Are childless women happy?

Best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert says childless women are just fine

The husband, the kids, the picket fence, you know this scene. Women’s biological clocks are desperately ticking. We’re on a quest to secure a man so we can reproduce, because becoming mothers will make us truly happy and fulfilled.

While childless men manage to find a respectable place in society, often with a few publicly recognized achievements under their belts, admired, or even envied, as the self-sufficient bachelors they are; childless women remain suspect, if not total freaks. They’re often pitied; people wonder at what point in their lives they veered off onto their unnatural, unfeminine paths, becoming lonely “spinsters” or crazy cat ladies.

Best-selling, childless author of Eat, Pray, Love Elizabeth Gilbert introduces a radically different theory in her new book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage. She writes that childless women have historically served a crucial role in society, not yet publicly recognized. These women should not be scorned but celebrated for their contributions to bettering the human race.

Gilbert writes:

“If you look across human populations of all varieties, in every culture and on every continent (even among the most enthusiastic breeders in history, like the nineteenth-century Irish, or the contemporary Amish), you will find that there is a constant 10 percent of women within any population who never have children at all. The percentage never gets any lower than that, in any population whatsoever. In fact, the percentage of women who never reproduce in most societies is usually much higher than 10 percent- and that’s not just today, in the developed Western world, where childless rates among women tend to hover around 50 percent.”

Gilbert speculates that female childlessness is an evolutionary adaption:

“Maybe it’s not only legitimate for certain women to never reproduce, it’s necessary. It’s as though, as as a species, we need an abundance of responsible, compassionate, childless women to support the wider community in various ways. Childbearing and child rearing consume so much energy that the women who do become mothers quickly become swallowed up by that daunting task- if not outright killed by it.”

Elizabeth  GilbertElizabeth Gilbert

Gilbert points out that childless women have always taken on the tasks of nurturing children who are not their biological responsibilty as no other group in history has ever done, in such vocations as running schools, hospitals, and becoming midwives.

That’s all fine and good, but won’t these childless women be desperately unhappy in their old age?

Gilbert says no. Recent studies of happiness levels in America’s nursing homes show the indicators of contentment in later life are poverty and health. “Save your money, floss your teeth…you’ll be a perfectly happy old bird someday.”

Gilbert concedes that without descendants, childless women are often forgotten more quickly, but that the role they played when alive was vital. Gilbert calls these vibrant women the “Auntie Brigade.” Here are some examples she lists of their influences:

Jane Austen was a childless aunt.

Raised by childless aunts:

Leo Tolstoy

Truman Capote

the Bronte sisters

Edward Gibbon (famous historian raised by his Aunt Kitty)

John Lennon (Auntie Mimi– convinced him he would be an important artist)

F. Scott Fitzgerald (Aunt Annabel offered to pay for his college education)

Frank Lloyd Wright (first building commissioned by Aunts Jane and Nell who also ran a boarding school in Wisconsin)

Coco Chanel (Aunt Gabrielle taught her how to sew)

Virginia Woolf (muse was Aunt Coraline)

Marcel Proust (memory set off by Aunt Leonie’s madeleine)

Gilbert writes that when J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, was “asked what his creation looked like, replied his image, essence, and spirit of felicity can be found all over the world and hazily refelected ‘in the faces of many women who have no children.’ That is the Auntie brigade.”

Marcel  ProustMarcel Proust

I’ve always wondered why people get in such a tizzy about gay people, justifying their bigotry because: “It’s just not natural.” How do we know what’s natural? Is everyone supposed to pop out babies like the Duggar family and their 20 kids? Is that “natural”? And is every “natural” thing good anyway? Death is natural. Cancer can be natural.

Women without children are perfectly capable of being happy; what they’re often missing isn’t kids, but a society and a culture that values and respects them.

To all the moms out there, thank you for working hard to continue the human race. And to the “Auntie Brigade,” thank you for working hard to continue the human race.

