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EXCERPT: In “Thin Skin,” Jenn Shapland Considers What It Means to Live a Childfree Queer Life

The following piece is an excerpt from an essay in Thin Skin by Jenn Shapland, which is out today from Pantheon.


Adrienne Rich radicalized me. Reading through my annotations in Of Woman Born, I can see my anger materializing, my life shifting direction under my feet. I was in my early twenties when I read the book in a grad school class alongside a viral Atlantic article by Anne- Marie Slaughter called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” with a picture of a baby in a briefcase at the top. The professor assigned the essay thinking it was uncontroversial. Slaughter makes an economic point: women still face discrimination in the workplace. But I was livid. I sat in my chair sweating, an until-now-unformulated rage boiling up from my stomach. I raised my hand and asked, “What if I don’t want the baby or the briefcase? Why is that all?” This was not the conversation we were meant to be having. Aren’t there other things beyond careerism, work within a narrowly defined framework of productivity? Other relationships to nourish and cherish besides a legal spouse and dependents?

I was in a heady moment, reading Rich and Audre Lorde and bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldúa for the first time and trying to choose the life of a queer woman, despite the strictly heteronormative storybook community in which I was raised, despite my lifelong training. I was reading sentences like, “Institutionalized motherhood demands of women maternal ‘instinct’ rather than intelligence, selflessness rather than self-realization, relation to others rather than the creation of self.” I wanted self-realization. I wanted to create myself. What did that look like?

My desire began to shift again. Suddenly I longed to be old. More than anything in the world, I wanted to grow up, to be not a messy twentysomething but a woman in her sixties, her seventies, with long gray hair, wrinkled and worn and leathery skinned. I wanted to be a woman from whom nothing was expected. Again I didn’t articulate what lay behind that desire, but now I see a connection to the pregnancy fantasy. Pregnant or old, I would be momentarily enough. I was onto something here. Without really being able to know what I was embarking on, I sensed that between pregnancy (that moment of female omnipotence, godliness, Virgin Mary holiness) and old womanhood (when a woman is free of the expectation to bear, to make herself desirable for a man) lies a gulf of life unknown. An undiscovered country. Another planet.

By twenty-eight, when I’d found my footing as a queer woman and a partner who knew she didn’t want kids, I grew more certain I wanted a different life than the one I’d been raised to imagine. I was certain this was something I could make for myself. Whatever loss I felt in knowing I wouldn’t— oops!— find myself pregnant one day (barring a violent encounter), I had to grieve it early. I knew immediately that I would never be a “natural” mother. Having kids as a queer woman is an endeavor that requires planning, determination, and in most cases a large financial investment. Being queer made it easier for me to say no.

At the same juncture where I found certainty, most of my friends and peers, even those who had long vowed never to have kids, gradually became uncertain. They didn’t want kids, exactly, but they voiced concern they might someday regret not having them. Might miss out. One by one I watched my friends fall like dominoes. Seeing this hurt. I thought we were on a path together, the group of friends I had made in grad school, at the bookstore, at writing residencies. They all wanted to be writers or scholars or artists. Now it seemed that my friends had been doing what I was doing on the way to being mothers. What I had believed was a life we were all creating together was just a phase for them. As if, suddenly, the life I was building wasn’t enough. A creative or intellectual life doesn’t exclude the possibility of a life with kids; having kids just makes it a hell of a lot harder. Hadn’t they seen the numbers? Why were they making their lives harder? Why were they leaving me behind?

Like women in the 1970s and ’80s, some millennials are “delaying” having children or choosing not to have them at all, an anomaly the media obsesses over. Silly millennials, with their plants and pets and roommates and gig-economy jobs without benefits! They’ll get around to it eventually. Viral tweets like “PLANTS. ARE. THE. NEW. PETS. / PETS. ARE. THE. NEW. KIDS.” seem to have been interpreted by the media as a cry for help. Millennials, they said, are the saddest generation, graduating into a recession, and now look! They can’t buy houses or have kids or anything. Articles about the declining birth rates in 2019 and 2020 seemed designed to encourage us all to get on board, to get our shit together so we could finally “start a family.” But I wonder if the millennials were onto something.

In 2021, preliminary CDC data states that the birth rate went back up for those ages twenty-five to forty-four. And if my Instagram feed of late is any indication, the campaign to shepherd us all back into the isolated, politically convenient container of the nuclear family is working. But for anyone out there in my generation who has their doubts, who is curious about alternatives, there’s still time for us to do something different.

I read an editorial in The New York Times about why it’s okay, even ethical, not to want to have children. The essay’s main argument, told through a variety of anecdotes about childless people, is that the world is unfit for children.

In other words, it would be wrong to bring a child into this broken world.

In other words, this argument against having children is speaking on behalf of children who have not been born.

