When the mittens come off: childfree-baiting online

Emma Kennedy, author photograph
Emma Kennedy - British Author & Comedienne

As a childless-by-circumstance woman of 47 who’s now embraced a ‘childfree’ identity, I’m beginning to wonder why those who choose to be childfree often get so much stick for it…

This summer, The Guardian put a ‘celebratory’ childfree piece on the front page of their 6 August 2011 Saturday Family section by author, actor and comedienne Emma Kennedy (pictured left) called: It’s my holiday. No kids allowed – ever!

Quote from Emma Kennedy article in The Guardian, UK, 6 Aug 2011 (block 1)It was a tongue-in-cheek piece about how awful she found childhood camping holidays with her parents, and how happy she is that as a childfree adult she therefore doesn’t have to do the same.

It was illustrated with hilarious childhood anecdotes, and many of the online comments about the article were from Guardian readers sharing their own memories of windswept sand-in-the-sandwiches-and-in-your-knickers holidays that anyone born after 1980 has probably never had to endure.

She’s got form on this, having written a humorous memoir The Tent, The Bucket and Me: My Family’s Disasterous Attempts to go Camping in the 70’s (2009) and the recently published I Left my Tent in San Fransisco: My Disasterous Attempt to Cross the US in the 80’s (2011).

However, most of the comments were about her gleeful and cheeky rant about how parents could get the same experience as the childfree on holiday:

Emma Kennedy article, The Guardian, 6 August 2011, Quote 2“Do your worst” she writes, seemingly anticipating the kind of cyber-bashing she’s likely to receive for being so bold as to make a joke about not loving-your-kids-to-bits-every-second-of-the-day.

However, the kind of personal, pointed and vitriolic online comments came from parents who seemed to have missed the ‘tone’ of her article altogether, and who went straight to Parental DEFCON 3 instead.

You’d think Kennedy had personally singled each one of them out for insult by the tone of their responses…Comment response to Emma Kennedy's article in GuardianAt no point in this article does Emma Kennedy ‘insult’ those who have kids.  If anything, her tone is one of baffled admiration for those dedicated parents who enjoy what she evidently cannot endure – namely family holidays.  And where in the piece did the commentator detect Kennedy’s ‘denied envy’ of the ‘many women’ she speaks for?  Can this obviously well-educated woman commentator (solipsistic? I love The Guardian) really not imagine that Kennedy might be absolutely happy with the way things have turned out for her? (However she may have arrived at it, of which I have no knowledge).  And why open with the ‘you don’t look ten years younger than you are’ (something Kennedy does lay claim to in the article) but which seems a little narky – even, dare I say ‘insulting’…

And the comments continue with remarks on Kennedy’s lack of maturity and selfishness…Emma Kennedy Comment 2Jibes at Kennedy’s choice of ‘career’ over ‘motherhood’ and how she only ‘pretends’ to be happy with it…Emma Kennedy Comment 3That she’ll come to rue her decision when she’s older…
Emma Kennedy Comment 4That the childfree are a ‘spoilt’ and ‘rich’ minority elite…
Emma Kennedy Comment 5And that she ought to be grovelling grateful to those people who are having children as they’ll be the ones paying for her old-age pension and wheeling her around her care home…Emma Kennedy comment 6

So, to tally up the insults, the childfree are: self-centred, solipsistic, narcissistic, envious, immature, alienated, caustic, selfish, unformed, emotionally stunted, in denial, workaholics, hangers-on, gooseberries, deluded, short-sighted, missing-out, spoilt, rich and ungrateful. Did I miss any?!

Space doesn’t permit me to review all the comments, so I suggest you take a look yourself – but I’m glad to say that the mythical ‘Guardian reader’ came to the defense of Emma Kennedy, and of the childfree in general, in a balanced and measured way that gives me hope.  Some of them were parents, some of them childfree.

But my question is this: why this need to kick and insult the childfree?

