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Behind every woman without children is a story

Role Models picture from Pinterest

One of the missions of Gateway Women is to celebrate the contribution that women without children make to our culture.

Not having children, whether by choice or circumstance, creates the possibility of a different kind of life. Too often, women who are childfree-by-circumstance are left with the sense of not having a proper life, but instead of somehow making do with the leftovers…

And many women who are childfree by choice find themselves vilified as heartless, selfish types, lacking some ‘vital’ quality that would make them ‘real’ women. But tell me this, what other kind of women are there apart from ‘real’ ones?

Behind every woman without children is a story and we need to start telling those stories; hearing those stories.

That way, a life without children won’t seem as scary: either contemplating it because of circumstance, or to those people trying to get their heads around women choosing to remain childfree.  Personally, I find some of the anti-kids, anti-parent ‘childfree’ sites on the net a bit distasteful at times, but I can appreciate that perhaps they serve as a release valve for women tired of explaining themselves, tired of the intrusive questions and cruel projections our culture loads onto voluntarily childfree women (and couples). I have never met a childfree woman who ‘hated’ kids and many of them seem to have plenty of them in their lives… just not their own.

That’s why it’s so important that we start celebrating publicly the lives of women who don’t have children – women whose lives still have meaning at the centre of them – it’s just that this meaning is something other than their offspring.

The Gateway Women Gallery of Childless and Childfree Role Models on Pinterest is a great reminder of just how many different ways there are to live a life as a woman without children. I started curating this gallery in 2011 and it now contains more than 600 women, past and present, each with their own story. 

Perhaps the time has come to update our attitudes towards women without children. Just as the pill liberated our bodies from unwanted pregnancies, now we need to liberate our culture from the fetishization of motherhood.  Could this fetish be, at its core, a cover-up for some women’s embarrassment in actively choosing motherhood and the domestic arena over being that scary archetype, the ‘career woman’? The old Madonna/whore dichotomy all over again? Do we really have to live our lives with such a poverty of thinking as its backdrop?

Woman are human being not just human breeders. We have more to offer the world than just our wombs. The fact that I have to even write that still astonishes me.

Not everyone has to be a mother in order to contribute to society. That doesn’t make motherhood wrong in any way but neither does it make being childless or childfree something freakish.

So, let’s start celebrating our childless and childfree role models. There are no rules, no reasons, no caveats. They can be childfree by choice or by childfree by circumstance.  What matters is who they are, not what they are not. Motherhood is, at its finest, an act of devotion but, as the poet Rumi wrote:

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.


To suggest a nomination for the role model gallery: (please check the gallery first to see if she’s already there)


37 Comments on Behind every woman without children is a story

  1. Heather Graham is also a childfree inspiration to women, Paris Hilton seems a happy free spirit without, so many others e.g. Daryl Hannah, Winona Ryder…I could go on.

    • I’ve been curating a gallery of childless and childfree role models for the last few years and you’ll find over 500 of them, including Daryl Hannah, Winona Ryder, Heather Graham. Paris Hilton isn’t there yet as I only include women once they are past their childbearing years… a few childfree celebrities have had changes of mind, as they are welcome to do!

  2. I have read with great interest (and much relief!) the postings here and about the Gateway Women organisation and the support you are providing to women without children.

    I am originally from Australia and now living in the UK. I consciously chose not to have children when I was 24, as I was concerned about the potential for passing on mental health issues, which predominated in my family. I am now 48 – and for the last 10 years have been the target of much discrimination in Australia due to the choices I made to remain child free. This included being victimised on two occasions by neighbours who were ‘threatened’ by my child free lifestyle. When I made the decision at 24 to remain child free, I never realised what a lonely road it would become in later life – in terms of the judgmental attitudes from women and men (but mostly other women!); the jealousy and envy and the total disregard for the existence of women like me in Australian society. It makes me ashamed of my country. Up until recently, I did speculate whether this attitude existed in other cultures, including the UK! As you rightly point out Jody, middle aged, ‘child free’ women, have replaced single mothers as objects of hatred and derision. It saddens me very greatly to see so many of us so misunderstood by our peers. I am therefore glad to find your site and commend the work you are doing, which finally gives us a voice! Thank-you

