The incredible Tammy O. brought up something very powerful in the comments section a few days ago when discussing how people with kids treat those without. In fact, I’d go further: besides issues dealing with race and homophobia, I don’t think there’s a bigger chasm in America than the one between The Voluntarily Childless and The Breeders.

Having been both, I feel qualified to make the following sweeping generalizations:

• Neither the Voluntarily Childless nor The Breeders have any idea what the other is all about. Those without kids look at parents of small children and assume they’ve taken some horrible drug that has made them humorless, gossipy, overly precious, uncurious, unadventurous, haggard, whiny shut-ins. When I was in my twenties and early thirties, we used to speak of “those with children” like they had some kind of incurable disease certain to doom the friendship.

Likewise, parents look at their friends without kids and see them as enduring lives half-lived; as vaguely self-absorbed dilettantes overly concerned with their lifestyle, endlessly traveling and doing far too much drinking, still living the catch-as-catch-can in apartments that still have the faint smell of college.

In other words, most parents have completely forgotten what they, themselves, were like only six or seven years before – and those opting out of childbearing look at formerly close friends as though they’ve completely fucking lost their minds.

• Parents are frequently guilty as charged. If your childless friends secretly think you’ve given up on embracing the larger world, it’s most likely because you have. Having a kid means often being stuck in your house, but many parents find that’s the excuse they’ve been looking for their entire lives. You can get out of anything if you’re a parent; simply start a sentence with “My kid blah blah blah” and everyone’s eyes start to glaze over, and they can’t get rid of you quick enough.

It’s true that parenting is hard, and you need to possess an inordinate amount of energy if you’re going to raise a child and still raise hell, but it’s also true that many parents simply shut down vast quadrants of their lives, and a few great things get thrown out with the bathwater.

• The Voluntarily Childless don’t owe you an explanation, even though they frequently give one anyway. If you’re a healthy young woman under the age of 43 – or better yet, also married/partnered with someone else – America demands to know when you’re going to squeeze out a yard monster. If you’ve made the decision to not have children, there’s always the tiniest tinge of judgment.

The pressure and expectation of breeding is so great that two things invariably happen: first off, the childless woman is forced to have a well-rehearsed dictum, strategically phrased in a way to get you off their back as gently and quickly as possible. The other is this – because having kids is so assumed, you can also assume that the woman who decides not to have kids has given it more thought than you can imagine.

• Annoying Breeders actually mean well. Even though they can be ham-fisted about it, the reason parents want their childless friends to have kids is mostly innocent. They just want companionship on the ride, brotherhood in the experience, a shared sense of the journey. They don’t want to be parents alone. It’s the same reason people who get married want their friends to get married too: they’re saying “please don’t make me do this by myself!”

Also, if I’ve ever told you that you ought to have kids, it’s likely because I think you’d make a fantastic mom and dad, and the world needs you. But I can be rather sentimental, magnanimous and prolix after a few drams.

• The Voluntarily Childless don’t mention their pets because they have no perspective, they do it because they’re trying to relate. When parents tell a story or a situation about their child to a person without kids, you’d be surprised how many times the childless person will bring up a similar story about their pets. Parents find this endlessly inapt, partially because they’ve forgotten what pets used to mean to them. But mostly, parents should be thankful someone sat through their fuckin’ stories in the first place.

• For the most part, parents in our generation aren’t driven by reflected glory, they’re trying to fix something long broken. You’d think those of us in Gen X (if you don’t mind me using the term) would’ve remembered to be cool, even in the throes of parenthood. You’d think we spent enough time outside the mainstream, cynically looking in on all brotherhoods and idealism, and mistrusting them completely, to buy into Babies ‘R’ Us.

But there is one element stronger than disdain, and that is redemption. Lots of us came from broken families with horrible divorces, parents who were distracted or absent, growing up in schools that hadn’t yet fully learned the lessons of Waldorf, Reggio, Montessori or Columbine. I know many of my peers decided their childhood was free but shitty, and they were bloody well going to make their kids’ childhood safe and fun. We were going to be present. Problem is, that is tiring.

