Even if you are in the minority of women who don’t grow up internalizing the idea that you are predestined for parenthood, the mommy drone doesn’t quiet. “I resent that the entire culture of this country is obsessed with kids,” Rachel Agee told me the day after her 40th birthday. “And social media is only an outlet to post pictures of your children. I’ve got nothing to put on Facebook. At 40, that’s hard.” (She has not yet bought the buzzed-about Facebook baby-blocker app to censor progeny pics, but she says she’s tempted.) Agee graduated from a Southern Bible college where she was taught that to be a godly woman, one must procreate for the kingdom. “I just knew I couldn’t trade my freedom for it,” she says. She moved to Nashville as a hopeful performer and stopped going to church because it was so “oppressively family-centric.” Nearly 30% of married households in the Nashville metropolitan area are childless, but even in the secular, artier corners of Music City, Agee wasn’t greeted by a culture that supported a life without dependents. It used to be that one’s urban starter kit would include a leather jacket, a guitar and a pack of cigarettes. Today that’s been traded out for Lululemon maternity pants, a stroller and a pack of diapers.
“I’ve always felt there was a cultural imperative—now there’s a subcultural imperative,” says Kate O’Neill. She and her partner moved from California to Nashville; she went there to write songs—though she’s now one of the city’s top entrepreneurs—and he went there to paint. Despite the high rate of childlessness, O’Neill says, it was hard to find her way into a social world where “lately, motherhood has been so absorbed into every possible aesthetic.” I heard similar observations from women I interviewed in Boston, Austin and San Francisco.
“It’s toughest in your late 30s and early 40s,” Going Solo author Eric Klinenberg says. That’s when social isolation tends to peak among people without kids. “What people report everywhere is this experience of watching friends just peel off into their small domestic worlds. That’s the real stress point,” he says, not aging and dying alone, as people fear—and strangers and family members alike tend to admonish—but the loneliness between when friends have babies and when they become empty nesters. It has hit the Clouses earlier than Klinenberg suggests, since their Southern Christian circle seems to have already disappeared into parenthood. They say their lives have become lonelier and narrower over the past few years. “You build strong relationships, and then they change. It’s great for them, but it sucks for you,” Clouse says. But they recently had their first “date”—roller derby—with a childless couple at their church. They say it felt like a massive relief.