  3. As a professional career woman of liberal Muslim faith and Asian heritage who chooses to be child free, I have found your site a real source of inspiration. I have strong cultural pressures as well as the judgement I face from wider society but I am adament I will stay true to myself about this. Well done Jody for celebrating some amazing women of the past and present. I work with vulnerable young people teaching the lifeskills and basic skills for a living although I don’t see it as a job, I see it as a purpose. I see the effects of having children when people are not really prepared emotionally or financially first hand on a daily basis. I have been judged for opting out of having children and am often patronised about my personal decision when I have dedicated my life to educate, empower and support vulnerable children. I don’t think not having children makes me less of a woman anymore than say not being a graduate would make anyone stupid, yet like you say often the judgment is subtly put out there. I say whether you want children, don’t want children, are a mother or not a mother, we should all be respectful of individual choices, circumstances and celebrate individual ways of life. The world would be a very boring place if we all did, wanted and had the same things. It hurts me when people make judgments when they realise I don’t have children so I can only imagine how much it can hurt if you want children but are unable to have them due to different reasons and others are insensitive about it. But I suppose the insensitiveness or sometimes plain subtle cruelty says more about the people passing those judgements as opposed to the other way round. Thank you for setting up a lovely site which is honest, positive and allows room for us all.

  4. I was trying to come up with interesting reads and writings that inspire and stumbled on your site. I wanted kids…as it turns out…I could not have them. There have been times that I felt uncomfortable when someone would just say…how many children do you have? I remember in my thirties that I felt that there was something missing in my life. A part of me was missing…was it kids or something else?

    Fifty is creeping up on me now and I feel quite content that I have no children. I have many nephews and nieces. Those relationships are fulfilling. I have a wonderful husband and life is good.

    Thanks to everyone who is sharing.


  5. I’ve only come to this site recently. I have been struggling with being single, childless and 46. Struggling with finding meaning in my life. This website is great. I struggle with the thought I have failed as a woman because I am childless. I haven’t had any role models so it is lovely to read about a range of women who are childless – I’m not alone as there are plenty of times that I feel that.

  6. Yesterday was my 67th birthday. At the top of my list of things to feel grateful about was not having children. My friends have told me how they envy my freedom, quiet and solitude. Half my female friends do not have children and we are happy and content and surprisingly fulfilled in life.

  7. I don’t see the big advantage to having children. People with young children(0 to7) always seem miserable to me when I see the in stores,doctor’s office etc. There always are yelling and screaming and dragging there kids around. When my older friends talk about there teenagers it’s never good. They are disrespectful,doing drugs or sleeping around always something . As well kids aren’t moving out at 18 now a days.ol Other then the fact that its hard wired in to us by nature. I’m not even gonna go in to what it does to your body and budget.

    • Hi Christina

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, indeed, becoming a parent is not the slam-dunk route to happiness that the culture promotes. But for many, it’s still a longed-for option. Choosing not to have children is something that is now possible for women, which is a relatively new development in the history of the world, and I’m very happy for women who make that choice. However, the grief and heartbreak that comes with not being able to have children when you wanted them is not diminuished by the logic that children are hard work and expensive. I wish it were that easy!

      A site that you might find very interesting which explores the childfree angle in a rounded way is Laura Carroll’s “La Vie Childfree” and her book “The Baby Matrix” about pronatalism as an ideology is one of the best books on the invisible forces that shape our think around family life I know.

      With best wishes

      Jody x

  8. Today I watched “Miss Potter” the story of the famous Beatrx Potter, wonderful children’s writer & conservationist. Beatrix married her 2nd love at 48 & having never had children she left her 3 farms to the National Trust, & her Lake District village free from developers.
    And then I recalled another film I saw recently “Julia & Julia” about the infamous Julia Childs, who took French cooking to America, she was also childless.
    If either of these inspirational women had had children would they have had the time, energy or motivation to have pursued their dreams & bring about such a positive impact to so many others? Highly unlikely!

  9. For years i have battled my mother, who has 4 children, trying to convince me that having kids was the only way. I am a teacher have a great life & i have recently decided at 37 no i don’t want kids. I love the planet too much we are wiping out other species and warming up the planet all to satisfy some biological need that we can now intellectually rationalise these days thanks to evolution. And men love carefree women girls make no mistake most men would happily remain childfree. I love being a goddess…

  10. Thank goodness for this website Jody.

    To me the montage, whether great or not, with children or without, childfree or childless, reminds us that every journey in unique, whether we agree or not, that each path is as valueable as any other, whether a mother, world leader or just a “girl next door” we do not have to prove our worth, or even existence at times, because with are non mothers.

    I certainly need such inspiration & even a kind reminder that my worth is not worthless as I do not have children. Having met my husband at 41.5, & having multiple miscarriages (1 after 3 rounds of IVf) I am needing to accept the inevitable now 45. Having recently moved to South America, & having to relinquish my own career, I have found this challenging, particularly as I am yet to meet one local woman who has not had children! (& before the age of 25)!