The Breeders and The Voluntarily Childless just need to keep their perspective limber. Everyone is doing the best they can with the path they’ve chosen. Do I think being a Daddo is the best job I’ve ever had? Yes. Is our daughter the absolute best thing in our lives? Yes. Is every second, even the miserable ones, totally worth it? Yes! Is it for everybody? Nope.


14 thoughts on “must-have-pink-moist-towelette-buttwipe-warmer

  1. ken

    As a relatively new parent (a two-year-old and #2 due in two weeks) I’ve grappled with most of these issues. One of my greatest regrets as a parent is that I didn’t do it sooner; I became a dad at 39 and with the exception of a few fun vacations that we couldn’t have done WITH a kid or two, there wasn’t much that would’ve kept us from breeding earlier. As someone who also thought for a period in my 20’s that marriage and parenting weren’t for me, it’s pretty amazing how I’ve come around and am now one of those zombie-like doting dads who bores the voluntarily childless with those stories that 15 years ago used to bore me when my friends with kids told them.
    I used to go to 100+ rock shows a year, now it’s more like 50-60 but it’s allowed me to be more selective and I wouldn’t trade the time I get with my daughter for being able to see cool shows I used to see. Plus, as a jaded fortysomething, I’ve reached that ‘all the the cool music happened in my 20’s & 30’s’ phase. I used to think that that old saw, “nothing good happens after Midnight” was said by people who weren’t doing the right drugs or people who couldn’t stay up that late. Now, having been on the short end of a few 7:30AM wake-ups courtesy of my daughter after a few way-past-Midnight bedtimes, I’m thinking there’s some merit to that.
    And despite a very healthy liberal bent, after becoming a dad, I’ve become a strong advocate of some sort of parenting certification program. I read story after appalling story of people who shouldn’t have kids, I think that the woman who cuts my hair has taken HUNDREDS of hours of classes to be certified by the State of Illinois and yet, that couple that tried to sell their kid to a convicted child molester so they could buy meth didn’t have to take a single hour of class to learn the most important job in the world.

  2. ken

    Oh, one other thing, I’ve found there to be three basic trim levels on the Voluntarily Childless, your mileage may vary.
    1) Those who for biological or personal reasons don’t have kids but love kids and are super-cool aunts/uncles and actually volunteer to babysit once in a while.
    2) Those who are loving parents to pets but have decided that that’s as far as they’ll go but they gladly will look after a dog or a cat or two when you go away for the weekend.
    3) Those that for whatever reason (childhood trauma, divorce, genetics) don’t have kids and actively dislike/hate kids. Oddly, these people skew toward jobs where they have to deal with kids regularly.
    And I’m sure that the Voluntarily Childless have found that the Breeders fall into a few categories as well.

  3. Carey

    Being the parent of small children doesn’t last *that* long (unless you are very Catholic/Mormon etc. and have 12). Before you know it, you are the parent of a teen and have trouble staying awake until they get home.
    None of their stages last as long as law school (my worst two years) and then they are different people (interesting discussion in my house– that 2 year old who is gone forever and replaced by this 10 year old– is this a new person??).

  4. Tammy O.

    This is a great post, Ian. I’ll say more thoughtful stuff later, but it’s Monday morning and I just wanted to say thanks.

  5. Stephani Gordon

    ian- love it. you are like a brilliant creative chef with words. and i myself have found myself ‘humorless, unadventurous, haggard, and shut in’ – at least during the first few months raising preemie twins in the dead of montana winter. but that was all just LACK OF SLEEP! i am still an adventure girl at heart and want to tuck a twin under each arm and climb a mountain. AND i love hearing my friend’s pet stories. there is a chasm, but it’s one i am determined not to let exist b/c i still find my old friends interesting for the same reason i liked them to begin with, and am as bored with poop and baby-gear talk as i ever was.

