Zoë Noble was 32 when her doctor told her “the clock is ticking.”
The hysterectomy Ms. Noble needed to remove a fibroid was not up for discussion so far as her doctor was concerned, despite the fact that she didn’t want children. It took years of pain and an emergency room visit before she was finally granted the surgery at 37.
“It’s as though a woman’s purpose in life is to have children,” Ms. Noble, a British photographer who lives in Berlin, said, recounting a 2016 encounter with a taxi driver in Berlin — a haven for alternative family structures — when the driver nearly drove off the road after he discovered that she was married without children. “Have one and by the second or third, you’ll like it,” he told her.
Not long after that experience and others, Ms. Noble began photographing women who opt out of parenthood in her studio, and in January, she began a new portrait series, “We Are Childfree” — an ongoing collection of photographs, stories and podcasts, documenting the lives of women who eschew motherhood. Between lockdowns, Ms. Noble has interviewed over 40 women from around the world, aged 21 to 78, and she has 200 applicants in the wings.
“Until very recently, it was assumed that if you didn’t have children it was a tragedy, because you were unable to,” Meghan Daum, editor of “Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed,” a book that reframes the idea of mandatory motherhood, said. “Or there was something wrong with you psychologically — you were selfish.”
Rhetoric about motherhood as an essential part of women’s lives can be found across the political spectrum. Some examples: “The most important job any woman can have is being a mother,” Ivanka Trump said in a 2016 campaign video, echoing Michelle Obama’s 2015 Tuskegee University commencement address. “Being mom in chief is, and always will be, Job No. 1,” the first lady said.
This political framing is certainly not new. In 1817, Napoleon Bonaparte told the French soldier Gaspard Gourgaud that women are “mere machines to make children.”
Around the world, women who don’t procreate are often stigmatized, labeled unusual, unfulfilled and unhappy. A 2016 study on the stigmatization of child-free women and men in the journal “Sex Roles” found that some people even feel moral outrage at people who decide not to have children. The Catholic Church seems to agree: “The choice not to have children,” Pope Francis told an audience in St Peter’s Square in 2015, “is selfish.”
Ms. Daum looks at it differently. “What’s selfish is having children that you don’t want or can’t properly care for,” she said. “There’s such a taboo in saying, ‘The reason I don’t have kids is because I don’t want them.’” She argues that it’s more socially acceptable to quip that a fancy boat or expensive holidays are your child. “And those jokes perpetuate the selfish misperception.”
Perhaps part of this social unacceptability is that with an admission to never having children comes an underlying acknowledgment that women have sex for pleasure. When many are still threatened by women’s sexual agency, some experts have argued that having sex for fun, rather than reproduction, is an affront to the long political and religious history of policing female sexuality and reproductive rights.
About four in 10 U.S. adults under 50 without children said they didn’t expect to become parents, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey. And plenty of research suggests that nonparents tend to be happier than parents — especially in the United States. A 2018 study from the Institute for Family Studies, which looked at 40 years of data on children and happiness in America, found that married mothers were less happy than married women without kids.
Others have noted the environmental benefit of not having children. Even having just one fewer child per family can save an average of 65 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year (to put that into perspective, going car-free, the second biggest carbon saving, conserves a total of 2.5 tons), according to a study published in Environmental Research Letters.
Ms. Noble says she believes that received ideas about how motherhood should be a desire of all women are largely influenced by patriarchal and religious ideology adhering to rigid gender roles. This surfaces everywhere — from the doctor’s office to ads, media and entertainment.
And then there is the question of maternal regret.
When the question, “Do you regret not having children?” is posed to Claire Underwood on “House of Cards” in Season 4 by a houseguest, Claire responds: “Do you ever regret having them?” It’s a rare television moment, but as apt as the line may be, Claire’s icy, opportunistic and in no way cuddly portrayal reflects the cultural narrative of women who don’t reproduce as cold, morally dubious kid-haters.
It’s Ms. Noble’s hope that her project will help upend these ideas, by telling the stories of women who are happily not moms. Here are three women’s stories; their comments are condensed and lightly edited.
I always knew I didn’t want kids. At 32, after a breakup and a move abroad, I re-examined my decision and nothing had changed. The pro and con thing didn’t come into the equation — I just don’t want children. When my partner and I realized that we wanted to be together, I was clear that children won’t happen with me, and he felt the same.
