Doreen Caven was raised in a Catholic household in Nigeria, and she was a baby feminist even before she knew what the F-word meant. At an early age, she saw the role she was expected to fill, as a wife, a mother, submissive to men, and she wasn’t having any of it. Doreen and her younger sister, also childfree, now live in Los Angeles and run The Girls Like Me, a wonderful platform which amplifies the voices of African women, who are too often left out of the narrative around feminism and female empowerment. She shares her thoughts on religion, patriarchy, and how to shake off strict gender roles and soar to success!
Doreen: I do not subscribe to organised religion. Because I grew up in that environment, because I grew up seeing a lot of women get their wings get clipped by their beliefs – by believing that they were supposed to be lesser, by believing that their natural instincts to rebel and be themselves was a negative thing to pray away, by seeing them lower themselves from men who were so much lower than they were. So, to me, I’d grown up seeing the women be, you know – my mind rightfully saw those things and I never let my mind be molded into seeing it in a different way as the world would want me to see it, you know? If you tell me that a man is supposed to be greater than me, then why isn’t he?
Zoë: Hey lovelies! Welcome back to We are Childfree, a podcast that celebrates childfree lives, shares our stories and uplifts our voices. I’m Zoë Noble, and today I’m speaking with Doreen Caven, co-founder of the feminist wellness space The Girls Like Me. Doreen was raised in a Catholic household in Nigeria, and she was a baby feminist even before she knew what the F-word meant. At an early age, she saw the role she was expected to fill, as a wife, a mother, submissive to men, and she wasn’t having any of it. Doreen and her sister Joan, also childfree, now live in Los Angeles and run The Girls Like Me, a wonderful platform which amplifies the voices of African women, who are too often left out of the narrative around feminism and female empowerment. Doreen is trying to worry less about offending people, and she definitely didn’t hold anything back when we spoke! She told me how women have been expected to suffer in silence and sacrifice themselves ever since Eve ate the apple, how opting out of that role helps explain the falling birthrate in the US, and even opened up about the difficult conversations she had with her religious parents about her choice not to have children.Get ready to feel empowered! Here’s Doreen Caven:
Doreen: It was just a thought I didn’t know I could have. It didn’t come to me when I was younger, even in my early 20s – right now, I’m in my mid 30s. It came to me just, I guess, at the time I realised that I didn’t have that, you know, ticking time clock feeling that my friends had. I would see my friends plan their lives according to the prospect of having kids or stop certain things they were trying to do because of that. They would say things like, “You know, I need to not maybe pursue this path, because I have to think about this time when I have to have kids”. And I would be like, “Really? You’re gonna pause -” And, you know, those kinds of things just didn’t occur to me. And, of course, I will, I’m sure, like everyone, who feels, who has, who is in this space, or who wants to be childfree, has felt this, you know – you feel different, you feel strange, you feel like a weirdo. And I was blessed enough to have a sister, my younger sister, who I founded TGLM with, who I could relate to about the way I felt. So I would have my real conversations with her. And then with my friends, I would have like, you know, the typical conversations with them, just because I didn’t know if I could bring, you know, how they would react to who I really was, or what I really wanted for myself. So, I would say, the time I knew for sure that I wanted to be childfree was when I had fibroids, and it was a lot, I had a lot of fibroids. You know, the average size of the uterus is, they say, like six centimeters or something like that. But mine was like 20, because of how much fibers were in my uterus. But anyway, when I went to see the doctor, they spoke about fertility, and the prospect of how easy it would be for me, being that I had fibroids. At the time, when he was talking, I knew what he was saying in a very, like, you know, calm – “You may struggle with fertility, you may have to do IVF, you may have to do all these kinds of things”. And I could feel the pity in the room and in my mind, I was just like, “Just get these fibroids out of me. That part doesn’t -“
Zoë: Just get em out!
Doreen: You know, and so after I’d had the surgery, I just felt so free, so wonderful. I would have to say that during the time I had the fibroids, I also noticed my reaction to people, because everybody thought I was pregnant. That was how bad it was. I had a very inflamed stomach. So I would have like moments where, you know, people will send me congratulations randomly. “Oh, my God, congratulations!” Like, “No, I just have fibroids”. So I went through a whole year of that, right before I took them out. So once I took them out, and I didn’t have them in me anymore, and I looked like myself again. I was just like, “I don’t ever want to experience that ever again”. Like, you know, even the reaction I had to even people telling me that I was pregnant. I mean, I’m just gonna be honest here – it just felt very violating, because, you know, first of all, in general, no one is supposed to comment on anyone’s body like that. But, you know, I felt so free after I took them out. And you know, I went to see my doctor again. And they’re like, “Oh, you know, you could, do IVF and you’ll be able to have kids and everything”. And I still in my mind was like, you know, everyone around me, my mom, my aunties, my siblings, they were like, “Oh, this is the best time. Now that you have them out, you can start trying to have a kid”, you know, and stuff like that. And I was like, “I just, I was basically pregnant with fibroids like a year ago. Do you think I want to just go and fill my stomach up with something again?” You know, I have no interest in that, and it just struck me that my reaction was very different from the average reaction. Because I had a friend go through that same process where she took her fibroids out and then the next second, she and her partner just started trying immediately to make sure they could have a kid within that time – because the thing about fibroids, from what I from what most people say, is that it always comes back. So you know, you have this little space where they’re like, “Oh, you know, you have this little space. Go for it!” And, for me, I was like, “Nothing is coming inside here ever again, like I will do everything I can to never have that experience”. So it got me thinking about how I always had a fear of pregnancy just in general. I don’t know, I have just never wanted to be pregnant. And it’s a thing that I had known, you know, but I had spoken about it. Maybe I’ll see my peers, and everyone would just laugh it up, like, “Hey, you know, it’s okay. It’s okay”. But I just don’t, I could never, I’d never imagined myself pregnant, I had never oohed and aahed about it. I’ve never, nothing, like you know, I just had no connection to it. Despite the fact that I actually do love kids, I have a bunch of sib – I have six, five, five, four sisters, actually we’re six – four sisters and a brother. And, you know, aside from my younger sister, everyone else has kids. So I, you know, I have a lot of nephews and nieces that I love very much, you know, but just the urge to mother or carry myself just, you know, it was at that moment that I just realized, “Wow, I really just don’t have this desire. I don’t have this rush, I don’t have this panic, I don’t have any of it”. And why would I force myself to have these things, if they don’t come, they’re not coming naturally to me?