Read my post on New York Magazine’s biased coverage of childless women here.

24 thoughts on “Are childless women happy?

  1. Pingback: Best-selling Author, Elizabeth Gilbert, Aays Childless Women are Just Fine | CMomA.org

  2. One area that has not been discussed is the special love that most all of us have for our mother. There is no other bond like it in the world. By having a child, you are on the receiving end of that love. That is something a childless person would miss out on. Not something that is talked about much but it can bring so much joy to a person’s life.

  3. I find that living a ‘child-less’ life creates so much space (psychologically speaking) that I tend to ‘extend’ myself more to constant travelling, learning about life, about the world, about the universe, even… After all I find that exploring the real meaning of Life is what I really was ‘meant’ to do in this world… I have been blessed to have met someone who lives like me (he is child-less too).

    ‘Giving’ to society or the world is, in my opinion, something which goes far beyond parenthood, and in fact many child-less people are better able to devote proper consideration, time and energy to issues which are important to the world… Or simply, to develop a deep spiritual side…

    I personally admire Oprah Winfrey, who is child-less and admitted herself that she would not have been able to accomplish all that she did, against all the odds, if she were a mother. She also seems to confirm that child-less couples have a better chance (though it is NOT a guarantee) at staying together, of getting to know each other deeply, in a way that childless couple can accomplish more easily.

    I also wish society were focusing a little more on the fact that meaning in life is not attained only by being in a household with 2 parents, 2 kids and a dog. In fact, meaning in life is attained only at truly exploring oneself, our true inner dreams, our role in this life and world and… universe.

    contributor to mysearchingforlove.

  4. So, if Gilbert’s argument is that women are only here to either birth kids or look after them as Aunties so their pseudo-kids can become famous then that is, to quote the English, a load of bollocks.
    I don’t have kids, I also don’t live through or even very often see my niece and nephew. I love them, they are cool, but they are my brother’s kids, not mine. Their successful or not as adults will make little difference to my life.
    And I have an ok life. I don’t miss kid-ness. I’m not lacking. I’m just as compassionate and passionate as anyone else. Sometimes I am happy, other times less so, but that’s life, with or without kids. Kids don’t make life happy – they *may* fulfil one need in some people, but that is all.

  5. I am a career girl myself and have never had any interest or intentions of having children (or getting married). I’ve been with my partner for over 5 years now and he does want children. My deal-breaker is that we get married first (I’m old-fashioned in that sense).
    But the amount of pressure from family and friends, asking when are the babies coming, et al, is rediculous. yes I’m nearly 30 but there is more I want to achieve in my life; I want to travel and taste food and buy things for my house and have a nice car and things that please me and my partner.
    I dont see how having a child can make my life any better or simpler?

  6. it is far more selfish to bring children in the world that are not wanted and never let them forget it ,my father reminded me every day that he “fed me” that he “killed himself working”to clothe and feed me,and never gave me anything spontanously,and never let me forget how ungrateful I was.Now that is being selfish,not choosing to remain childless.You do not have to produce children to give to the world.

    • Lol my father tells me the same thing! I’m a 30 yo woman BTW, childless by circumstances. My father tells me he worked his whole life to feed my fat ass, to make sure there was food on the table, that he worked his hands until they bled to make sure I could eat, that because of him I never missed a meal. I would think, “Well, I’m sorry you had to work so hard to make sure there was food on the table for me when I was growing up, but isn’t that what parents are supposed to do?”

  7. I think its a situation of you can’t miss what you’ve never had. The dynamics of a single woman and a mother are distinctive in nature and design. The unrestricted freedom of a woman without a baby cant equate to the life, living and daily existence of a woman with a child/children. The question is immeasureable and invalid.

  8. I’ve never wanted kids and I havee never ever dreamt of being a mother. I also wonder if parents are as happy as they say they are. I find it wierd not to hear moms complaining more often. I am an aunt and its devastating and tiring. Is it becasuase parents prefer not to say the truth and thus prefer to drag more people into their hardship. I gues nothing is as good or bad as it seems so why is it that there are hardly no mothers complaining???? Is tehre a mother out there ready to stop me from having kids????