  6. Deb

    Brilliant, spot-on post, Ian. Being such a huge animal person, I could never understand people who weren’t. Then I met my first Voluntarily Childless person, and I felt the same way; it just didn’t make sense to me…..until I had my first kid. I totally get and respect the choice not to have children. The hard, bad, scary stuff is so hard, bad, and scary that I would never recommend it to anyone. Worth it to me? Every second of every day. But so was giving my diabetic cats insulin shots twice a day, which made most people look at me like I was insane. It was shocking to me, the pet-child perspective that came to me after having kids, because before, my pets *were* my kids.
    A note to both groups: in a few years we Breeders, our nests empty, are going to cease to have Darndest Things to talk about, and we’ll be back in circulation, able to stay awake past 10pm, discuss political blogs, and show off our new puppy’s latest tricks.

  7. Deb

    Brilliant, spot-on post, Ian. Being such a huge animal person, I could never understand people who weren’t. Then I met my first Voluntarily Childless person, and I felt the same way; it just didn’t make sense to me…..until I had my first kid. I totally get and respect the choice not to have children. The hard, bad, scary stuff is so hard, bad, and scary that I would never recommend it to anyone. Worth it to me? Every second of every day. But so was giving my diabetic cats insulin shots twice a day, which made most people look at me like I was insane. It was shocking to me, the pet-child perspective that came to me after having kids, because before, my pets *were* my kids.
    A note to both groups: in a few years we Breeders, our nests empty, are going to cease to have Darndest Things to talk about, and we’ll be back in circulation, able to stay awake past 10pm, discuss political blogs, and show off our new puppy’s latest tricks.

  8. CM

    Just an aside: I don’t think anyone should assume that someone without children is Voluntarily Childless, or that even someone who is Voluntarily Childless always wanted to make that choice. Besides the infertile couples who are trying, there are the single women who DO want kids but they aren’t sure they could handle raising them alone, or who think that maybe they’d doom their prospects of having a husband and family if they choose to have kids right now on their own, so they’re going to date a little longer to see if it happens. I have a few single friends who are my age (40) who I know always pictured themselves with a husband and family. I keep telling them that they can have a kid on their own if they want, and I think they know it, but I don’t even know if they’re in the right place financially. I have a feeling some of them may feel bad in their 50s or 60s that they never had a kid. I think there’s a stigma in society about those without kids, and they are subject to worse stigmas than those who dote on their kids. I love being a mom, and I feel bad that it’s held so far out of reach for some.

  9. Caroline

    Great post, Ian. I count myself as the ‘Temporarily Childless’: married and old enough that I ought to have kids already but still don’t, but not so old that we don’t still plan to. So we have friends in each category and I am constantly shocked at how judgmental each side can be. It’s really a shame and it makes me sad as I always feel that I’ve been able to see both sides of the situation and really respect each side’s right to make that determination.
    I also agree with CM that a lot of the Voluntarily Childless may like to appear Voluntarily-ish but aren’t. We are friends with a couple a few years older (your age range, Ian, mwah ha ha :P ) and I just felt instinctively that they were not VC’s. Nothing in particular was said, it was just a feeling. And we learned later that she’d had two surgeries for endometriosis in the past two years and lost an ovary (weird coincidence that you just posted a comment about endometriosis the other day). What a nightmare. I think people who haven’t struggled with fertility issues can’t imagine how truly awful and depressing it is. And then once you are married and of a certain age people ask you why you don’t have kids — I have learned that you never know the real answer lingering behind that question, so don’t ask, it’s not your business, and you could be bringing up something very painful.
    Anyway, we all need to be less judgmental of people who make different choices from us. Not that all of my friends are so judgmental of one another, mind you, but I have one set in each category who are SUPER judgmental of the other ‘type’. I don’t get it and I don’t get why they care so much that someone else made a different decision.
    So, great post. It’s something I think about with some regularity.

