An Anthology of Lessons in Myths & Stories, by Dania Ayah Alkhouli
Myth 1: Childfree people are selfish, reckless, and living a life devoid of any valid stress or responsibilities.
There was always this lingering doubt about whether or not I wanted to make this decision—leaving my job. The pay was decent, especially since I had recently moved back home following my divorce. The job
itself was sublime, everything I was born to do: customer relations management, a decent amount of traveling for field work, and engaging with staff to bring the humanness back into the corporate. So why leave? Aside from the excruciatingly policed office environment (we were once punished for not having the lights on at 7:45 a.m.), I was commuting four hours a day with no accommodation to work in any of the three remote locations closer to home, upper management spent most of their time schmoozing instead of working and reprimanded us if we caught a mistake caused by their lack of efforts, and I was exhausted of the harassment (and by harassment, I mean I was being spied on meticulously, including in the restroom, so much so that I stopped using it at work and would hold it till my lunch break or my commute home where I’d stop at the nearest mall).
I realized I had just come out of an abusive marriage and should not have to endure another abusive relationship for money. I took the bold first step and put in my notice and was immediately called into the office of my boss’s boss—one of my least favorite people at the company. He began his superficial spiel about the necessity of a hard work ethic and needing to be an adult, suggesting that I take some time to reconsider my decision more maturely. That’s when all lingering doubts vanished. “I have one of the hardest work ethics out there, sir, and with all due respect, I know what is best for me. My time has run its course here and I have made my decision. There is no need to rethink.” He sat back in his chair and cracked a condescending smile as he put his hands behind his head. “Wow, it must be so nice to live so recklessly and not have to worry about adult responsibilities, like bills and children. Once you have kids, you won’t make such rash decisions.”
It’s been almost seven years since that day but it remains etched in my mind for two very contradicting reasons—he was so wrong but so right. Let’s start with the latter. It’s true, I don’t have to carry the burden of parenting responsibilities, but unlike him (and many others), I took the time to reflect deeply on my life and came to the conclusion that I neither needed nor wanted to carry those responsibilities. Maybe had he (and the many others) taken the time to do the same and actively choose parenthood, they would never feel compelled to use their children and the responsibilities that come with them as mechanisms to try and reduce someone else’s life.
On the flip-side, however, being childfree will never mean my life weighs less in responsibilities. This is probably one of the most ridiculous and pathetic claims people with children make about us. I could have most certainly given him the laundry list of responsibilities I was carrying at the time (leaving an abusive marriage alone being the weight of the world), but I am constantly reminding myself I owe no one an explanation for how I live my life. One month later, I was free and embarking on what would become the next incredible phase of my life. I published my second book, built my poetry and copy editing career, invested more time in my nonprofit, and experienced the most revolutionary adventures that both this job and children would have stripped me of.
Myth 2: Childfree people are lonely and living boring, meaningless lives.
I wish I could say this story was an isolated incident, but I had another boss, a woman this time, who threw similarly insensitive comments at me throughout my time at the firm. One morning she walked in and said, “You look tired, Dania,” (something no one should ever say). I said, “I am. Just dealing with a little stress.” She cackled loudly and replied, “Stress? Oh please. You don’t have children so you can’t even begin to know what stress is.”
A year later, I informed her that I was considering applying for a doctorate program and that if I got accepted, I would be leaving the position. With a confused expression she asked, “Why are you going for a PhD? You already exceeded your capacity as a woman with the Master’s degree. You should be focusing on finding a husband and having children now.” Before I could retaliate to every dysfunctional word (Exceeded my capacity? As a woman? Finding a husband? As if quality ones are readily available in aisle 5 at Target? What in the actual hell?) she continued. “I look at my daughter’s life in comparison to her friends with Masters’ degrees and doctorates. They’re all living such dull, boring, meaningless lives with that education. But my daughter, with her loud, wild chaotic children in that messy house? Well she has the real meaningful colorful life.”
I know what that chaotic household is like. I used to experience it every summer in Syria, but it was temporary. Beautiful family reunions, that yes, were colorful and meaningful, but when the break ended, I was glad to be home in my quiet haven. Also, why the assumption that there is only one way to live? Or that educated single and/or childfree women (women, specifically, this is never said about men) are bored, dull, lonely, miserable, etc.? Have you actually asked us? Did you read what I said earlier? Hello, writer, editor, poet, author, traveler, nonprofit cofounder, and adventurer over here, pursuing a SECOND Master’s degree and living a whole other world of colorful, joyous, chaos!
But this is what really hurts me, when it’s women—those who should be uplifting us and supporting our empowered decisions to break oppressive cycles—who tear us down because of some clearly deep seated envy they have yet to heal within themselves. I stand by the belief that this is pure jealousy. We are choosing when they chose not to choose. This ex-boss is one of the most successful single moms in my community. She singlehandedly established an empire from the ground up, but was apparently still brainwashed with this backwards rhetoric. These beliefs are so deeply indoctrinated that society is more than happy to push women into abusive, incompatible, or unhealthy marriages, coerce them to reproduce just to ensure they cross marriage and motherhood off their lists. It doesn’t matter if they become widows or a divorcees so long as they got the wifey and motherly roles checked off.
