Inappropriate Questions
Asking the wrong questions—the right way.

Episode 6: "Why don't you have kids?"

Episode 6: "Why don't you have kids?"

Show Notes:

People are curious about the choice to be childfree. Harv and Elena discuss it with Meghan Daum, editor of Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. Sociologists Dr. Amy Blackstone and Dr. Kimya Dennis share some insight into their respective research about childfree people.

bottom line copy.png

Webcomic

IQ06_Webcomic_Patricia Flaviana

By Patricia Flaviana

Patricia Flaviana was born in Peru in 1980 and at age 27 moved to Barcelona and made it her home. She is an antinatalist, feminist, atheist, vegan, daydreamer and an art lover. Patricia created Childfree Doodles a year ago as a way to share her experience and thoughts through her illustrations. She hopes they help other people to feel confident in their decision to be childfree.

To find more of Patricia’s work, visit @ChildfreeDoodles on Instagram and Facebook.

bottom line copy.png

Our Guests

Photo by David Zaugh, courtesy of Meghan Daum

Photo by David Zaugh, courtesy of Meghan Daum

Meghan Daum

Meghan Daum is an author and columnist, currently writing for Medium. She edited the New York Times Bestselling anthology Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. Her other books include My Misspent Youth, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, and Quality of Life Report. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Vogue.

Website: meghandaum.com

Twitter: @meghan_daum

 

Dr. Amy Blackstone

Dr. Amy Blackstone is a sociologist at the University of Maine who studies the sociology of gender, work, food, and families. Her research on choosing to be childfree has been featured in publications like The Washington Post and The Atlantic. She and her husband run the blog we’re {not} having a baby. Her book Childfree by Choice is coming out on June 11th, 2019.

Twitter: @soc_gal

Dr. Kimya Dennis

Dr. Kimya Dennis is a sociologist and criminologist. As a researcher, community advocate and educator, she addresses topics including mental health, law enforcement, reproductive rights, and childfree people. She conducted the first known study focused on childfree people who identify as Black, African-American or of immediate African descent. She also created and teaches the first known post-secondary course about childfree people.

Website: kimyandennis.com

Twitter: @KimyaNDennisPhD

bottom line copy.png

Resources & Other Information

Selfish, Shallow, and Self Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision to Not Have Kids

Edited by Meghan Daum, this collection of essays explores the opinions and perspectives of 16 writers who decided to be childfree.

Childfree by Choice

Written by Dr. Amy Blackstone and set to release in June 2019, Childfree by Choice investigates the childfree movement and its effects on society.

Childless by Choice Project

Started by Laura Scott, the Childless by Choice Project aims to explore the decision process behind being childfree. The project currently includes a book, documentary, and survey.

The NotMom

The NotMom is a community for those who are childfree by choice and by chance. In addition to the site’s blog and resource list, NotMom has also conducted summit events.

Articles

Why do we still have to justify the choice to be child-free? - The Guardian

No Kids for Me, Thanks - The New York Times

Who Will Take Care Of Me If I Don’t Have Kids? - Bustle

There is No Maternal Instinct - Huffington Post

“It doesn’t have to make sense to other people”: An interview with African Diaspora Childfree Sociologist, Dr. Kimya N. Dennis - Black Youth Project

bottom line copy.png

Show Transcript

[Mid-tempo music]

Voice 1: I'll just say that I never wanted kids, there's nothing wrong with that answer.

Voice 2: When women are expected to say “Oh, I’m not, I don't want kids, but I love kids. I will take care of anyone's baby, blah, blah blah.”

Voice 3: It’s funny to me because I think if I turned the question around and said, “Well why did you have kids?” I don't know that people would respond well to that question.

Harvinder Wadhwa: This episode is inspired, not sponsored—

[Elena laughs]

Harv: —by one of our producers Erin Guerette. Let's give a listen to her story.