  10. Today_is_ok

    I can honestly say that I look back on my childless self with a heavy dose of self-loathing. That person was narcissistic and self-involved to the point of nausea. How did anyone ever put up with me?
    At the same time, I miss that childless life. I miss having the freedom to dote on myself and my partner without guilt or distraction.
    And then I mull over this paradoxical thinking, and I blame Catholicism. You can take the girl out of the church, but you cannot take the church out of the girl.

  11. Sean

    There is only one thing I’d disagree with in this post. (Well, one thing I disagree with enough to comment, that is…)
    I think a lot of people with kids look at their childless years with wonder, and regard their child-free friends with envy and respect. I can’t believe how much time I had – and this is specifically about the incredible Tammy O., how much better my child-free friends are about spending the time I’m blowing on my kids. Whenever someone tells me they aren’t having kids, my first thought is always, “GOD BLESS YOU.” and I hope that nobody has ever thought I judged them in any way for not having kids.
    My other thought is that, in balance, for a lot of people, having kids isn’t worth it. It’s something I doubt a lot of people would say, but if you have a thing you want to do with your life, kids basically get in the way of that.
    Most of the good feelings I have about being a father are feelings of survival, the way a soldier must feel after he’s taken a hill and not lost any men. You have to block out larger ideas, like whether that particular hill was worth taking, in order to find that great joy.
    Your children will live on after you’ve gone, but so will other people’s children. If you want to have a legacy, I have to assume that carving a statue or being a teacher or writing a symphony could suffice. And if you want to actually do those things, don’t have kids.

  12. Tammy O.

    I recently had to write my own obituary for a class I was taking as part of a continuing ed thing I’m doing. The assignment was a best-case-scenario type of deal, so we were supposed to assume we’d live a good long life, etc. I would totally recommend this activity to anybody. It’s like someone coming along and hitting you with the WHOAH stick.
    Anyway, during the time I spent thinking and working on this thing, I totally smacked up against the reality that I was going to grow old without having kids. It was the first time I’d really thought about the long-term implications of NOT having kids, and what the potential downsides might be. I decided to opt out of having kids when I was a kid, even though I didn’t realize it until grown-ups kept asking me about having it. So I really never considered that I might be missing something, or that I might arrive at the end of my life thinking that I had made a big mistake. (This is something that I think a lot of child-free people feel that other people don’t realize — it’s not that we woke up one day and decided NO THIS ISN’T FOR ME — it’s more that it was just never really on the radar screen. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if the world didn’t make it a big deal.) But writing this obituary did give me pause. Well, I thought, what will my life look like in thirty years when I’m not a grandparent? Will I be lonely, or will I feel like I made a mistake, or will my life have less meaning? I had to spend a lot of time thinking about this because I don’t really know any people in their sixties and seventies who aren’t grandparents. I also don’t really want to carve a statue or write a symphony or maybe even run my own business for a long time. So, what I’ve realized is this isn’t really an intellectual or rational thing for me: I just really don’t care about having my own kids. And I’m not really scared about not having them. I suspect that my childless life as an older person will probably look a lot like it does now: I will have a bunch of nieces and nephews and their kids (if they have them) around, and I will have some friends about and some of them will be busy with their grown-up kids and grandchildren, and others won’t be. And if I’m lonely, I’ll call a friend. And if I want my life to have more meaning, I’ll think of something good to do that day. And if I’m missing kids, I’ll just call one of the gadzilion extended family members I’ll have by then or do some more mentoring. And who doesn’t get to the end of their life without feeling like they made a big mistake or two?
    It’s a strange time to be alive. My 37-year-old sister is about to become an empty nester. I have friends who are older than her and just starting to have babies. I’m part of an email list of women who’ve opted out of motherhood and who need to connect regularly with other women who aren’t mothers, because they often feel adrift in baby showers and conversations about potty training. I played roller derby with women who handled their children with supreme delicacy and beat the shit of out of everything else in their paths because it felt really good to do. We’re inundated with pop culture about man babies. Same-sex couples are reinforcing traditional family structures. Old people still think there’s something weird about not wanting to have kids. Lots of people are undergoing IVF. Funding for family planning clinics is a major political shitshow. Tiger moms are, like, a thing. Has their ever been a more fraught time to want or not want kids?
    It’s good and thoughtful to articulate the distance between parents and the child-free. Sometimes we’re just like aliens to each other. Sometimes it’s just exhausting and annoying to be around each other. Life is not fair for either of us. Some people really shouldn’t have kids, and some people would probably be great parents. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, I think, if we’re taking care of each other and doing our best.

