the WHYs of this statistic -- the cost of childcare and the shrinking of the middle class, the impact of a rougher economy on prioritizing careers over family building for survival, the impact of the pandemic on people's plans to have more children or children at all because of uncertainty (economic and otherwise), and fears for the future planet that future children would inhabit.
Heffington pulls apart the stickiness of the word "choice." "The word "choice" has since become a rallying cry of progressive women's movements, a synonym for abortion access expertly pitched to a society with a soft spot for claims to individual freedoms. ... The choice to have an abortion. The choice between career and family. The choice to not have children. Choice was concrete, a specific ask that didn't require making any larger, vaguer, harder changes to the world women made choice in -- or to the world they would have to raise their children in. ... Today, this apparent freedom to choose makes any individual's motherhood or non-motherhood appear entirely deliberate."
This was interesting to me, because I sometimes struggle with the word "choice" myself. I made choices along the way of our journey to have children that ended without them, but each of those choices was due to circumstances beyond my control. Non-choices. There were options, so many options -- but when they didn't work or the existential cost became too great, it didn't much feel like "choice." Not to mention that the ability to choose fertility treatments or many adoption paths is so dependent on financial means. It's not a choice for so many.
The problem with options is examined, too -- "Some of us tried fertility drugs or IUI or IVF, decided to stop when it got too expensive or physically grueling, and exist in a gray zone between choosing not to have children and not being able to."
AND THIS IS JUST THE FIRST HALF OF THE INTRODUCTION.
The book is incredible. It examines not just why people aren't having children, but the problems in society and the world we live in that contribute to these "choices." She examines disparities, and the way COVID exposed how American culture loves to say how important family is, but does so very little to actually support and provide networks for actual families, especially in times of crisis. That the whole system is broken, and perhaps we need to look at parenting as a less individualistic activity.
I could go on, and on, and on. What I love is that there isn't the pitted "us vs them" mentality -- there is an examination of where that came from and why it is counterproductive. How the binary hurts everyone. I loved this book because of the voice, the lens, the validation of different reasons people do not have children, and the insistence on deconstructing a norm that hasn't truly been a norm. A call to do better as a society and value everyone for contributing to the present and the future, whether they have children or not.
I feel so lucky to have a (heavily underlined) copy of this book way early. I will admit that I was initially nervous about the history aspect of it, that it would be dry or fusty, but I cannot recommend it enough. Heffington writes with a clarity and sense of humor and compassion that makes this an informative and entertaining read.