Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Childless, childfree (tomato, tomahto)...

Kim Cattrall (aka Samantha on "Sex and the City" -- who was born in England but spent much of her early life in Canada) guest hosted the BBC Women's Hour radio program earlier this week -- and spent some of that time discussing the stigma faced by women who don't have children (herself included).

Full disclosure: I will admit I have yet to listen to the complete program. However, I couldn't resist writing about some of Cattrall's comments & the reaction they are getting.

A number of Cattrall's comments raised questions of semantics.  For example, use of the word "childless" -- a topic I have written about before (in one of my very first posts on this blog, in fact). "It’s the less that is offensive, isn’t it?” Cattrall asked. “Child-less. It sounds like you’re less, because you haven’t had a child.”

I don't find "childless" a particularly "offensive" term. But (as I have written previously) I can't say I really like it either. It does smack of being "less than" in the eyes of the world (perhaps even my own sometimes, still...).

Nor do I particularly like the term "childfree." It makes it sound like children are a burden that I'm happy to be "free" of -- and while I recognize that some people do feel that way and have no problem with the term and actually prefer it, it's not how I feel, personally.

"Barren?" Pretty bleak and Old Testament-ish. :p

"NoMos" (as coined by Jodi Day of Gateway Women)? "NotMoms" (Karen Malone Wright of The NotMom)? "Savvy Aunties" (Melanie Notkin)?  Nice tries at branding with a catchy label, but they don't exactly trip off the tongue. Justine Brooks Froelker of Ever Upward likes to describe herself as a "childfull parent," which is admittedly more positive-sounding than "childless" but perhaps somewhat confusing, particularly to people outside the infertility community.

(For lack of a better alternative, I tend to use "childless/free" in this blog.) 

And on that note -- the other semantics-related part of Cattrall's remarks that's getting a lot of attention is her comment that she is
“...not a biological parent, but I am a parent. I have young actors and actresses that I mentor. I have nieces and nephews that I am very close to. The thing that I find questionable about being childless or childfree is, are you really? There is a way to become a mother, in this day and age, that doesn’t include your name on the child’s birth certificate. You can express that maternal side of you very, very clearly, very strongly…. So I feel I am a mother, of sorts. I am not completely childfree, because I care about the next generation.”
Is Cattrall correct in calling herself a mother?  Is she "entitled" to do so? 

Personally, I don't often describe myself in terms of being a "mother" or "parent" -- even though, having given birth, I probably have slightly more claim to the title of "mother" in the eyes of the world than Cattrall does (-- albeit most people would not recognize me as a mother, since I never got to actively parent my child).  I know I AM a mother (to Katie).  And there are children and young people in my life that I've supported in various ways as they've grown up -- our two nephews, children of our cousins & friends, younger people I informally mentored and helped out at the office, when I was working. I love them all, and I am grateful to have them in my life.

But do they fill the void, compensate for my own lack of children?  Some people like to suggest that they might (perhaps as a way of making themselves feel better about the loss of Katie & my lack of other children?). 

Nope. Sorry. It's NOT the same. Being an auntie is a wonderful, amazing thing, and I love our nephews & some of those other kids to pieces -- but I recognize that it's definitely not the same as being a mother. 

(Funny, though, how I can write that with complete conviction and without wincing -- but to read a comment from a parent saying the exact same thing raises my childless hackles and makes me feel defensive...!) 

If Kim Cattrall (or you) feels differently, wonderful. But this is how I feel.

Of course, the whole kerfuffle begs the question as to why we need these labels at all, and why women must be defined by their relationships (or lack thereof) to children. (And also why nobody asks these same questions of men.)

As Amanda Marcotte pointed out in Slate:
Asking women who don't have children about motherhood is usually a trick question. There was no way for Cattrall to win this. If she said she has no desire to nurture children, then she'd face accusations of being unfeminine and lacking a maternal instinct. If she tries to highlight her nurturing side, she gets lambasted for not appreciating the sacrifices that parents make. 
Self-congratulatory paeans to motherhood reinforce the notion that there's something fundamentally lacking in you if you're not interested in making that particular sacrifice. The more that motherhood is held out as a uniquely ennobling venture that no other work could possibly equal in gravity, the more that women who opt out will be treated as if they're failing as women. If you don't like women who seem at all defensive about their childless status, stop asking them to defend it. 

