Posted: Aug 08, 2013 2:00 PM
Is having a child the true pinnacle of a woman's existence? In the days when our grandmothers were young, women without children were pitied and assumed to be infertile. While it seems incomprehensible to some that a woman would choose to be childfree, for many women, the choice is liberating. Can there be a middle ground where mothers aren't judging those who opt out of motherhood?

Splashed across the cover of TIME magazine this week is the story stirring up the latest mothering debate. Forget cloth vs. disposable or breast vs. bottle — The Childfree Life, penned by contributing writer Lauren Sandler, ponders the question of whether women who choose to be childfree should be judged for their decision. It's a question that cuts to the core of who we are as women and what society expects us to be.

Motherhood: The movie

Haven't we been raised for the most part to believe that women are meant to be mothers? Growing up, I can't think of anyone I personally knew who didn't have kids. There is a certain expectation that little girls will play with dolls, play house, play dress-up and dream of the day they will have a family of their own. Movies and television shows give us a wide range of mothers who we can emulate — from Lois on Family Guy to Claire on Modern Family — even going so far as to suggest that mothers don't always even like their kids. While this is a common theme even on social media, the underlying question is whether some of these people should have had kids in the first place.

Do all men want to hunt, fish and play poker? Of course not, but somehow opting out of "manly" activities doesn't usually open men up to the scorn of their peers.

"I found in my own reporting that a lot of people told me about not playing with dolls as kids, not wanting to babysit, not playing house," shared Sandler in her interview on CBS This Morning. "But often I think that it's just a real commitment to following your own desire. And for some people, having kids is a big part of that desire and for other people it's not," Sandler added. Do all men want to hunt, fish and play poker? Of course not, but somehow opting out of "manly" activities doesn't usually open men up to the scorn of their peers.

Opting out

For women who choose to remain childfree, having to explain this decision to people in social situations over and over again can be draining. Women who have thrown their hat into the ring and had one, two, three or more kids may see these childfree women as selfish — too immersed in their own lives to give their souls and their last ounce of energy to a kid or two. I personally would much rather see a woman remain childless than see her try to "accept" motherhood and spend 18 years wishing she hadn't. Having a child is not a choice you can return or rescind and should probably take more debate than some people give to it. Most people who have chosen to be childfree have thought it through over and over again and are probably more aware of themselves than many of those who jumped into parenthood blindly.

In praise of aunties

If you have a childfree friend, be open to helping her develop a unique relationship with your own children, but not as a babysitter.

As a kid, did you have a favorite aunt? She was beautiful, accomplished, interesting and always gave you her undivided attention when she came to visit. Maybe she wasn't truly an aunt but a special family friend who you developed a very special relationship with. Women as a group have an incredible amount of talent, energy, compassion, spirit and camaraderie to offer that has absolutely nothing to do with motherhood. Being childfree doesn't mean you won't affect the lives of children — they just won't be your own. If you have a childfree friend, be open to helping her develop a unique relationship with your own children, but not as a babysitter. Children can enrich all our lives without having to be attached to our hips.

Wistful, or wishful?

busy family schedule dayplanner

For those of us who do have children — or hope to — the feelings we have toward a childless woman are conflicting. "I couldn't imagine myself not being a mom," says Melissa, mother of three older teens. "So after being a mom for over 20 years, I can't imagine being this fulfilled if I had just pursued my career." But there is a sense of wonder, a bit of "what if?" that hangs in the air when she gets together with an old friend who chose to stay childfree. Whether immersed in a career, art, travel, hobbies or volunteer activities, most childfree women aren't just sitting around. Their time belongs to them, and is not doled out in two-hour blocks between soccer practices and dinner prep.

Personally, I always wanted to be a mom — it was never a question for me. Now that my children are both teenagers, I am wistful over those years I am already past, years when my sole existence seemed to be the care and feeding of little people. But I taste this new-found freedom that comes with raising teens, the freedom to stay out late, leave a note on the counter that the leftovers are in the fridge and know that they are self-sufficient. Would my life have been this carefree 24/7 had I opted out of motherhood? I don't think so. I am convinced that family, friends, jobs and hobbies would have filled my time up nicely — that's just not what I wanted.

Common ground

Like breast vs. bottle, career vs. staying at home or any of the other mommy battles, this one won't die anytime soon. But being a woman might just be one of the best-kept secrets we have from the men. We can all help each other lead the fulfilling lives we each want — and it takes every type of woman to make our gender truly remarkable. So let's bring some of that "girl power" back to the conversation, and agree that we're all on the same team.

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Topics: family planning