Whether they’re damning us or praising us, mothers so often don’t ‘get’ women without children…

One of my hopes for my work is that as well as helping childless women heal their hearts and rebuild their lives, it might act as a way to build a bridge between mothers and the childless. I’m a feminist and I long to open a new kind of dialogue across the pronatalist ravine so that we can stand together as women against all issues of gender-based inequality and disenfranchisement, no longer divided by our maternity status.

But then there are other times when I feel a lot less hopeful and hifalutin’ and feel more like building a liferaft and putting some mothers on it and letting them drift out to sea! This week, two articles were published, one in praise of women without children, one condemning us, and they’re both so blisteringly, emotionally and factually tone-deaf that even a double face-palm isn’t bringing relief!

Often, when I speak about pronatalism and the privileged point of view it can create, some people shake their head at me and say, ‘No, surely it’s not that bad Jody; don’t you think you’re just being a bit oversensitive?’

Well, m’Lord, let me offer you this snippet from Exhibit A, an article called In Praise of the Childless Mother (April 16, 2019, Townhall.com) by Kira Davies, a US ‘op-ed journalist and co-host of the Smart Girl Politics podcast on the Ricochet network’. She doesn’t call herself a Mom in her Twitter bio (good sign, thank you) but rather claims she is a fan of ‘Jesus, Scotch and funny ppl’. I’m not a Christian and mostly have no issue with those that are, so was reasonably hopeful at the beginning of the article (even after it opened with a Bible quote). It didn’t last long…

Because progenation is the only way the human race survives, we are naturally hard-wired to place great value in the act of conception. Mothers are afforded a certain respect. Much of what we do – in church, at work, in marketing – is aimed at the child-bearing woman or women who will eventually bear children. It’s only natural, but where does that leave the childless woman? Some women forgo motherhood as a personal choice. Others are forced to forgo motherhood by their bodies and still others may have longed to become mothers but were unable to find a suitable partner in their child bearing years and unwilling to pursue a path as a single mother.

So far so reasonably good that she’s noticed that non-motherhood is complex (although way more complex that didn’t want/couldn’t have…) but she falls at the next fence because ‘childless women’, unconstrained by the all the demands of motherhood are:

…free to lavish love and grace and care on my children […] Your cup is always full, and when you are with my children it spills for no other but them. What a glorious gift! You can care for my sick children without worrying about what you’ll bring home to your own. You can celebrate my children without comparing it to how you would celebrate your own. […] When you are in our home you share in our pride and amazement, and when you offer to care for our children while we are away I can be comforted in the knowledge that your love is reserved for them in that time and space.

So basically, our ‘glorious gift’ to Davies is to be an unpaid Mary Poppins in her life and to be there for her children so that she’s got time to write articles about her motherhood experience wrapped up as a saccharine-sweet hymn of support for her poor childless sisters?! Ugh, the virtue-signalling pity and smug condescension of this piece made me feel quite ill! If she’d run a draft of this article past any honest childless/free friend (if she has any left, maybe only Handmaidens visit these days) they’d have pointed out that if a woman doesn’t have children, it might be too painful (or boring) for her to be the fifth-wheel to someone else’s family life and that anyway, they might be doing other stuff with their lives which she’d know about if she’d noticed or asked lately…  As one member of the Gateway Women community wrote in response:

Dear God! Literally. Christ have mercy. I say that as words of prayer. I am a Christian and a priest. This article is making me feel sick and angry […] The quote is a quote from a very old prophecy of Isaiah and for me (and many, many other Christians) in both contexts in the Bible it is about God’s promises to be with and love those who are most marginalised and for all people to do likewise – joy will come to all.

I guess Davies agrees with that interpretation, it’s just her definition of ‘joy’ is childless/free women picking up the slack.

However, what I will say for Davies is that she meant well. She really did and I genuinely appreciate the effort. What has surprised me is that her own experience as a Black woman in America (which she alludes to this in this tweet) and thus her experience of tone-deaf white saviours, white privilege and discrimination hasn’t made her more aware of her own blind spots.

