Reading Nancy Rome's Washington Post article about what she sees as a growing movement of women who are childless by choice propelled me through an emotional gauntlet so strange that if I had a shred of dignity, I'd be too embarrassed to mention it. But in the interest of a good blog post, dignity be damned!
Rome's story, which begins with her own tale of finding herself childless after giving birth to a stillborn baby, then subsequently divorcing her husband and deciding not to have children, traces her discovery of a larger community of childless women who share the common fate of not having children in a culture obsessed with motherhood. Rome, a documentary filmmaker who has made these women and their stories the subject of her film in progress, cobbles together statistics to argue childless women are a growing trend in part because more women would have it so.
It's an argument that's certainly up for debate. But Rome points to U.S. Census figures that show that the proportion of childless women 15 to 44 years old jumped from 35 percent in 1976 to 44.6 percent in 2003 and that the higher a woman's income the less likely she is to have children. She also observes that the National Center for Health Statistics found that women who declared themselves voluntarily childless rose from 2.4 percent in 1982 to 6.6 percent in 1995.
The entire piece, which is filled with the poignant self-justifications that these women feel they must offer the curious (which roughly translate to: "I really do love children, I've just chosen not to have them"), makes me wince with self-recognition. I'm sure there have been times when I was construed as one of those self-aggrandizing moms who question women about not having children. Becoming a parent is such a point of no return that now the people (men and women) who choose not to go there seem exotic to me. At the end of the story, Rome returns to her own ritual of bringing "tiny white roses and rosemary" to her baby daughter's grave and suddenly my face crumples. By the time she says she "can almost bring [herself] to hold an infant" I'm blubbering all over my keyboard. I feel terribly, terribly sorry for her.
Then I pull myself together. What the hell is going on here? I don't think this is the response Rome is trying for. But like so many stories about women's choices nowadays this one leaves me confused. Why is this story so sad? Why do women feel like they have to define themselves as mothers or motherless, as stay-at-home moms or working women, or the endless variety of identities that veer from that looming norm? Why aren't there articles about men who are choosing not to be fathers? The problem for me about the childless by choice phenomenon isn't that it exists but that it's a category of identity at all. In the sense that it's a choice not to do something, it still feels reactive and defensive. In the end, I feel annoyed both with my tears and with a culture that still makes women who don't have children feel so out of step that it must be a banner of identity.