The Rift Between Parents and Childfree Adults

Why Can’t We Just Get Along?

Posted Apr 28, 2014

Not too long ago a client of mine picked up a copy of my book, Complete Without Kids: An Insider’s Guide to Childfree Living by Choice or by Chance, at the local bookstore. I saw her a couple of weeks later, and she shared with dismay that her teenage son had confiscated the book and was enjoying reading it. She said she hoped he wouldn’t get any “ideas” from the book, because she is so much looking forward to being a grandmother. I didn’t really know how to respond. Was I supposed to apologize for writing a book that may help a young person realize that becoming a parent is a choice, and that his life can be full and rich with or without children?

Later, I realized that I’ve felt a similar awkwardness before. It’s always been around women, usually friends and relatives who have teenagers or young adult children. It doesn’t matter if the children are male or female, the key is that they are potential grandchildren-makers, and these wannabe grannies don’t want anything to get in the way of their grandmotherhood. When reflecting on these incidents, my tendency is to feel like I should keep my mouth shut about my book and any discussion of a life without kids or risk damaging these relationships. But does it have to be this way?

Lately there seems to be increasing friction between childfree adults and parents, and it’s coming from both sides. Adults without kids are starting to speak out, to question why they are being discriminated against in the workplace and why they don’t get tax breaks when they use fewer tax-supported services. Some are asking for childfree seating areas on airplanes and for parents to take more responsibility for quieting their children so that others on the plane are not disturbed.

Meanwhile, parents with screaming children are wondering what’s happened to the tolerant and usually compassionate passengers in the row behind them. Parents are in turn speaking out in response to childfree adults. Some parents take expressions of happiness from childfree adults as criticism of their own decision to have kids. And when those of us without kids call ourselves “childfree,” as opposed to “childless,” some parents likewise take offense.

This tension between parents and childfree women has extended to the media.  English journalist Polly Vernon received hate mail when she wrote in an article for The Guardian, “I don’t want children.” She never said, “I don’t like children,” so it’s not clear why anyone felt threatened by her remark. My guess is that when a woman says she doesn’t want kids it causes some women to question themselves. Many are probably saying to themselves, “You mean, I had a choice? I thought I had to become a mom.” Others simply feel criticized, as if their role as a mother, said to be the most important and most fulfilling thing a woman does in her life is perhaps not so.

What About Childfree Men and Fathers?

The discord between moms and childfree women does not seem to cross the gender gap. Men in our society have much more broadly defined life roles, and being a dad is just one of these. Fathers tend to be much more focused on their careers and even their hobbies than mothers are, so they have more in common with their peers who don’t have kids. Meanwhile, some mothers may feel threatened by their husband’s childfree friends because of their freer schedules and extra financial resources. They may worry that their husbands will yearn for this less demanding lifestyle.

How Can Parents and Childfree Adults Get Along Better?

It is possible for parents and childfree adults to better understand and appreciate their differences, and to even celebrate one another. A starting place is to simply be tolerant of different lifestyles without judging that one way of living is superior to another. Listen and take time to understand how and why particular life choices were made. The reality is that we’re not so different after all.

It’s also helpful for us to spend time in each other’s worlds, and to recognize that there are positives and negatives in each. Try to resist thinking that the grass is greener on the other side.

If you’re childfree, take time to thank your friends who are committed parents for their dedication to raising the next generation. If you’re a parent, show appreciation to your childfree friends for what they can give society as a result of not having parenting responsibilities. Even though we live differently, remember: We’re all in this together.