#PronatalistPrivilege is real and it’s nasty (see point 6 in my article here).  If you want to be a mother-ally to childless women, do your homework, please. Open your heart. Read. Ask questions. Be curious about the life of non-mothers and see how you can contribute to them in meaningful ways rather than graciously allowing us the breadcrumbs from under your family dinner table. Explore the many Christian writers without children (both voluntary and involuntary) if that’s the lens you want to understand it through to begin with. You could start with the resources listed here at Gateway Women. Even a basic Twitter or Google search on ‘childless Christian’ would have helped.

Which brings me to Exhibit B, an article in The Guardian ‘Do millennials opt for a ‘fur baby’ because they’re broke – or scared of responsibility?’ (April 19, 2019, The Guardian) by Josie Cox. From her Twitter bio we learn that Cox (who also doesn’t mention she’s a mother, thank you) only recently left another national newspaper as their business editor to go freelance and is a runner. However, nothing can prepare you for the vile, uninformed, hurtful, judgemental click-bait to follow, and which would have been much better suited to The Daily Mail than The Guardian.

If the title alone didn’t have you grinding your teeth, the first pull-quote of the article will: ‘The burden of raising a tiny human is losing its appeal for commitment-phobic, cash-strapped, travel-obsessed or simply career-prioritising millennials.’ Brace yourself.

Cox goes on to relay the story of attending an event at a ‘recently-befriended mum’s house for a gathering of new parents and babies’ and her surprise that one woman there didn’t have a baby with her; her distaste when said woman had the nerve to show her some Instagram pictures of her dog; her outrage when she suggested that she was just as taken up with ‘sleep training and feeding regimes’. And then, in one of the most mean-girl lines in a thoroughly bitchy piece that, ‘It was only when chatter turned to nipple cream, and how it serves wonderfully as lip balm, that her contributions to the conversation dried up.’

Considering how many women are childless either by choice or not, Cox’s surprise that a woman might not have a child shows her own ignorance (1 in 4 or 1 in 5 for Gen X like me, possibly higher for Millennials and who knows, maybe it’ll go even higher for Gen Z). And if the event was indeed just for ‘new parents and babies’, perhaps being the only woman there without a ‘cooing, spewing infant’ might have been either boring or painful for the woman in question, and could explain why she was ‘refilling her mug in the kitchen’? Maybe she’d had already had one too many passive-aggressive, pronatalist privilege-fuelled barbs directed at her and was wondering how soon she could leave without bursting into tears? Perhaps she was doing her best to join in the conversation by sharing anecdotes about her dog as she’d spent the last awful 30 minutes having every other conversation she’d attempted to broaden out to something other than babies shut down and redirected back to motherhood? Maybe she was having a really bad day…

To make the leap from this one woman’s experience and the latest UK Government ONS data showing that more women are now getting pregnant in their 30s than their 20s makes me glad that Cox is no longer the business editor of any national newspaper. It’s a whopping false-correlation to presume that all of those women delaying or foregoing motherhood are doing so because they are ‘opting for pets over kids’ and branding a whole generation as shying away from parenting because they are ‘commitment-phobic, cash-strapped, travel-obsessed or simply career-prioritising millennials’. She does throw a bone to the complex historical, ethical, medical and socio-economic reasons that might be involved including ‘their understandable (and responsible) reluctance to bring a child into the world if they can’t get a foot on the property ladder or find stable work in an uncertain economy’ but soon goes back to accusing of them being lightweight adults ‘accustomed to easy, breezy global travel, unconditional independence and relationships that are created and killed on an app’ and thus are ‘scared of lifelong responsibility’.