  13. Anne

    I’m only going to push back on this perceptive post a tiny bit. (ha ha, look how much I wrote below! – liar, liar)
    “It’s true that parenting is hard, and you need to possess an inordinate amount of energy if you’re going to raise a child and still raise hell,…”
    For parents with one child, I believe there is still a lot of energy to spare for hell-raising, traveling, volunteering, whatever floats your boat. We known quite a few couples with one child who pretty much do everything they did pre-kid, with said kid in tow. These children tend to have really interesting lives, to travel often and young, to be startlingly mature because they are surrounded by adults a lot. (The amazing Lucy is a perfect example.) They’re wonderful, on the whole, and these small families tend to be firmly bonded as on-the-go units. But add a second kid, then maybe a third, a fourth or more if you’re really into it, and suddenly your time AND funds can’t stretch enough to accommodate that former active, stimulating life outside the home (other than work to pay the bills).
    I personally don’t judge parents who have to prune back their extracurricular activities while raising a brood of kids. Trust me: Our personal energy reserves are finite, and for many of us, that goes double for our finances! I remember for a couple of years when our kids were young and I was working fulltime, I only bought books of short stories and essays to read. I didn’t have the time or focus to get through longer forms like novels. Remember, though: Nothing is forever when you’re raising a family. Someday you’ll have time back, in spades, and feel a pang at the deafening silence in your empty nest. Enjoy each phase in its season, is my advice.
    One more quibble that I believe CM partially addressed above: Not all parents are “breeders.” (I find that term appallingly judgmental, as if human procreation is some primitive animal behavior that we should be ashamed of.) Yes, some of us struggled to have our families. Some of us adopted children and infants or took in foster children or raised orphaned nieces and nephews. Some of us were fortunate enough to have children join our family in a variety of ways; I myself am a step-, adoptive, and biological mother.
    Bottom line, none of us needs to defend our choice. I think it’s unbecoming for those with children AND those without to rationalize our family choices with negatives: “Ankle-biters” and yes Ian, “yard monsters” — the terms are amusing and evocative, but also insulting, just like “breeders.” I don’t call my childless friends “barren” or narcissistic; so don’t justify childlessness (she says to those who sneer) by judging the objects of my love as contemptible.

  14. ally

    Oh my god that Tammy O. is amazing. Thanks for so wonderfully articulating what I’ve been feeling for a long time. Between you and Ian, I don’t ever have to say anything about nothing.

  15. amy a

    tammy o. and ian: thank you both!
    this post and commentary was perfect timing for me, and i think both of you hit the nail on the head in so many ways regarding this issue.
    being single, mid-thirties, and “voluntary childless” myself, i’ve endured countless stares and blinks in conversations where me not wanting children comes up. i think the assumption i dislike the most is that i’m not an “adult” because of that. the phrases “when you grow up and get married” and “when you grow up and have children” i heard countless times as a child still sits just beneath the surface in conversations with certain people regarding these topics. it’s frustrating. and like you point out, ian: i’ve spent a hell of a lot of time thinking about whether being a biological mother to someone is for me or not. i respect those who make a different decision than i do. i don’t respect the attitudes that somehow my decision isn’t right for me, or isn’t “right” in general.

  16. Child-less/free

    hmmm. .. just curious. . . would anyone out there with children actually say, “No, it wasn’t rewarding, worth it, the greatest thing I’ve ever done?” Seems we all tend to make the best of the narrative we’ve lived out. . .


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