This same logic pervades some environmental arguments against procreation. In another Times piece a few weeks later, I read that couples are making their choice not to have kids a political stance on climate. They know that having kids now will negatively impact future generations, so they are making a sacrifice.

For whom?

For the children.

This is exactly the logic of the antiabortion movement, the so-called pro-life. Unborn humans are where we should focus our political energy. Why can’t we not want children for ourselves? I don’t want them for my own sake. Not because I think kids are terrible— it’s not about them!— but because I want my own life. Not because the world isn’t good enough for them, but because they actively make the current problems of the world I live in worse, with the pitter-patter of their little carbon footprints. It’s not the future I’m trying to preserve or protect. It’s now. It’s me. It’s my life.

Saying this, writing the words, feels like breaking a taboo. I sit at my desk and watch through the window for the lighted torches and pitchforks to march toward the front door. Refusing motherhood is at once a failure and a crime. The deep- down guilt of it. Like abortion, the crime is stopping something that never started, ending a life before it begins. Thwarting possibility, potential, unfulfilled futures. But no one talks about the possibility, the potential, the futures thwarted by having kids. Eileen Myles writes, “I think women are supposed to open their legs to time and let it pass through them.”

When I watch my friends become mothers I feel a terrible loss. When my friends stay with disappointing boyfriends and say they just want to get married someday and have kids someday, I’m bereft. When the best minds of my generation spend all their savings on IVF treatments, only to lose each precious embryo and say that now they will never have a life that feels complete, I long to tell them: Darlings, we are free! Throw out your syringes, thaw your eggs, scramble them! You are enough! You are a whole person, on your own, without the baby, without the husband. It makes sense that a person raised as a girl wouldn’t think of themself as whole or complete on their own. The foundation of our culture is the idea that they aren’t. I can see how important it is to them, the baby. How badly they want it. And when they get the baby, I see their joy. Usually on Instagram, because they no longer have time to talk or text. I rarely hear from them much again, as they are, presumably, swept up by the tide of blissful selflessness, or the onslaught of unpaid labor under bad reproductive working conditions. Why does having a baby feel so important, so necessary, to them? Is it truly what they want, or is it what they’ve been made to feel will fulfill them? No one can answer this question objectively.

Of course, I’m getting carried away. I cannot voice any of these concerns. I can’t respond to someone’s ultrasound photo with a screed about the way the motherhood mandate oppresses us or the ramifications for the climate. (I can’t even mention that posting an ultrasound photo is in direct contradiction with their professed political stance on abortion!) Not only am I not supposed to voice my anger or my disappointment, but I’m supposed to be thrilled. I’m supposed to treat this as an unmitigated source of joy for their life and mine. No other decision a person can make demands such reverence, such unconditional positive regard. I am talking not about the child itself but about the decision to have it. In her novel Either/Or, Elif Batuman writes,

Nobody ever explained what was admirable about having the kids, or why it was the default course of action for every single human being. If you ever asked why any particular person had had a kid, or what good a particular kid was, people treated it as blasphemy— as if you were saying they should be dead, or the kid should be dead. It was as if there was no way to ask what the plan had been, without implying that someone should be dead.

All I can think about as I describe my own anger, frustration, and disappointment at the millennial pandemic baby boom’s coinciding with the dismantling of Roe during the sixth great extinction is what my pregnant friends, my mother friends, will think reading this. How it will make them think I hate their kid, that I don’t support them.

If you go far enough down the road questioning the value of having kids in an era of environmental and social collapse, things get pretty dark. On the website StopHavingKids.org, you will find a list of reasons not to have kids, each accompanied by its own terrible and detailed graphic. A crying, shirtless child beside a bleeding, one-eyed dog behind bars: “Existing Life in Need of Help.” A person breastfeeding a child while working on a laptop with a phone pressed to their shoulder, on the floor of a room strewn with toys: “Parenthood Regret.” (My favorite of these graphics comes on the page for childfreedom, labeled “No Kids Due to Circumstances.” It pictures a naked person on a leather sofa reading a book, with a stack of pancakes beside her.) The home page states, in all caps: “THERE IS AN UNCONSCIONABLE AMOUNT OF NEEDLESS SUFFERING AND DEATH IN THE WORLD. BIRTH SERVES AS THE CATALYST FOR IT ALL.”

Most of the ideas on the website derive from the arguments of anti-natalist philosopher David Benatar, who writes, “Those who never exist cannot be deprived. However, by coming into existence one does suffer quite serious harms that could not have befallen one had one not come into existence.” Benatar emphasizes that choosing to have a child denies agency to that child, because you have decided for them that they should exist. His philosophy centers around the desire to prevent suffering. Because all human life contains suffering, the only way to prevent it for others is not to create more humans. Funny how this extreme argument for childlessness is still somehow centered around the children themselves, their hypothetical lives.

