I am 40 years old. And I have it all. I have a thriving career. I have a relationship with God. I travel. I have loving relationships. I live a life that keeps me healthy in mind, body and spirit. I’m single and divorced (I hate this forced choice on questionnaires, by the way). And I am childless . . . by choice.
I am not alone in this choice. In 2014, nearly one in seven women ages 40 to 44 had never given birth to a child. Despite a recent dip (ten years ago, one in five had never given birth), childlessness has been consistently rising, particularly among younger women, since the 1970s. This varies based on education level and race and ethnicity. So, too, do their (our) reasons vary. For some women, it’s an issue of timing (highly educated women are marrying later, meaning motherhood starts later, if it happens at all). For some, it’s a professional decision. And for others, they want to but are unable to have children biologically and have chosen not to adopt. But all of us are supposed to have a reason because the thinking goes that the default setting on a woman is mother.
But, in my case, and in the case of many other women, the thinking is wrong.
Throughout my life, I’ve been on again, off again, about the idea of having children of my own, but I’ve been mostly off. I’d meet a great guy, fall in love, then dream of having kids. I’d come up with names for my hypothetical children. If I had a son, I’d name him Caleb. If I had a daughter, her name would be Maya. But somewhere along the line—sometimes while the relationship was still “good”—I’d start to change my mind. When it happened with my first boyfriend, I thought it was because of him. But when I changed my mind with other men, including my then husband, I began to realize it was me. I was the common denominator.
When my ex-husband and I married, we said we’d wait three to five years before having kids so we could enjoy each other without having to share our energy and love with a child. As the five-year mark came close, I hoped he had forgotten our agreement because I was neither ready nor sure I wanted a child anymore. I started to get technical to prepare for the conversation. Would we START trying to have a child at year five? Or was a child to be BORN by year five? What exactly did we mean? Fortunately, he wasn’t ready to have a child, and that felt like a relief because it bought me time. He was never ready before we were headed for divorce so we never had to confront the conflict between what I wanted and what he wanted.
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That repeated desire for children, or lack thereof, really forced me to look in the mirror.You see, I just don’t have that “thing” that many women have when they want children . . . that fire . . . that yearning…that desire to feel a baby moving in my belly. In fact, I don’t think my life is missing a thing. Sometimes I’m restless, sure; but it’s usually because I’m bored in some aspect or I miss that special someone or I’m ready for more in my career. But wanting a child and the responsibility of raising one—no thanks, I’m good!
That’s it. That’s my reason.
Waiting, ready, starting, time … all words that frame the conversation around an expected end of the story, an inevitability. As though your story—my story—of being a woman is on a schedule, one only completed when the woman is grown enough, woman enough, ready enough to have a child. Well, like my then-husband, I was never ready, nor do I need to be or am planning to be.
You might think I don’t like kids. Not true! Love them! I’ve spent a significant portion of my life and career caring for and about them. I love hearing about them (though the video sharing gets a bit out of control every now and again). I love spending time with children of all ages. I deeply cherish the time I’ve spent with my niece, nephews and godchildren, along with countless others while visiting schools and mentoring. And I get to be the cool aunt who they can talk to and do stuff with, the aunt that gives them money to get what they want (because single people rarely know what the latest thing is and who doesn’t enjoy shopping?!).
Perhaps you’re thinking my choice is driven by fear—fear that I’m not ready or good enough to raise a child or fear of bringing a child into this crazy world. None of those reasons are my reason. I believe I’m more than capable of handling the responsibility, though I don’t doubt how very difficult and complicated it is. And though this is a crazy world we live in, if we look back in time, the world has had its share of “craziness,” so that doesn’t resonate for me as a reason to not have kids.
The US Census Bureau shows in 2014, 48 percent of women between ages 15 and 44 have never had children. I admit that doesn’t seem real. Maybe because a higher percentage of them want kids but just haven’t had them yet for a variety of reasons. But my bet is many women who don’t want children keep it to themselves like a dirty little secret. It’s such a cultural norm to have kids that choosing not to have them is somehow treated as a choice stigmatized on the level of dropping out of school or never being married.
And let’s face it, being stigmatized and isolated doesn’t feel good. I am fortunate that my friends and family, parents included, are wildly supportive of the choices I’ve made for myself, including the choice not to have children. But I still encounter the elder and sometimes not-so elder woman who tells me I NEED to have kids or SHOULD have kids—as if my life is somehow incomplete until that happens. We ask women for their reasons for not having children, but we don’t ask men why they don’t have children and we don’t ask mothers what their reasons are for having them. We think of childless women as out of the norm. But we’re not.
Read more: Why I’m Glad I Struggled With Infertility
Or, if we are, then we are. But I know who I am and what I want; and I am complete just the way I am. Just as there are things in the world that just are—like being an introvert or extrovert, having a yen for sweet, salty or sour, liking to sleep late or wake early—such is the case with not having children. It’s simply the way I am.
Having and raising children (through birth or adoption) is an incredible blessing and an awesome responsibility—one that should never be taken lightly. It is a delight and a wonder to watch them grow and help them become the people God intended for them to be. I understand on some level what a gift to one’s life children can be and my hat goes off to those who choose (or accept) this lifelong endeavor. It breaks my heart and angers me when I see the responsibility squandered. With too many parents who do not live up to that responsibility, why would society impose it, through cultural norms and expectations, on women who don’t want it in the first place?
I’ve lived long enough to know I should never say never. I could wake up tomorrow and feel the urge to have and hug a child of my own because life tends to unfold that way. If something were to happen to the parents of my godchildren, I’d welcome them with open arms. Or maybe I’ll fall in love with a guy who has children. Who knows what the future holds. For the present, however, I have godchildren; I have a niece and nephews; when I worked at Chicago Public Schools, I had over 400,000 children. I do not need a reason to not have children of my own.
To be a complete woman is not necessarily to be a mother in a biological way with children under the same roof. I’m at peace and am liberated that this is what I want for my life, even if it’s not what the majority does or is defined in a way that the majority defines it. Let’s give women like me the same space and celebrate them for who they are and who they choose to be, including women who are childless, because of our reasons or not…and by our own choice.
Tyra A. Mariani is a New America VP and former deputy chief of staff to the U.S. Secretary of Education.