Whether you’re ‘childless’ or ‘childfree’, you shouldn't have to talk about it | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Whatever term is used, it positions having a child as the default, and has the power to be wounding. Why define by deficit?

In recent years, I’ve heard members of the older generation complain that it is no longer considered acceptable to ask a younger person whether or not they have children. It’s true that this isn’t polite, especially during small talk with a stranger. They may as well be saying: “So, tell me all about the inner workings of your/your partner’s uterus.”

Personally, I used to dread this question, even more so when it was framed as, “Do you have a family?” Of course I do, I just haven’t birthed any of them. People’s feelings on procreation are often complicated, sometimes painful, and always deeply personal. In the context of increasing panic about the birthrate, the question of having children – or not, as it may be – is even more loaded, because it intersects with so many other factors in our lives: health, finances, employment status, gender or sexuality, housing, relationship status, and so on. These are not things you necessarily want to delve into over the course of a casual conversation.

Or, perhaps – revolutionary as it might sound – you simply don’t want to have children, and it’s your right to not want to discuss that or be interrogated about that.

The fact that the word “childless” seems to be going out of fashion is largely to be celebrated. It positions having a child as the default, and has the power to be intensely wounding. As a word, it carries with it a feeling of “lacking”, when that is certainly not everyone’s experience. This stigma is why the term “childfree” is increasingly becoming the default in media reporting after being popularised on internet messageboards in recent years.

I was interested in how people without children may feel about that, so I’ve been asking them on- and offline whether they see the use of “childfree” as an improvement. People who had chosen not to have children generally preferred to be referred to as “childfree”, but those whose “childlessness” was involuntary, due to infertility, bereavement or life circumstances, felt erased by it. Many complained that both terms positioned having children as the default, when it shouldn’t be (“I’m just a woman living life,” said one respondent). Why define by deficit? Indeed, I’d say the overwhelming majority disliked both words, with one being seen as stigmatising and the other gleeful and nasty in its implication that parents somehow need “liberating”.

Others took issue with the term “childfree” because it has become the chosen moniker for an online community with a too often misogynistic undercurrent, according to several I spoke to. I checked out a few subreddits, and luckily my skin is as thick as rhino’s hide after more than a decade of newspaper journalism, because some of what I read was pretty unpleasant, including several threads about people finding pregnant women “disgusting” and how looking at them makes them “feel sick”. Sobering reading for someone who was pregnant at the time.

After reading these forums, and then cleansing my palate with several videos of babies and kittens interacting, I can understand why a person without children may not want to be associated with a community that often expresses strong dislike, even hate, for children and their parents. I can understand why communities for those who have difficult feelings about pregnancy (including phobias) need to exist, but some comments were profoundly misogynistic.

After all, we are all part of a collective and a community, and not having your own children doesn’t mean that your life is “childfree”, and that the people you love haven’t made a different choice to your own. There are many ways to care for children, from being an uncle or godparent to fostering, step-parenting, volunteering or working with them. Perhaps we need to focus less on the act of “having” a child and more on the act of parenting.

There’s also the fact that, for many people, including myself before I became a mother, we are neither “childless” nor “childfree”, but hover somewhere in between – or oscillate between the two. I have had days where I have spent time with a baby and felt desperately, profoundly childless, only to take to the dancefloor that evening after a dangerous fourth martini and feel blissfully, hedonistically childfree. Perhaps that’s one reason why – when absolutely necessarily – “doesn’t have children” is the kindest, most neutral descriptor we can hope for. Though we can also hope to be moving away from one’s parenting status needing to be defined at all, especially for women, who still face this question far more frequently than men. Language matters, and as ever it often says more about us and our assumptions than we realise.

What is working: My response to the mother of all impertinent of questions has often proved very effective, so I thought I might share it here. “That’s a very personal question,” I reply, looking the querent dead in the eye. It usually has the desired effect.

What isn’t: At risk of causing paroxysms of revulsion among the childfree Reddit community from being forced to imagine the following scene, I had the most appalling bath while heavily pregnant: lukewarm, as medically recommended (I used my husband’s homebrew thermometer to check it was below 37C). The baby first kicked to the Adagietto in Mahler’s Fifth, so I thought I’d try the whole symphony, not realising how bellicose and bombastic it was. “Are you OK in there?” my husband asked, as I sat in a cold bath listening to a cacophony of trumpets. “You sound like you should be piloting a spitfire.”

  • Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist


Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘Why should I pay for you to have a child?’ This is the state of the debate on childcare right now | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
A fair and successful society respects and takes care of its young citizens, as well as their parents, says the Guardian columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

18, Oct, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Writing honestly about motherhood still provokes anger, but we must tell our stories | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
The problems and worries are perennial, but each generation experiences them differently, says Guardian columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

06, Jun, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
Learning to see myself as both a feminist and a carer is a joyful surprise | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
The work involved in taking care of a baby is unpaid, hard and often overlooked – but I now find pleasure and validation in it, says Guardian columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

18, Jul, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
The language of maternity is alive and well – so why not expand it to include trans parents? | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
The use of gender-inclusive language around childbirth is purely about respect, says Guardian columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

05, May, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Why is my baby crying? I used to Google for hours – then discovered the real answer | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
Millennial parents can frantically search online, but ancient wisdom states the reason is almost always ‘probably wind’, says Guardian columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

28, Nov, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
Having a baby has been a tornado through my life – I see why new parents dream of communes | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
In the west, why has raising children become the business of individuals, who must pay for extortionate childcare, asks Guardian columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

23, May, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
To my friend who worries about becoming a parent: here are some things to hold on to | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
These are the things I wish I had said when you asked me if being a parent was as awful as it sounded, says Guardian columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

15, May, 2023 @7:00 AM

Article image
No woman should have to give birth alone. Pregnant asylum seekers need our support | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
Stories of women supporting one another in the community are heartening, but more volunteer birth partners are needed, says Guardian columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

05, May, 2023 @9:11 AM

Article image
Millions of men support our abortion rights. We need to help them become stronger allies | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
We can find a way for men who are pro-choice to play a role without infringing a woman’s autonomy or speaking over her, says Guardian columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

13, Jun, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
The chasm between mothers and childless women is widening | Nicola Slawson
Seeing friends move on to motherhood without me is made all the more painful by a chronic failure of empathy on both sides, says journalist Nicola Slawson

Nicola Slawson

07, Apr, 2023 @1:00 PM