A more palatable, less human-centered version of this position comes from Les Knight, who founded the Voluntary Human Extinction movement. His bid for humans to “live long and die out” has proven to be a balm to many similarly minded people who are horrified at the losses to other species and ecosystems human consumption has wrought. But even the gentle humor in his slogan “Thank You for Not Breeding,” or in the Center for Biological Diversity’s free condoms featuring endangered species that say things like “For the sake of the horned lizard  .  .  . slow down, love wizard,” can have an ominous echo for those familiar with the history of forced sterilization in the U.S.

Childlessness hasn’t always been possible for everyone, and it continues to be impossible for many. For most people with uteruses around the world, their default status is involuntary motherhood. (“Nearly half of all pregnancies worldwide are unintended,” according to a United Nations Population Fund report. Unsafe abortions resulting from unwanted pregnancies are one of the leading causes of maternal deaths.) The ability not to have children throbs at the center of U.S. politics, and decades of Republican strategy went into bringing down Roe. As Angela Davis wrote in Women, Race and Class in 1981, “women’s desire to control their reproductive system is probably as old as human history itself.”

Long before Roe, before the birth control movement, white American women found a way to decrease the number of babies they were having. In the late nineteenth century, a steep decline in the white birth rate “implied that women were substantially curtailing their sexual activity,” writes Davis. This was not something to be celebrated. Instead “the specter of race suicide was raised in official circles.” Naturally, then-president Theodore Roosevelt freaked out and declared that “race purity must be maintained.” Davis writes, “In his State of the Union message that year Roosevelt admonished the wellborn white women who engaged in ‘willful sterility— the one sin for which the penalty is national death, race suicide.’ ” The president linked women’s ability to say no to forced motherhood with anti-nationalism and aligned the nation with whiteness. The presumptive caretaking that women took on extended farther than their own families. Now they were tasked with maintaining the birth rate for their (white) nation.

The birth control movement took Roosevelt’s warning to heart. As Davis describes, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger went on to “define ‘the chief issue of birth control’ as ‘more children from the fit, less from the unfit.’ ” In order to get powerful people on their side, they had to frame birth control as a way to elevate the lives of white women while “controlling the population” of people of color. In addition to wanting to increase the number of white pregnant women, groups of people viewed as nonwhite or “inferior” for other reasons (as Sanger horrendously put it, “morons, mental defectives, epileptics, illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, and dope fiends”) posed a threat, flooding the market with workers who might eventually rise up against the powerful. Population control was a more palatable idea for the state and for the general populace than people with uteruses’ having control over their bodies.

So popular were these ideas in the early twentieth century that “by 1932 the Eugenics Society could boast that at least twenty-six states had passed compulsory sterilization laws and that thousands of ‘unfit’ persons had already been surgically prevented from reproducing,” writes Davis. Rather than granting more agency to people with uteruses to decide if and when to have children, the federal government intervened directly with their bodies for decades. In a single year, 1972, the U.S. government paid for somewhere “between 100,000 and 200,000 sterilizations.” (For comparison, in the twelve years of Hitler’s reign, 250,000 sterilizations were carried out in Nazi Germany.) In America, sterilizations focused on lower-class people and people of color, in particular Native American women. “By 1976 some 24% of all Indian women of childbearing age had been sterilized,” writes Davis.

As with the antiabortion movement, forced sterilization sought to control certain groups of people and to prevent their continued existence. The legacies of these policies are still with us, and they inform the medical establishment, policy debates about choice, and the impervious motherhood mandate. “While women of color are urged, at every turn, to become permanently infertile, white women enjoying prosperous economic conditions are urged, by the same forces, to reproduce themselves,” Davis writes. Perhaps the pressure I feel to reproduce comes from whiteness itself.

Reprogenetics technologies like IVF often involve embryo selection, when a parent chooses which embryo to implant from their own or from a set of donors’. Sociologist Dorothy Roberts quotes an ad for an IVF clinic in The New York Times Magazine that offers “Doctoral Donors with advanced degrees and numerous other donors with special accomplishments and talents.” Craigslist ads solicit egg donors, “specifying ‘WE HAVE A VERY HIGH DEMAND FOR JEWISH, EAST INDIAN, MIDDLE EASTERN, ASIAN, ITALIAN, and BLONDE DONORS.’ ” Roberts describes this as a form of “benign eugenic thinking.” It allows parents to choose trait markers like sex, race, and ability—the very categories that stratify our society. How benign can that be? She writes, “Fertility clinics’ use of race in genetic selection procedures may help to reinforce the erroneous belief that race is a biological classification that can be determined genetically or that genetic traits occur in human beings according to their race.” However, race is “an invented social grouping,” not a genetic or biological category. Those who have children because they want someone who looks like them, who has their eyes, their features, and those who choose the gender of their children are engaging in a form of eugenic thinking not unlike the mentality that gave rise to forced sterilization. Those who had “good” childhoods and want to bring “good” people into the world, people like them, people who will act and vote like them, are also engaging in this type of thinking. They want to control who gets to exist. What do they mean by “good”? What work is “good” doing here?