Zoë: Yeah, the doctors – when you go into health issues as a woman, it’s very clear that there is a bias with many, many doctors that they just assume you’ll want children. I mean, I also had a fibroid. And I so I know what you meant by when you got it out, it was the freedom. But going to doctors and you expect support and for them to look out for your best interests. But there’s clearly a bias with many where the priority is to make sure that you have the ability to have kids and you know, “We’re gonna do this for you, we’re gonna -” and it’s like, “Just listen to me, I want to live my life, you know, without this. And please don’t just assume that we’re all the same”. Did you then have to tell the doctor, “No, I don’t want to do anything. I don’t want to do any kind of treatment”?
Doreen: Exactly. I had to tell the doctor, you know, and I knew I seemed very strange. It was like ringing silence in the room when I was like, “I don’t even want to think about that part. Let’s just focus on getting this out of me and me being safe, and me being fine. I don’t, I’m not thinking about any future to preserve whatever strands of uterus left. I just don’t even like -“, I would say “I just didn’t even care”. And it really made me realise – because at the same time, I had a friend who had gone through the exact same thing who had been so particular about that part, you know. This thing, you shouldn’t force it, you know, you shouldn’t force it. And it’ s best to, to really sit with yourself and ask yourself, “Why? Why do I feel this way about these things?” And accept that I do feel this way, and not see it as anything negative, but just see it as who I am. So that’s how I came to the conclusion that, yes, I want to be childfree. Another way, to be honest, is my partner actually, from the minute I met him has always wanted to be childfree. It’s actually one of the reasons why I’m with him, like a huge reason. Because I had met a lot of, you know, I dated a lot of guys who wanted to have kids. But then it’s like, this one didn’t want to have it. And this is the one I was like, “Oh, you know what, I think I could do long term with you”. I knew that pregnancy wouldn’t have wouldn’t come up. Like he literally was like, “I don’t want kids. But if you really want them, you know, then fine, we can, you know, go on that journey”. So, you know, coming to the conclusion, because at the time I had said, “I’m not sure myself”, however, just based on my conditioning, on the things I thought at the time I was supposed to do, supposed to think, I should want, I had still not come to this, like this 100% conclusion until I had my fibroid removal surgery. So at this time, we both had the conversation and we’re like, “Yeah, this is what it is. And if there ever is a time that the need does arise, we always have the option, hopefully to adopt – because there are so many children who are out there who need help – foster, anything.” But for now as I’m sitting here, I have just no desire, I’m so happy to be childfree. It’s just, to me, the most exhilarating feeling, just knowing that I have this choice. And, you know, again, I find it just so important to put as many stories out there for women to know that it’s a question that they can answer. You know, it’s not an automatic or inevitable thing. It’s something you can actually choose and select for yourself.
Zoë: So with a partner who also has chosen to be child free, have you noticed the differences between how men and women are treated with this decision?
Doreen: Of course, yes. His parents are amazing. They’re just really lovely, really kind people. But I have actually wondered how they would have dealt with his decision to be childfree if he was a woman, right? I have wondered, because they are so accepting of it. But then again, you know, I’m like, you’re a dude. So that’s probably why you’re not even being pressured to do – you know, you say you want to be childfree, and everyone just kind of goes, like, “Okay, yeah, that’s fine”. But if it’s me, it’s more of a gasp, and I have to go into this long explanation. Of course, by the time I’m done explaining, everyone understands, but people are unable to first like, “Ooooooh”, it seems like such a shocking thing. And I’m like, is it really that shocking? So for women, obviously, it’s completely different – they think we are born to be mothers, that’s how we even reach our pinnacle of womanhood, that’s the, the idea of us. And to even, you know, teach people that we are a variety, in general, as people, we are different kinds of people. And, you know, no one can understand that – they have an idea of what a woman is, and you know, if she veers left, or she is anything different then she’s “unnatural”. You know, that word comes up quite a lot.