Erin Guerette: When I was about 19 years old, I had an emergency surgery for a burst ovarian cyst, which was really kind of terrifying for someone who was 19, and the whole focus of my life was just kind of getting my degree, I had just started a job. And when I came back to work, the first thing they asked me was, “Can you have kids?” And it just felt kind of devaluing, it was something that I wasn’t even considering. It was at a point in my life where I never even really thought about kids, and if the outcome hadn't been so positive, to have so many people in my office just walking into my cubicle and asking me if I could have kids. Like these kind of questions were things that people were really asking me in my workplace, and it felt really bad. And so it got me thinking about other women being asked these kind of questions like, “You’re back, can you have kids?” “Oh, you’re back, are you, are you still a woman?”

Harv: Elena, you would think that by now at least, I should be less surprised by the question that are being asked.

Elena Hudgins Lyle: Right?

Harv: But no!

Elena: They’re pretty intrusive, but you know they're gonna keep coming until we save the world and break them down.

Harv: Yes, yes, yeah.

Elena: Because we're superheroes.

[Harv laughs]

Elena: Erin’s story made us think about the expectations that get placed on women, and sexism, and all that jazz. So in today's episode we're talking about “Why don't you have kids?” This question gets asked to a ton of different kinds of people, and not to ignore or erase that but in this episode we're going to be focusing in on women and women who are childfree by choice.

[Theme music]

Harv: People are curious and that's great.

Elena: But there are some questions you just shouldn't ask or at least not like that.

Harv: I'm Harvinder Wadhwa.

Elena: I'm Elena Hudgins Lyle.

Harv: And this is Inappropriate Questions.

Elena: Let’s get inappropriate!

[Theme music ends]

Elena: We're talking to Meghan Daum. She's an author and a columnist whose work has been featured in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Vogue. She edited The New York Times bestselling anthology Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids and she has a dog so you might hear some barking.

Harv: Hi Meghan.

Meghan Daum: Hi.

Harv: So great to have you with us today. So Meghan, have you been ever asked that why you don't have kids?

Meghan: I don't get asked why I don't have kids as much as I used to, but sure, I think like you know the truth is that I really never wanted kids. I spent a lot of my twenties just assuming that my biological clock would go off, that I would change my mind eventually, meet the right person etc. I actually did meet the right person for awhile and I got married, but I still didn't want to have a kid. I started thinking kind of a lot about how my my personal feelings dovetailed into the larger cultural phenomenon of most people in the world wanting to have kids, which they very much do. And the kind of questions that surround those that feel differently, and it kind of just opened up a world of much larger existential questions that frankly I find fascinating. And that are ultimately more interesting than than the baby question itself, but of course that's the question that leads into these larger what's.

Harv: So, so you mentioned earlier that you were asked this question when you were in your twenties or whatever the age was but now people don't ask. Is it because they know it or because…?

Meghan: [laughs] Well it’s because I'm 48-years-old, they don't ask me anymore if I'm planning to have kids.

Harv: [laughs] Okay, right. But what I meant to ask was, do people still ask you why you chose not to have kids?

Meghan: Sure. Yeah I mean I think it's, it's just I really don't find it offensive if people say “Do you have kids?” to me that's just like saying “Where do you live?” or “What do you do?” or “Where did you grow up?” I really don't find it offensive and actually one of the reasons that I put together the project Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed was because I really wanted to reframe the whole discussion. Not just the way people with kids think about those of us who’ve chosen not to have them, but also the way that we sort of handle those questions and talk about our decision I think has historically been coming from a defensive place and the answers are often sort of glib and jokey and almost judgmental of parents. And I think that that kind of response only exacerbates the sorts of questions that people find upsetting sometimes. So I really wanted to start a conversation in which we could change the entire sensibility around this issue.

Elena: That's really interesting. I read that the kind of the thesis for this book is that A) choosing to be childfree isn't lazy or immature but that it actually honours good parenting kind of like you mentioned there. How do you feel that, you know, respecting the decision to be childfree kind of in turn honours people who do choose to have kids and are good parents?