If the birth control movement privileged population control over the empowerment of people with uteruses, and if IVF has its own sinister set of implications, what alternatives might grant full personhood, and the ability to control their own reproductive capacities, to people with uteruses? In her book Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, Sophie Lewis considers the radical possibility of wages for pregnancy. After outlining ways that the international surrogacy industry and the various groups that mobilize against it impact surrogates, she arrives at a desire for “incentives to practice real surrogacy, more surrogacy: more mutual aid.” Increasing and bolstering the industry of gestation and childbirth, she argues, and paying more people to be pregnant, could ultimately diminish the “supremacy of ‘biological parents’ ” in favor of communal families and “nongenetic investments” in future generations. All of this sounds, to me, fantastic, if a bit vaguely imagined. At the same time, it reveals the flattening effect of capital: everything becomes a way for some to be bought and sold, others to buy and sell.

I’m all for pregnancy and parenthood in a different world from ours. In a world where pregnant people have care, support, where moms aren’t totally on their own. Where having babies isn’t the be-all, end-all of a woman’s existence, the only route to human fulfillment. Where we live in a sustainable society that can support new members of its population without exploiting the resources of other countries and species. Lewis asks, what if we looked at pregnancy, gestation, and birth as the labors they are? Surrogate mothers who have been paid to carry and deliver babies “retroactively reimagine their prior pregnancies as undervalued services.” Only then can they see the difference in how their role is “valued.” Putting pregnancy into the context of capitalism—the context in which it already exists—makes clear that child production and care are forms of labor that merit compensation. We would not have a workforce without pregnancy. But then, I keep asking: Why must we have a workforce?

The unborn child is a hypothetical, a thing not real or true, a Schrödinger’s cat who can’t matter but who has so much power, more power than most uterus-having people to choose their own lives. Abortion bans make it clear how radical this idea— the full personhood of people with uteruses— still is. Regardless of the health of the pregnant person, their desires or needs, and the circumstances by which they became pregnant, antiabortion activists value the embryo over the pregnant person. “If a man chooses to put his sperm inside a woman,” writes Myles, “inside her it must stay. It’s like she’s Tupperware.” Her value lies in the life she could possibly contain. The expectation to caretake begins in the womb, when a fit mother is scrutinized for how well she eats, how she cares for the life within her. I see this same expectation at work throughout my life. I could have a hysterectomy and my painful periods and migraines might cease, but I know how difficult it is to convince a doctor to do this. It is seen as a last resort because, more than a person living my life, I am primarily a woman of childbearing years. Even if I tell them I do not want children. I am a vessel, a machine to be optimized, Tupperware, not a living being who deserves care, deserves to experience less pain because I exist unto myself.

I choose my body. I choose my life. Still, when asked if my partner and I plan to have kids, I am made to feel a unique combination of disappointment and condescending knowingness—“Oh, give it a few years. You’ll change your mind.” I make a crack about our three cats, falling on my sword, and try to move on. This kind of comment is coming from a place of love. The person just wants us to be happy, and they believe that kids are the way to happiness. Perhaps they believe that since we aren’t straight, we should especially be inclined to have kids, to have a “normal” family. But what if my happiness, my family, is a life they’ve never envisioned, never known or considered? After reading the opening pages of my first book, which is about the queer life of writer Carson McCullers, my grandma told me on the phone, “I like it, but I don’t know anything about that life.”

A few years ago, an artist I met in Wyoming had the gall to tell me that having kids was the most meaningful, nay, the only meaningful, thing a person could do in life. Several others agreed with him. Do they realize, I wondered idly, not aloud, that in casual conversation they have called my full humanity (the fullness of my humanity) into question? That by choosing not to have kids, in their equation, I have willingly forgone an experience—the experience!—that makes me human and complete? And legitimate and generous and sustaining? Do they understand that by saying genetic parenthood is the only route to a full and meaningful life, they eject queers and trans people and single people and sterile people and anyone who doesn’t choose what they chose from the spectrum of humanity, of full human experience? Do they have any idea what they’re saying, when they casually suggest it matters more than anything else they’ve ever done, anything I could ever do?

It’s an odd flip: what is technically a purely biological function is now seen as the one authentic higher human experience you can subject yourself to in pursuit of purpose. As with the idea of career as a path to fulfillment, this turns a form of labor into a peak experience, an identity and life-defining aspiration.