From her description of her own experience of motherhood, Cox comes across as a tedious mummy-martyr, angry that she drank the pronatalist Koolaid that promised her that motherhood was going to be a breeze and that the social beatification she received during pregnancy was going to be lifelong. Instead, she’s found, as childless/free women are quite aware of that:

It’s bearing full, unconditional responsibility for a person’s basic survival, but also their physical and emotional wellbeing at all levels, around the clock, for at least the next two decades. Parenthood is all-consuming. It’s an existence dictated by constant fear and guilt. It’s deeply fulfilling and relentlessly draining. It will make you change – even abandon – your career, friends and identity without so much as a second thought, and it will force you to re-prioritise every morsel of your life. Waking up every two hours to soothe a helpless, screaming creature back into a short-lived slumber may be a total bitch at the best of times. But bless you, fur mama, if you think I’m talking about that kind.

This article is offensive on so many levels, just for starters, it assumes that all mothers will be as cruel, unhappy and judgemental as she is and makes a mockery of the very real and complex reasons behind voluntary and involuntary childlessness. Let alone completely side-stepping the idea that climate breakdown is a damn good reason not to have children (a decision that will benefit her child), and forgetting that those animal-loving childless/free adults she so disparages are the very same ones paying the taxes to support her child’s education and healthcare. From her educated, white, privileged position as ‘a freelance writer and consultant,’  it rubbishes the socio-economic fragility of so many people’s lives today.

Having a cat was hugely healing for me during my years of grief, heartbreak, loneliness, depression and social isolation due to my involuntary childlessness. To have a living creature in my life that loved being nurtured by me and gave back unconditional love in return, was a priceless gift. But I never confused my cat (or now my dog) with a baby. Some childless women cannot bear the term ‘fur baby’ and find it very hurtful when strangers think that their pets are ‘substitute babies’ – because they’re not – they’re our much-loved pets and we will nurse them through their old ages and deaths. Whilst continuing to be lectured by those who had the opportunity or biological capability to have a baby on our shameful indulgence. Whilst still paying our taxes.

Cox’s piece ends with “Whether or not to reproduce is probably the most personal decision you will ever make. But nothing can substitute for that. So don’t pretend that a canine companion is the same thing”.  We don’t. And once again, like Davies, had you actually spoken to any childless or childfree women with dogs, you’d have learned that.

Check your privilege, both of you. You’re setting a very bad example for your children…

41 Comments on Whether they’re damning us or praising us, mothers so often don’t ‘get’ women without children…

  1. Excellent response to those articles Jody – #PronatalistPrivilege is very very evident in the world of health and social care where the entire care system for older people is built on the assumption that people have children. The huge amount of defensiveness and denial that surfaces the moment the issue is raised is a testament to that. “I don’t expect my children to look after me” is parroted back constantly as if just saying it will somehow mean that in old age a fully functioning care and support system that doesn’t centre on their children will suddenly spring into place. Sayings like that are, to me, the essence of #PronatalistPrivilege – how easy it is to say you don’t want or expect to rely on your children for help in old age in the full knowledge that when you need it you absolutely can. And before people say “Most peoples’ children don’t look after them”, consider this – 92% of ALL unpaid care is provided by family – perhaps instead ask why is it we are so keen as a society to accept this as the truth when it patently isn’t?

    • Hi Kirsty – thank you for your response and I agree absolutely that the comfortable blindness towards the realities of ageing without children by parents, and their own denial of their own privilege in having children to ‘fall back on’ is classic (and dangerous) #PronatalistPrivilege. Thank you too for your tireless and important work in this area in the UK with your organisation ‘Ageing Well Without Children‘ which I’d encourage all readers of this website to check out, join and support! Hugs, Jody x

  2. Thanks Jody. The fur baby article really caused uproar and upset amongst our Gateway Women Group in Bournemouth. Alongside another article from NBC, the link is below. I think quite a few of the ladies are gaining their voices and losing any shame from their situations. They want to be heard over this pronatalism crap and are very pro in questioning these articles. I agree, if you are going to be a journalist you should at least be factual rather than presumptuous.