Zoë: Yeah, that really frustrates me – the way that we treat women who have made this decision as if they are broken, as if there’s something actually wrong with them. It really, it angers me, because clearly, society has a lot of myths around childfree women – they think we are selfish, they think we are cold, we hate kids, all of these things. And this is so important to me to get across that we just need to embrace the diversity in us, in our stories. Yes, we have chosen to be childfree, but there is the huge gamut of different experiences, different reasons, different people in this whole movement. And let’s stop throwing everyone into one group – and this can be mothers as well, this can be childfree – we just need to stop, like, assuming that women are just one version of themselves. You know, it’s ridiculous.
Doreen: People immediately have an idea of you, when you see that you’re childfree. So I actually experienced that recently, like, maybe two weekends ago, I was with a bunch of my friends. And I just said it, to state it openly. Actually, I think, just inspired again, to be more open about being childfree to my friends. You know, I’m doing that now. So I mentioned it to a group of girls. Oh, everyone gasped then, later on, my friend sends like this meme of how babies are problematic. It’s like a funny thing, you know, it’s just like they poop too much blah, blah, blah. And she was like, “Doreen you will love this”. And I’m like, “Why would I love it? Like, I don’t have an issue”. She just immediately assumed that I would find – that I’ll be one of the people who be laughing at babies being problematic or something. And I’m like, “I love kids. I don’t have any -” you know, she just didn’t understand that. You can love kids, you cannot find them problematic. You can just be like, “OK, you’re little humans being raised right now, at one point, they will be adults, that’s just their journey in life”. She just couldn’t get that I would still be the person she’s always known, suddenly, because I said I was childfree. And it’s kind of weird, because, in my opinion, sometimes I think, and this is, I feel, maybe, you know, maybe in my experience, I feel like childfree people are more understanding of children sometimes then people who think that children are your destiny. Because we are able to ask the question, “Do we want kids?”, so when you are able to ask yourself, do you want kids, you’re able to understand that a kid stands alone, it’s a human, right? People see children as extensions of themselves all the time. And so like you are actually doing more philosophy when you question the idea of even bringing one into the world because you’re like, “What would that child deal with here? Does the child deserve to be in this kind of world where so many terrible things keep happening?” You know, a lot of people have children just thinking only about themselves, how their legacy will be continued, how this child is going to achieve dreams that they never achieved, you know, they never actually think about their children and mostly think about themselves. And so I feel like that sometimes the best thing a lot of people would do is really sit down and think about if they should have kids or not, because then they will consider that child as a human who deserves a good life if they come here, and they will stop expecting children to be grateful for being brought into a world they didn’t ask to be brought into.
Zoë: Exactly. Gosh, yes. We just need to think a little bit more, please.
Doreen: Just think.
Zoë: Yeah. So then you mentioned your partner’s family. How has your family taken to this decision?
Doreen: My mom, thankfully, again, like I said, we were six kids, I happen to be the fifth.
Doreen: And so she has a bunch of grandchildren already. So she still wants one, but she has been sated by having so many that I feel like I could, you know, sneak through – I could speak to her about being childfree without her completely losing her shit. She does want kids but she has been able to accept it. Mostly because I’m Doreen, meaning that I have always been extremely opinionated. I’ve always been extremely sure about what I wanted, and said it. And so they know that if I say something strongly, I’m going to do that thing.
Doreen: And so, you know, nobody even wants to deal with that. I had to fight for my right growing up, so I have this family that kind of understands that. And also, having the fibroids issue, I won’t like, it’s a little bit of a nice cover for me. Because once I just say the fertility stuff, my mom’s like, “OK, OK”. She would rather that, you know, yeah… so I kind of over exaggerate that a little bit. And I hope she never listens to this podcast! I over exaggerate that because she needs – she’s a Nigerian woman who is about to be 70 this year – she needs the excuse, she needs something to hold onto. I don’t know if she can accept, completely, my whole philosophy of having children, because, as a Catholic woman, as a Catholic African woman to be exact, family and having children – as you can see, she had six – it’s a huge thing of, like, serving the Lord and stuff like that, so it’s important to her. So, once I bring up that, “Remember this fibroid thing? Do you want me to be that miserable woman like that is trying her best to have children and she’s all broken down and stuff? Like, I don’t want to be her”. So she doesn’t want me to be hurt either. So she’s like, “OK, if you’re happy this way”. You know, not to say that women who are trying are miserable, but I just sometimes – 100% – sometimes fear that image. Sometimes I fear that image of feeling like you’re not enough, because you didn’t have children. I don’t like what it does to women, generally. I don’t like seeing it, even though I know and understand that I probably don’t feel what they feel, you know, because I don’t have that desire to have children. So I don’t know what it feels like to put your body through so much, like, injections and stuff like that, in order to have your child. I don’t know what it feels like to be driven by that desire. But every time I see that I feel so sad. I feel so sad, because it really, really does break women down.
Zoë: Oh, gosh, yeah, that process. It looks brutal. And I mean, you don’t know, you don’t know what the results will be. It’s expensive. I mean, I know in some countries… I think in the UK, you can get a certain amount of treatment on the NHS, but I imagine in the US it must be very expensive.
Doreen: It’s extremely expensive and extremely hard for your body. Your body is put through hell. My prayer always for women who want to have children is that they, I hope they are able to have their children. Because, yeah, it really, really, really, really mentally messes with them.