Meghan: I mean to me, it's saying you know look this is a really hard job, it's an incredibly important job, it needs to be taken seriously, it should not be done by people who don't want to do it. And therefore I'm deciding not to do it for all these reasons. And the idea that somehow choosing not to have kids is saying to parents, “Well, you're a loser”

[Harv and Elena laugh]

Meghan: That doesn't make any sense. So yeah, I have found actually that the more, the more I talk about this in this new way and encourage other people to. Parents have really come around and find the whole thing fascinating. I mean, funnily enough, the book was on the bestseller list in the parenting and child care category.

[Elena and Harv laugh]

Meghan: It was a big hit with parents, which I actually knew it would be, because ultimately these aren’t questions about being a parent or not being a parent as much as talking about what kind of life we want to have, what it means to be an adult, and what it means to be fulfilled, and these are universal questions.

Elena: From putting together this anthology, what were some of the reasons that the different writers had for being childfree by choice?

Meghan: It ranged from having had a childhood that was less than happy, having been raised by parents who were themselves ambivalent about parenthood, feeling economically insecure. Simply some—in some cases just not really enjoying the company of children, and that's a statement that is still really taboo to say. I'm not sure anybody actually came out and said that in the book, actually.

Elena: Right, right.

Meghan: Would’ve loved it if somebody had. But it really ran the gamut.

Elena: Do a lot of these people, you know, feel a pressure to be more part of the norm? How does society perceive these people who make this choice?

Meghan: Yeah well, I think that there is a notion that somehow you're not an adult until you have kids. The only thing that will make you less selfish is if you have a child, the only thing that will make you responsible is if you have a child, the only way to stop being a child yourself is to have a child. And I think that that is a very unexamined set of ideas. You don't have to look very far to find all sorts of people who are parents and who are also incredibly selfish and childish themselves. I can't tell you how many parents have admitted to me, “Look, I had kids because I wanted them, it was a selfish act.” You can flip that around and say “What's more selfish, not having kids so you can spend your time as you wish, or having kids so you can create an extension of yourself?”

Elena: Harv is nodding understandingly. Did you have kids for a selfish reason?

Harv: Okay, mmm I still have to think why I had kids, it's been so long.

[Elena and Harv laugh]

[Music up]

I'm Kimya Dennis. I'm a sociologist and criminologist and I also created and teach the first known college course about the childfree.

Why don't you have kids? I no longer feel compelled to explain to people. Now if it's someone who's considering not having children, I'll say, “Well here’s some things to consider.” If it's someone who regrets having children I'll say, “Well, I am a non-judgmental ear.” If it's someone who I know and it really just want a good discussion I’ll engage them, but it's not like I'm really explaining because my only explanation for why don't you have kids is because I don't want them. Now a lot of people want to delve further, they’re like, “But there’s got to be more to it.” I says, “Well, I could talk a lot about it but the most important thing is you don't want them.”

I don't feel obligated to convince people that I like kids. That's a very gendered dynamic as well, when women are expected to say, “Oh, I’m not, I don't want kids but I love kids. I will take care of anyone's baby blah, blah blah.” I have five nieces and nephews, I have kids in my life who I love, and I say that only because having these kids in my life solidified that I don't want my own kids.

[Music down]

Elena: We'll be back with Meghan Daum in a moment. But first, I spoke to Dr. Amy Blackstone. She's a sociology professor at the University of Maine. Her research on choosing to be childfree has been featured in places like The Washington Post and The Atlantic. She and her husband a run a blog about being childfree by choice called We're Not Having a Baby. Her book Childfree By Choice is coming out in June 2019.

What made you want to study the choice to be childfree?

Amy Blackstone: It actually started out more as a personal quest to understand myself [laughs].

Elena: Mm, nice.