To treat motherhood as a peak life experience is a form of gatekeeping that excludes those who parent but cannot be pregnant from accessing a “full” life. It excludes anyone without a functioning uterus, and it defines those who have one as fundamentally unfulfilled unless they make use of it. My friend Tara has been single for a long time, despite wanting a partner. She went to a baby shower and had to endure friends and mothers swooningly repeating the phrase “From maidenhood to motherhood!” Where was she in that conception of womanhood? Nonexistent. “How can I be the only one in the room who notices this?” Tara asked me. I understand the desire not to miss out on a fundamental human experience. The longing for completism. But I also know that no life is complete, and every life is complete. Sorry, fellow millennials. There aren’t metrics here, ways to optimize and perfect. Life is on its own terms. I suspect this is a queer sensibility, or one brought to me by choosing a queer life. I had to give up all the things I learned to want, the legible futures that would make my life “complete.”

The alternative to finding meaning through children is far scarier, but to me more exciting. If having children is what humans have done since the beginning of time, if for most of human history motherhood has been involuntary, perhaps it’s high time to try absolutely anything else at all. In Motherhood, Sheila Heti writes, “In a life in which there is no child, no one knows anything about your life’s meaning. They might suspect it doesn’t have one— no centre it is built around. Your life’s value is invisible. . . . How wonderful to tread an invisible path, where what matters most can hardly be seen.” Defining your own path can be terrifying. And it can be seen as threatening to those who have chosen the route that is most visible, that is considered normal. It is also lonely, I am finding. Lonelier by the year.

The English language doesn’t have a word for people who don’t have children. In the past, researchers used the word “childless,” but people without children found that term a bit dire, so they changed it to the more optimistic “childfree.” Subjects in studies of childfree cis women from 2003 and 2019 express longing for “a positive feminine identity separate from motherhood.” This suggests that there is no term that embodies a woman’s life without motherhood. What, I ask, is the term for a man who doesn’t become a father? I think we just call him a man. “Man” and “woman” are equally fraught terms, pigeonholing people into genders that may or may not fit their identities. For the childless, the childfree, the issue remains: Why must we be defined, named for what we do not have, what we do not want, what never enters the picture? Get this child out of here!

In recent studies of the childfree, you find people who had very happy childhoods and people who had unhappy ones. The subjects attest that they value their freedom above all: the freedom to choose, to decide how to spend their time. To eat pancakes in the nude, say. Some seek to preserve the intimacy they have with a partner by not introducing another person into the relationship. Others enjoy solitude. Some prefer to devote their time to other relationships with family or friends. Having kids, the cliché goes, changes everything. Often those who don’t have kids simply did not want everything to change, like me—I built my life this way on purpose. I had the privilege to do so. I look at my life and I don’t want everything to change. Many fear a “loss of the self ” with motherhood, having witnessed it in other mothers around them. If I were to lose myself, I’d lose one of the major bodies of source material for my writing. To have a baby and keep writing about my life would require a type of compartmentalization, of boundaries I’ve never been capable of maintaining. I say this not from experience but from having watched others attempt it.

When asked about their “long- term satisfaction” with the choice not to have kids, childfree people’s reports are “overwhelmingly positive.” No regrets, some said. No second thoughts, others said. “Phenomenal.” “More than satisfying— it’s just been great.” They report their lives as “superlative.” How obnoxious, this satisfaction! Surely there must be some underlying deep- down disappointments or more people would be doing it.

I braced myself when I got to the section of the study on negative outcomes. Here come the regrets! All the big looming fears that we will be let down by our lives without kids! In fact, participants noted only two negative outcomes: “Otherness in Community” and “Difficulty or Loss in Friendships with Parenting Women.” Feelings of otherness and exclusion arose for those who took part in religious groups or extended families that did not accept their choice. And many of the subjects lost friends to motherhood, as I have. The studies are imperfect, focusing on straight, white, cis women. More research is needed beyond these studies to understand childlessness, childfreedom as a choice, as a community, as a manifestation of agency and a way of living. But the negative outcomes stick with me. The things that stigmatize this choice—being cast out by your community, losing your female friendships—are the very same things the witch hunts threatened.

On phone calls with two of my friends about why they wanted to have kids, they each informed me, un expectedly, that they were now currently pregnant, one with her second child, the other with her first. During the calls, listening to their reasons and asking occasional follow-up questions, I found myself rolling my forearms along my desk with a small, spiky blue rubber ball that I use to break up the tension in my muscles from typing. After we had talked through her reasons, my friend asked what was new with me. Suddenly my big, beautiful, happy, full life shrank before my eyes. “The tulips are coming up,” I croaked. What’s the point of living? What’s the point of me? I’m not growing a tiny lizard inside me who will become a whole person and take over my entire life course. What could I say to match that, to show we were still aligned? None of my projects, including this book, seemed to rival the scope of hers.