    Sorry it’s abit long… But like my journey at the moment

    • Hi Cinderbellos,

      Thanks for your comment and welcome to Gateway Women! Lately I’ve been reseraching and explorign the lives of women without children for my Pinterest Board. It’s really affirming to see that lots of women I admire and respect have also had to find their way in the world without children. Some by choice “childfree” and others by circumstance, like us.

      I would really encourage you to start researching the lives of women without children and add your finds to the Pinterest Board. If you’re not on Pinterset, just email me your ‘nominees’ and I’ll add them!

      Having travelled in South America myself I found that they were much more relaxed about children and around children than the UK, and that women without children were not seen as ‘freaks’ who ‘got it wrong’ but women who made different choices. However, I was mostly away from cities, so perhaps there are women in Sao Paulo, Rio, Buenos Aries, etc who are starting to come against the same prejudices and judgements as so many of us in the UK,USA, Canada, Ireland and Australia face? (Which is where most of Gateway Women’s readers come from).

      Do keep us posted on how things go for you – and your comment wasn’t too long at all – by all means share all you want here – it is always such a support to all of us to hear each other’s stories.

      With a big hug

      Jody x

  11. Stevie Nicks doesn’t have children and she has only talked about how crap menopause is so she gets my vote on two counts

  12. Hello Jody,
    I’ve been thinking hard about nominating childfree role models for your website as this is a subject on which I have long had a fascination.
    Cooks – Delia Smith (she has specifically mentioned her childfree state), Julia Child.
    Actresses – Julie Christie, Heather Graham, Pat Phoenix, Anna Neagle, Gracie Fields also Barbara Windsor, Dame Helen Mirren and Katherine Hepburn (the last three have specifically mentioned their childfree state),
    Gardener – Charlie Dimmock
    Models – Patti Boyd and Naomi Campbell
    Clothes Designer – Nicole Farhi
    Comedian – Caroline Aherne
    Newsreaders – Angela Rippon and Moria Stewart
    Helen Keller did not have any children and inspired the Lions to ‘Become Knights of the Blind in the crusade against the darkness’. I cannot find any references to Barbara Castle having children or Dusty Springfield. One of my inspirational role models Camila Batmanghelidjh the founder and director of the charity Kids Company who from my research does not appear to have off-spring.
    It is hard to name celebrities as they are understandably private about their personal lives so if I’ve missed a birth I apologise. Also, celebrities seem to have the resources to become a mother much later in life than non-celebrities for example, Diane Keaton decided to adopt when she was 50 and the writer Lynda La Plante dopted at 57.

  13. Thank you…just stumbled across this and so glad I did. To the women struggling with not being “great” in addition to not having kids: I think this is a human struggle, to find greatness in our ordinary lives. This is something we share with women and men who have children, who choose not to, or who have had that decision made for them. I think those with kids often pin their greatness to their kids, but their kids don’t make them any more great–or less great– than my garden or your job make us. I have no community of childfree people, and really appreciate this opportunity to share my thoughts and read all of yours. So, thank you again!

  14. First Thank you for the website devoted to the subject matter.

    I can’t compare myself to a famous person like Oprah or any others because I’m not famous. I’m also not a doctor or rocket scientist. I’m just an average “Jill”.

    Just because I don’t have children doesn’t mean that I’m extraordinary. In some ways even though I know this is meant to celebrate women who don’t have children and still contribute….I find it difficult in someways. As if I must do something of celebrity status to justify/explain for the lack of children………”I’m Oprah, I have everything else….What’s your excuse”……..

    • I also have a problem with articles that list all the famous women that don’t have kids. I’m having to deal with the notion that as well as failing to have children (through infertility), I have a low-status job and feel that my life is mediocre in many ways…I’m striving to find meaning in the everyday things and to give the decades ahead some structure. Part of me thinks that because I don’t have kids, I should be setting the world on fire…. Oprah is the worst example to parade to people like me: just makes me feel more of a failure…..
      But I do appreciate the sentiment involved. Great website.

      • Hello and thank you for sharing your thoughts. It’s interesting what different readers ‘see’ in this photo montage…

        1. Not all of them are nomos (childless by circumstance) some are, some aren’t (Oprah is a nomo, Aung Sung Su is a mother – the point is, does it matter?!)
        2. Not all of them are ‘famous’ or even ‘infamous’ (anonymous mother & child in 1930s America / Anonymous tribal woman)

        I agree that there is no need for women to have some kind of highly visible public role just because they don’t have children. We don’t have anything to ‘make up for’ – it’s just another subtle dig that there’s something ‘wrong’ with us. Which there isn’t!