Amy: I realized upon a lot of thought, that I wasn't feeling that same pull towards motherhood that so many of my friends seem to be feeling. So I started really just by exploring the research, the literature on the childfree choice. And I think one of the most important things that I came to understand that I now hope to help spread the word about, is that there was absolutely nothing wrong with me. There isn't any scientific evidence of a thing that we call maternal instinct, of a woman's drive to become a parent. That, you know, of course we have a biological urge to have sex but there's, that's it it's a pretty large leap to assume because as humans we’re driven to have sex, that we’re also driven to parent make that kind of, you know, that life long commitment. I can't tell you what a relief it was to discover “Oh hey, you know, it's not that there's something wrong with me, that my biological clock is broken” or that I'm you know somehow less than. It's that we are socialized into these roles and, you know, it's not that it at my heart, at my core there’s something wrong with me.

Elena: Right. What are maybe some other assumptions that you've noticed that can come up about childfree people, women especially?

Amy: One of the things we hear about women in particular is that they're not real women unless they have, you know, become mothers and experienced the miracle of childbirth. There's lots of fears about dying alone and questions about who will take care of you when you're old, and that you'll live to regret your choice, that you'll be old and, you know, miserable and bitter in your old age.

Elena: Right. Is there, with that you know “You're not a real woman” kind of thing, is there any sort of similar pressure that men get or is that do they just not have that pressure at all?

Amy: It’s a different question for women than it is for men and the responses are very different. So for women, we assume that it is at the heart and soul of who they are as women, and for men there isn’t the same sort of questioning about their masculinity or about their realness as men.

Elena” Yeah I guess I've never really heard the idea that like “You're not a real man until you make kids” like doesn't really fit with our image of idealized manhood.

Amy: No it doesn't. In fact some of the childfree men that I've interviewed in my own research, their male friends who are parents, some of them congratulate them for sort of escaping this thing that they didn't manage to get around. It's almost, it's almost like they’re heroic for being able to avoid parenthood.

Elena: Wow. We read an interview where you mentioned that you've gotten a lot of intrusive questions from doctors. One example was that a doctor kept trying to get you to take prenatal vitamins even though you’d already made it clear that you didn't want kids. What's it like navigating the healthcare system as a childfree person?

Amy: For my 40th birthday, I got a tubal ligation and I only got it after the gauntlet of questions from my doctor about, am I sure I really want to do this.

Elena: Right.

Amy: And the irony is that if you ask men about their experiences of requesting sterilization, they don't get the same kind of pushback from doctors. There aren't questions and they aren’t told that they will change their minds. So again, back to this idea that we think women are naturally drive to mother, even though we don't have evidence that that’s true.

Elena: Yeah, the idea that you're probably going to, at least might, regret your decision down the road, did you hear that a lot in your research?

Amy: Yes. And it's fascinating to me because we don't hear people talk about that as much when they talk about considering becoming parents. I mean, I don't think it's unreasonable to consider questions of regret, but I also know that none of us can predict the future and that there's always a chance we’ll make a choice we wish we hadn't made. But if you look at older childfree people, they're happy in their old age. They don't report regret of their choice, they're engaged in their communities, they have strong social networks, they're not bitter and alone. The data would suggest that that they're going to be just fine.

Elena: Hmm. Your book Childfree by Choice is coming out soon. In the process of writing this was there anything you found that really interested you or surprised you?

Amy: Yeah, I'm glad you asked. So one of the things that became really interesting to me over the course of the research, and revealed itself as I was doing the interviews, was this idea of family. Childfree people create family in really creative and inspiring ways, and ways that I think really expand our notion of what counts as a family. People are doing The Golden Girl-ing thing, so sharing houses or finding younger people to share homes with. And social scientists, when they think about what counts as a family, often describe the roles that families fill. For people, those roles include providing emotional and sexual intimacy from members. They provide economically for their members and then they engage in reproduction. One thing we forget about when we talk about reproduction, is that reproduction is both social and biological. And social reproduction is all of the stuff that we do to help rear the next generation. So we teach kids our norms, our values, and our beliefs. And those teachings, that role is not limited to parents. Teachers play an important role in kids’ lives, social workers, doctors, nurses police, aunts and uncles. We all have the opportunity to help rear the next generation.