This is what the institution of motherhood does. It makes anything I do—climb Mount Everest, find a cure for diabetes—small by comparison. Less meaningful, less generous, less self-sacrificing. When I called my parents to tell them I was a finalist for the National Book Award, they followed it up by telling me someone I went to high school with had just had a baby. I can see how a single conversation like that might push me to change my mind, if all the circumstances of my life were different. Out of—what? Competition? A desire to keep up? To stay aligned?

Hours later, I rolled up my sleeve and saw purpling bruises all along the outside of my forearm. The tulips are a great joy in my life right now. The fact that a dirty old bulb goes underground all frozen winter and then in late February, when the hours of daylight increase, decides it’s time to poke a green shoot out of the ground and fill my bleak late-winter serotonin-deprived heart with hope? Talk about the miracle of life! I read a whole book on seeds and I still have no idea how a bulb brings a plant to life.

The cultural fear or rejection of barrenness, of childlessness, reminds me of the way some people react to the desert landscape. They assume that it’s blank, lifeless, that nothing grows here. But if you know what you’re looking at, it’s a really life-affirming place.

I wonder what would change if procreation were just a weird hobby, like ceramics or CrossFit, instead of the ultimate key to human significance. Child rearing narrows to a pretty specialized interest set: education, human development, youth athletics. It feels desperate to make a pregnancy, a child, your last bid for meaning in this life. I mean, what if it doesn’t pan out? What if your kid is terrible, like We Need to Talk About Kevin bad? But it also makes sense. We are alienated from our labor, we are exploited, so work does not provide meaning or value. Where else can meaning and value come from? If not work, it must be kids. What other values, what other sources of meaning, could there be? This is my question. I want to see more people trying to answer it. Why does it bother me so much that everyone is having babies, why does it get under my skin? Because each time one of them gets pregnant or says they felt the call to motherhood arise within them, I feel my personhood diminishing. I feel I am less of a person in their eyes. Having kids is still the default, the norm—even for queer people now. To normalize not having kids would require that we normalize abortion (not to mention make it legal everywhere), normalize infertility, normalize singledom, normalize eldercare, normalize healthcare for bodies with uteruses, normalize healthcare, period.

When people with kids say that I’ll change my mind, that eventually I’ll see, they are presuming the fact of my regret, that without kids I’ll miss out. They clearly haven’t read any of the studies. (Imagine if I responded to the next friend’s announcement of pregnancy with “Oh, give it time. You’ll change your mind.”) The common desire on the part of those who have kids to pressure others into having them isn’t doing them any favors. It makes the whole thing seem an awful lot like a cult. A multilevel marketing scheme at best. What darksided queer theorist Lee Edelman called “the Ponzi scheme of reproductive futurism.” But in the concern over what one might miss out on without kids, I wonder if they consider what they miss when they have them.

When you take children out of the equation, it costs much less to have a life. Children are part of the system that entrenches us in capitalist striving and labor production and endless competition. Children and wealth accumulation are in a positive feedback loop. If you don’t have kids, you need to earn far less: a smaller living space; fewer mouths to feed, medical bills, clothes; no childcare, schooling. I’m not saving for anyone’s college tuition. Our culture would have this as my irresponsibility. Always the emphasis is on some future moment. Capitalism defines the realm of home and family as separate from the realm of work, while hiding the fact that the home is meant only as a place to prepare oneself for more work. What if the home could be something more than a recovery zone or a realm of reproduction? What if life could be something more? Take away that one element, the child, and the possible paths are utterly different.

I know my writing requires solitude, long stretches to think deeply, space and time, and a kid removes solitude from the picture. With Chelsea I can have my solitude and our love, and this is so much more than I dreamed, so much more than “enough” or “it all.” Nurturing as a practice is still there—in how I care for myself, my cats, my tomato plants. But it’s only one part, not all-consuming. I can put it away if I want to, go in my room and ignore the meows and demands for attention and do no real harm to anyone. The cats don’t need me at all times and neither do the plants, and I can choose the times (especially with noise-canceling headphones and a closed door). I can grow and change and have moods and not scar anyone. I don’t need to make anyone understand the extent of my sacrifice.

I could follow this statement the way many childless people do, by reassuring the audience and myself of my love for children. I could say, Don’t get me wrong, I love kids! I just don’t want kids of my own. I adore being an auntie! I’m the godmother to my friends’ kids! I love to babysit! Kids are wonderful! But then I’d be pantomiming the idea of womanhood as child-oriented, child-loving at all costs. I’d be reaffirming, reinscribing, the idea of a good woman, a fit woman, as one who cares for children. I think this idea is damaging, toxic. I want to see beyond it.