Zoë: Oh, gosh. I mean, I think that that’s it. I hope that we can empower women to – they make the choice and if that is what they want, yeah, I’m like you, I hope they get it. You know, everyone should have happiness in their life. And if that’s where they see it, then I really do hope that they can find that. But yeah, it just looks like a very traumatic kind of experience for many. So I think, when you decide to be childfree and when women, they have fertility problems, and then they come out the other side, and, if it’s not possible for them, there is a power in saying, “OK, I’m embracing being childfree. Now I am going to live my best childfree life”. And I think if we can show women that you can live a really happy and fulfilling life without children, that maybe we can help the women who maybe have wanted it so badly in their lives, see that it’s OK, we’re out there, we’re living our lives, we are doing amazing things. So, you know, hope is not all lost, if you can’t have children.
Doreen: It’s detaching from that idea that your womanhood is incomplete without a child. Understanding that you’re already a full human. And yes, a child would be a great addition, if that’s what you want for yourself. However, without it, you’re still going to be, you know, there are still many ways to nurture, there’s too many ways to mother, and there’s too many ways to bring value into the life of someone else. And this is me, my own personal philosophy – we negate the practice of even raising ourselves because we’re so focused on the idea that we’re supposed to raise someone else. We have yet to finish even knowing who we are, we have yet to finish even understanding why we do the things we do, everything that we do. And we are so quick to want to rush and start trying to mold or control someone else. And then we wonder why there’s so many children with, or adults with childhood trauma, so many children who are confused, unable to express themselves? Well, because they are raised by people who never even finished raising themselves.
Zoë: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. I mean, we want the people who really, really want this in their lives, and are really well equipped to do it – and that means everything, mentally – you have to really, really want this. And if we try and push women who maybe don’t want this, maybe it’s suited to them, why on earth would we push those women into doing this, putting so much pressure on them? I mean, we’re gonna get unhappy women, unhappy children, and the cycle just continues. So tell me then – living in Nigeria, what was it like growing up there?
Doreen: It was community, it was a lot of community, which meant seeing, I guess, the dynamics of patriarchy really strongly. So I grew up in a privileged African family. My dad was successful, my mom was successful, and, you know, helped a lot of their younger siblings and their cousins, and, you know, relatives. You know, at some point in my house, we lived in that house in Lagos, we lived in Lagos, which is a very big city. And we were surrounded by our relatives a lot. And so we were raised by a community of women. So for me growing up, I love the women I was raised by. My mom and her sisters were there, my dad’s sisters were there, and we lived in a big house. And I think, growing up, I would see the change from them being happy, playful women, young women, to becoming an overburdened, stressed, extremely, just a broken version of themselves, when they would get married. So the thing that I knew when I was younger was that I was never going to get married. That’s what I would say to myself, that if anything could change these women to this other thing, I don’t see what is so great about it. Because to me, I could never understand the hype, surrounding why, you know, men were given so many more opportunities, so much more attention, and much more validation and much more, you know, freedom. So that was my complete struggle, I think, growing up as a young Nigerian girl. I just didn’t get it, you know, and I was angry. I was angry with it. Now, thankfully, my mom happened to be a woman who was very progressive. And so she had, like I said, we have five girls and one boy – she raised all of us the same, which was great. So inside my house, we had equality, there was balance and equality. Even though she was in a more patriarchal relationship with my dad, she didn’t transfer that to us. Because she could have done that, she could have had some form of hierarchy where my brother would be given some money, more things than us. But she didn’t do that, she just kind of treated us all the same and allowed us all to have to be ourselves – she didn’t say, you’re a woman, you guys need to wake up in the morning and do this while your brother’s lying down on the bed, sleeping. But I did see that dynamic in a lot of my friends’ homes where the girls would wake up and clean while the boys are playing video games and stuff like that. So, what I would say is that, growing up in Nigeria, I just saw, obviously the same old thing happening here, in the United States, where women were just overburdened, and were expected to do most of the domestic work, while the men would be lauded for simply going to work – the same place that women are also going, women were also working, while also doing domestic work. And it all just seemed very unbalanced, and it all seemed very unfair. And it would be so infuriating to me as well, that, despite the amount of work that women would do, to have kids, take care of the kids, and all that, the kids would still be named after their father. So like all those things, just nothing made sense to me. Nothing made sense to me at all. And, you know, I rebelled very strongly, against anything typical. I will do the opposite of what was expected, because I wanted it to be clear that, you know, even in the small space I occupied at the time in my home where my aunties and my uncles, I wanted them to know that girls don’t have to act the way you think they should act, girls can be who they want to be. And they will tell me all the time, the biggest stress was, you know, “Doreen, nobody will marry you. Nobody wants -” I’m like, I hope so!
Zoë: You’re like, yes, good.
Doreen: That’s what I’m going for right now.
Zoë: That’s my dream.
