30 January, 2012

"She has no children. She has nothing."

"She has no children.  She has nothing."  So said a so-called friend of Beef Princess.  (I’ve stolen the title of this blog post from Nicole, who was also moved to write).  We've certainly been exposed to the subliminal messages of society that encourage this school of thought.  We've probably all heard family or friends say something like this over the years.   Maybe it was before we tried to conceive, before we knew that we might end up living life without children.  But we would have heard it, and it would have sunk in.  Maybe some of us even said something like that.  I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have, as it took me a while to decide I actually wanted children in the first place, and I hated the pigeon-holing of a woman’s lot it implied.  But I could understand if others did – after all, this is the pervasive message of society today. 

To hear something like this - that without children you have nothing - can be incredibly hurtful.  Why?  When we know it is not true?  When we know – and I’m sure even the woman who made this statement knows – that it is not true.  Why?  When we know that we are so much more than whether or not we have children?

The reason why I think it hurts us so much is that we've probably all said it to ourselves at some stage.  In those dark days when you realise you may not be able to have children, or in those dark days after loss or illness, you tell yourself dreadful things, imagine that other people are thinking the most awful things about you.  (Well, I did at least.)  We've focused for so long - for some of us for our entire adult lives, for others, a very short but intense period of infertility and loss - on having children, on the importance of children, of family, of taking our place in the bosom of the community, of being accepted, together, normal.  And so when we feel deprived, locked out, we have genuinely felt as if we had nothing.  We felt as if we had no future.  I know that we felt as if our husbands and partners would be better off without us, that we were failures as women, that we had no purpose in life, that we would never be happy.  Some will have wondered what the point is of continuing to live.  Some people reading this might still feel this way, still stuck in those dark days.  And so, when we hear someone say this, say that we have nothing, we slip back to that moment, and believe it all over again, even if just for a split second.

Feeling hurt, feeling ostracised from a society that continually emphasises a lifestyle that we can’t have is one thing.  But what explains the statement itself? 

If you ask me, the statement “without children you have nothing” says more about the person saying it than it does about us.  Why the need to put someone down like that?  To sneer that they have nothing?  It was supposed to be a barb, to be unkind about a person who had already hurt the speaker.  But why she felt it was okay to use that particular barb (least of all to Beef Princess) is what astounds me.  It would be like criticising someone for the skin colour, for being left-(or right) handed, for having blue eyes or a high voice, for being poor, or for having a low (or in some circles a high IQ).  

But the majority rules, and people who “have no kids” seem to invite judgement, simply for going against the norm.  Just like on the school playground, difference invites judgement in the adult world too (perhaps even more so).  But I wonder too, is part of the motivation for this judgement perhaps the desperate need to feel that they themselves have more than they actually feel they do?  You know, the happiness is relative theory.  (If you have more than those you compare yourself to, then you will be a happy person.  If you have less, you will be unhappy.)  Is that why sleep-deprived, freedom-constrained mothers feel the need to put others in their place, in turn putting their role as mothers on a pedestal?  That allowing themselves to feel superior makes them feel happier?  Is it perhaps that they feel so insecure, so conflicted about their role as mothers,  that there is a constant need to reaffirm how wonderful their life is, and how much better it is than that of those of us without children?  (After all, perhaps that is why I feel very happy about my own life; because I can do things that those with children can't).

The message from society these days is that having children is everything.  There is no doubt that this is what the majority of our community either believes, or professes to believe, or wants us all to believe.  I don't think it is a simple case that this is what everyone believes. Human beings are notoriously bad at being able to analyse their own motivations.  I think this is a case in point.

Whatever the motivations of both the statement, and our reactions to it, we all know that it is not true.    Children are admittedly a wonderful part of life, but they are not the only thing in life.  We know that.  Relationships - with family, friends, colleagues, and our partners - sustain us and nurture us.  Work sustains us, helping others sustains us, an open mind, intellectual challenges and explorations, our health, our hobbies,  our pets, and even a good bottle of wine or a crisp apple – they all sustain us, and help us live a happy life.  My father-in-law had four children, decent health, and was very well-provided for when he retired.  But when he retired, when he lost his job, he thought he had nothing.  He is an intelligent, logical man.  But his attitude defied logic.  He lacked the insight, the emotional intellect, to examine his emotions, his beliefs, and his attitudes, and hold them up to the light.  Consequently, he has been miserable for over 20 years, when he could have lived a happy, amazing life.  I think that people who say things like “without children you have nothing” are equally lacking in insight, emotional intellect, understanding, and perhaps most importantly, compassion.

And I pity them.


  1. The title of the post itself was like a huge gust of wind for me (it reminded me of something I heard someone say about a childless couple). Anyway, I'm speechless here. But you're right that when we were TTC without any result, I began to wonder about my self-worth and self-value.

    As to what happened to your FIL...it happened to my Dad, too. After he retired, he became angry and lashed out to so many people 'coz he felt he lost his worth as the bread winner. It took a few years before the storm finally passed by. And now that he's passed away, he's in a much better place now. :-)

    1. Amel, of course, that's the whole issue of the stereotypes men are fed their entire lives, isn't it? That without work they are nothing, as women are "nothing" without children. It's all such rubbish. Thinking of you and your dad.