    • Dear Sammy – so good to hear that your local meetup group is helping the members to become bolder and prouder! We have done nothing wrong and ARE nothing wrong by being childless and the more of us that let go of any shame attached to our situation, the sooner we will stop being a stigmatized minority (which at 20-25% of the mature female population is crazy!!). Hugs, Jody x

  3. Thank you for that writing. I do hate the term ‘fur babies’. I’ve dogs and we’ve had cats and we also have hens. We have them as we love animals in our lives but they are not a substitute for having a child. My sister has two girls but also three dogs. I refer to us as a family who have animals as part of our family. We always have and a house without them would be odd to us both and my mum. I suppose it’s silly that I am still shocked after 19 years after our last IVF and 12 years after the trauma of an ectopic pregnancy that there is still this terrible antiquated attitudes. But I can at least be thankful that I’m now in my fifties and not trying anymore and I’m not in a work situation where the next generation are having babies – that is a great protection. I’m also a Christian and for me, that has given me more peace than anything in coming to terms with my childlessness. But we are all still individuals and I am grateful that you are out there challenging this sort of thing as my fight disappeared many years ago. But things are still very raw at times but I try to keep focusing on what is positive in my life.

    • Dear Alison – I do think it’s a sign of pronatalism that when mothers/families have pets they are called ‘family pets’ and when childless/free women have them they are called ‘fur babies’ or ‘baby substitutes’! (And if they’re single women they are called ‘crazy cat ladies’ whereas a single man’s dog would be called ‘a man’s best friends’!) The judgement is there to be seen in the language… I’m glad that you have found peace these days but the grief can still pop up for us all. Hugs, Jody x

  4. I don’t know if I’m allowed to post on here seeing as I am a mother…but I figure it’s good for mothers to read these articles in order to gain a better understanding if they don’t already? I was following this site in my late 30s when I was preparing myself for the possibility of being childless…and I was already starting to grieve, feel envious of others etc, so had fully identified myself as childless. Then a sudden twist of events whereby I met someone quite late and by chance and then had a baby at 41 (though the 9 months were far from glowing, I was sick with anxiety every day worried I would lose it, as I had just accepted that I was not to be a mother so this was a strange feeling to me to be pregnant especially at this age, I had also frozen my eggs a few years back but was told not to hold high hopes on that procedure). One would think I would no longer want or need to read these articles. But actually there is still that big part of me that identifies with childlessness…and bizarrely I still relate to the feelings involved in the article, even AFTER becoming a mother?? I REALLY hope this doesn’t offend anyone. And yes all the cliches are true…it’s bloody hard work yet also rewarding. I now actually have a fear of getting pregnant again knowing what a toll that will take on me especially at my age. But that aside, I can still identify with all the feelings of isolation and hurt in the articles on childlessness, and I definitely support everything said on here about the injustices and insensitive nature of many other mothers and the media about women who don’t have children. I support it because I for about 3 years was going through it all, and that will never leave me. It’s not like I’m going ‘oh yes I’m a mother now so I’m so grateful I don’t have to feel that way anymore’…it’s a mixture of feelings from the new experience and the old…I don’t know how else to explain it. But yeah, the article about the ‘fur mama’ is ridiculously insulting and makes assumptions that all women with dogs and no children feel the same way. Such low brow journalism.

  5. Thank you Jody for stepping up for us, once again. Your thoughtful and clear response cuts through all of that hurtful bullshit and makes so much more sense. These sorts of misguided or downright cruel articles upset me so much that I can’t form words of rebuttal. So I’m very grateful that you can!

    • Hi Alison – the combination of these two articles in one week led me to the page – just as my own anger and disenfranchised grief led me to write my very first blog for Gateway Women 9 years ago. I’m not sure what I would have done had I not taken to writing through my grief – I think it probably saved my sanity! Hugs, Jody x

  6. An excellent response from Jody. As a teacher I constantly deal with children who are malnourished, dirty, have clothes with holes in and suffering emotional problems due to bad parenting. Pushing a baby out of your vagina does not make you an automatic saint who can do no wrong, nor does it automatically give you a social conscience. I find the most compassionate and caring people are often not mothers.

