Saturday, August 24, 2013

The TIME article: What's wrong with this picture?

(I started writing this post a few weeks ago, right when this story appeared... I've lost track of the number of related stories I've seen in other forums, as well as some of the points I was intending to make (!) -- but I've decided to publish what I have now anyway. Let me know of any other gems you find.)

What's wrong with this picture? It's the illustration for Time magazine's recent cover story on "The Childfree Life."  Perhaps stereotypically, an attractive, smiling (smirking?) young couple basks on a sandy beach. Because, you know, if you don't have kids, you have all this TIME and MONEY to just laze around in paradise, right?

The main inside photo makes the point even sharper -- the same couple, seated under a beach umbrella, clink glasses, while a family of four trudges by the beach. The poor dad is towing a supersized wagon filled with toys, beach balls, an inflatable pool, etc., followed by the mom and two kids trailing behind. Yep, life is just one big beach party when you don't have kids....

The buzz on the story started the week before it actually appeared on newsstands, and I was dying to get my hands on a copy. Online, the cover story link goes to an excerpt only;  if you want to read the full story, one way or another, you have to pay. However, there are several other related pieces online, which you can find here -- including a poll where you can sound off on various issues related to childfree living.

So, as you can tell, I was irritated by the stereotyping on the cover. And while the article does make a vague nod to the fact that not all women who want children wind up having them, the focus is primarily on the childfree by choice segment, which I also found irritating.

On the bright side, the TIME article has ignited broad discussion across the blogosphere and Internet about childless/free living, and why so many women and men are living without children.  Here are just a few of them:

*  The NotMom (whose target audience includes all women who are not mothers, for whatever reasons) takes a positive and generous view of the article, noting that "Childless and childfree women are officially news".

"When I first saw the mag’s cover headline, I thought, “Here we go – another spotlight on women who happily chose childfree life with no thought to the rest of us who didn’t.”  I’m happy to report that’s not the case."

"The article is primarily about the by-choice crowd, but I’m betting almost every NotMom will find herself somewhere in its detailed stats and stories."

*  Amanda Marcotte makes a good point in Slate, asking "Where Are the Men in Child-Free Trend Pieces?" (also noted by Mary Elizabeth Williams in a Salon article sarcastically titled "Time discovers some people don't have kids").  Many men don't have children either, for various reasons, but any media discussion of childless/free living tends to focus almost exclusively on the female perspective.

After all, many women don't have children either because (a) they don't have a partner in their life and don't want to go it alone, or (b) the men in their life don't want to have children (or may have children from a previous relationship and don't want any more). Often the men say or hint that they want children early in the relationship, and change their mind later, leaving the woman to make the difficult decision: which does she want more, the man or a child (never mind that she will have to find another man who is willing to have children with her, get pregnant and bring the pregnancy successfully to term before her fertility ebbs -- if it hasn't already...).

The best responses, naturally (IMHO), come from women who are childless/free-not-by-choice themselves, and who recognize that the picture painted by the story is not a full one:

*  Melanie Notkin of Savvy Auntie wrote "The Truth About the Childless Life" for Huffington Post. Notkin says the story "presumes that the decreasing birthrate in America is mostly due to a choice by many modern American women and men to be childfree, i.e., to remain childless by choice. After all, with all the choices available to women -- the gender the piece correctly identifies as the one that carries the brunt of societal negative attitudes towards childless people -- it's assumed by many that we've made childlessness a choice."  This assumption, of course, is not correct in all cases and, in many, adds to the heartache that many women without children feel.

*  The always-reliable Pamela of Silent Sorority neatly dissects the shortcomings of the Time piece in a post titled How About a Time Cover Story on Women Who Aren’t Moms or Childfree?  "Nothing like being made to feel invisible to make you want to wave your hands, whistle and declare in your outdoor voice: “heeelllllo….we’re over here!” " she writes. "Living between the two worlds — the moms and die-hard childfree — can often times be downright weird." Yep.

*  The New York Times' Motherlode blog uses the TIME article as the jump off point for a conversation around the question:  Can Parents Stay Friends With the Child-Free?  Some interesting points in the discussion (including a few contributions from yours truly!).  (Some other recent Motherlode topics of interest:  Fertility Diary: Baby Envy (Fertility Diary is a new regular feature by guest contributor Amy Klein) and "Take Back" Your Pregnancy? With Caution.) 

Did you read the TIME article? (or any of the others I've lined to here?)  What did you think?


  1. I came across your blog in my search for a brief diplomatic response that can be used when confronted with the insensitive question "Do you regret choosing to be childless?" My best attempt is "People don't necessarily choose to be childless." Any other suggestions?

  2. Personally, I think that's an excellent answer. ;) I find I never tend to think of a snappy answer to insensitive personal questions until much later. ;) I will think about it.

  3. Curse you Loribeth! I've spent the afternoon following your links, then following links from the links, etc etc etc. lol But thanks for summing up the conversation. I needed that to focus on it!

    So, I still don't know what I think. I didn't read the entire article (refuse to subscribe), but read many of the follow-ups. I wish that articles didn't focus always on childless/free people in their 20s and 30s, but talked to the majority in their 50s and 60s, to get a much more realistic look at what a childfree/no kids life is like. (I guess I'm always amused at 25 year olds declaring they are childfree. I was too, at 25!)

    Like you, I dislike the "lying on the beach" stereotype. Even though I often fit that stereotype (especially now). Because again, referencing two weeks out of the year (this year excepted of course) when we might lie on a beach, does not deal with what our lives are like the other 50 weeks of the year. It's simply lazy reporting - there to attract attention ... and perhaps, judgement.

    And yes, the fact that all the judgement rests on women, not men (rarely anyway), is yet another reflection of our societies' insistence that "real women" have children. I'm glad that this was pointed out in the follow up articles.

  4. I read the article and was pretty pleased with it. The thing is, I've been working very hard to become childfree rather than childless. While I don't get to run off to sunny beaches I do feel freedom in not having kids even if it wasn't originally "by choice." I made the decision to be happy with my lot. There are times that isn't possible but there are other times where I hear a kid screaming at a restaurant, my husband and I give each other that knowing look and later one of us will inevitably say, "Thank god we don't have to deal with that little monster." I realize we are trying to make light of a crappy situation but I'm pleased with be able to get a voice for people without kids. The author references an article from TIME on breastfeeding that started a movement. I have no doubt this will do the same and in that line of thinking I hope to see an article in TIME next year talking about being Childless-Not-By-Choice. It's only a matter of time before we have center stage. But yes, it is frustrating to not yet feel like our group of people is recognized. We really ought to be more thought of when people talk about fertility.

  5. Loribeth, thank you for putting together this overview of what people are saying about the Time article. I took the chicken way out and didn't say anything in my Childless by Marriage blog. Thank you so much for mentioning the fact that it's often a case of men deciding before or after the marriage that they're not up for fatherhood. And Mali, yes, I was childfree at 25, too. Not even ready to think about it. Let's ask some people who are old enough to know what it's really like.
    At least people are talking about it. But we need folks to understand we're not all child"free".

  6. Really interesting post. Thought provoking and well put together. It brought to my attention so many of the issues that I have faced, and am about to face as I look at the prospect of having to live child free after years of fertility treatments.