Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"Having It All, Child-Free" is an Oxymoron

Gloria Steinem in early Ms. days
The White House just announced that Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. Magazine ( to which I was an inaugural subscriber), has been awarded this year's Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation's highest civilian honor.

Ms. Magazine proudly proclaimed her selection, adding that three others so elevated were also female: Oprah Winfrey, songwriter/singer Loretta Lynn, and Judge Patricia Wald. The story neglected to mention that the rest of the sixteen winners, 75% of the total, were men.

I spent an hour on the Michael Medved radio show confronting a topic Gloria Steinem popularized: "Having It All." I debated Laura Sandler, who's in publicity mode on her current Time Magazine cover story, "The Childfree Life: When Having it All Means Not Having Children."

In it, she sympathizes with women who opt out, admonishing our culture for a pro-parenthood bias with little room for deviance from the norm. She bemoans the cultural "pressure" women feel to procreate, even as more reach menopause without motherhood. Her anecdotes of child-free-by-choice women standing up to pro-parental assumptions are meant to illustrate "a deep problem" in our society, as she said on the air.

My mom and me

And yet, she argues, because fewer women want kids, a "new female archetype" of "having it all" sans motherhood has emerged. On the one hand, she suggests, non-moms find it tough to face the well-meaning stare-down from others who think they're missing out. On the other, the freedom to pursue interests, extra earnings and indifference to a ticking genetic clock let child-free women feel fine. A 50-year-old woman Sandler quotes put it succinctly: "Now I don't give a s--- what anyone thinks."

I own the premier issue of Ms.
Gloria Steinem's magazine first defined "having it all" as an ideal combining power career, marriage, motherhood and personal development--though she's asserted attaining "it all" is impossible. "...a recalcitrant society said you had to do it all," she told a PBS interviewer in 2011.

But "all" always included children. That's why "Having it All, Child-Free" is an oxymoron. Non-parents can have, do and give a lot, but let's get the term straight. Without that huge time-and-emotions soaker called parenthood, they're missing an enormous chunk of the equation.

I took issue with Lauren Sandler on the Medved radio show because in the 30 years since I wrote Children: To Have or Have Not?, a book that grew out of my doctoral research at UCLA, much has changed. My dissertation tested a decision-making process that I created, and later used as workshops with hundreds of couples. Thirty years ago, choosing "have not"did come with more of a stigma--though even then, the choice had its advocates. The National Organization of Non-Parents, later renamed the National Alliance for Optional Parenthood, whose LA headquarters were right there in Westwood a few blocks from UCLA, regularly offered discussion groups, public events and even demonstrations.

Now that 48% of babies are born out of wedlock, gays marry and obtain children using surrogates and donors, and divorce, step-families and live-togethers form a myriad of cohabiting configurations, an individual or couple without children earns a big...shrug.

Not to mention that even parents spend perhaps 25 working years alone. The average age for first marriage has leaped to 27 for women and 29 for men, which means a decade in the work world before getting hitched; then if a couple has two kids in their early 30's, they're back to an empty nest when they're close to 50.

The lifestyle hook for the Time article is that the percentage of women aged 40-44 who remain childless--or "child free" if it's their choice--has increased. Well, fecundity is down a bit--but not more than you'd expect. I suspect Ms. Sandler's piece doesn't present the figures, because a 4% decline in the last decade--and 8% over thirty years--just doesn't seem that surprising given expansion of women's careers, and much later ages for marriage.

Here's my take on this: Time Magazine is gasping for air. Wrote Michael Rosenblum in the Huffington Post this week under the headline "Too Little, Too Late for Time Magazine," "Looking at last week's issue, the staple was wider than the magazine and you could see why. They forgot to put in any of the advertising."

What does a dying magazine do? Try to drum up controversy. And what topic is most near and dear to readers'--all readers'--hearts? Their kids. Put a good-looking couple lying on the sand wearing smirks and matching teal bathing suits, arms intertwined, on the cover of the magazine with a headline telling purchasers their kids are in the way of "having it all" and whattaya get? Dozens of comment threads, hundreds of "likes" and "shares," a bunch of TV chat show appearances, and an hour on the Michael Medved Show. Gives the illusion the magazine still breathes.