    • Hi Sarah – I too have worked as a school counsellor as part of my psychotherapy training in both primary and secondary education and it’s heartbreaking to see the challenges that many children face. Birth is a physical act; parenting is a psychological one, and a tough one at that. The idea that all mothers are saints does nothing for women – either mothers or not – and just adds to the pile of prejudice against both. I have met compassionate and heartless women throughout my life and, absolutely, their motherhood status has had absolutely nothing to do with it! Hugs, Jody x

  7. Thank you for such a brave article. I am struggling with the passive aggressive resentment that some parents have towards me for not having children. The kinder part of me knows that they might not be as happy and as fulfilled as society says they should be and are envious of what they see as my easier life, but some of what gets said is very patronising and sometimes downright hurtful. It’s like I am expected to be grateful for my easy life, though there was nothing easy about a stillbirth and watching everyone else have their families for the next 20years, and feel guilty at the same time, because I am not bringing up children. Gratitude and guilt don’t really go together so it’s kind of impossible. I was horrified by how mean Cox was to a woman brave enough to show out for a friend, I am guessing that was why she at the gathering, who just wanted to be part of the conversation. But it didn’t stop there. Her judgement of this childless woman inspired a whole article. This should be countered so thankyou for being brave enough Jody.

    • Dear Emily – the mummy-martyring and passive-aggression are so tiring and the projections that some mothers/parents (not all, just most!) place on us are exhausting. Our life may look easy on the outside to them, but they have no idea what it takes to keep our heads high when we’re shown, in so many different ways, every day, that society considers us ‘second class women’; what it takes to find a Plan B outside the normal script for women; what it’s like to grapple with the existential angst and grief – and that’s even without considering how we’re going to cope when we’re old and vulnerable (or young and vulnerable – a chronic illness, disability, job loss, relationship breakdown, accident or other setbacks can come at any time and we are noticeably LESS supported in those situations). This is why I think raising the issue of pronatalism is so important as it’s the lens that allows mothers/parents to believe that they are the only ones with problems and that it’s everyone else’s job to understand, empathise and then roll their sleeves up and offer unconditional support! Hugs, Jody x

      • Hit the nail in the head there. It is exactly what I am struggling with…that someone’s feelings are more valid and problems more real because they have children and that those of us who don’t have a moral responsibility to put ourselves second and prioritise helping them over considering our own needs. I am all for having a social conscience and considering and caring about others…it is the sense of entitlement and social heirarchy that I struggle with. Thank you for getting it xx

        • Hi Emily – yes, it’s the entitlement that rubs me up the wrong way too. It actually makes me despair for the future of the human race and the kind of world that such women’s children will inherit! Hugs, Jody x

  8. Thank you Jody for being a strong voice for childless women. We don’t need more articles by mothers assuming the “get us”. We need more voices like yours giving first hand experience of how difficult it is to be childless in this pronatalist world.

    • Thank you Heather for affirming that I spoke for you, and your experience. It’s going to take a lot to redress the balance but we’ll get there in the end! Jody x

  9. Thank you jody. I feel so full of life still at age 59, but the exclusion I feel from even family and former friends who included me in a lot of events have totally excluded me and put me out to pasture already. I thought this wouldn’t happen to me till I was 80 and possible senile!

  10. A very thoughtful response to articles littered with thoughtlessness. I agree with so many of the comments here and I didn’t hear spite from Jody just honesty from a perspective that too often goes unheard.

  11. Eloquent article Jody. I’m sorry that my namesake is tone deaf. You are a women standing in her power and speaking truth. Why are women often called demeaning names like spiteful or bitter, yet a man is seen as being passionate or angry.

    I didn’t find your article spiteful to mothers, I found it spoke to my heart. I can not count the amount of times I have been overwhelmed by baby talk, my feelings completely trampled and unacknowledged and I’ve pulled out a photo of my dogs. I do it to lighten my pain and to feel included. It’s never because I feel raising dogs is in anyway similar to raising children. In fact I feel caring for an animal who you will outlive and one day bury is an act of unconditional love.