    • I believe that if a woman doesn’t want kids she shouldn’t have any. Not every woman was meant to be a mother. My greatest accomplishments are my three daughters. I am truly blessed and have no regrets.Granted, life was not always peaches and cream, but the rewards of being a grandmother to three wonderful grandsons is priceless. In my golden years I can look at my photo albums of my kids and grandkids,and they are worth more to me than anything. But, I do understand, how not having any children can make for a wonderful life also. It all depends on the person and how much of yourself you are willing to give. It is a full time job with no pay, but the benefits are outstanding.

      • Not wanting to have a baby and remain chidless is a woman’s and a man’s choice. Its one thats hard to explain. I expect its different for every person who has made this choice.
        I am 45 and knew from a very young age that I didnot want to have a child.I didnot want to be a someones mother!
        I can sit here and soul search for hours on why I never wanted to be a parent……its got nothing to do with having a career, finding the right man, loving cats and dogs. Its not about holidays, lovely belongings, wonderful nieces and nephew etc etc. I am not selfish and like to stay in often enjoying my own company ( minus a cat!!!!)
        People always say “maybe you just werenot meant to be a mother”…..I dont understand this statement….it amuses me! Can someone explain it please.
        I have no regrets about not putting my genes into the genepool.
        I am a very happy, loving, fulfiled woman with this overwhelming sense of freedom and liberation…….I love my partner very much, and we will grow old and happy together…childfree.

  9. I’ve never had even a vague desire to have kids, nor has my husband, so we simply don’t have any. It’s not a grave decision, it’s not something entered into heavily, it’s just a simple fact. We just don’t want any. I guess the general view is that marriage is a means to an end (children) and not an end in itself. I disagree 100%. Being married to my husband is all the fulfillment I could ever need or want, he’s the love of my life and we have the perfect life for us, no matter how weird it might look to anyone else. So my family consists of him, myself and our hound dog and there’s absolutely nothing that could make us happier.

  10. The question should not be “are childless women happy” but “are women WITH children happy.” Please see the linked article below. This is a well-known study that showed couples without children are happier than couples with children:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1941195/Marriage-without-children-the-key-to-bliss.html

    I know that this information will bring howls of protest from fellow parents, but the research bears it out. I also know “my kids are the most important thing in my life” and all, but the parents I know (including me & spouse) are not as happy as our friends without kids.

    And anyway, two questions:
    1. Who cares whether or not someone has kids, and
    2. How come no one asks us guys about this? Why doesn’t anyone ever question whether or not men are happy with or without children?

  11. I don’t fully agree: we need a society which accepts that we can be happy. but also a society which can live with the fact that this “happy” sometimes goes alongside sadness, grief and regret.
    Society can accept that someone who lost a dear person, someone who is very ill or disabled, can be happy- but sometimes will be sad as well and have difficulties. why do i sometimes feel put under pressure- as with this article (i haven’t (yet) read the book) – to completely stop regretting and being sad and please just be happy again so society won’t have to face the facts that something sad happened to me?

  12. I loved this book too!!! Very well written blogpiece! Concise, no proselytizing and most importantly, I loved how you were respectful of both sides and choices. Mom’s, dad’s, aunts, uncles, we are all part of the greater responsibility of raising the world’s children 🙂

  13. I hate to argue as I agree with the general points made, but the way John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi is mentioned in the list is wrong. She did raise him but she never wanted him to be a musician and wouldn’t let him play his guitar in the house as she wanted him to concentrate on academic studies.

    • Hi Tricia,

      According to Elizabeth Gilbert, Aunt Mmi did encouraged John. Could she have insisted he do well in school also, or perhaps she got angry with him sometimes and took his guitar away– a complicated women, maybe?

      Margot

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