Doreen: Do you understand? At the weddings of my aunties, I used to cry so much. And they’d think I was crying because I was happy for them both. But I was crying because I was sad. I was like, “What’s going to happen to this lady? This sweet, happy woman’s about to turn into some overburdened women”. And in Nigeria, women are sometimes so overburdened, that they would look at least 10 years older than their husbands – they would look physically older, because they’re just going through so much work. And if you are privileged enough to grow up in a nice environment in Lagos in Nigeria, yeah, you do have access to childcare, you can have nannies – we grew up with nannies and stuff like that. So it was easier for my mom, right? But on a general scale for a lot more women, that’s not how it is for local women – they are waking up, going to work, and then coming home and still working at home while their husband comes home from work, sits down, is served as food like a king, goes to bed.
Doreen: So it’s an interesting culture. And that, you can see progressiveness, but in many ways, it’s still very traditional.
Doreen: So, you know, for me, I was like, “You know what, any of these things, these expectations, I have no desire for any of them”. You know, I would say to them, “I’m not gonna marry a Nigerian. I’m never gonna – I don’t want anyone to just look at me and assume things about me without even getting to know who I am. Because I’m a woman”. Like, you know, yeah –
Zoë: No, I’ll pass –
Doreen: No thank you.
Zoë: Yeah. Right? So I mean, what about the aspect of religion? Because both your parents are Catholic? Religion plays such an integral part in patriarchy. I mean, the roles are so defined – men are at the top, women are at the bottom –
Doreen: – women are at the bottom, we’re here to serve. We’re the “help meats”, that’s what they call us. the “help meats” who were created from the rib of a man.
Zoë: Yeah, great, lovely, brilliant!
Doreen: Oh my gosh, yeah. So of course, you know, I’m not religious anymore. I’m spiritual, I believe in the universe and all those type of things. And I believe in like, community, and kindness and love and things like that. But I do not subscribe to organised religion. Because I grew up in that environment, because I grew up seeing a lot of women get clipped, their wings get clipped by their beliefs, by believing that they were supposed to be lesser, by believing that their natural instincts to rebel and be themselves was a negative thing to pray away, by seeing them lower themselves from men who were so much lower than they were.
Doreen: So, to me, I’d grown up seeing the women being, you know – my mind rightfully saw those things and I never let my mind be molded into seeing it in a different way as the world would want me to see it, you know?
Doreen: If you tell me that a man is supposed to be greater than me, then why isn’t he? So like, I would look at that. I remember going, I really, really was a very, I thought a lot as a child. And I remember saying, “OK, men are so great. How come I’m first in the class? How come I’m all these things? And am I supposed to just force myself to believe these things, when it’s obviously not true?” You know, I’m not saying that, individually, we can’t all be great. I’m saying the idea was so solid in Nigeria that men are this and women are just beneath them. Men are the heads, you know. And I actually remember my sister and I, I will never forget, we were like eight years old, practicing our signature for when we will be stars, I will be autographing. And I remember like saying, “I can’t believe I was sitting here, like practicing my autograph, and one day, I’m gonna have to change my name to somebody else’s name”. And I was so angry, I was so frustrated about that. It just never dawned on me at that age that I didn’t have to do any of that. Like, I can keep my name if I want. At the time, I was so roped into this world that was going to be my place as a secondary citizen of it. And I remember being just so frustrated about it. And it’s everywhere. I remember in schools, we would play games called like, “When will you marry?” that thing with the game, and they’d be like, you know, “Where will you have your baby?” You know, like, we would just – everything was just based around, eventually being a wife, and eventually just being a mom. That’s just the dream, and I just never got with that idea, never dreamt of my wedding. I never – it just wasn’t the things I wanted. What I wanted was to be rich. That’s all I wanted. I wanted to be successful.
Zoë: Yeah! I mean, I would rather have the money that people spend on a wedding. I’d rather travel with that. I always was like, “Oh my gosh, it seems like such a waste.”
Doreen: And I know that I actually edit myself a lot. Because I’m a person who loves when people are happy. My big struggle right now, which I’m learning to do, even right now as we speak, is learning how to be okay with offending people.
Doreen: Because, to be myself – I have to be myself. And sometimes I try to, like I said earlier, sometimes with some friends, I wouldn’t show them or tell them everything about me or what I think, because I know it’s sometimes processed as too much or too, too different. And I notice that people take differences in a defensive or combative way. I can tell you I don’t like – I’m a different person, I don’t like this, and in effect, it pisses them off somehow. And so I noticed that, and I kind of don’t want to piss them off. So I just give them like maybe the mid-level version of me, you know. But I’m now really trying, the pandemic really pushed me to say, “You know what, Doreen, just burst out and be yourself, be open and just, if you offend people in the process, so be it”.
