There’s a curious breed of people out there in the world. They have no particular natural habitat; they simply live among the rest of society, generally inconspicuous and well-camouflaged. You can pass them on the street and stand next to them in public transport and not even know. In fact, there have been reports that their number is increasing.
I'm referring to people who are childfree. Not childless, or people who want to have children but don’t have any, but childfree, meaning those who choose not to have children. There’s a major distinction between the two, and I fall within the latter category.
If you asked me a few years ago whether I wanted to have children some day, I’d have said yes. Why not? I like kids and get along with them. Babies make me melt. Why wouldn’t I want kids of my own?
I started thinking about it more after getting married – probably because it took about 20 seconds after the wedding for people to assume my next life goal involved popping out an infant – and was surprised by my own conclusion: that I'd rather be childfree.
Upon plenty of self-reflection, I realised my previous assumption – that I’d want kids after marriage – had more to do with it being the ‘done thing’ than with any personal desire. Having children has been so accepted as the natural next step after getting hitched that I’d bought that line along with everyone else.
A few months after our wedding – and move to Singapore – I caught a bad flu. Calum was away at the time and I found myself at my grandparents’ relying on home remedies. My grandma interpreted my headaches and blocked nose as symptoms of pregnancy, and pressed me to tell her if that was the case. When I assured her that I was neither pregnant nor planning to be, her only response was to offer to help take care of our baby.
Sometime later a doctor asked me why I still wanted birth control. “Married already, what’s the problem?” she said. And about a year after that a nurse took on the same line of questioning: “You sure you want [the pill]? Even after you stop taking it’ll be quite long before you get pregnant, you know!” (Which, by the way, is not necessarily true.)
I’m also often asked by random acquaintances whether Calum and I have kids. When I answer in the negative, their responses are often along the lines of “oh, not yet ah” or “yes, you’re still young, there’s still time”. The possibility that we might have opted out of parenthood doesn’t even come into the conversation.
The stereotype that every woman’s secret life goal is to settle down and achieve motherhood is as pervasive as it’s harmful. An article published on Sunday about the increasing number of women without children – both childless and childfree – was accompanied on AsiaOne by an image of a faceless woman standing alone and dejected against a dark background.
— AsiaOne (@sphasiaone) October 18, 2015
Implicit in that image is the common assumption that a woman is unfulfilled unless she has a child to care for. That mothering is the duty of women, and that a woman who doesn’t want to play this game is somehow abnormal and selfish.
This is not something we put on men. You’re not going to see an article about childfree or childless men illustrated by a sad guy standing alone under a spotlight to emphasise his loneliness. A man without a child probably just has other stuff to do, like a career. But a woman without a child is seen as incomplete, and a career is simply more evidence of how she only looks out for herself.
This is why I've already had so many conversations about childbearing even though we only just celebrated our first anniversary three months ago. Expectations are so entrenched that there are times I feel like I do owe people an explanation. This is why I can spout a long stream of justifications for why we aren’t planning to have kids even before I recognise I’m doing it (and that it’s no one’s damn business).
Even this week I was annoyed – but not surprised – to see an article on AsiaOne in which Dr Tan Poh Lin from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy described the increasing levels of social acceptance of childless marriages as a problem that leads to a “vicious circle of rising childlessness”. She added that “humans are programmed to desire to have children”, which is why a large proportion of the population will continue to have kids.
These stereotypes help no one. There could be any number of practical, biological, mental and emotional reasons why a couple – remember, it is not just the woman who is childless/childfree – might not have children. Implying that childfree people are somehow “programmed” differently from how they should be and that social acceptance of their choice leads to a “vicious circle” erases these complex reasons and obscures people’s right to make their own decisions. (Not to mention the crime against geometry – how can being childfree create a vicious circle? A circle of what?)
While I can appreciate that increasing numbers of childless or childfree families pose a demographic puzzle for policymakers, it’s not the acceptance of childless or childfree marriages that is the problem.
Policymakers can try to encourage Singaporeans to have more children, but need to understand that childfree couples aren’t going to pump out kids simply to satisfy some state KPI. There is no Baby Bonus in the world that will tempt me out of my childfree state as long as I lack the personal desire to quit it. Campaigns trying to cajole Singaporeans into having kids without recognising this fact will likely have limited effect. There is nothing wrong with our “programming”, and therefore no need for any state-led effort to fix us.
The attention needs to be on childless couples instead, and on addressing the barriers that prevent them from having the children they want. Mindsets, such as prejudice and stigma against adoption, should be changed so that more couples can consider adopting. Financial pressures, such as the cost of childcare and education, can be relieved. Better access to flexiwork schemes and job-sharing can be offered so couples can balance time with their child with their responsibilities at work. Paternity leave should be on par with maternity leave, so that we send a clear message that caregiving work needs to be shared equally, rather than largely in the domain of women. Anti-discrimination laws will also protect pregnant women from being unfairly dismissed, thus removing a fear that keeps many women childless despite their own wishes.
There are many families out there who want children, and they deserve as much help and support as they can get. My family just isn’t one of them. I don’t apologise for wanting to be childfree. My empty uterus doesn’t cry itself to sleep at night. There is nothing “vicious” about a society that respects my choice.