By Nancy Rome
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
"No, no, sorry. I don't have any . . ."
Why does this always seem to be the first thing I'm asked? It takes my breath away, yet why do I feel the need to apologize for my reply? Looking vague and embarrassed, my questioner glances over my shoulder for someone else to talk to: someone with whom he or she has more in common, someone with children.
I never thought I'd be childless. Thirteen years ago, my husband and I were expecting our first child. I was a healthy 37-year-old when I went into labor one chilly November morning. We raced to the hospital, the atmosphere between us full of anticipation and anxiety.
The delivery was normal; almost everything was normal. Except that our daughter was dead.
I began groping for ways to create the ordinary out of what felt to me extraordinary. A tiny percentage of births are stillbirths, I told my husband. Nothing's certain, but it is widely accepted that the death of a child can put huge strain on a marriage, I discovered. Three years later my husband and I were divorced.
I then became aware of some striking statistics. According to 2004 U.S. Census Bureau data, the proportion of childless women 15 to 44 years old was 44.6 percent, up from 35 percent in 1976. The higher a woman's income, I learned from another study, the less likely she is to have children: Nearly half of women with annual incomes over $100,000 are childless.
I chose not to seek medical help or look for a sperm donor. Nor have I made myself a mother through adoption. Instead, I've come to see myself as part of a growing phenomenon -- one to which people often don't know how to respond.
Those of us who are not mothers do not fit into any of society's convenient boxes: We're not slaves to carpools or homework. At the same time, we are not necessarily obsessed about our careers or even ourselves; nor are we anti-family. Our days are simply lived according to a different rhythm: Children don't tug at my clothes and beg for attention; I don't leave my cellphone on during films or dinner parties in case the babysitter needs me; I travel; I read books -- lots of them -- as well as the newspaper.
I am also a filmmaker, and a few years ago I began to work on a documentary about childless women -- not only those of us who have lost or can't have children, but the growing number who don't want to have them. Their reasons vary. In the most devastated areas of Baltimore, I found women who told me they had chosen to be childless because there were simply too many children in their families or neighborhoods who needed looking after. An immigration lawyer told me she had done motherhood when she was a teenager, helping her mother with her younger sibling. Many reflected the attitudes of an academic who told me that her decision to remain childless made her feel like "an outlaw."
Some of the most telling comments come from the women I first talked with -- three friends, all like me now in their 50s. Dyann, a lawyer from Boston, recalls a moment at her local pizza joint when the owner asked how many of the children she came in with were hers. "None of them; I chose not to have kids," she said. "That's okay," she remembers him replying. "You still have time; maybe you'll change your mind."
Having grown up as an oldest child, Dyann felt she should be free to choose a career instead of motherhood. With a wry smile, she told me: "Just because I've chosen not to have children, doesn't mean I'm some sort of W.C. Fields character who hates kids, doesn't have patience for them."
The other point Dyann makes to me is that, in her view, raising children is "a job, which calls on the depths of your soul to give to another person. And because I respect that, I didn't want to call forth a life and raise a child when I wasn't 110 percent passionately committed to the idea."
Just as some women talk of a visceral urge that propels them to have children, others speak of an equally visceral urge that propels them not to. Laurie, a transplanted southerner who teaches history in New York, began to realize at an early age that she didn't want children, as she watched wealthy mothers in Richmond hire other women to care for their children. "These people compelled to have trophy babies in certain socioeconomic echelons don't want to face the realities of raising a child." She is now infuriated by what she calls "that Mother Right" -- the assumption that everyone will make way for a woman with a stroller or a child in tow. She goes on to challenge me: "If we believe that this is the hardest thing that anyone can do, then why should it be assumed we should all be doing it?"
This has been a more painful journey for my friend Lori from Tennessee, who, though quick to find humor in things, was devastated by a miscarriage. Her husband, who had two children from a previous marriage, was reluctant to try again. She's irritated by the signs in parking lots reserving spaces for parents with children: "I park in those spots sometimes just out of sheer defiance -- I'm a peri-menopausal woman under stress -- and I need a sign!" Lori argues that "if you don't have children you've . . . thrown a brick in your path that you're going to spend your entire life trying to crawl over. It would have been a lot easier having had children."
Make generalizations, though, and I've learned that I'll be surprised. I spent a recent morning at one of the food markets in downtown Baltimore, talking with women who worked there. Many were black; many said all their friends had children. Then I met Rochelle, who said, "I know a lot of women who don't have kids and don't want any -- married, not married, working, not working. And they don't feel like they're missing out at all."
But almost all the women I've talked with describe feeling acutely aware of what they see as our national obsession with motherhood: "The Bump Watch" hounding Jennifer Aniston and Jennifer Lopez; "Celebrity Babies" like the elusive Suri Cruise; and "The Ultimate Hollywood Accessory: A New Baby," popularized by Brangelina. Some use the term "child-free" to differentiate those who choose not to have children from those who had been unable to have them.
It's hard to find accurate data on the percentage of women who choose to be childless, but the National Center for Health Statistics confirms that 6.6 percent of women in 1995 declared themselves voluntarily childless, up from 2.4 percent in 1982. These days, at least in industrialized countries, we no longer need to "go forth and multiply" to provide children to work our farms. Although the United States has the highest birthrate in the developed world, it hovers around the natural population replacement level of 2.1 births per woman.
In the end, everyone turns the questions back on me. When I'm asked what happened after that November day in 1993, I say that we named our daughter Frances -- after my mother -- and that she is buried at a church near where we were in graduate school. I tell them I take tiny white roses and rosemary to her grave when I can.
I also tell them that I love my friends' children and my nieces and nephews and spend as much time with them as I can. Family gatherings become more bearable every year, and Christmas will be easier than it used to be. And these days, I can almost bring myself to hold an infant. So my life is hardly childless. ·
Nancy Rome is a freelance documentary filmmaker who lives in Baltimore.