Well, I put my own theory into the comment thread – that perhaps it’s a type of unconscious anger that the childfree are ‘allowed’ to say those things that parents sometimes ‘think’ but which our culture doesn’t let them express…
Emma Kennedy Comment 7
We live in times of quite ridiculous parenting perfectionism and I think it’s time to we came to realise that with 1 in 5 women now reaching the menopause without having had a child (for a variety of reasons, not all of them by choice), we’re hardly a freakish minority anymore… and nor are we the enemy.

Play nicely now, children…


Jody Day is the Founder of Gateway Women (UK): an organization to support, inspire and empower childless women live fertile, passionate, meaningful lives.  She runs a Gateway Women Coaching Group every Saturday morning at The Tabernacle Arts & Community Centre in Notting Hill, West London.  A qualified counsellor and training psychotherapist, Jody also works one-to-one with women struggling with issues around identity, maternity & fertility. If you would like Jody to speak at one of your events, or to write for your blog or magazine, please contact her on jody@gateway-women.com

10 Comments on When the mittens come off: childfree-baiting online

  1. Soozi – with all due respect – you were not ‘childfree’ before you had your children, you were ‘childless’.

    ‘Childfree’ is a very specific term, used to describe people who have made a considered choice not to have children (bio, adopted or step) EVER. It does not refer to people who have childrenlater in life, those who wanted to have children but have been unable to due to circumstance, those who are ‘on the fence’ or to those who are fairly ‘easy-osie’ about the idea of having children (due to a contraceptive failure or similar). Similarly, people with grown up or, god forbid, deceased children are not ‘childfree’ – they are and will continue to be parents.

    Identifying as childfree is a universe away from identifying as childless – ‘childless’ is, by default, a negative state of lack and those who consider themselves ‘CF’ do not acknolwedge that lack. For us, our CFness is a positive affirmation.

    I’m sorry to be so petty about this, but, as they say, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ and the misuse or misappropriation of certain terms can be damaging.

    Anyway, back on topic – very interesting article, thank you! 🙂

    • No, i don’t really think this kind of perspective and insisting on terms being used exactly one way or another helps with the issue we’re dealing with here.
      For one, us childless-not-by-choice people struggly daily to make sense of our situation, our future, our lives. One way to do that is to become content with not having children. Also couples/women going through fertility treatement are in a situation where they have to define themselves how the look at things and how far they are going to take it. There is always the “one more try”, “one more possibility” and the pressure (both from the people around us as well as from ourselves) can become enormous. So stopping treatments/pursuing adoption or whatever becomes a concious decision to remain without a child. And then back to start: Try to become content, happy in your life without a child…. so: I wish to everyone in that situation to reach this stage of contentement – which would basically mean that it’s a goal for childLESS people to become content childFREE people. With your definitions you are drawing a boundary which basically means that those who are now unhappy about not having children WILL NEVER BE the same as people happy without children… though trying to reach that stage is all we can do to make our lives worth living!!! Are you saying that we are not allowed to become content… even with the occasional regret or grief thrown in… ? That’s not acceptable.
      Also people who don’t have children YET or not ANYMORE (for whatever reason – grown up, miscarried, deceased, or simply estrangend from parents) are in many situations in the same boat as those you call childfree. Whenever your friends don’t have time for you anymore, whenever you have to work overtime because every colleague with children is taking their holiday at the same time, whenever the talk is about the kids and only about the kids… etc….. the experience the disadvantages of the childless. Which will probably add to the grief of those who have lost children and are, in that sense, still parents, as you say.
      The difficult thing with the children-issue is exactly that there is no black and white perspective, even if you found your personal answer to these questions, it’s no use trying to generalize.

  2. The only thing I can guess is that the childfree choice is somehow threatening to a subset of parents. The fact that childfree folks sometimes (not here!) sound defensive or better-than-thou probably doesn’t help the cause. But there is plenty of that behavior on both sides of the line.

