In praise of single and childfree women

Because I posted about it, and because of the web like way of internet, a day later, I’m still stuck in Elizabeth Wurtzel’s New York piece like a trapped fly.

Here is the best thing I’ve read about it, from Twitter:

Do mags ever publish cautionary 1st-person tales about men whose lives are disasters because they refused to settle down?

That Tweet was written by Sarah Eckel. A visit to Eckel’s web site reveals that she is coming out with a book next year: There’s Nothing Wrong With You. Here’s part of the description of her book:

Are you a single person who would prefer not to be? Do you spend a lot of time wondering why? Do you worry that you’re too needy, or too independent? Too picky, or too undiscerning? Too close to your opposite-sex parent, or too distant?

Funny, isn’t it? No matter what you do or who you are, there is always a pathology to neatly explain the problem. Well, I have a radical suggestion: Maybe you’re perfectly fine exactly the way you are.

Apparently, she wrote a piece for the New York Times Modern Love that now I’m dying to read.

Visiting Eckel’s web site reminded me of a post I wrote about Elizabeth Gilbert’s book: Committed on her decision to be childfree. Gilbert’s book is about being with someone but much of her book (and I think the last one in some ways, too) is also about her decision to be child free.

Reel Girl is, in many ways, a blog about parenting, yet my post about Gilbert’s happy, fulfilled childfree life is one of my most popular, most shared posts ever. Why? It makes me think that celebrations of happy childfree women are rare, too few and far between. I wonder if you don’t have kids, if you’re supposed to be unhappy about it? Or something is wrong with you, is that it?  And if you’re not with someone, are you supposed to be unhappy about that too? And what about if you’re a man?

Actress Zooey Deschanel, who– get this– actually called herself a feminist publicly– responded to a question about whether or not she would have kids:

That is so personal, and it’s my pet peeve when people press you on it. And it’s always women who get asked! Is anybody saying that to George Clooney?

What is so clear to me is that when women are not valued for being single or for being childfree, all women are not valued. If women’s worth is determined by their relationships, they have no worth at all. So, I guess that’s another reason why I wanted to defend Elizabeth Wurztel. Even though, in many ways, she perpetuates a stereotype of an unhappy single woman with that piece, in many ways she doesn’t.

Here’s a re-post of what I wrote about Elizabeth Gilbert:

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.

6 thoughts on “In praise of single and childfree women

  1. I think this might be one of my favorite posts you’ve written.

    “What is so clear to me is that when women are not valued for being single or for being childfree, all women are not valued. If women’s worth is determined by their relationships, they have no worth at all.” Maybe I’ve just been reading too many of your posts lately but this sounds a lot like the role women are made to play in fiction. Sure, Hermione is the smartest witch of her generation. But we value her for helping Harry Potter.

    I suppose there might be a “societal” reason for this. Societies tend to value married women and married couples as stronger contributors to the social project of raising healthy, productive citizens to strengthen the country, blah, blah, blah, nationalism. :) This is why I love the point about the aunts. I’m not prepared to go with her to the evolution argument because that seems like a bit of an unjustified stretch but it’s nice to hear solid examples of how these women have helped contribute to the success of the next generation while remaining childless.

    • HI Cat,

      As you can guess, I think that is exactly the role most females play in fiction. I really believe that there are many ways people contribute to the next generation that don’t include reproduction or even being an auntie: teachers, writers, movie makers, philosophers, chefs, and on and on. WE really need to be less linear in how we think about all this.

      MM

  2. Thank you! I decided to be and stay childfree for the following reason: I’m asexual. The very thought of getting so close to a person repulses me. Also, I don’t like kids that much. But when people ask you this when you get a new job then that’s just horrible and a bit sad that they focus their attention towards this (you can’t get fired where I live if you get pregnant so that’s not a problem). Btw, I’m not outet do anyone but my closest friends so I guess even my parents might start asking questions…

    • Hi Kara,

      Thanks for your comment, I was fascinated by it and you saying you were not “out” to your parents because I know nothings of asexulaity. I just Googled it. Is this description something you agree with?

      “In a world where sex and relationships are everywhere, life for someone who has no instinct for those things can be very isolating, lonely and distressing.

      Many asexuals feel “broken” because they do not experience the same wants and desires as “everybody else”. Many asexuals are haunted by feelings of shame and face harassment from peers because they don’t fit in. Many asexuals lead unhappy lives by trying to be “normal”.

      By raising awareness about asexuality we hope to let people know that they are not alone, and that their feelings towards sex are nothing to be ashamed of. We want people to know that asexuality is a valid sexual orientation and not something to be cured. We want to help people feel pride in who they are and to know there are others out there just like them.

      If more people know about asexuality, then more asexuals can find each other and build communities and lasting relationships from which they can draw comfort and support. Beyond the benefit that projects like AAW bring to the asexual community, asexual awareness can offer interesting insights to the rest of society about the nature of human sexuality and relationships. We hope to show that there are many other forms of love and relationships out there to enjoy!”

  3. My thanks to the Auntie Brigade, too. I wish wish wish that someone had told me that there are wonderful and valuable and *valued* ways to contribute to the family’s next generation without being a mother. Great post!

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