Doreen: Because I literally feel like it’s so much more important to share the things that I am, and be who I am, so that other people can feel the freedom and feel the joy that I’m feeling from living my life my own way, because I do not think that this society is prepared for the unapologetic joy of a childfree person. People will take it in an offensive way a little bit, like we are criticizing their decision. And it’s like, I’m not criticising your decision. Like I said, I am extremely happy for anyone who wants to be a mom. I am genuinely a big supporter of people being happy – I’m so happy for them, you know. So you have to learn the generosity of being able to allow people to be happy to be childfree, without having to darken it by your idea that’s “Oh, in the future, we will be so sad, because nobody can take care of us. In the future we will be so blah, blah”. I’m like, “We don’t even know what the future is. And you don’t either”. I didn’t speak about when I told my dad, I was childfree, but I’ll talk about it now. He was around – he lives in Nigeria, and my mom lives in America. So he came here for like a routine doctor checkup, and I went to visit him – he was staying at my sister’s place in Michigan. And while we were there – it was my younger sister and I – he would pray for us. He’s very religious, and he would pray for us. And he would pray, like, “God, please provide Doreen with the fruit of the womb. And God, please let Joan find a husband”. You know, and the prayers came every night, and I swear, I’ll be like, infuriated at the end of the prayer. And I was trying to do the thing where I’m like, “OK, my parents don’t really have to know me. They don’t have to know who I am. So let me not actually tell them who I am”. But I was like, “You know what, maybe they need to know”. So I was like –
Zoë: I mean, you can’t please everyone,
Doreen: – you can’t. So I said, I’m gonna have this conversation. I don’t think any of my siblings know I had this conversation. But I told him, I was like, “Dad, I need you to actually pray for what I want. If you want to pray for me, please pray for me that the ideas that I put out into the world have value, are able to reach people. Pray for me that all the work I do actually pays off. Please don’t pray for me to have kids. And please don’t pray for Joan for things she doesn’t even want either, you know?” And he was like, “What do you mean, you don’t want to have children?” And I was like, “No, I do not. I do not want to have children”. And he was like, you know, he got so incensed that he was like, oh you know, raging. Because to him, a woman without a child, that is not natural at all. And I’m like, “Well, maybe I’m unnatural then. What do you want me to say? This is something that I don’t want”. And he’s like, “Well, in the future, you don’t know how it is when you be surrounded by your children -” and all these kinds of things. And I’m like, “I understand. But that doesn’t have to be my future”. I’m okay with that not being my future, because let me tell you something, you cannot predict those things. We just came through a pandemic, where so many people died alone in the hospital, because they couldn’t even be surrounded by their children, you understand what I’m saying? Like, life, you cannot predict the future, you cannot predict tomorrow, you don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know anything. And so to live your life, for this hope that one day in the future, your child will take care of you, it just doesn’t make any sense to me now. So like, you have to live for now, for what do you want now. And I feel like people change in their lives and shift in their lives and restrict themselves to achieve this idea for public approval, to get a certificate of completion by society or something – I don’t know what it is that they want. You know, I’ve just never been able to wrap my mind around it. But it’s a very common thing. So my dad was really upset by it. But right, I was very happy. The next day, he came and said, “I understand. I will adjust myself accordingly. And I apologise”. And so he prayed for me from then on for what I wanted. And that’s when I was like, put the energy towards the thing I want, please.
Zoë: I mean, that’s it. Parents, they, it seems like sometimes they just don’t listen to their children when they’re saying, “I would not be happy if I did this. Don’t you want me to be happy?” Isn’t that what all parents want?
Doreen: I literally have that speech with my mother all the time. Like I literally do. I’m like, “Do you not see how happy I am? Do you not see my prob – Like, when I call you and I tell you what my problems are? Do you not see that my problems are so, they are – in fact, I don’t even call you about problems because I’m so in a happy space that I get to live the life I want”. Coming to where I am right now in my life, I would say I’ve been living so much happier, because this has been the only time in my life I’ve been able to be really free. I’m not controlled by my parents. You know, we haven’t talked about how I came to even open The Girls Like Me, and my creative life journey and things like that –
Zoë: Oh, we’re gonna get there.
Doreen: Yeah! So speaking to my mom, and telling her like, “Do you not see that I don’t call you, I’m not sad, I’m not this like, do you not see, you know?” And she understands now, she understands a lot now, you know.
Zoë: That’s good. I mean, that’s all parents want, right? Just be happy, live your life, and I think a lot of it is this conditioning that, you know, that generation, or especially coming from a country like Nigeria, the pressure the – you know the gender roles are set –
Doreen: Very set.
Zoë: – and anyone to anyone who bucks against that, it’s immediately “Oh, they’re not – they’re just weird. They’re not normal, this is not right”. But I think the more we can push out, put out our stories into the world, and show people that this is a choice, that we are living our lives, happy, fulfilled, I think people will start to accept this as a choice. And, and that’s what we need for people raised as girls, when they’re growing up, we need them to know that there is a choice, this isn’t just a given, that you are on this planet just to fulfill this role that the patriarchy basically says –
Doreen: Forces upon us.