    Animals will never be able to verbally say I love you, thank you or buy us gifts for our birthday. They are completely dependent on us always. It’s a different relationship to a human child, but it’s not invalid. My dog Jami cared for me emotionally through years of infertility. I still cry when I think of him and how intuative he was to my feelings. I am sure he saved my life when it seemed death would be easy than living in this cruel pronatalist world.

  12. Thank you Jody for speaking up for childless women. It’s comforting to know that you understand what it’s like to be excluded from conversations and also to be on the end of deliberate, cruel digs from ‘friends’.

  13. Thank you for being a strong loud voice on this. #PronatalistPrivilege is everywhere – Mothers and others don’t see it because they are so tuned into it – it’s there, it’s real and it exists – it needs to change.

  14. I find that they (women with children) don’t bother to even ask how I am. They all wrapped up in their world and in their self-importance.

    • Thank you Jody for this article. I have experienced a lot of #PronatalistPrivilege judgement and hope people can become more accepting of lifestyles outside of motherhood as being just as acceptable and equal in value.

  15. Sorry Jody but to be honest, you’re using a preaching, spiteful tone here, how do you want to build any bridges that way?

    • I don’t understand what you mean Mina – I don’t find Jody’s tone spiteful or preaching in the least. I think she is concisely and clearly responding to thoughtless attitudes in both of these articles which are hurtful to many childless women.

    • Mina, building a bridge means working to meet half way. For too long the childless and childfree have endured stigma resulting from pronatalism and Jody is simply giving this issue the attention it deserves.

      I fully agree with Jody’s thoughtful and well articulated views on both of these articles. Her comments reflect my experience. In fact, most social media comments on the Cox article are in alignment with Jody’s viewpoint. It was a shitty piece of “journalism”, and unfortunately it will have broad reach because of the publisher.

      For a bridge to truly be built parents must be aware and willing to see their blind spots and acknowledge the parental privilege afforded to them. And then if they so desire, reach out to us with open hearts and without judgements, rather than become defensive. They will find that most of us are already there waiting and willing to connect.

    • Mina, to be honest, I do not read any of this as preachy or spiteful. Could you give me some examples of where the author is demonstrating this in her blog?
      I would also appreciate Mina if you could share some examples of how you believe bridges can be built with the authors of the two articles Jody responded to.
      Did you read those?
      What do you think of their tone?
      And would you kindly let us know what your experience is with childlessness and/or motherhood so we can understand your perspectives better.

      • Dear ECP, thank you for these thoughtful reflections on Mina’s comment – they are really helpful for me/us to reflect as we continue to unpack the way that childlessness/motherhood is framed in cultural discourse. I am just about to create a piece of work with a conscious mother to examine together the unhelpful cultural dialogues and see if we can begin to frame what a new language might sound like that could bridge the divide. However, I think it’s really important that we resist ‘tone policing’ (which is how I experienced Mina’s comment), ie: shutting each other down by judging the ‘tone’ rather than analysing the content. This is how Black women are often shut down when they’ve tried to talk about race to white women and it has deep systemic power-over roots. Although I didn’t enjoy your comment Mina, it’s given me much food for thought, and others too, for which I’m grateful. Jody x

  16. I have several childless friends but they all talk about their nieces and nephews. Sometimes I feel very left out as I am an only child as well as having no children. School holidays and bank holidays are particularly difficult. Just have to soldier on.

    • Yes, the social exclusion can be very hard and can operate on so many different levels. I’m sorry that you’re experiencing it with your childless friends too and I’m puzzled as to why they want to talk about their nephews and nieces all the time when that excludes you… a little more sensitivity would be welcome! Hugs, Jody x

  17. Fabulous article, Jody and dead on. Pronatalism is a prejudice and the nastiness that childless women receive is a form of cruelty. Put it out there as such is refreshing honesty. Thanks!

    • Thank you Maria. I will no doubt be criticised for not playing nicely, but that’s what happens when you speak truth to power. Thank you for your support. Hugs, Jody x

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