I am delighted that an article on women who choose not to be mothers, "The Childfree Life: When Having It All Means Not Having Children," has finally made it to the cover of TIME magazine; when my book Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life Without Children was published in 1996, I was interviewed by the then-behavioral science editor of TIME, herself a childless woman, but the piece was never published. Her supervising editor, a philoprogenitive man, thought my depiction of non-mothers as fruitful and feminine and without major angst about their decision, didn't fit with his image of bitter "barren" women, and he killed the story. Now, more women are comfortable opting out of motherhood and announcing the fact; the percentage is up to nearly 20 percent from the 10 percent when I wrote about it. So doesn't the glam, sexy, smiling couple illustrating the current story show that times have changed for the better? Not so fast.
For the most part, the women quoted in TIME in 2013 sound remarkably like the 50 women I interviewed in 1993, and very much like me. The main reasons they gave for not having children were they loved their lives as they were, enjoying the intimacy of their marriages and the fulfillment of their careers. They feared they would be seen -- or would see themselves -- as selfish and non-nurturing, and many worried about being outsiders and aging alone without a family. But they all knew their choice was the right one. These are the constants of this unconventional life.
What troubles me about this article is its title and its underlying attitude, epitomized by the upbeat catch phrases "childfree" and "having it all." "These women" the author cheerfully asserts, "are inventing a new female archetype, one for whom having it all doesn't mean having a baby." The most educated, highest IQ non-mothers by choice, she says, now "prefer to call themselves 'childfree.'" "Childlessness is for someone who wants a child but doesn't have one. It's a lack. I'm not lacking anything," says one of them.
The problem is that there is nobody alive who is not lacking anything -- no mother, no non-mother, no man. The perfect life does not and never will exist, and to assert otherwise perpetuates a pernicious fantasy, now in a child-free variant. There is no life without regrets. Every important choice has its benefits and its deficits, whether or not they are acknowledged: No mother has the radical, lifelong freedom that is essential for my happiness. And I will never know the relationship with a child that she has. Losses -- including losses of possibilities -- are inevitable; nobody has it all.
A self-aware mother whom I know echoed my sentiments in a note she sent me when Beyond Motherhood was published:
"...I think of you often -- your travels to exotic countries, your professional pursuits: in short, your adult life. Suburban motherhood is wonderful in many respects; there are moments so golden that they take my breath away. This is, however, also an extremely circumscribed existence. Not surprisingly, part of me craves your life."
Real self-acceptance, the true liberation, involves acknowledging limitations, not grandiosely denying them. It is true, and should be recognized, that women can be fulfilled with or without children. Making the less common choice has its gratifications but also its drawbacks. Having enough -- and the right stuff for you -- is all we can get, and all we need.