    Follow your bliss I say, whether that leads to a nursery or a childfree life. 🙂

  3. I came to this site from a link on the Huff post. I should start by saying, I actually do have children myself (4…all under the age of 5 yrs old.. which includes twins) but have close friends and relatives going through the issue of wanting kids/trying to find suitable partners/wondering if they should go it alone/coming to terms with not having kids, or only having one/feeling stressed about all the above. I think the issues you raise on this site are both important and well framed. As a child of the 70s I feel I very much was lucky with fertility (it was just luck I was fertile), that I had a long term boyfriend, later my husband (just met and clicked early on, could have just as easily been one of the millions of women still looking for love), and that I started getting pregnant in my early 30s (there was little to no dialouge about this, even 5-6 years ago, so I never realised I should “get a move on”). I also absolutely believe without reservation that people who don’t want kids shouldn’t have them, and should not feel they have to defend that decision. People not wanting to have kids is a perfectly valid and individual choice, more to the point, there is enough people in this world that individuals can make decisions about what makes them happy – if that is not having kids, that’s just a good a choice, as having them as far, as I’m concerned.

    However, that all said, I found both the article by Emma Kennedy and your reply to be both troubling and unhelpful to the whole children/not having children debate. I read your take on it and then I read the actual article, and the vast majority of posts seems to agree with Emma, those few that didn’t — those that you print above – were actually only 3 posts…and you have made the comments in those posts seem like they came from many more. I also don’t see why it is an issue that the women said Ms Kennedy looked her age, she does. I certainly wouldn’t mistake her for a 33 year old as she implies in her article. But the point is the reason she said she was “10 years younger” was to make the point that everyone with kids looks haggard and old, unless they are rich or famous. But that is a nonstarter, I would not presume to make a comment about myself, but I know plenty of moms who are young looking/sexy/fit/healthy/well dressed. If one is obese or unhealthy or ugly, that is the case with or without kids. One certainly wouldn’t dare say “all childless women” are skinny/over tanned/rich ? So why the reverse. I know that people can be unkind about people not having kids, but surely they are generally old (and are used to people having kids in their 20s), or they are pushed to a response as Emma Kennedys article tried to do. More to the point, her whole angle on holidays was so one-dimensional it was scary. Sure, you say it was “tounge in cheek” but no, it wasn’t, not really, She meant every word she said. Perhaps I’m naive, but I cannot see why she needed to come across so strong about anti-kids and how “awful” they are, and how if anyone doesn’t agree with her they are delusional. Clearly, she did not relish family holidays 😉 But I had/have wonderful memories of holidays with my family (and 3 siblings). I grew up overseas and we travelled all over the world, and now with my own kids, although they are very young I love going places with them…overseas and anywhere my husband and I can take them on weekends (casltes, parks, towns whatever). I of course do not represent all people, but neither does Ms Kennedy, although she falsely presumes she does. I have already had a whole life (till my 30s) without kids, so with kids it’s wonderful! It’s as simple as that. Children have a very joyous and untarnished view of the world, and to be honest, I think parents that have hard times with their kids may want to reflect on their parenting and perhaps how they view their relationship with their kids. Kids are loud, funny – and yes they can whine, yes they can demand…but like anything in life, the extent to That is dependent of how good (or bad!) the parent(ing) is.

    I hope this comment isn’t too long (it probably is!!). I think this dialouge about fertility/not having kids is extremely important, but my point is really that it would be a shame if any real conversation was sidelined into simplistic diatribes from ‘one side’ to the ‘other’…when I’m quite sure, at the root (articles that try to provoke like Ms Kennedy’s aside) we all have more similar experiences with one another and empathy with the life’s difficulties – than not. I wish you all the best.

    • Dear Molly,

      Wow! Thank you so much for your thoughtful and insightful input – and always brilliant to have parents here too!

      I certainly did not mean to imply that ‘most’ of the comments following the Guardian article were critical of Emma Kennedy, which I hoped to flag up when I wrote that:

      Space doesn’t permit me to review all the comments, so I suggest you take a look yourself – but I’m glad to say that the mythical ‘Guardian reader’ came to the defense of Emma Kennedy, and of the childfree in general, in a balanced and measured way that gives me hope. Some of them were parents, some of them childfree.

