On Feb. 12, in a speech at St. Peter's Square, Pope Francis declared that not having children is selfish. Francis stated, as reported by NPR:
"A society with a greedy generation that doesn't want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society. The choice to not have children is selfish."
This ridicule-tinged sentiment is one many women who don't have children have heard before. But it doesn't align with today's reality, as evidenced by the rising rate of voluntarily childless women and the actual opinions of the parties involved.
And yet childless women, from stars like Oprah Winfrey, Cameron Diaz and Condoleezza Rice to your average female millennials, still face scrutiny, and not only from religious figures. The media continues to relentlessly trespass on what is or isn't happening in a woman's womb. As Jennifer Aniston, the ultimate symbol of obsessive baby speculation, told People, "I just find it to be energy that is unnecessary and not really fair for those who may or may not [have children]. Who knows what the reason is, why people aren't having kids. There's a lot of reasons that could be, and maybe it's something that no one wants to discuss."
The discussion is mired in shame and bump-hunting speculation so thick we rarely get to hear from the people who are impacted by the decision most: women themselves. So Mic spoke to millennial women about the most problematic and invalidating questions they've been asked by those questioning their decision to not have children — and the answers they'd really like to give.
"Does not having kids make you feel less like a woman?"
As the work of feminist artist Carol Rossetti illustrates above, the decision to not have children is simply unrelated to being a woman.
"This one I laugh at," Carly, 27, explained to Mic. "It's a bit too early for me to get this question very often, but I've always identified as female and I have the experiences of a woman. Choosing not to use a function my body is capable of has nothing to do with my womanly identity. Motherhood does not have to equal or negate womanhood."
Jessie, 24, told Mic this type of question barely makes sense to her. "Is motherhood some badge you need to prove you're a woman?"
Quite literally, no. According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2010, 1 in 5 American women does not give birth during her childbearing years, up from 1 in 10 women in the 1970s. More and more, a childless status is common for many real, living, breathing women.
"Don't you like kids?"
The jump from not wanting kids to despising them is a quick one too many people make when questioning a childless woman's motives. "That one bothers me," said Lauren, 25, to Mic. "It's usually said with a tone that's dripping with 'You're an asshole,' and then I feel branded as a kid-hater, although that's not the case."
There's a difference between a lifestyle choice and true aversion. "How do you jump from 'Nah, I don't want kids' to 'I hate kids?' For me it's about lifestyle and comfort with my own body, not about the likability of children," says Carly. "For the most part though, I think kids are a blast. I just don't want to take you home with me forever and discipline you and help you through puberty."
"Won't you regret this when you're older and can't have them?"
Studies have shown that one of top reasons for childlessness is "having never wanted children." When the choice to not have kids is an active, positive one, it doesn't necessarily come with any regret.
"I just have so many more options than the women of previous generations in my family," said Abigail, 25, telling Mic that goals like graduating college and pursuing a career always appealed more to her than parenting. Women's expanded life options, like wider job opportunities and more financial independence, are among the reasons experts say women today feel freer to choose childlessness sans regret, according to Pew Research Center.
When there is regret over not having kids, it's not limited to women. In 2013, researchers from Keele University surveyed a group of 108 men and women who didn't have kids for both voluntary and involuntary reasons. They found that 59% of men and 63% of women said they still wanted children. The men who later regretted not having children experienced depression, isolation, anger and sadness more often than women as a result of their decision. Interestingly, 12% of childless women felt guilt over their decision, whereas childless men felt none.
"The chance that we'll regret it doesn't seem like a compelling enough reason to do it," filmmaker Jennifer Westfeldt told the New York Times Magazine in 2012.
"Won't a life without family be unfulfilling?"
The perspective that women need children in order to have fulfilling lives is rapidly shifting. According to the Pew study, as of 2002, 59% of adults disagree that people without children "lead empty lives," compared to the 39% in 1988.
Questions about family discount the fact that many childless women do have families — brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, even stepchildren. "I'm adopted myself, I have a keen awareness of the fact that blood ties have nothing to do with family," Jessie explains.
"I find fulfillment from so many other things and people in my life. I see it as a personal challenge to continue finding creative and courageous ways to keep on being fulfilled as I age and change," Carly says. "I don't feel a drive to pass on my genes and nurture directly from my body. If anything, I sense that I could have a growing desire to mentor and share my love and roof with a child or young adult [who isn't my child] who never had those things."