    2. Yeah, you're right about the whole rubbish that men are fed. It was crushing us, too, his family, to see him that way even though we felt that he'd been the greatest dad possible. But anyway, all's well that ends well for him. He's safe and happy now. :-D THANKS for your kind words.

  2. The title of your post reminded me of when dh's uncle (his mother's brother) died about 10 years ago. At the mausoleum following the interment, we went over to offer our condolences again to his widow (dh's aunt by marriage) & family, & she flung herself on my dh & started sobbing something in Italian. I could see dh's expression change, & as we walked away, "I said, "What did she say to you??"" He told me she said, "Oh, your uncle was always so worried about you. Poor Sam & Lori, they have no children."

    GREAT. Here's the newly bereaved widow, feeling sorry for US. And of course, she said this within earshot of several dozen people, most of whom DID understand Italian.

    I'm also thinking about a mass murder/honour killing trial that just ended here in Ontario yesterday (& mulling over a potential post about it). Four women were murdered by their Afghan/Muslim parents & brother (all found guilty -- Google "Shafia murder trial" & you'll find plenty of information) -- three of them teenaged girls who committed the ultimate sin of sneaking around with boys & wearing revealing clothing & makeup. The fourth was the father's first wife, who was 52 & only a little older than me. She turned out to be infertile -- & in that society, of course, you really ARE nothing (a) if you're female, and (b) particularly a female who can't have children.

    So he took a second wife (the now-convicted co-murderer), who bore him 7 children & treated the first wife like dirt. The theory is that she was murdered because she committed the unpardonable sin of asking for a divorce and some money to start a new life in France closer to her siblings. She was also a threat because she was brought to Canada as an "aunt" who helped with the children -- if the secret polygamous marriage was discovered, it could jeopardize the family's status in Canada.

    Infertile women might not get killed here -- but the mindset that a woman is nothing without children is still prevalent -- sometimes blatantly, sometimes in more subtle ways. I may not have children, and yes, sometimes I do feel like I've missed out on something special. But to say I have NOTHING? I firmly disagree.

    Great post, Mali!

    1. Loribeth - your story of your aunt is awful!

      There's also been quite a lot in the news here about the honour killing trial. But I didn't know that about the first wife. That's very upsetting to hear.

  3. I keep reading this blog because it keeps me from becoming a callous horrible person....

  4. this post as it is a wonderful companion piece to mine. i love when a few of us grab onto something that's really bothersome and all write about it.

    " I think that people who say things like “without children you have nothing” are equally lacking in insight, emotional intellect, understanding, and perhaps most importantly, compassion." - i think this is such an accurate statement.

    I think people can definitely feel like one aspect of life defines it, and without it, there is nothing else - much like your FIL w/his job. It is sad. My ex mother-in-law was definitely of the belief that being a mom was everything, and was so sadly attentive and coddling of her son, even well into his 30s (which caused problems in our relationship). She too, felt her life would be empty without grand kids, and I just thinking "Why don't you make your own happiness?" But, I think that leads to make people have to exam themselves, which can be oh so very hard for people.

  5. I want to write more here, I just commented on Nicole's post and now it's past my bedtime but as a mother I would venture to yes to this whole paragraph:

    "But I wonder too, is part of the motivation for this judgement perhaps the desperate need to feel that they themselves have more than they actually feel they do? You know, the happiness is relative theory. (If you have more than those you compare yourself to, then you will be a happy person. If you have less, you will be unhappy.) Is that why sleep-deprived, freedom-constrained mothers feel the need to put others in their place, in turn putting their role as mothers on a pedestal? That allowing themselves to feel superior makes them feel happier? Is it perhaps that they feel so insecure, so conflicted about their role as mothers, that there is a constant need to reaffirm how wonderful their life is, and how much better it is than that of those of us without children? (After all, perhaps that is why I feel very happy about my own life; because I can do things that those with children can't)."

    Yes, yes and yes again. As I said on Nicole's blog, before I had kids I couldn't imagine anyone not wanting to have them, or being happy without them (actually it was more like I couldn't imagine myself being happy without them but I felt so intensely that way I think I also let it bleed into others as well) but now that I have a daughter I totally get it. It's so hard and it's so intense and there is SO MUCH YOU CAN'T DO and I think that mothers want to think it's this incredible thing so they can gloss over the fact that it is so fucking difficult. And I'm not saying that so you'll feel like moms do so much, not at all, I'm just saying that because moms never seem to say it. Not in an honest way at least, not in a way that would make someone without kids feel like maybe not having kids is a good thing. They say it in a way that they hope will make people without kids think they (moms) are badass for managing it. That is not my intention.

    I sometimes feel like I am the lone person who thought life was unlivable without kids until she had them and realized that life might be pretty nice without kids, or at least realizes how much it has to offer. I thought motherhood would complete me but instead I find I want to realize all these other parts of me and now I have no time to do it and I wonder how I'll ever be happy when I can't invest anything in me. It's just all so different than I thought it would be.