Zoë: – yeah, that’s what it feels, to me. That’s what it feels like. And obviously there are many women who, they have this innate desire to have a child – and like you said, I want them to go for it, and live their life and be happy with that. But I also see how little support mothers can get and how, because we are still trying to get gender equality, we can put ourselves into these positions where we don’t get the support, we are doing the majority of the work, and men need to do better. You know, we’re trying our best to make a change. But I also wish that you know, men would be doing more as well,
Doreen: I do kind of blame religion, I would say, just based on my own past, on why mothers are so unappreciated. When you create a story that says that women are meant to do this stuff, it doesn’t allow for the sacrifice that women are making. We’re not looking at motherhood, and women excelling at it, and doing their best at it, as something that should be commended. While looking at it, as something that, duh, this is what you should have done anyway. So when men excel at fatherhood, or are even present or do the bare minimum, do like maybe 20% of what moms are doing, they’re praised for it, because they’re not expected to do that, you know? So there’s a whole story of the reason why women labor during childbirth as being the curse of God for eating the apple, you understand. So we look at that story as a reasoning for why women suffer during childbirth – that’s in Genesis. And I’ve always felt like that was the most coolest thing ever, that women who are sacrificing their bodies, and even their possible lives, to bring humans into this world are not appreciated for it, or even given the kind of glorification that they deserve for doing these kinds of things. I’m saying that because this is true. They are treated as if the pain, nothing of what they go through is really looked at as commendable, as much as it should be. Because, people are so quick to look at it as something that wasn’t even a big deal. It’s just what every woman does. And it ties to the way we look at Eve eating the apple and her being cursed by God for it. I think that was a very selfish situation where the people who wrote the Bible couldn’t give a woman her flowers at that moment, for childbirth, they just had to make it a negative thing so that we praise them for it. And so we can look at it, we can put a negative slant on it, rather than give them more support and understand that is a big sacrifice, that for that reason, they deserve even to be the ones who name children. So that’s how I look at it, the religious way of thinking permeated the way we look at women. And because of that women are not seen as people to commend. We’re still busy focused on men and men and men, and more men and men and men, all the time. It’s just ridiculous. And completely upside down.
Doreen: So that’s just ridiculous to me.
Zoë: I wonder whether – this came out last week in America, that the birth rate, I don’t know if you read any articles about – I had, someone asked me about this, you know, this is something that can be put to childfree women. The birth rates are going down in the US there’s this trend that less people, less women, are having kids. And, you know, someone asked me, “What are your thoughts on that?” As if it was something that I don’t know, we should be to blame, or ashamed? I don’t know. But, you know, I would love your thoughts on this trend of women choosing or opting out. In my head, it makes complete sense, because I look at the world around, especially like you mentioned, in the pandemic, we saw so many women leave the workforce, because, how could they manage looking after their children and working a job and looking after the house?
Doreen: And this when they were probably partnered too, you know?
Zoë: Yeah, exactly. It’s really, it’s fucking depressing. It’s like, yeah, women were hurt so badly in the pandemic, and we just have swept it under the carpet. And we’re just moving on now.
Doreen: It’s not a big deal that women – to people, it’s not a big deal that women leave their jobs to care for kids. That’s what they think women should do. Like I said, every sacrifice that women do is never seen as anything worthy. Because to them, we women represent servants, service, and labourers, free labourers. And this does not even just only go for the woman who has the kids, it goes for the girl in the family, the daughter, who has to also become a second mother by default. So it’s a really, really, really, really insane thing that people are even surprised at the birth rates being low. You look at it, it’s unequal. It’s around the world – in the US, even in so-called progressive countries, like the United States and other parts of Europe. It’s always been unequal. Women have always been doing most of the unpaid labor. And it’s just the way it is, yeah. And until men decide, honestly, that they’re going to step up and do as much as women, it’s always going to be that way. Or else women are just going to step back and choose not to have children, women are going to just step back and choose to focus on themselves instead, and live lives that are full without having to be burdened with doing twice as much work. So I don’t know why that’s even a surprise to anyone, it’s almost like the future you know?
Zoë: I mean, I just wish, you know, instead of asking women, “Why aren’t you having kids?”, I wish we’d be putting the pressure on the government, the policymakers: “Why aren’t you creating an environment that was exactly conducive for women, to feel like they had the support, that they could have a child, that they can keep their career, that they’re not working themselves to the, you know -” I see it from my friends, and, you know, anyone who’s got a kid, I see even, like you said, in progressive countries or with progressive couples, modern couples in my generation, younger generations… I still see that the labour is divided so unequally, and it’s frustrating, it’s so frustrating. So I’m not surprised women are opting out.
Doreen: But, you know, it’s so interesting that there’s a motherhood penalty, to where working mothers basically encounter disadvantages, because people believe that, if they have kids, basically, they’re going to be consumed with their kids, and they’re not going to do as much work. And, ironically, at the same time, fathers are paid more for that exact reason, because they have families. Just even the assumption that mothers are these nurturing figures who should be at home, that the wage gap exists. It’s a ridiculous situation. So I do not blame anyone who wants to start realising this scam of it all. Until society decides to implement the right things, And actually, as you said, governments create spaces where childcare is put into contracts, where they are able to find a way to take care of the kids, and consider the fact that women are not automatic servants or automatic slaves. This does not just help women, it helps men, men who are also married and have kids, right? So why don’t we do that? So it helps everyone you know, but just the assumption that women are caretakers is the reason why this is happening. You know what, I remember seeing a thing about how much unpaid child labor costs? It was ridiculous –
Zoë: Oh, I bet, I bet it’s soul-crushing.
Doreen: It’s like billions of dollars, billions that would be spent on labour if women were not, if women and girls, were not at home, doing the work for society.
Zoë: Yeah, yeah. No wonder governments, society, they want to keep women in this place.
Doreen: Yeah, it’s free labour.
Zoë: So then you have to tell me, Doreen, about the amazing project that you’ve created – The Girls Like Me. I want to know, what brought you – tell me a bit about it, and what brought you to create that?
