Childless is a word I detest

Childless. While there is not one thing I like about this word, I am supportive of those who want to draw attention to the social issues surrounding it.

What’s behind my dislike of the word? First of all, it comes loaded with baggage.  Unkind stereotypes abound.

I could find no evidence of the word ‘childful’ in the English language, so how and why, one wonders, did ‘childless’ get coined? It seems only to exist as a negative modifier.  Furthermore, our culture, more often than not, feels perfectly at ease demonizing those of us who fit the technical description: ‘has no children.’

My unease with the term childless started years ago.  Beyond the stigma, let’s be straight. Any word with a ‘less’ tacked onto it is not steeped in goodness:

  • Pointless (defined as ‘having little or no sense, use, or purpose.’)
  • Worthless (defined as ‘having no real value or use.’)
  • Aimless (defined as ‘without purpose or direction.’)

Are you detecting a theme here? Taken by itself the word less on its own means ‘a smaller amount of; not as much.’

Childless (the word) is deceptive

As I’ve written previously, I do not care to be described by an adjective focused on what isn’t in my life.

Above all, the word can be misleading. Children have and continue to play a central role in my life. I adore my (now adult) nieces and nephews. My friend’s children are very much a part of my life.  Even children I don’t know get a big smile from me when our eyes meet. I donate to causes that help children. So, again, how am I childless?

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A Worthwhile Concept

Childless WeekWith that back story, it should come as no surprise I grumbled and sighed when I first learned of a campaign called #WorldChildlessWeek.

Truth is, those behind it are truly kindhearted. Furthermore, the campaign goal is not only worthy, it is sorely needed:

To help the cnbc [childless not by choice]: validate their emotions, find support, build friendships, realise their own worth and find the confidence to speak out and celebrate their uniqueness.  The gap that exists between parents and the childless community needs to be bridged and our grief needs to be recognised and respected.

To be sure, I’ve had my share of grief and misunderstanding.  I’ve been disrespected and experienced prejudice for not being a parent. Worse, still, was the indifference and lack of support.

Due to our IVF alpha pregnancy losses I wondered often why society (not to mention the clinic staff) seemed so callous. Their dismissive response was a stark contrast to the despair and heartbreak we felt so deeply. Our IVF losses left a crater the size of Jupiter in my heart. After years of grief processing and deep engagement with women who have walked in my shoes, I’m now strong in the broken places.

Social Gaps

Have people who are not parents always been disrespected or devalued?

When did the gap between communities become so pronounced? Has it always been this way? 100 years ago? 50 years ago?

Or did IVF usher in a new social order that fostered a cavalier obliviousness: anyone who is not a parent set out to be that way?

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Seems like we’re in all new territory here my friends.

Let’s Take a Broader View

I wish there was better word than ‘childless.’  We clearly need more expressive language or a more expansive vocabulary to bring these complex concepts to light. I ask Slovenian, French and German bloggers: does your language have different or kinder ways to acknowledge our collective experience?

I find it quite lamentable that we live with this ‘deficiency aura.’ Click To Tweet

Until new English language develops I applaud Stephanie for her work raising social consciousness. I find it quite lamentable that we live with this ‘deficiency aura.’ (Thanks, Bella DePaulo, for that excellent characterization.)

While we are tribal on many levels, at our core we share a lot in common.

For example, some women chafe at being called mom by strangers (apparently, it’s a thing),. Like them I also prefer to be called by my name rather than a term associated with my reproductive status. I think it’s fair to say we all want to be seen as fully formed, whole individuals.

IamMeThis is why I was pleased a companion campaign cropped up: #IamMe. It’s not too late to get involved. You can tweet your pics to @ChildlessWeek and use #worldchildlessweek and #iamme

Our legacy

Let me end this post with a rare magazine piece that highlights how this community contributes to society. Recently The Economist ran a piece called In Defence of the Childless. Not only are we are “more likely to set up charitable foundations than people with children, and much more likely to bequeath money to good causes:

“The childless also do everyone else a favour by creating wonderful works of art. British novelists have been especially likely to have no progeny: think of Hilary Mantel, P.G. Wodehouse and the Brontë sisters. In September Britain will put Jane Austen on its ten-pound note. That decision has been controversial, though it is hard to see why. Few people have written as shrewdly about money or about families—even though Austen did not marry, and had no children.”