    So yes, I believe that woman say those kinds of things because it's something they can hold over someone else's head. We like to feel like we have more and mothers definitely feel like they have a whole hell of a lot more than women who are not mothers, but I believe they feel that way because secretly they are terrified that women without kids actually have more than they do. I wonder how many even let themselves realize how much childfree woman actually have. I didn't before I had my daughter but now I do.

    And of course, I'm terrified writing all of this will make me sound like a bad mother and I'm itching to qualify what I said with a whole slew of comments about how amazing my daughter is and how much I love her because if I don't, that makes me a bad mom right? But I'm not going to because why should I have to? I'm more than just my daughter's mother and I should be able to say what I want to say, but as a mother I feel so constricted. It's just one more way in which the whole thing takes a hold of people and makes them say things they might not normally say. There is so much pressure to love motherhood. It's a very warped perception that our culture would do well to change.

    Thanks for writing about this. Very interesting stuff.

    1. Esperanza, actually a very close friend of mine who's a mother wrote me an individual email once...She is VERY gentle and delicate with my feelings in the email (just like what you did in writing the comment above), but basically she was writing down what you just wrote down here. I TRULY appreciated her effort to share the true "grits and ugliness" of motherhood and she said that maybe, just maybe, I wasn't missing so much anyway by not being a mother.

      Thankfully, though, when I received the email, we're both way passed our TTC period 'coz we've surrendered to a future without kids, so THANK YOU for your POV as well. :-))) Plus she's always been so compassionate about my ups and downs when we were still TTC, so it helps to know her POV about motherhood because I know she's thinking of my feelings, too (not just trying to shove all the glories of motherhood for example).

    2. Bravo Esperanza. Bravo.
      I've been so caught up in my own TTC journey and what I'm missing, that I've forgotten all those days and weeks (yes) that I've cared for other peoples kids. I love them dearly - but I now remember how many things I didn't like...and didn't like about myself while I was caring for them. Thank you for your honesty in speaking as a woman, rather than veiling your opinion as only a 'mother'.

  6. Esperanza, thanks for such an honest comment. I assure you it doesn't make you sound like a bad mother - what it makes you sound like is a very sensible, intelligent woman who is brave enough to face the negatives of life as well as the overwhelming joys. I really appreciate this comment, and agree wholeheartedly that the pressure to love motherhood and never admit frustrations or disappointments with it must be huge, and yes, our cultures would do well to change. Thanks again.

  7. Motherhood is certainly not a joy ride, as Esperanza very honestly explained. Perhaps that is why some of those who go through it and the sacrifices it entails have not pity towards those who never achieve it, given that our life was never as relevant to someone else as theirs was to their kids.

    I do wish my life had more relevance than to simply be a good wife and a good employee. But if it never does I do not want anyone holding it against me as if it were my fault.

  8. HAPPY wedding anniversary to the both of you, Mali! :-D Enjoy your trip and wishing you abundance of joy, love, and romance for the coming years!

  9. Powerful reading here! Thanks for the meaty material. One of my blog pals once observed that women without children after infertility are extraordinary -- in large part because we have to examine ourself, our relationships and our place in society in a way most ordinary people don't. Furthermore, we redefine and find our happiness at a point in life when most people with kids are on auto-pilot. That puts us much further ahead and able to roll with the changes that life inevitably throws at us. I think I may need to riff on this further on my blog ...

  10. I'm not sure why people say things like this, or if they even really believe it. Or if it shows just a lack of creativity of the mind. We all rationally know that there are plenty of routes you can take through life, and yet I've also heard it uttered countless times that you have to go to college or you won't be able to DO anything with your life. That if you don't have a career, or love (a relationship), or a child -- your life will lack meaning. And I think the person or event or object that we're using to define meaning in life changes depending on our place in life, and I also think sometimes based on the people we're with.

    Though I don't know if the message of "children are everything" is unique to this day and age. I think it's a message that has been repeated throughout time, though the meaning of the statement changes with the era. Right now, I think it has to do with immortality, with children being the future. I think in the past it had to do with land rights or inheritance.

    And any time period -- has it ever been a statement that has NOT caused stress? You would think, as humans, we'd be smart enough to evolve past that thinking.

  11. Another vivifying post Mali. I agree with you; although disappointment and loss can be utterly devastating, those occurrences definitely can encourage us to question our roles and assumptions about the human experience, and ultimately free us for something different and, quite possibly, equally amazing...

  12. Hi,

    My husband and I get asked all of the time, "so when are y'all going to start having kids?" I get so irritated sometimes having to answer but I try to let it slide. It hurts a lot too though because we have been married almost five years and have tried. My husband has many migraine issues and takes meds daily for it and for prevention, and we are both overweight. However, people just do not realize the cost of health care, and the cost of on going research or treatments, and of course the cost of gas for travel! We have come to realize that we do not always get what we want but realize no matter what people will always cast judgement! It hurts but my husband and I both know we are "family" to each other and love each other very much! So I think I would rather have that kind of love rather an empty love with possible break ups over kids and finances. True love exists even if you do not have kids. Perhaps there are other purposes we can do other than have kids and only God can use and show us that:)