In my 20s, I wanted a tubal ligation. I was in Canada at the time and heard: “No. You’ll change your mind.” That condescension is baffling. To be told, “You can’t make that choice for yourself,” though you would have all the responsibility to make many choices by having a child — there’s a disconnect there. People wonder why women are still raging. We don’t have autonomy over our own bodies, that’s why.
There’s this expectation that we must justify our choice. People ask, “Why not?” Why don’t we ask the other question: “Why are you choosing to have a child?” That’s the bigger question. Do you have the resources and emotional ability? Or is it just a shot in the dark because you feel you’re supposed to? With our friends, we see that a lot of women have children because it’s next on their checklist. The world is overpopulated. We have a climate crisis. If someone says they don’t want kids, it should be like, “Cool” move on.
There are so many ways to make an impact on the next generation, without actually having kids. I’m writing a children’s book with a kindergarten teacher (who also doesn’t have kids), and my partner has a friendship with the downstairs neighbor’s kid. To say that one experience has a greater value over another undermines the experiences of people who don’t live a linear life, like queer and trans people. Are our lives less valuable? That’s where religion comes in. There’s homophobia in that thinking.
We still have this 1950s ideal of what a household should look like. As everything gets broken down, instead of just putting things back into the same order, it’s important to rebuild the way we want.
I was recently diagnosed with endometriosis and the fibroid was huge. Doctors questioned my decision to have a hysterectomy straight away. I said: “I’ve known for over 10 years that I don’t want kids. I work with them, when I want to see babies I do.” They said, “Think about it for a month.” I thought, “I’ve got this thing growing in me and I want it out.” Luckily, my gynecologist understood and she helped me to get the surgery.
It’s surprising how many women are offended by my decision. They think, “What must you think of me if I’ve got kids?” I don’t think about you at all. I just don’t want kids.
When I became a nanny I saw how hard it was and realized, children are great for a few hours, but no way am I having them. My mom said, “What about this hole in your heart?” I said, “I’ll buy a puppy or a really expensive piece of jewelry.” It’s egoist to want to procreate — I don’t need there to be another version of me. Or, because I love someone, why would I need to see what we can make together?
I ask people if they regret having them, and I’ve heard a lot of yeses. You can’t ever publicly say that, though. If a mom at the playground said that, no one would play with her kids. Of course, people regret being parents — it’s tough. People that employ me are businesswomen at the top of their game, and they need me. In today’s economic crisis, you also need to be able to afford a child.
People find my job flabbergasting. If you don’t want kids, they think you must hate them. It all boils down to education, cultural differences and religion. Women who don’t have kids are threatening because it’s a sure decision. People wonder, “What else is she going to want?”
My parents gave me a dollhouse when I was 5 and I filled it with dogs. I obviously didn’t want kids, but kept waiting to want them. I saw friends who became single mothers and thought, I feel ambivalent; it wouldn’t be fair to a child. People said, “Have a child, it will all click in.” That’s a really big gamble.
As a photojournalist, I’ve shot for The Times of London and National Geographic; photographed a warrior initiation ceremony in northern Kenya; trekked 17 miles through harsh desert to find a collared cheetah — I could never have had those experiences if I had a kid waiting for me at home. I wouldn’t have been free enough in my mind to make the work that I was producing; I would’ve felt guilty being away for months. And childbirth sounds scary as hell — to be torn asunder!
To be able to change your mind at a moment’s notice. To be free to develop yourself as a person, and not as a mother — that’s been great. I’m shocked that women still do the majority of child care. When people ask, “When are you going to have kids?” they can’t handle your freedom. If a woman is tied down with a bunch of kids, she can’t make too much trouble. They want you to be on their level, but don’t have the courage to say it. Men admit it when they check out and leave.
People think that women without kids will die alone. Actually, there’s no guarantee that your children will care for you when you’re old. And nuclear families are claustrophobic. This “us against the world” thing leads to that American individualism where you have your little biological pod and everyone else be damned. I think “Golden Girls” is a pretty good alternative model to that.
A lot of people invent explanations and say, “Oh, you’re single.” Actually, I just happen to be single at the moment. When I travel to developing nations people ask, “Why aren’t you a mother?” I say, “I’m an auntie.” (When my cousin’s kid turned 13, I introduced them to David Bowie; I get to be the cool aunt.) I’ve also had moms care for me and include me. One woman sidled up to me at a ceremony in Kenya and said, “I wish I didn’t have to have them.” And once, on safari, I overheard a mother say to her daughter as I walked by, “There goes one independent woman.”