‘Childless’ or ‘Childfree’: The Difference Matters

Mother’s Day is a great time to remind ourselves that language matters, and that the experience of not wanting children in a world where women are defined by their reproductive desire and potential is very different than being a woman who would like to be a parent some day.

Language matters. "Childless" and "childfree" are not interchangeable terms. Blackboard via Shutterstock

Mother’s Day is a great time to remind ourselves that language matters. We already know this; the difference between a “baby” and a “fetus,” between “reproductive rights” and “reproductive justice,” among other terms, are vital to pro-choice politics and the movement. Corporate media outlets misfire with regard to language all the time, and this has created a deep sense of confusion between the terms “childless” and “childfree.”

Recently, in a piece for The Telegraph, writer Sarah Rainey featured actress Helen Mirren discussing her decision to not have children, and the implications of that decision for Mirren and for other women like her in a society obsessed with having children.

“Motherhood holds no interest for me,” said Mirren.

She is referred to in Rainey’s piece as “childless.”

Here’s the problem: While “childless” means the condition of being without children, it implies that everyone who does not have children would like to have them. However, being “childfree,” like Mirren—and like me—means that one does not want to have children at all.

The implications of using these two terms interchangeably reach beyond celebrities, of course. People (not just women) can be childless for a lot of reasons—reproductive and financial challenges among them—but, like being childfree and not wanting kids, it’s a deeply stigmatized experience, accompanied by shame. Both groups of people are in search of a community, and finding that can be incredibly difficult, particularly when you might be looking in the wrong place.

A few months ago, as part of my own perpetual search for other childfree folks, I was doing research for a piece about female clergy who are childfree. As I was looking for people to interview, I was sent down a tricky path. You could practically hear the whispering through Gchat when people I had reached out to said, “Rabbi ___ doesn’t have kids, but I don’t know why.” So the woman could be childfree, or maybe she wasn’t interested in having kids or didn’t feel ready yet, or maybe she was dealing with some painful circumstances that I would provoke if I asked her to talk about it.

While it’s somehow become socially acceptable to ask everyone you come across if they have children, and if not, why, that doesn’t make it easier to disclose a complicated answer, which everyone has to a certain degree. If you’re not physically able to or interested in having biological children and you’ve adopted, or are pursuing adoption, there’s a landmine of potentially insensitive comments, from inappropriate mentions of race to the classic “Don’t you want a child who’s ‘really’ yours?” Miscarriage and other reproductive challenges are incredibly common—up to 25 percent of clinically recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. Often, these things are not talked about because of shame and stigma surrounding miscarriage and other reproductive issues.

In the end, the best way to go about my search was to be clear about language, defining childfree from the get-go and trying my best to assure people that I was a safe person to talk to. I said things like, “I’m like you,” “I don’t think you’re an alien because you don’t want to have a baby,” “I get it,” and “You can trust me.”

The taboo that surrounds women without children, childless or childfree, is potent. We spend a lot of time explaining ourselves (or avoiding explaining ourselves) and looking for people who understand us, who don’t ask us to or expect us to explain. But at the same time, the difference between childless and childfree folks is important to take note of and apply correctly, because we are not, in fact, the same. As a woman who’s childfree, I’m not experiencing reproductive challenges. I’m not waiting for the right partner, or enough money, or the perfect geographic location. I don’t feel like something is missing from my life because I don’t have children. I don’t want to have kids. There is no yet.

That might be hard to swallow, for some—childfree folks constantly hear things like, “You’ll change your mind” and “You’ll regret it.”

Perhaps, because it’s still so unfathomable to the world that a woman wouldn’t want a baby, the term is deliberately misunderstood. If we keep confusing the language, the thinking may go, we can deny that childfree women exist.

The experience of not wanting children in a world where women are defined by their reproductive desire and potential—where women are expected to structure their lives around babies—is very different than being a woman who would like a baby or would like to be a parent some day. That difference has to do with desire. If you’re a cisgender, heterosexual woman—especially a white woman—who doesn’t have a kid but wants one, you’re still in line with expectations about how a woman should behave. You’re not threatening, you’re adhering. A cisgender, straight woman who doesn’t want a baby is transgressive, subversive, pathological, a perpetual mystery to be solved.

Things may be different, of course, if you’re queer, trans, single, poor, or a person of color; as a society, we’re pretty clear on who we want to be having babies.

We have to believe each other when we say what we do and do not want, and trust that we know ourselves well enough to make choices that are true for us. And we have to support one another through less than lovely times, and through experiences that are challenged and marginalized. Part of supporting each other means we hold media outlets accountable when they confuse and mislabel our experiences, whether purposefully or not.

Both childfree and childless folks need a community of people like them. But in order to do find that community, it needs to be made clear that we are in search of separate things. To get what we need, both terms—childless and childfree—must be de-stigmatized, and we have to understand that they are different, and have separate and distinct implications in our society.