Doreen: Okay, so basically, The Girls Like Me is a space for women. It’s a wellness space, it is a humorous space, it’s a learning space. So we, my sister and I, wanted to create a space where we could just be free, saying what we wanted and explore ideas that are unorthodox, that are not within what people expect women to feel or say. And I, as you know, I’m Nigerian, and my country has a lot more conservative ideas around womanhood, and I grew up there and felt the restriction of it. And even moving here, I still felt restricted by it somewhat. And it took some kind of mental unlearning to completely free myself to live my life how I wanted to, without feeling judged by even the conditioned thoughts I’d taken away with me from childhood. So to release myself of those thoughts, to release myself of those ideas, and to completely accept myself for who I was, it took time for me to get there, even though in my own estimation and understanding, from the time I was a kid, I was a feminist – even though I didn’t know what the word meant. So I decided that, at the time that I created The Girls Like Me, there seemed to be only one idea of a Nigerian woman. And it was very vocal, this idea, it was very judgmental, anything that went against that. I would have friends who were doing amazingly well, who were doctors, who would be like, “I don’t even know if I should celebrate my birthday anymore. Because there’s no point”. Everybody would be like, “What am I celebrating? I’m 28. And I’m single. I shouldn’t even -” You know, that level of lessening, like, “No, you can’t even enjoy yourself anymore. Because you think that’s all, because there’s no man beside you. Your life is no -” People were legitimately depressed about it. And I know that it’s not even just a Nigerian thing, this is just – a thing. So, for me, I hated it so much. I hated it so much. I hated that people’s lives seem so linked to having a partner, being a mom, that’s it. And you would see people that you admire, and you love, and who are happy – happy, happy people suddenly enter that cycle and start to even hate themselves. And like, it didn’t make any sense. You understand what I’m saying? So, to me, I was like, there needs to be something that basically creates a criticism of that idea. That says, I love me, I love me alone. I love me, if I’m a partner, I love me if I’m just dating casually – I love me, regardless. You know, if you connect to what you’re meant to do, and connect to your purpose in life, whatever it may be, however, huge, medium, or even mediocre, that’s fine. Your purpose in life is that – it’s not to go be partnered immediately or go get two children or… It’s not anything, just you, right? And so I just wanted to create a space where people were more focused on that, on the inward, so that they’re not so absorbed and distracted by the outward. Because when you’re distracted by the outward, you live for other people’s approval, which means that you’re never even questioning what you’re allowing into your own life. And so, I thought it necessary, and my sister did as well, to just create a space where we were, amplifying voices who said things that were within our own philosophy, and also putting our own philosophy out there. So we’re having discussions, even in a humorous way. And, you know, you notice with our graphics, they’re very bright. And that’s just like a thing that we also do on purpose, actually, because, you know, it’s drawing you in, into thinking, “Oh, this is just girl boss, you know, blah, blah stuff”, but it’s really sometimes very heavy material. And we are trying to do that also even a little ironically, because there’s an idea of like, things that are, like, pink or whatever. This is my own criticism. I asked this question one time on my Twitter, “What’s your internalized misogyny?” Everyone has something. My own something is that I’m very critical of the woman who’s obsessed with marriage, guy, pink, you know, “I’m just very girly”… So I wanted to criticise my own self by making my thing very girly. I’ll say that there’s even strength in that, too. There’s nothing wrong with anything that any of us like, as women, there’s nothing to criticise. We are just our own selves. You know, when we look at another woman and say, “Oh, she’s this kind of way”, you’re feeling superior, but that’s your ego at that moment. And there must be some kind of inferiority if you can’t allow another woman in front of you to be herself, something in you is threatened, you know what I’m saying? So, I’ve gotten to a place where I just embrace everybody’s own individuality. In fact, I shine more when I see you being yourself. So that’s the just the general purpose of The Girls Like Me, is to just, it’s not about me, it’s – The Girls Like Me means the girl like you, the girl like me, the girl like her, the girl like she, the girl like everybody, everybody’s own version is there. So that’s what it means.
Zoë: Oh, it’s such an amazing space. Thank you. It kind of radiates positivity, empowering women. And you know, everything you’re saying is just, it’s so empowering for women to hear and we need it, we need it. So, you know, I hope everyone listening goes and checks out your incredible project, The Girls Like Me, because you are doing amazing things. And it was such a wonderful time to talk to you. So thank you.
Doreen: Thank you, Zoe, and I’m so appreciative of this space, I am looking forward to just continuing to listen to stories of women who are childfree like us. So this is just everything. And congratulations, because this is a huge space, by the way. And you are going nuclear with it, period. Period!
Zoë: I mean, we just need to get ourselves out there, right. We just get the childfree women out there. Like you said, community is so important. And this is one thing that you know, childfree women – when our friends have kids, we start to lose those relationships or they change.
Doreen: Yes, they become awkward.
Zoë: Yeah. And we need to be able to maintain connections, and this is what I’m realising now, with this project, just being able to know that you’re not alone. There are thousands, millions of us out there. We just need to be able to connect to each other, and having this chance to connect with you, Doreen, was so incredible. And I just, I am so grateful for this project, to be able to, bring me to meet women like you. You know, it’s amazing.
Doreen: Thank you so much. Thank you so much.