      One of the reasons I wrote this article was not to defend Emma Kennedy (I don’t think she needs my help!) but to flag up a nasty stream of anti-childfree abuse that I’ve found online (from parents towards the childfree by choice) that quite takes my away. It’s to be found whenever and wherever someone who’s childfree by choice talks about it – on Twitter, on Facebook, on blogs, etc. It seems to be more prevalent in the US, where childfree by choice women (and couples) draw fire from the pro-life movement in addition.

      I don’t have a problem with parents objecting to Emma Kennedy’s life choice, or even her palpable dislike of family holidays – but rather that they make out that this makes her defective as a human being, as a woman, ie: a ‘bad person’. Parenting is not the exclusive domain of ‘good people’, and even ‘good people’ can be lousy parents. It’s the simplistic mud slinging I object to in these comments. The reason I flag up the comment about Emma’s age is because it’s mean, personal and, I dare say, childish! The Guardian photo does make Emma look her age, but as any woman over 30 knows, lighting is all! Emma didn’t seek to personally insult the woman who made that comment, so what I’m interested in is what drove her to insult Emma? Where does the drive to ‘hurt’ the childfree come from?

      I am very happy for you that you have your wonderful family, and you sound like a great friend too to your friends who haven’t been as fortunate as you to meet the right man and start having a family whilst still young and fertile enough. (I was lucky enough to marry young, but suffered from unexplained infertility from the age of 29 until I threw in the towel at 44!) Through my work, I support many women who are around 40 and who find themselves single, childless and absolutely desperately sad about it. All anyone seems to be able to say to them is “don’t worry, it’ll work out” which is manifestly unhelpful.

      Gateway Women seeks to build bridges between the childfree by choice, the childfree by circumstance and parents, particularly open-minded intelligent parents like you! I do hope this article hasn’t put you off the concept of Gateway Women and that you’ll take a look at some of my other articles, and maybe come back for more soon!

      With warmest wishes

      Jody x

  4. excellently put! as a parent, i thank the lord above that i don’t take myself THAT seriously! Emma K has always written tongue-in-cheek – as parents, can’t we take a joke anymore?
    and all those parents with young kids who say they have no desire for child-free holidays are liars.

  5. Brilliant piece — incorporating the comments is an excellent way to illustrate your points. It’s most definitely time to set aside prejudice aimed at those who are not parents.

    BTW: You and Emma — and anyone with a sense of humor and a modicum of courtesy (please no cranky children in the bar) — are welcome to holiday here in California anytime you please…!

  6. Wow. I had never realised how nasty some parents are to people who don’t have children. I’m in my early 30s and the first in my group of friends to have kids, so ‘childfree’ was just a way of life until 10 months ago! But I just don’t get their attitude, and why they would share it with such malice towards a woman they don’t know. The snippets you posted were funny and it’s absolutely true that parents could do with time away from their kids every so often.

    With twins approaching a year old, I would love a holiday just for me, and I’m not ashamed to admit it!

  7. Well done Emma for being so honest. Shame on those parents who feel it is OK to insult a person for her openness.

    This Summer, I spent a week in France with my ex and our kids. We get along quite well generally, so decided it would be good for them if we took the boys off to the French countryside for a week, show them we can all still have fun together in spite our our separation! Needless to say, the boys (aged 2.5 and 7) needed constant entertainment or were bored rigid and fighting (either us or each other). Each night I either hit the bottle or went to bed early to recover enough energy for the next day.

    I was also blessed with a child-free week in Chicago with my boyfriend. Time was spent wandering through art galleries, watching free concerts in the park, eating out (without the worry of someone throwing food or disappearing out of the door just as the meal was about to be served), reading (I read a book in a week for the first time in 2 years), getting up late and generally relaxing. Yes, I missed my boys of course, but I also felt like myself again. I had enough room to breathe and relax and remember (and do) the things that excited and inspired me pre-children. And on my return home, we were all calmer for having had our own little bit of space from each other.
    My only mistake was to take the solo holiday first!

    So, I can relate to Emma’s story. May she enjoy all of her holidays. And maybe those angry parents should, if they are able to, take a tiny bit of time out.

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