There must be some great philosopher somewhere who noted that intended change almost always has spin-offs — little unexpected capillaries that shake up stuff nobody really thought about. I’d look it up, but I don’t have time for that much Googling.
Whether change happens suddenly or sneaks up over months or years, one day you realize that something else, something related but out-of-focus, changed, too. Sometimes, it’s the more jarring of the two.
Here’s what I’m talking about: When I launched The NotMom in 2012, research told me that I was looking at a bubble near the popping point. One-fifth of American women and women in similar numbers around the world didn’t have, and would never have, children. It wasn’t only that I learned I wasn’t alone; I was looking at a in a small, but growing, crowd. In our digital age, no group that large can stay in the shadows for long.
Media stories about the trend became almost a weekly affair. But, something about Time magazine’s decision to run a cover story about “The Childfree Life” in August 2013 shook things up in a big way, generating responses, reactions and commentaries around the globe. My predictions about a spotlight on women without children were beginning to come true…except. Much of Time’s focus, and other media buzz, concentrated on by-choice NotMoms. That distinction created another little change, and it’s bugging the heck out of me.
During my entire adult life, 20s to 50s, the recurring scene went like this: A woman learns that I don’t have children and she asks, ‘Why not? What are you waiting for?’ (when I was younger). Or she asks, ‘What happened?,’ or shares a quiet, “Oh” (as I grew older). That was the drill again and again. For years.
Now that the “surprising” trend of women forsaking motherhood is splashed across morning shows and every type of online sharing, here’s what’s been happening in the same scenario: A woman learns that I don’t have children and either asks why I didn’t want them, or stays silent, convinced that I am part of the new breed, happily childfree by choice. I may or may not ever find out about her wrong thinking about me.
As The NotMom gets more popular, this type of presumption about myself and the website is beyond perplexing. Of course, I’m pleased the site is attracting the good kind of online attention, but I’m repeatedly seeing myself described as being childfree. Or that this site is limited to that side of the family. How did they not see my bio that begins, “I’m a by-chance NotMom”? Did they miss the tagline in the masthead that declares, “celebrating women who are childless by choice or by chance”?
Then I thought, maybe it’s considered strange that a woman who wanted children would embrace her sisters who made the opposite choice. In the Internet’s early days, when chat rooms were the height of social media, I only found by-chance NotMoms on websites about infertility, miscarriage and adoption. If childless women were acknowledging themselves online in less melancholy places, I never found them. So, OK, now we’ve identified another unexpected ripple of cultural change, because here I am.
I can’t speak for every childless woman, but I will say, for myself and close friends like me I’ve talked with about this, presumptions that we never wanted children don’t just piss us off; they hurt a little bit. The hurt comes because, to correct the other person’s error, you have to go to places in your memory and your heart that are just waiting to ooze out the darker aspects of your truth.
You may learn that the bad parts – the sad parts- of your story weren’t under as much control as you thought. It’s like when someone tells you they fondly remember your late mother, never knowing their simple, basically nice comment picked the scab off a wound that wasn’t completely healed.
Laura and I have written about this before, and unfortunately, we’ll probably write about it again. Here’s the new tip on good manners: If you really want to know why a woman doesn’t have children, ask her. Or don’t. But don’t assume you already know the answer.