The increased visibility and acceptance of women who choose not to have children is just one part of a social evolution away from the limited “traditional family” model, and into a world where human beings with a diversity of needs can create family arrangements that work for them. That’s not just good for the child-free; it’s great for feminism – and even better for society and families.
To see some nebulous, grainy, other potential for which there are few mainstream models and say, “I want that,” takes courage and imagination. That vision is behind many of the struggles for social justice in America: a vision of a gender-egalitarian world that has never before existed; a vision of living as one’s true self, including one’s true gender, when you were labeled something else at birth; a vision of equal rights and opportunities regardless of skin color; a vision of public and private spaces accessible to those whose bodies are deemed outside the norm.
Extremes like child abuse aside, the normalization of a child-free lifestyle would simply give us a wider variety of acceptable lifestyles to choose from. There is, of course, always peril in choice, as there is some psychological ease in just going with the assumed flow of things and accepting one’s circumstances as inevitable. Choice means knowing there are doors left unopened and paths not taken; choice always offers the potential for regret, or at least wondering what might have been. But working through that, and owning the choices we make, are how we get to happiness, instead of simple satisfaction or complacency.
The “selfish” narrative about child-free people also sheds light on many of our cultural dysfunctions. There’s little angst over the many men who choose not to have children, and little social condemnation. Consider simply the difference in meaning of “bachelor” versus “spinster”. Women who don’t have children are particularly offensive because part of our cultural understanding of the ideal female hinges on being nurturing, emotional and care-giving. To reject childbearing pushes back on the basic assumption that women have an obligation always to make their lives about someone else.
There are 7 billion people on the planet. It seems unlikely that all of them would be inherently and necessarily more fulfilled, more mature and better-off if they all made the exact same choice – whether that’s to run a business or start an organic garden or practice yoga or do any other particular thing. So, why do we assume that having kids is the universal choice of the unselfish and the personally transformed?
Normalization of being child-free is a gain for all of us, whether we choose to have children or not. It reminds us that kids are people, who deserve to be raised and nurtured by adults who proactively want to have them. And it reminds us that women are people, too – that we exist once on this planet, and we have one life in which to seek happiness and pleasure and goodness. Making choices that center on our own needs and desires isn’t selfish. It’s radical. It’s transformational.