A Childless Historian of Children: The Choice Not to Parent
I am a historian of women, sexuality, medicine, and childhood. As I write my dissertation on the history of sex education in Progressive Era America, I am constantly thinking about parenthood, family formation, and how adults try to teach children about sex and reproduction. And I do this work as someone who never plans to have children myself.
For as long as I can remember I have not wanted to have kids. I did a lot of babysitting in my early adolescence. I think I started watching neighborhood children in suburban Ohio as young as 10, and I spent an entire summer watching three kids full time while their mom was in school. That experience was probably the clincher — I enjoy children for short periods of time, but I am always ready to hand them back to their parents. For nearly as long as I’ve known I didn’t want children, I’ve had others hinting to me, or bluntly saying, that I am wrong. “Oh, you’re young. You’ll change your mind. Wait until you meet the right guy. Once you hit a certain age, that clock will start ticking…”
If I had a dollar for every time someone said one of these things to me, I’d probably be able to stop worrying about the impending end of my graduate stipend. I am 27 years old. I have been sure of this choice for about 15 years — over half my life. I have an amazing partner who agrees that our life is fine without kids. And sure, this may change as I age, but it hasn’t yet.
I’ve found academia to be a great place for a woman who doesn’t want to parent. I’ve seen the struggles of friends who want to have kids try to decide when the best time is to have children in graduate school or early in their professional careers. I’ve also watched, incredibly impressed, as some friends have taken the dive into parenthood in the midst of research and teaching and done beautifully. And I have heroic friends who entered graduate school with children already in tow, who somehow manage to balance the crazy workload and raise wonderful kids at the same time (I’m looking at you, Beth.) But seeing these women (and a few men) make these hard choices has made it even more obvious to me that I am glad I don’t even have to worry about it. Being in the fairly liberal space of academia takes some of those pressures off. Within these circles, I don’t usually have to explain why I’d never take my partner’s name, why he is the cook in our household, or why pro-choice reproductive politics are so important to me.
But my research and teaching interests do give me weird feelings sometimes about my choice to avoid motherhood. As a women’s historian, and one with an interest in medical history, I am dodging one of the experiences that supposedly unites women. Childbirth and child-rearing are key points in a woman’s life cycle that we often study as historians. I have even had wild moments where I think, “Maybe I should volunteer as a surrogate. Then I could experience childbearing without having to keep the kid at the end.” The same goes for being a historian of childhood and youth — I can imagine as I age through my childbearing years, I may get funny looks from people who hear that I study children and have no interest raising my own. Sexuality too — but this one makes me feel the least odd, since the history of sexuality in America has included a quest to disconnect sex from reproduction. Margaret Sanger was trying to help exhausted moms stop their reproduction, but her contemporary Mary Ware Dennett was on my side, trying to give people a choice in parenthood. I hope Dennett would have recognized avoiding parenthood altogether as a valid choice.1
More and more people are coming out today as “childfree” or choosing not to parent. A cover story in Time magazine in 2013 brought this idea into the national conversation. And some recent episodes of The Longest Shortest Time podcast (yes, I listen to a parenting podcast, they advertise it as “the parenting show for everyone,” don’t judge me!) have talked about this choice, including an interview with NPR Fresh Air host Terry Gross discussing how her life without children is exactly what she wants.2 A recent essay collection called Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids gave many different reasons for and perspectives on this decision. I tend to gobble up this kind of media, which both validates my own choice and helps me to feel part of a community of people who, for many different personal reasons, have chosen the same.
As feminist historians and citizens of the world, I hope that we can accept all the choices that women and men make about their reproductive lives. And I hope that we can bring that open-mindedness to our sources and our historical subjects. As I think and write about women in the past, about reproduction, about children and families, I am thankful that I live in a time where I have the choice to pursue such fascinating work and to do so without — what would be for me — the burden of raising my own family. And most of all, I am thankful for my IUD.3
- My understanding of Dennett’s birth control stance must be attributed to Nursing Clio editor Lauren MacIvor Thompson’s recent conference paper at the American Association for the History of Medicine meeting. We share an interest in Mary Ware Dennett — Lauren for her birth control activism, me for her sex education pamphlet, and she is the thing that united us in friendship at a conference. Return to text.
- The podcast episode that directly inspired this post was a lovely conversation between two friends about maintaining their friendship after one of them had a child. The childless friend wrote a lullaby for her friend and her new son and it was freaking beautiful. Return to text.
- Thanks, Obama. Really. Return to text.