Meanwhile, in Americans' posting, Tweeting culture, non-parents are certainly criticized. But not as much as parents are. Given that the vast majority of adults do have children, there's plenty to say: Kids are ungrateful, and their parents aren't teaching civility. Kids are rude, and their parents have atrocious manners so what do you expect? Kids are tattooed, ruining their futures, but their parents' ink sags. Kids' tuitions are outrageous but parents' pushy insistence on exclusive schools drives competition and costs. Kids' clothes and accoutrement are expensive, but parents show off by spending. Kids are loud and slacking and selfish, and their cheering parents helicopter to fend negative consequences.

Halle Berry, pregnant at age 46
We therefore hear more about kids and parenting--though the child-free are among us. Twenty percent of white and 17% of black, Hispanic and Asian women aged 4-44 have no spawn.

The cut-off of age 40-44, however, slices away a growing segment of mothers. Childbearing for all ages declined over the past several years--except in women over 40, for whom the rate increased 10% between 2007 and 2011 alone. Women whose circumstances didn't coalesce earlier are pushing the envelope to take advantage of fertility treatments that can allow women through their 50s to deliver babies. Women Sandler calls "early adopters"--younger people who announce they never want kids--may change their minds, even after counted as "permanently" child-free at age 40.

It's true that as more women remain without offspring, the definition of "having it all" is sliding to accommodate them. Twenty-seven percent of professional women in a survey last year sponsored by Citi and LinkedIn said kids aren't required. Yet an Atlantic Magazine cover story a year ago by Anne-Marie Slaughter gained media furor (including a post by me) by asserting "Why Women Still Can't Have it All," seamless family life being a major part. Slaughter and Lean In'  author Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, agree that "all" includes children.

As one who has worked with hundreds of couples deciding about childbearing, and as a former 'early adopter' who in my 20s didn't want to disrupt my joyous life, now, as mother of three, I finally "get it." Parenthood's satisfaction, investment, long-term perspective, motivation and connection far outweigh the (significant) inconveniences and costs of children. Each of my children is a unique, fascinating and compelling individual, and I'd have experienced and enjoyed far less in this life without them.

So, yes, if you think comfort, freedom and career top kids as determinants of what "it all" is for you, great. Few nowadays would spend more than a few seconds thinking about your choice, to pity, scorn or envy. But unless you're actually the parent to a real, vital, changing child, I'll never convince you that there's no substitute, if only in sheer intensity of emotion.  Far more women hear that ticking clock and don't want to miss this most major of life's adventures than decide to skip it. And there's always the "tombstone test:" what, in the end, really matters?


  1. First, let's take the whole 'having it all' notion off the table. No one has it all. What everyone has is some ability to make decisions about what they want to do with their lives. Some decisions are necessarily more significant than others..."Do I want a turkey sandwich or a pizza?" is less significant than "I think I'll bring a new life into the world and nurture it for 18-25 years".

    Based on your title, this is the direction I thought you'd be going. Instead, you ramble all over the place, ending up back in the land of "those without kids will never know the joy of having kids". BTW - that's what we call a tautology in logic. Also known as useless for establishing a point. If you never have a llama, you'll never know the joy...

    Coming back to your comments, along the way you attack the meaningfulness of the article. Apparently Time magazine, and by extension Salon, Slate, HuffPost, CBS, NBC, Fox, and any number of other outlets that have recently done big stories on the childfree, are on their death beds.

    In the end, this article is a response from someone who feels personally attacked. However, the Time article, if read closely, does not attack. It simply explains.

    BTW - this phrase "...an individual or couple without children earns a big...shrug." is absolutely, 100% full of shit. If that were true the notion of childfree would not exist.

    Lance @ werenothavingababy.com

    1. "BTW - this phrase "...an individual or couple without children earns a big...shrug." is absolutely, 100% full of shit. If that were true the notion of childfree would not exist."