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Jenn Shapland

JENN SHAPLAND’s first book, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Lambda Literary Award and the Publishing Triangle Award, amongst other honors. She’s the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, support from the Georgia O'Keeffe fellowship, and residencies at Aspen Words, Ucross, Yaddo, the Carson McCullers Center for Artists and Musicians, the Vermont Studio Center, the Tin House Writers Workshop, and the Harry Ransom Center graduate internship.

Jenn has written 2 articles for us.


  1. Thank you for this piece. Beautifully written and right on the money.

    This paragraph particularly resonated with me, as an asexual, childfree person who loves the desert:

    “The cultural fear or rejection of barrenness, of childlessness, reminds me of the way some people react to the desert landscape. They assume that it’s blank, lifeless, that nothing grows here. But if you know what you’re looking at, it’s a really life-affirming place.”


  2. This is an absolutely incredible piece of writing that speaks to so much about how I feel.

    I mentioned my partner and I not wanting kids when asked recently and there was just this little stutter in the conversation of surprise. No one is having kids yet but they’re all making plans around the eventuality and I was taken aback myself. Just because I’m friendly and bubbly and extroverted doesn’t mean a kid is for me! How could I do any of the things those traits lead me to with a kid? I don’t think I could, and I don’t want to.

    Again, this is magnificent and lays it all out wonderfully. The unborn child as Schrödinger’s cat is one of the more marvellous images I’ve seen put to the page in a while!

  3. This was a very interesting article. Thanks for sharing! You’ve definitely given me a lot to think about!

    As a trans woman, motherhood is something I’ve thought about a lot lately. Whether I have kids or not, my relationship to motherhood is going to be radical no matter what! :)

  4. I appreciate this so much.i just turned 30 and so many people are having kids around me and it does feel isolating, when I have ethical qualms about the very idea of bringing a child into this particular world, and wouldn’t personally want kids in any world

  5. What an absolutely incisive and raw piece. I tried to re-read to pull a favorite quote and found I wanted to pull so many I might as well just have reposted the whole thing. Encountering something so well expressed about how those who opt out of motherhood are othered and belittled by society hit really close to home. As a lesbian, I already exist outside of the proper womanhood role assigned to me by society, how much more do I feel that by opting not to reproduce! I really appreciate how hard hitting this was too, I often feel the need to “soften” my stance to be more palatable, the author’s expressed annoyance and disappointment at friend’s choices is so familiar. The last line has me dreaming of the world where we are so much more than our potential reproductive capacity. Will definitely be checking out the book!

  6. Jenn – what is the central point of your article? It feels like you don’t want to *outright* advocate for people not getting pregnant (because of all the problematic history you rightfully point out) but ultimately conclude that the world would be better off if queer people stopped focusing on trying to start families?

    It’s also interesting that you have one throwaway line in this article that children “don’t necessarily” prevent someone from being a fulfilled intellectual, but the rest of the article seems to argue that they do. It’s like you’re falling for the same fallacy you’re criticising – are your friends not the same writers, painters, philosophers that they once were just because they have kids now? Do YOU see your friends as nothing more than mothers?

    I do agree with you that especially in the US, women are not valued as individuals and are put in the box of “motherhood”, and subsequently looked down upon if they don’t have kids. That’s something I too would like to change. But your characteristics of your queer friends getting pregnant really rubbed me the wrong way. We finally have enough protections in (some parts of) this country to start families, only to deal with resentment and criticism from our own internal community.

    Honestly I was interested in this article because I thought it would offer an interesting perspective on other ways queer people can derive meaning from life, OUTSIDE of work or kids. Your answer seems to be tulips (because one of the great accomplishments of yours that you reference is writing, which I assume is your work).

    Thanks for your perspective, even though I don’t agree with it (or perhaps I don’t even understand it). It’s always interesting to read such a different take from your own.

    • As someone who doesn’t want children, I felt a frustration with this piece similar to what you are expressing; however, in my case it was because I was hoping to find a powerful and compelling essay to send to my family when they question my childfree choices. I was looking for something that effectively argued my position and also gave equal “air time” to the decision to raise children.

      After reflecting for a bit, it feels to me like so many of the author’s questions and perspectives are still so transgressive in our society that the piece is equal parts an argument and an airing of grievances. I don’t think the author’s purpose was so much to deliver a balanced perspective as to open up and present a perspective that society often denies even exists or is acceptable.

      It reminds me of how people sometimes write about their irritation with gendered labels and their desire to live in a society without gender. These perspectives sometimes get met with criticism because they can seem to diminish the value and joy some folks derive from gender. I think there are space for arguments that attend to the value of “both sides”, but I also value pieces where an author articulates how a prevailing social norm is simply not working for them and is harmful to a lot of people.