Plus, leaving a legacy isn't an urgent desire for everyone. "I suppose, if anything, my legacy could live on through friends and other family members," Kirsten, 27, told Mic. "Legacy means nothing to me. Life is about enjoying it for yourself! To some, that means sharing it by having children and a family. To others, it means different goals."
"Isn't that really selfish?"
Women who choose to not have kids are often judged for "selfishly" putting their own needs above others. But a 1998 study by the Family Policy Studies Centre found that the decision to not have children was not indicative of self-involved thinking. Rather, "those interviewed took a thoughtful and responsible view of family responsibilities," the Joseph Roundtree Foundation stated. "Yet the respondents had, variously, concluded that it would be undesirable, difficult or impossible to make parenthood part of their own lives."
In fact, there's a benefit to putting yourself first that is productive for your wellbeing: The Pew Research Center found that childlessness is most common among highly educated women, suggesting that when given the choice, many women decide to focus on themselves and their higher learning or professional goals in lieu of parenting (among other factors explaining correlation).
"Selfishness" could also simply be consideration for future generations. "I don't really see making more humans when there are already a ton of baby humans that need homes. It's an ethical decision," Stella, 26, told Mic. "My family is chock full of bad genes. Cancer, mental illness, you name it, it runs in our family. Doesn't seem right to make another kid destined to suffer through our genetic zoo."
Not to mention selfishness isn't the exclusive purview of the childless. "Sure, I have some selfish and vain reasons," said Carly. "But I also know plenty of parents — though not all — have children for selfish reasons. Will it save your relationship? Don't you want a miniature you? Someone to project upon all the things you wished for yourself? ... The difference is my reasoning only affects me."
"Does your partner have a problem with that?"
Conflicts do come up when two partners have differing opinions about their long-term goals, including children. "My boyfriend of about four years has told me that he wants three children. I'm scared to be pregnant, I don't want my body to go change," Kirsten said. "I don't want the pain of birth. I get angry when he expects me to want to be pregnant, especially when his body isn't affected."
Jessie explains that, though she is still young, her lack of desire for kids contributed to one of her breakups. "My ex came from a big family and his vision of the future was lots of little ones running around in a big suburban house," she says. "My vision was a nice apartment in the city and lots of time to write and see my friends. ... Eventually I realized our long-term goals didn't match up and there seemed to be no way to reconcile them."
Ultimately, it's about being on the same page, babies or not. Interestingly, a study from Open University found that childless men and women felt more satisfied with their relationships and more valued by their partners than their parenting counterparts.
"But it's the most life-changing experience — Don't you want that?"
There are women who just don't see having children as the kind of life change they want. In fact, some have experienced how the life-altering experience of parenting doesn't always have a positive outcome.
"I can't really remember a time in my life when I even thought about a future in which I would have children," Abigail says. "My father was physically and emotionally abusive to my mother, and I feel that she had to make a lot of difficult choices at such a young age because of her children. After seeing everything she went through, I never wanted to put myself in the position of having to make those choices."
Besides, there are a lot of other life-changing experiences available for women, with or without kids. "I think this idea that the experience of motherhood can't be replicated in any other way is damaging to both mothers and women who never want to become mothers," Abigail added. "Women who don't want to become mothers are made to feel less than for not wanting children, as if there is this level of spiritual fulfillment you can never achieve without having children."
"Well, it could be a phase. You can always change your mind, right?"
This is by far the most popular question, according to the women Mic interviewed. "The response I most often receive, usually from older women who have children themselves, is a knowing, 'You're young. You have plenty of time to change your mind,'" Abigail said. "This statement assumes that I don't know what I want because I'm young and that I will inevitably change my mind because as a woman, my thinking is totally subject to the whims of my fluctuating hormones."
"This is the worst. It is patronizing and dismissive. What is true for you is not true for everyone. I do not respond to this comment beyond that," Carly said. Similarly, Kirsten begrudges the assumption that she will change her mind: "I hate that people, and oftentimes people I barely know, assume they know more about me than I do."
Assuming we know more about women's choices than they do is the real issue here. We need to stop framing women's lifestyle choices as inherently positive or negative. The main aim of feminism — a multi-faceted movement that's allowed women the agency for some to become mothers while others choose not to parent — is the power of choice itself.
What a woman ends up deciding to do with her reproductive organs? That's her business.