While the parents in my life have been openly acknowledging the challenges of parenting during the pandemic, my child-free friends have for the first time been sharing that they are relieved they don’t have children. Many of us have been quietly admitting to one another that a decision we’ve often been told we’d regret or should be ashamed of doesn’t seem like the worst decision in the world. These types of conversations have garnered renewed interest in recent weeks, and not just among my friends. An essay series in The Guardian, called “Childfree,” explores that decision, with reasoning that runs the gamut: not enough money, focusing on your own life, the climate crisis, being fine with being alone. The series wasn’t pinned to life amid a pandemic, but it seems especially apt in this moment. The gap between parents and the child-free has also been evident on Twitter. In response to a harmless tweet from a parent about how “non-parents have no idea how hard it’s been” to parent during the pandemic, thousands of people chimed in with some version of: Yes, we do—that’s why we don’t have kids.
That particular exchange has all the supercharged, often annoying characteristics of internet debate, but it highlights a long-standing tension. This is hardly the first moment that the idea of marriage and a baby as the primary path for women has come under scrutiny. Early feminists openly discussed the pressures of motherhood. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique started with “the problem that has no name,” which was the unhappiness of married women stuck at home with children. She wrote, “There is no other way for a woman to dream of creation or of the future. There is no way she can even dream about herself, except as her children’s mother, her husband’s wife.”
That has obviously changed. Nine years ago, Kate Bolick’s Atlantic essay, which became her memoir about single life, Spinster, made waves. In it, she detailed all the ways that women were upending what society expected of them. She wrote, “A childless single woman of a certain age is no longer automatically perceived as a barren spinster.”
Friedan and Bolick were both generally speaking to the experiences of middle-class white women. For less privileged women and women of color, of course, becoming a parent has not always been framed as an empowering “choice” (single Black mothers, for example, are routinely demonized, not heralded, for exercising their choice). Still, I started thinking about these texts again as I reflected on what my friends with children were going through and how, despite our recognition of the oppressiveness of these expectations, they appeared unchanged.
The pandemic has only intensified the pressures that already existed for middle-class parents. Child-care costs were high, but they at least gave you some freedom to work; now families are raising children without the usual support. As schools and day-care centers reopen, they must address new safety concerns. For heterosexual parents, the bulk of the child care falls on the mother. The global health crisis has worsened this sexist division of labor, and the long-term effects could damage women’s careers and, despite the best intentions, become a new norm.