  7. This article is FANTASTIC. Incredible depth of research and feeling. You have articulated so much of the discomfort and otherness I feel as a cis woman in her mind 30s with no desire for children. Thank you so much for this, I know I’ll be coming back to it

  8. “Because each time one of them gets pregnant or says they felt the call to motherhood arise within them, I feel my personhood diminishing. I feel I am less of a person in their eyes.” As someone who loved being single, loves being happily partnered without kids, and is now thinking about kids – I am sorry you feel like your personhood is diminished in others’ eyes when they announce they are going to have kids. However, I hope it’s possible your friends don’t actually see you as a diminished person, even if you feel like it. Is it possible your friends are actually really, genuinely interested in your tulip garden, and you’re unfairly assuming how they feel? That they love you very much, and love hearing you talk about something you are passionate about? If I choose to have kids, I hope I do not believe my life without kids was the life of a diminished person. I don’t reject anything I am now, and believe my life is full and complete. I believe that I can hold that to be true for my friends as well, no matter what my life ultimately looks like. I understand what you are saying about Society, but perhaps your friends are not Society, they are…your friends. And their decisions about children aren’t meant to negate your personhood, or their own. I guess I feel bad because it seems you think the decision by any of your friends who initially didn’t want children is inherently a betrayal of you and negation of your personhood, instead of an equally seriously considered choice that isn’t meant to comment on you at all – and I would dearly hope never to make my friends feel that way. I liked many things about this piece, but I don’t think it takes people who choose to have kids very seriously as thinking, breathing adults who are actively engaging with the same questions as you. We’re not all on default! We’d also like meaning in our life outside of kids!

  9. I found this piece interesting — definitely a lot to think about. I have a kid, but I also have a significant number of friends and family members who are child free, most by choice, and as we’re in the later half of our 30s I’m definitely not anticipating that any of them will change their minds.

    Oddly enough, I think I share some of your issues with the conflation of motherhood and womanhood from a somewhat different perspective. I’m an agender person who gave birth to a child (now 6), and the ways in which pregnancy and parenthood made me feel vastly more gendered by society than I had previously (which itself was definitely due to some intersecting privileges) was a big motivation for me shifting to using they/them pronouns and coming out more generally.

    I understand that this except is from a larger book, but I also wonder about potential space for finding purpose in relationships, connection, and community/societal change without automatically going to a gendered, caretaker lens. I think my teaching is closer to a “purpose” than parenting is, but not in the sense of feeling fulfilled because I get paid for it? I dunno…lots of thoughts and too much going on right now to try to make them clearer.

    • I’m also interested in the ways the author’s pushback against a focus on hypothetical children speaks to/complements the themes of Erica Meiners’ book “For the Children? Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State” which is very much about dissecting the ways in which “For the children” rhetoric is really about protecting the state, the status quo,vand people in power.

  10. This is gorgeous!! Thank you for sharing an excerpt from this beautiful book here; I was lucky to receive a galley and have been blown away by the prose and intelligence in these pages. Congratulations to the writer!!

  11. As a nonbinary person with a uterus whose known since their mid 20s that they wanted to be childfree (and loudly proclaimed it to friends, family and romantic partners), this was an interesting read. I guess I don’t feel the same sense of shame or “diminishing of personhood” from my community and I’m really sorry that is the experience of the author. I have had the whole “oh just wait” comment said to me which is always frustrating, but I mostly internalized that as the comment sayer not being able to see beyond cishet expectations of life (i came out later in life -ripe age of 30!-so have quite a bit of cishet community). I do not want to diminish what the author is experiencing but also can’t help wondering how much of what the author is feeling around being “less than” or “diminished” or not able to “rival the scope” of becoming a parent is internalized shame that needs to be unlearned/worked through.

    I guess I just wanted to say to the author and anyone else feeling shamed for their child-free life, it gets better–once you fully release societal expectations around parenthood, even if others still have them for you and comment on their hopes for grandchildren/etc, it just doesn’t sting the same way–at least, that has been my experience and I hope you eventually get to rid yourself of any shame around being child-free as well.

  12. Really to read this perspective, very honest and potentially polarising. I understand this also to be a very USA-pertaining perspective. Come from the opposite experience, have always had a strong desire to have children,love being around children and babies, never waivered in my persuit of having them and it’s the one thing I’ve done that I’ve never regretted.Having (to me) is not something I can make rational arguments for. It just comes with who I am, but that doesn’t negate a lot of the points pointed out here. And it is true that it changed friendships.

  13. This is an incredible excerpt that captures everything I’ve ever thought and felt about not having children, ESPECIALLY the disappointment when friends (or family, or TV characters, or anyone I know) falls into that lifestyle and I feel abandoned and angry and deceived, and disappointed in them for making a choice I so fundamentally disagree with and see as damaging for their personhood and the world we live in, but I have to pretend to be happy for them and steel myself for conversations focused around nothing but their baby for the foreseeable future. I also love the ending; I HATE when every statement about childfreedom is followed by “but I love being an aunt!” 🙄

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