Welcome reader thoughts, as always.

Pamela Tsigdinos

Writer, blogger and, oh, yeah, infertility survivor. My memoir, Silent Sorority, tells the whole story. There's a movie in there somewhere. Given the quirkiness needed to relate it all I'm thinking Jennifer Lawrence would be a good fit.

  1. Klara

    dear Pamela,
    How very true is your statement: “So, again, how am I childless?”. I feel exactly the same. There are many children who are part of my life even if they are not mine. And today again – after visiting my cousin’s two children, teaching them German and baking our version of pancakes (Kaiserschmarrn) I thought exactly the same.

    In Slovenian language the media uses different words, mostly it is “without children”. Other words are even ruder – like “infertile women”. So, there aren’t any intelligent solutions in my languages.

    I want to be defined for who I am , what I have in my life and not for what I don’t have.

    xo

    Klara

  2. Cristy

    I thought about you during this week, being reminded by the word “childless” and how misleading it is. To date, all my female bosses in my adult life who have had a positive impact are not parenting and living with partners. They have been kinder and more supportive of me and my family than the ones who hold the title “mother.”

    I don’t know when the focus on “childless” because so acute, but I believe it’s directly linked with the unnecesaarily high value we put on pregnancy. Yet we have countless examples of the fact that being able to conceive and carry a pregnancy to term does not mean that this person is “worthy” or “valuable.” So we’re overdue to change the conversation and our value system.

    Thanks for advocating and reminding all that we are all more than a single word.

  3. Léa

    Dear Pamela,
    in French we don’t have a satisfying word either: we mostly say “sans enfant”, “without children”.
    Your remark inspired the blog post I published yesterday. I love the initiative to define ourselves by what we are and what we have, rather than what we are missing.
    Do we need to invent a completely new word or to build a new concept with existing words? I don’t know yet, but in the meantime I love Mali’s way to put it!
    xo
    Léa

  4. Elaine

    Dear Pamela,
    The German language unfortunately does not offer any better description of our situation. It is literally the same word as in English: “kinderlos”, meaning childless.
    There is a wonderful woman here in Switzerland (Regula of kinderfreilos.ch) who invented the term “OK-Frauen” (OK women). OK stands for “ohne Kind” (without child) but at the same time has a much more positive meaning. This is why my own blog name leans towards her term. It does mention the lack of something very important that I myself have felt very deeply for a few years, but it also shows that you can be “okay” again even if you don’t have kids.

  5. Sarah

    A very interesting and important perspective, Pamela.

    This feels to me to be an ultra complex topic and I have to admit it’s throwing me for a bit of a loop.

    I think that the word childless is not at all ideal (especially appreciated you pointing out the unfortunate “less” aspect of it), however it doesn’t bother me a whole lot. This is coming from someone who traveled around with an “Infertile On Board” placard on my back windshield for around 4 years, so I know you’ll consider the source:-)

    My general view has been that, as stigma and stereotypes are used to silence people, we are succumbing to them by avoiding certain words. I wonder if widows or any other group of people who have suffered a life altering loss feel the need to come up with another word to designate their experience. My sometimes insistence on using certain words (childless, infertile) admittedly comes from a place of stubborn pride – in other words, who is the greater collective to tell ME that a word used to describe one of my key life experiences has a shameful connotation. Also, I don’t ever assume that someone who is a mother or a cancer patient or insert label of choice here is lacking in additional dimension, but rather that labels often imply one of many experiences that have shaped our lives and world views. I can be naive to the reality that many approach these labels with a much more contracted perspective. Which is one of the reasons why your point of view is important. It has made me question whether or not I should take the narrow and negative way people view the term “childless” more into account.

    As a community that is without much appropriate vocabulary and generally without an established vernacular, I’m hoping you helped to ignite a much needed conversation. I believe we do need something, ultimately, that designates this part of us – our losses and valuable life experience and wisdom that comes from them. But how to achieve that? As of now way more questions than answers. I think we need a panel of linguists (as well as a slew of currently non existent groups of other people) working on our behalf.

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