Society is the one labeling us meaningless, boring, and lonely. In relationships, I always ask the men who get angry at me for this choice why they deem the life of a nonexistent (and at this point, imaginary) human more valuable than the life of the real existent human being before them? They can’t answer me. They never can. So I tell them without hesitation, if that imaginary child is more significant in value than I, they never actually were interested in me, Dania. Just the potential of my body and what they expect it to do for their penises and future offspring. Most men are not choosing us for who we are, only what we are. Too vulgar? Not even remotely. The number of women I watched abandoned or cheated on by their husbands because they couldn’t reproduce (or did not produce sons, only daughters) is traumatizing.
Myth 3: There is something psychologically or physically wrong with childfree people
The only “wrong” thing I can point out about childfree/childless people is that we live in a world that doesn’t accept us. In the Fall of 2020, I launched an independent study on a subset of this topic. I have always had this theory about the nuances of postpartum depression and the possibility of its misdiagnosis. Ever since coming to terms with my own childfree decision and feeling so much relief, I began having reoccurring nightmares of being pregnant or giving birth. The emotions I felt in the dream mimicked a sense of suffocation and imprisonment. An “Oh shit, I’m stuck with this eternal responsibility that I never wanted. What do I do? How do I escape?” sensation.
By my early 20s, I started to wonder how many women, who never took the time (or were given the space) to choose motherhood, entered this role and awakened to the realization at birth that this is not what they wanted but had no idea? While drowning in the emotionality of this revelation, they were swept under the rug of postpartum depression and told it would just go away, but it never did because the child didn’t?
My independent study was only an introduction, but I learned that most women who did not have children felt a sense of shame and failure as women and members of society. Anonymous response after anonymous response, I read about the struggles of women coming to terms with childfreeness/childlessness in a world that never made them feel worthy as their own selves. Since childhood, girls are taught only to think of other’s needs and never encouraged to reflect on their own needs. Then we’re taught to look forward to the single life goal: wife-motherhood. That’s it. Achieving personal development, education, success, those are all pastimes to keep us occupied until the husband and children come. To read the painful responses from such highly accomplished and educated respondents to my study affirmed how society was the true failure, not women.
Myth 4: Childfree people hate children and are incapable of being nurturing and loving
I am told this myth often in my life, both literally and figuratively. Literally, by men and/or their mothers. Figuratively, by relatives, friends, and community. A few years ago, during an annual trip to Syria, I found my cousin’s daughter sitting alone and looking bored at my grandmother’s kitchen table. She was about 6 or 7 at the time and she reminded me a lot of myself. Quiet, reserved, chronically thinking and intuitive, but often misunderstood by this demeanor. The adults always talked about how worried they were for her frequent preference to work or play in isolation and I’d always defend her, knowing exactly where she was coming from. (Y’all, I still prefer my solitude.)
I grabbed a nearby puzzle and walked over to the table, careful to keep my space and not impose upon hers. After pouring out the pieces and slowly organizing them, I noticed her watching me. Jackpot, haha. I nonchalantly asked her, “Do you want to help me with this? It looks kinda hard!” Excitedly she nodded and scooted in closer and began helping. About half an hour later, her mom walks in and exclaims with utter surprise, “Wow, Dania, I’m so impressed you’re putting up with this, considering how much you know, you hate kids.” Taken aback, I asked, “What do you mean? Hate kids? I love them.” And that’s when I realized humanity’s ignorance. We make snap judgments and pairings without exploring the different degrees associated.
Sure, there are probably a few childfree people out there who hate children, but I’m going to let you in on a secret: I know quite a few friends who hate children and have them! Yikes! The truth is many childfree people actually like, love, or feel relatively indifferent about children. No hate. We just don’t want any of our own for a variety of valid reasons. Believe it or not some of my favorite memories are of taking care of my baby brother, teaching third grade, and facilitating a pre-teen youth group for a few years. My entire undergraduate studies focused on the sociology of marriage, family, and child development so I know my way around handling children and adolescents, which is one of the reasons I came to this decision. I am a healthier “mother” when I can give birth to advice, articles, books, community service, babysitting and supporting struggling mothers, advocacy for survivors of rape and domestic violence, initiatives for equality, and so much more.
I genuinely hope this series has been able to not only create a space of accommodation for the childfree folks—especially Arabs and Muslims—who never found their community. But I also hope it serves as an educational launchpad for people with children. An awakening to your role in perpetuating dysfunctional and discriminatory beliefs, as well as the efforts to start changing, beginning with how you treat your peers and how you raise the next generation.