Elena: Is “Why don't you have kids?” an inappropriate question in your view and does context change things?

Amy: As a sociologist, I have to say that, of course, context matters.

[Elena laughs]

Meghan: It's funny, personally and I think for some of the childfree people I’ve interviewed, it's actually easier to answer that question when you don't know someone as well. Because if it comes from your parents or your sibling, part of what may be behind their question is “Well, aren't you going to give me grandchildren?” or “Won’t you have—won’t there be cousins for my kids?” And having these discussions with the people in whose lives we’re intimately involved, is harder than having them with a random stranger.

Elena: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

Amy: It's funny to me because I think I turned the question around and said, “Well why did you have kids?” I don't know that people would respond well to that question. So it's funny to me that we feel free to ask why not but the question of why is not as appropriate or considered to be as appropriate.

Elena: Right.

Amy: I wouldn't want to discourage people from talking about the childfree choice as an option. I wouldn't want to discourage people from thinking about parenthood as an option. I mean, I think we should encourage people to think deeply about whether or not they become parents. So if the thing that's going to make that happen is to ask the inappropriate question “Why don't you have kids?” then I guess where I land is that while it may be inappropriate and it may be uncomfortable, I do hope that people continue to ask it.

[Music up]

Harv: Earlier in this episode you heard from Amy's colleague Kimya Dennis. Here's Kimya talking a little bit more about the research she has done on childfree people from the African diaspora.

[Music down]

Kimya: I conducted the first known study that is only with childfree by choice people who identify as Black African American or of immediate African descent. Some common assumptions and misconceptions about childfree people. Well, within African diaspora communities there are people who will say we're we are sinning, we don't understand God's purpose. It's this idea also that you have to defer to the elder women. So if grandmother, your mother, tells you to have kids or said she had a dream about you having kids then that means you shouldn't think about it critically, you have to have kids.

Another thing African diaspora cultures is it's also, although there's a culture of adoption in terms of taking care of family members, if you decide you’re not having a biological child but you want a an adopted child, there are people who will say “Why are you adopting and not having your own? That's not a real child” Like if you don't have it biologically out of your own belly, then it's not real.

Being African diaspora and permanently childfree by choice is considered white washing, white assimilation, it's considered taking us from our culture, considered taking us from our identity, considered taking us from our spirituality. Because African diaspora people are very proud of our cultures, but we also are proud because our cultures have been stolen, altered, destroyed. Dividing African diaspora families, taking children away from the mothers, taking men away from the families, and all sorts of stuff. So when you have a culture with centuries of history of that happening, it makes people even more adamant about holding on to the culture.

And this notion that there is a natural test that all African diaspora girls and women must endure. Your true test is if it's a difficult pregnancy and you stick to it, and you show your strength. Like if you almost die, you've earned your ribbons. Congratulations.

[Music up]

Elena: And we're back with Meghan Daum.

Harv: Did it ever occur to you that you would have been better off having a kid or…?

Meghan: Never. No.

Harv: You stand steadfast, okay.

Meghan: I would, if I had a child, I would have risen to the occasion. I would have done the best job I could. I'm sure I would love my child. I don't think I would love my life. And every kid deserves a parent who loves their life. I really feel strongly that that there's lots of ways to live in the world that can benefit your community without having kids. And I also think that it's really important for kids to grow up in communities where they see that there are all kinds of ways of being an adult. That you can be a person who cares about kids, and and helps in the community, and and provide strong role models, without necessarily being someone's parent. And that's, you know, I think that that's another sort of aspect of this that gets overlooked.

Elena: That makes a lot of sense. I, myself, have a ton of adult role models who aren't my parents or even parental figures to me. I'm looking at a role model right now.

