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.
“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.”
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:
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.”
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.