At first glance, Time's new cover story, "The Childfree Life," looks a lot like another example of what Salon's Anna North recently referred to as "women's stories" -- stories whose main function, she argued, is to inspire female anxiety:
This is the emotion of the women's story. It does not move. It does not satiate. It does not provoke tears or laughter, or even good clean fear. Maybe it titillates, but ultimately, it is intended to worry. The women's story sidles up to you at a party and asks in the honeyed voice of a false friend whether you or other women like you might be doing sex or love or motherhood (the top tasks of the woman) slightly wrong.
The Time article, by Lauren Sandler, is mostly about women, but it refreshingly avoids most of the worry-mongering North called out. Its goal, in fact, seems to be to squelch some of the worry we have for and about people who choose not to have kids. And in a culture that has for years accepted parenthood as synonymous with adulthood, especially for women, and cast the childfree as somehow deficient, the piece is long overdue.
Consider the most recently monthly Vanity Fair/CBS poll. For September, 2013, the topic was "The Perfect Woman." (The August 2013 poll was on the perfect man -- it's apparently equal opportunity ridiculousness over there.) When the 1,017 participants were asked the most important quality in a woman, 39 percent said being a good mother, above brains, a sense a humor and a healthy sex drive.
This "mother above all" view of womanhood is Sandler's target, not the women she profiles, who don't want kids, or readers who have or want them. Her point is that no one is doing it wrong, but for a very long time, childfree women have been told they are. They are interrogated about their choice in salons and post offices even as they are marginalized by a culture obsessed with maternity and parenting -- see celebrity bump watches, the $49 billion baby product industry and articles accusing women who don't want kids of selfishness, all of which amount to what Sandler calls the "ambient roar" of motherhood.
Sandler's profiles of these women and their partners is both sympathetic and hopeful. She writes:
Women who choose not to become mothers are finding new paths of acceptance. As their ranks rise -- and as the community of adults without kids diversifies in terms of race, education levels and political affiliations -- so do positive attitudes about being able to lead a fulfilling, childless life.
In other words, the kid-free are all right.
Sandler's piece does commit a few "women's stories" sins. The line, "these women are inventing a new female archetype, one for whom having it all doesn't mean having a baby" perpetuates the idea that we need female archetypes -- wouldn't we be better off without those? -- and the myth that anyone can have it all. To state the obvious, you can't do or have everything. Part of being an adult is making choices. And the magazine's cover line, "When having it all means not having children," is pretty obviously composed to reignite some of the debate provoked by Anne-Marie Slaughter's June 2012 Atlantic cover story "Why Women Still Can't Have It All."
But Sandler also seems to agree with North. She suggests that one of the many, many reasons women forgo motherhood is the negative message the media have sent about it in these "women's stories." She references Time's own May 2012 cover story "Are You Mom Enough?." I would add Jennifer Senior's 2010 New York piece "Why Parents Hate Parenting" and Slaughter's story, and there are more. All of these stories went viral, and all present parenting as a Sisyphean task. Instead of communicating that having kids can be a demanding but fulfilling part of who you are, the message is that working parenthood, which Stephen Marche pointed out recently in the Atlantic is the only kind most contemporary parents will ever know, is presented as the ultimate grind. In this context, it makes perfect sense that more people are saying no.
One of the best parts of Sandler's piece is that it's a defense of the childfree written by a mother. Sandler may have a special empathy for her oft-judged spawnless peers as the mother of an only child -- she just published a book defending the choice to have just one. But plenty of other women with children have questioned the idea that motherhood is a woman's sole or ultimate calling. Among the women Sandler quotes is Amy Richards, a writer and mother who authored a book called "Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself."
"The Childfree" ultimately succeeds because it isn't just about people who don't want kids and their right to structure their lives without judgment. It's about the idea that whether or not a person becomes a parent isn't a demonstration of her worth, no matter what the latest Vanity Fair poll or a stranger in the subway says.