I loved these comments from Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon:
You don’t need to be a mother, Kim Cattrall. You don’t even need to motherly. It’s 2015, and it’s high time we women weren’t judged exclusively in terms of how maternal we are...  
Our culture places an insane amount of pressure upon women to define themselves by how high they can rank themselves on the Good Mom scale, even if they aren’t even moms...  
I find the terms “childfree” and “childless” deeply lacking too. As a colleague said recently, they make having kids sound like having mold. But what I find more appalling and offensive is the way that women are constantly asked to account for their reproductive choices. And it’s completely fine for a woman to say, as Cattrall does, “I don’t think I really missed anything.”
Thoughts? Do you feel comfortable with the terms childless, childfree, or...?  Do you think of yourself as a mother, even if you don't have children you are actively parenting?

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A couple of other related articles:
  • Kim Cattrall is right: it's time to redefine childlessness by Nina Steele (The Telegraph).
    • Sample quote: "We live in a world in which parenthood is fetishised as the pinnacle - the very meaning - of life, and the only true route to happiness."
  • This article isn't related to Kim Cattrall, but makes some great related points: The Mother of all Questions by Rebecca Solnit (Harpers). Sample quotes:
    • "But just because the question can be answered doesn’t mean that I ought to answer it, or that it ought to be asked. The interviewer’s question was indecent, because it presumed that women should have children, and that a woman’s reproductive activities were naturally public business. More fundamentally, the question assumed that there was only one proper way for a woman to live."
    • "Questions about happiness generally assume that we know what a happy life looks like. Happiness is understood to be a matter of having a great many ducks lined up in a row — spouse, offspring, private property, erotic experiences — even though a millisecond of reflection will bring to mind countless people who have all those things and are still miserable... we are given a single story line about what makes a good life, even though not a few who follow that story line have bad lives. We speak as though there is one good plot with one happy outcome, while the myriad forms a life can take flower — and wither — all around us."
    • "Society’s recipes for fulfillment cause a great deal of unhappiness, both in those who are stigmatized for being unable or unwilling to carry them out and in those who obey but don’t find happiness... not only are the standard activities assumed to be inherently meaningful, they are treated as the only meaningful options."


  1. I've listened to Kim Cattrall's piece but not yet read any of your links (though I've saved them all to read later). Like Kim, I don't like childless, as it sounds like a judgement, and certainly implies "less." Childfree - well, as my blog says, sometimes I feel childfree, sometimes I don't. (Of course, you know how I feel (!!), as I wrote a long post about it years ago - And "barren" - ick!

    None of the attempts to relabel us really work for me. I use No Kidding on my blog, but I don't really expect that to catch on!

    I think that, as Kim says, you can still find an outlet for maternal instincts and feelings even if we don't have children, but I agree with you that doesn't make me a parent.

    Still, I'm glad that her stint on Women's Hour has raised these issues, and once again provided a discussion about the pressures on women to be mothers, and the stigma around us when we aren't (for whatever reason).

  2. I have no problem with the term childless-not-by-choice. I like the additional "not-by-choice" because the general public sometimes mix up childless and childfree. I suppose I'm neutral in my use of CNBC.

    I cringed when I read that she called herself a mother, though. I've never been pregnant (as you know) and I don't even want to call myself a mother, because it felt like pushing it too much. Just like you, I also feel that it's not the same thing as being a mother.

  3. Excellent commentary piece in the Globe & Mail on this:

  4. I am arriving late to this Kim Cattrall interview and the issues it raised as I only stumbled upon it yesterday ... but I do have a blog post percolating. Better late than never, right?

  5. Based on my unscientific but deeply felt experience, people who are not parents, but still choose to get involved in the lives of children and youth have a HUGE impact on their lives. Depending on the age of the child/youth and how they are maturing, these nurturing non-parents may have *more* of an impact than the parents do. It raises an interesting question if taking on such a role makes one a parent. I'm inclined to think no, it's different. I guess the reason I think so is because children/youth/young adults need to discover wise and caring adults who are NOT their parents. It's precisely the fact that the auntie/mentor/whatever isn't one's parent that makes the relationship so meaningful.

  6. You're a mom. You didn't get to parent Katie, but you're a mom.