        Thanks again, Jody x

      • Tablemat, I am in a similar position to you. I always wanted children but life’s circumstances dictated otherwise. I recently met a great guy (the first one in several years) but will have to let him go because he wants children and I am unable to have any. This is the sad reality of being childless and approaching the age of menopause. I hate the expression “childfree”. Few childless women choose to be that way, it’s just the hand life has dealt them.

        Be proud to be an average “Jill”.

  15. I have been talking with a friend about how we feel not having children. We both live in Spain and feel that It’s still seen as some kind of taboo that we haven’t had kids. There is a saying here that ‘a marriage without children is like a garden without flowers’ which I think is so untrue as there are lots of gardens that are wonderful without flowers.

    • Hi Ana
      Thank you so much for your comment and for sharing the Spanish proverb with us. No doubt, for our ancestors, it was a sad truth.
      However, for us, the taboo against childless/childfree women is subtle but strong and it is one that our generation is facing in a way never seen before.
      Although being a mother can be a wonderful experience for a woman, it is not every woman’s choice or destiny: this is very new for women, and threatens the fabric of our male dominated culture. Imagine a world full of powerful childfree women – confident, equal, compassionate, curious, brave and thoughtful – hmmm – sounds good doesn’t it? No wonder ‘society’ doesn’t like it – it’s going to rock the status quo and hopefully be the midwife to a kinder, fairer and more compassionate world.
      It’s hard to ‘different’ and brave too.
      Jody x

  16. “lacking some ‘vital’ quality that would make them ‘real’ women.”

    This struck a chord with me. I can empathize. Just wish more people realized that there is no vital quality that, on its own, makes anyone anything. Has anyone noticed a particularly outstanding facet on a diamond?

  17. Thanks again for commenting!

    Angela Merkel is indeed a great role model. A very high profile woman who’s maternal without being a mother and who isn’t ‘sexy’ in the way that so many high-profile woman are often ‘expected’ to be. No political geisha she!

    Interestingly, when I did I bit of research, I found that in 2005, Merkel’s lack of children was seen as a potential problem for her in her ambition to become Chancellor. The Independent (Europe Edition) reported in an article titled “Childless slur could cost Merkel winning margin” by Mary Dejevsky (Berlin) on 15 September 2005 that:

    “The lowest “below-the-belt” blow was struck by her chief opponent’s wife, Doris Schröder-Köpf, who told Die Zeit weekly that Ms Merkel “does not embody with her biography the experiences of most women”. She went on to mention childbirth, bringing up children, and schools. Ms Merkel has no children.

    Later in the article, Merkel makes a very sane comment, but one that probably didn’t endear her to the motherhood-fetish brigade […]

    Ms Merkel has responded by stressing her party’s family policies in her stump speech and announcing new tax breaks for children. She also gave an interview in which she was asked about not having children and answered that “it just didn’t happen and I don’t make a great thing about it”. But damage has been done.”

    Well, I’m glad for Germany and for Europe that the ‘damage’ to her reputation was ignored in favour of her abilities and dedication to serving the German people and hopefully saving the Euro!

  18. Oh and my child-free role model? The lovely Myrna Loy.

    She was politically active to the extent that her outspokenness on the subject of events in pre WWII Germany led to her name being on Hitler’s blacklist; she was overtly anti-racist and campaigned for equal pay and rights for black actors in Hollywood; she was humane- she stopped acting during WWII in order to work for the Red Cross; she was intelligent and funny, and chic and had dignity, was much loved, and never had children.

    • Myrna Loy! Fantastic role model! I will find out more about her and thanks for the tip off.

      Are there any current women in your life or culture that you see as childfree role models? If you can’t think of any, it’s worth wondering why that might be…. ???

      Jody x

      • My contemporary role model is Angela Merkel. She is confident, very capable, but without compromising to masculine/social expections, in that she retains characteristics of femaleness- she is often viewed as nurturing, (nicknamed ‘Mutti’ or ‘mummy’).
        She shows that the less ‘sexy’ and therefore less acceptable female characteristics don’t have to be suppressed in order to succeed.

        I’m not very sure who is or isn’t childfree in society, but I think that might be a good thing, in that women’s child-less state isn’t being made a major part of their persona? (Or I’m just very unobservant.)