      This, exactly, if it were true that being CF earns a big shrug, why would this article and the one it's a response to and the multitude of others like it even exist? It's ridiculous to imply that no one cares when clearly, plenty of people do.

  2. Lance,or Amy, I actually love this comment.
    My point isn't to say non-parents can't know the joy of parenthood (that was a personal aside)--my point is that choosing not to have a baby doesn't bring the stigma it used to--it's now just one of an array of lifestyle choices that are accepted if not respected, and so it's really a non-issue (except for those in the throes of the decision, and you do seem to be a bit, um, emotional here). The notion of childfree exists because it's a status, just like married, or parent, or doctor or sister, that people are or choose--but I disagree that it brings scorn or disdain or pity anywhere near the way it used to.
    And on another of your points: Time Magazine hasn't forgotten the splash its rival, Newsweek, made a year ago with the "Have it All" cover story by Anne-Marie Slaughter, and is desperate for that kind of wide publicity.
    "Having it all" is in the eye of the beholder. But in the scheme of life tasks, being a parent is such a biggie that an honest analysis must include it in "all." Your choice to define YOUR "all" as without children is fine by me.

  3. RWhat really shocks me about the discussion is that no where in the Time article nor in the subsequent debate has the big A-word been used! Um, if so many women are choosing NOT to have children doesn't that mean that SOME of them are having abortions and want acceptance of that choice? When will these women and their defenders say, "I had abortions. It's fine. It's my choice. I'm 'child-free' and loving it." I mean isn't that what is really going on? I suspect that women don't say that because they honestly are NOT fine with it and are in fact -dare I say- ashamed/confused. Sure, they will use the term "privacy" to umbrella their "decision" and avoid ever making such a bold statement about their abortions, but if pro-choice women are so confidant and happy about their lives, why not boldly share their experiences as an acceptable or even laudable pathway?

    Also, Sandler failed to sympathize with women (and men) who are childless but would LIKE to be parents. Some of them are desperate to have children and are exhausting their resources in fertility treatments, etc. I guess their idea of "having it all" DOES include children, and they would not fit into her neat box of those she highlights in her article: the happy, unencumbered non-parents.

    My biggest problem with the article is that it exhorts us not to judge the non-parents or lament their decisions, while failing to acknowledge that parents -as you assert, Dr. Medved, thank you- are under as much if not more scrutiny and judgement. I don't think the "breeders" are any less merciful in their dealings w

    1. Some childfree people have abortions. Most never need to. Some PARENTS have abortions too, before or after having children or between having children. Your assumptions are without merit and absolutely ridiculous, not to mention completely irrelevant. The article isn't about abortion and has nothing to do with abortion.

      Sandler's article isn't about the childless, it's about the childfree. There is no reason to devote time to the childless in an article that has absolutely nothing to do with them.

      Are parents really under more scrutiny and judgment? Look at the article we're commenting on, and your own comment. These are the sort of things not written about parents.

  4. ...with childless people than childless people are with them.

  5. Laura, you're right that abortion wasn't mentioned in the Sandler piece, but you can't assume that people who choose not to have children have had them any more than parents may have had them. A recent Gallup poll shows 60% of Americans believe abortion in the first trimester should be legal.
    You're also right that Sandler neglected to address child-LESS people, whose infertility is a heartache. But she chose to define her topic as those proclaiming their intent not to have children. The desperation of infertile couples just underscores the traditional definition of "having it all," which Sandler seeks to disabuse.
    And THAT is my point: "Having it all" can be defined by individuals any way they want, but as a sociological construct and for the vast majority of women, must include children.

  6. I don't want kids. I wouldn't want them regardless of what lifestyle having them is or isn't weighed against. The state of parenthood is undesirable, and I would be absolutely miserable with kids in my life no matter what the effect. For me, not having kids and reaping the benefits of not having kids isn't a trade-off, it's a win-win situation.
    Do I not have it all for not having malaria either?