Harv: Oh, now I'm blushing.

[Elena laughs]

Elena: Yeah there's like no one way to be an adult role model for someone, right? Like you don't have to be a parent.

Harv: Absolutely, I absolutely agree with you. Meghan, then did I kind of get, because we spoke a lot of in detail about a lot of things. But so do do I it did I get it right that at this time, from your perspective, there is no stigma or any pressure or any such thing if you choose not to have kids?

Meghan: I would be very sad to hear that somebody who chose not to have kids, routinely encountered people who were very mean to them about it or extremely judgemental to their face. I think people get a lot of push back from their own families, I mean I certainly know people who'd chosen not to have kids, whose relatives and parents are pretty nasty to them about it. That's really sad to me, but I don't think that like, if somebody asks me “Do you have kids?” I don't consider that like a microaggression or anything, I just consider that a question. Like I said in the beginning of this conversation. That's just a basic question.

Elena: What if someone asks something that's a bit more pointed, that kind of assumes, kind of reinforces the norm that having kids is the norm. Something like “Why don't you have kids or when are you going to have kids?”

Meghan: I am totally fine with that mostly because when somebody asks me that, which they do fairly often, I'll just say, “I never wanted kids.” Maybe once or twice the person's really pushed it and I’ve just said “You know what, I really don't like kids.”

[All laugh]

Elena: Oh that must’ve raised their hackles.

Meghan: You know I have to say, it's it's not infrequent that I will say something like that. It just wasn’t for me, I never really wanted kids. And the person will say, “Oh, that's interesting, I never really wanted them either but I have them now, sometimes I don't know.” I think I often find that by being honest, I give the person permission to be honest back. I think you often find among parents there's this kind of tacit code where you can't kind of admit out loud that that you have moments of regret.

Elena: Right.

Meghan: You have moments of ambivalence. I mean everybody does, it's completely natural.

Elena: Yeah.

Meghan: But if I were, if somebody said “Why don't you have kids?” and I sat there and said “Well, I I'd rather have a million dollar house.” I think that kind of response deserves a rude response.

Elena: Right.

Meghan: That’s a rude thing to say, that's a, it would be rude if I said that. So I guess I would just encourage people to stop thinking of it in terms of like “This is what I'm supposed to do as a human being” and say, “Okay well, I'm lucky enough to live in a time and place where this is not necessarily imposed upon me—sometimes it is—but if I'm lucky enough not to have it imposed upon me, how can I think about this in a way that really honours my own authenticity, my own authentic self, as well as the choices that other people make.”

Elena: So where can our listeners find your work and find you on social media?

Meghan: I'm on Twitter @Meghan_Daum and Meghan is spelled M-E-G-H-A-N and my last name is D-A-U-M. I have a number of books, I'm going to be writing regularly for Medium.com and so you'll be able to find me there and yeah I'm pretty Google-able so.

Elena: Thanks so much for speaking to us.

Meghan: My pleasure, thank you.

Harv: Thank you so much for your time, it was an absolute pleasure, Meghan.

[Theme music]

Harv: I'm Harvinder Wadhwa,

Elena: and I'm Elena Hudgins Lyle.

Harv: Thanks for getting inappropriate with us.

Elena: Thanks so much to our guests Meghan Daum, Amy Blackstone, and Kimya Dennis.

You should also make sure to check out our webcomic. This episode, it was illustrated by Patricia Flaviana. You can find her @ChildfreeDoodles on Instagram. Follow us on all the socials @IQ_podcast and talk to us.

Harv: We want to hear from you!

Elena: The audio architects behind Inappropriate Questions are Sabrina Bertsch, Erin Guerette, Cindy Long, and myself.

Harv: Thank you to our interns and associates Nuha Khan, Pia Araneta, Fariha Ahmed, and Hailey Krychman We are supported by the Ryerson University Transmedia Zone.

An inappropriate question is like going outside on a sunny day, only to realize it's minus thirty degrees Celsius.