        And the strangest thing is that at 43 I am starting to be a role model for women in their late 20’s/ early 30’s. Their reaction shows me how confident I have become, how engaged (currently on yet another university degree because I can afford to do so), how much fun I have (because I have the time and money). A woman aged 28 said to me “You give me hope.”
        It’s humbling to realise that one is now old enough to be responsible for inspiring the next generation of young women. And that one had better do a good job!

        ps Love the expression “the angel in the house” *shudders*

  19. The montage is certainly provocative (in a good way of course!)- the fact that we are bothered that some of these women used their power to affect other’s lives in a negative way, also feeds into the ‘madonna/whore’ idea. Should the montage just show a load of ‘inspirational women’? Not all women are inspirational.

    It should be noted that Aung San Suu Kyi DOES have children. Her youngest child was 11 when she went to Burma to visit her mother, and incidentally to start decades of political activism to draw attention to the plight of that country.

    • Thank you for your comment – and yes, I agree that expecting all women of note to be wholesome and free of controversy does seem very limiting, and does indeed play into the stereotype of the ‘angel in the house’ and other suffocating idealizations of femininity. There isn’t a ‘good’ gender and a ‘bad’ gender – just men and women. Hopefully one day that’ll be an old argument, but not yet it seems!

      And yes, good point to raise the profile of Aung San Suu Kyi as a mother – it makes her dedication to her cause even more remarkable as she only recently saw her children for the first time in many years. It must have been very tough for the whole family (understatement, I know).

      Thanks again


  20. I’m rather appalled that you put Mother Teresa on that montage. She did everything in her power to make sure that women didn’t even have the smallest bit of access to anything related to knowing about contraception. Her ideology has hurt and killed hundred of thousands if not millions of women and children around the planet by saying “I think that contraception is a threat to world peace” and “that the people that voluntarily choose not to have children will burn in hell for all eternity”. The “story” of her child free status was because she was mentally deranged. There is nothing redeeming about her. It’s also demeaning to the other women that are up there. Having Queen Elizabeth I up there is also extremely offensive. Contrary to popular dumbing down of her reign she set out on a reign of bloody terror against the Catholics in her country and her half sister did against the non Catholics in Scotland. Her motives of being child free were less than noble as well. Just because there’s a story behind every woman that doesn’t have children doesn’t mean that it’s a good one.

    • Hi Sally
      Thanks for your thoughtful feedback. Yes, I can see that Mother Theresa, as a representative of Catholicism’s anti-contraception policy might be seen anti-women. I was thinking more of her dedication to the well-being of the poor, but I take your point. With regard to Elizabeth the First’s inclusion – it is indeed the case that she remained childfree as a political decision in order to retain her power as a monarch. She was, to use a rather hackneyed modern term “a career woman”. What she then did with that power is another matter, and not one that I feel qualified to judge.
      I agree that not all the stories behind being childfree are necessarily good ones, or free of controversy.
      If I were to make my own montage of women (this one was a rather beautifully put together one I found on Wikipedia) who would you like to nominate for inclusion?
      Once again, many thanks for your input, I found it very stimulating.

  21. People often claim that those of us who do not have children are selfish, but I think with over 7 billion people on a planet that has not organized to support the life that already exists, it’s not only selfish but irresponsible to continue breeding with no thought to sustainability.

    There’s less than 1% genetic difference between any two people in the world, so having a child isn’t contributing much when only half of that 1% is passed down – make your life your contribution to the world – and make a difference in the community by living in it not adding another person to it.

    • Hi. Thank you for commenting.

      And yes, whilst I see that the population debate and the childless/childfree debate do indeed cross over, I’ve also noticed that sometimes the ‘overpopulation card’ is sometimes used by non-parents as a a bit of a blunt instrument to silence over-intrusive questions. Surely only those adults who have chosen not to have children out of genuine concern for world population levels can really use this justification ex-post…

      Whilst we do indeed have a population explosion on this planet and are consuming resources at a scary rate, this doesn’t serve to ease the individual pain you have to work through if you wanted to have children and couldn’t, or have chosen to be childfree and are getting grief for it. Each of us has to find our own way through this.

      In the UK, the fertility rate is current 2.0, so we are still (a tiny bit) under the 2.1 needed to ‘replace’ our population. We’re a crowded island though, and it’s a debate that needs to be had. Surely with a population living longer healthier lives, rising retirement ages etc we need to look at things afresh?

      An excellent article exploring how the population debate is the next ‘inconvenient truth’ to be faced by Mary Ellen Harte and Anne Ehrlich (Los Angeles Times / July 25, 2011) is worth a read:

      Let me know what you think, and thanks again.


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