In Donna Freitas’ new novel, The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano, the eponymous heroine faces a dilemma. Before she got married, her husband promised her he didn’t want children – but now he’s changed his mind. Could happily childfree Rose will herself to become a mother in order to save her relationship, and if so, what might her life look like? Author Freitas found herself in this very scenario in her real life, and it made her question everything – her lack of a maternal instinct, her worth as a woman, what kind of future she could hope for, without children – or her husband – in it. It was so enlightening to speak to someone who’s looked at the childfree choice from every possible angle, as a scholar of religion and gender studies, and the author of a Sliding Doors-style plot that dares to ask: what if…?
Learn more about Donna at donnafreitas.com and follow her on Instagram at @donnafreitas.writer. If you’re childfree and would like to be interviewed by Donna for an upcoming project, contact her on email@example.com.
Donna: It was like my entire body and my brain just resisted everything to do with this conversation. I have wondered, are some women born without a maternal instinct, are some women born without a biological clock? Because my body sure resisted the idea of becoming a mother, because I did try to change my mind. I tried really hard. I tried for years, because I knew that, it seemed like my marriage wasn’t going to survive unless I did change my mind. And I felt very trapped, I think, and it felt so unfair that everything rested on me, you know, fixing this. Like, “Everything could be great if I would just do this one thing that every other woman does”, like that was sort of how it’s presented. Everybody is like this – why are you the one woman in the world who’s different?”
Zoë: Hey lovelies! Welcome back to We are Childfree, a podcast that celebrates childfree lives and shares our stories. What would you do if you always knew you didn’t want children, married someone who felt the same, and then they changed their mind? That’s the premise of the wonderful new novel The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano, in which the main character gets to live out every possible scenario, to see if motherhood really is for her. It’s also the real life dilemma faced by author Donna Freitas, and the question her marriage came to rest on – would she be able to change her mind, and will herself into becoming a mother? It was fascinating to talk to Donna about this ambivalence, and how it made her question everything – her lack of maternal instinct, her worth as a woman, what kind of future she could hope for, without children – or her husband – in it. Reading The Nine Lives, it’s clear that Donna has scrutinised the childfree choice from every possible angle, and it was only when the novel was published, and she started to hear from women with similar values, that she finally felt seen. This is why we need more childfree stories out there! Donna’s such a thoughtful writer, a scholar of religion and gender studies, and a great conversationalist – I’m sure this will blow your mind like it did mine! Let’s jump in, as Donna Freitas explains all about her new novel.
Donna: So, my novel The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano is about a woman who has always known she doesn’t want children. But her marriage has come to rest on whether or not she’ll change her mind. And so, in some versions of Rose’s life, she has a baby and another version she doesn’t. And we see the consequences and how her life sort of spins out from there, depending on whether she has a child or whether she doesn’t, and it definitely touches on marriage, divorce, career, friendship, Rose’s own relationship with her mother too. And so, it’s really going straight into this issue of not wanting a child, and specifically speaking to the pressures that women experience when they make this choice, especially if they’re vocal about it. And so, when I wrote this book, I really put every verboten thought I had ever had, about this issue about motherhood, about the different ways that people have pressured me and my life. And it felt really good to write Rose.
Zoë: So, it was really a cathartic experience.
Donna: Oh, it was such a cathartic experience. Yeah, when I wrote the book, I wondered if it would never find a home. Way at the beginning of my writing career, someone fairly powerful in publishing, I think this was like 2003, or 2004, I really wanted to write about not wanting children. And I had someone tell me, “No one ever wants to read about that woman.” And I have that, that really stuck in my brain. And I remember I wanted so badly to write about this experience. And then I just set it aside, and I thought, “I can never do this.” And then I just couldn’t let it go. And I knew when I was trying to think about what I wanted to write next, I immediately knew what felt really urgent to me was writing a character who didn’t want children. And I kind of did it as a leap of faith because I just thought I still had that voice in my head that said, “No one wants to read about that woman.” And I also knew that I hadn’t read about that woman in literature and it made me sad that I never saw that person, aside from the sad Mrs. Bates of literature, who are old spinsters we feel bad for. But I decided, “Okay, I’m going to do this anyway. And maybe, maybe no one will buy it.” And so, I really wasn’t sure. So, it felt really good when the book sold. It felt like a huge affirmation.
Zoë: Oh, gosh, I bet. Why is this subject so important to you?
Donna: It’s important to me for all kinds of reasons, I guess. Because, well, because I am one of these women, who chose not to have children. I knew this from a really young age. So, the first time I remember knowing this about myself, I was, I think, around 12. And I didn’t realise until I started saying out loud, just sort of assuming like, “Oh, yeah, I’m not going to become a mother.” I said it without knowing it was a big deal. And then as soon as I started talking about it very immediately, I got pushback from the people around me and the sort of, “No, don’t say that – you’ll change your mind,” and, “You’re too young to know this.” And, but it didn’t matter how old I got, apparently, still, no one was ever going to accept my answer. And, it just felt like I wasn’t, I went through such a journey of feeling broken. “What’s wrong with me? Am I not a real woman?” – all kinds of things went through my head, and it felt I think I had to get old enough to finally, just really assert myself on this before I could write the novel. And it just felt really important to just to speak about it, but I didn’t even really know how important until the book came out. And so many women have been writing to me saying, “I finally feel seen”, and I don’t think I realised how alone I was until the book came out and women started reaching out to me, because I honestly have felt like a freak a lot of my life. And suddenly, there are all these other women who have the same experience.
Zoë: Yeah, I feel exactly the same Donna. When you put your story out there, and it resonates with others, and they tell you their story, and you’re like, “Hang on, I’m not alone.” And all those years that I thought maybe “Am I the only one?” you realise no, you’re absolutely not. And, whoever told you that no one would be interested in this kind of a book, how wrong did they get it? Because, if you exist, and this is your story, there are thousands, maybe millions, of others who are exactly the same as you. So, I’m just so excited that, a book like this is out there, and I can’t wait to read it. I mean, I would love to know how much of you is in the protagonist Rose?
Donna: Well, Rose came out of my… Every novel you write has a relationship to your experience. And then of course, it’s also fantasy, and Rose, she has these different lives that she lives. And they were really, my fantasies when I was agonising over this, because I had, during my 30s, I had tremendous pressure to change my mind. And it was, I mean, to be honest, I look back on my 30s, and I think I went through, like 10 years of torture over this. Because I really just, my marriage came to rest on whether or not I would change my mind. And, and so Rose grew out of that experience. And, she has nine lives, she does all kinds of things that I’ve never done, she says all kinds of things that I’ve never said. But all of her different lives came from the fantasies I used to have, like, I would go to bed at night, and I would be like, “Watch me have a baby”, and then like, “Run away, run away” and abandon my family or like, “Watch me have a baby and have an affair”, like, “Watch me get pregnant and then not be willing to carry the baby to term”, well, “Watch me say no and then lose my marriage”, or “Watch me have a baby and then, we’ll be really happy”. Or, you know what, I just would spin out with all these scenarios. And that’s what I mean, I did feel tortured by it. Because I had a lot of people around me saying that I was going to ruin my life – if I didn’t have a baby, my life was not going to have any meaning. And I think it’s hard to tune all those voices out or especially when everyone around you has kids and you’re the only one. I think it’s really hard to believe yourself, or believe in yourself. And so, Rose grew out of all my fantasies and my fears, and my hopes. And in some ways, there are aspects of her life that are, of course, they’re mine. But there are many, many things she lives that I have never lived. And if only I could have nine lives, that would be great. But it was, I mean, one of the things when I was thinking, “Oh, I want to write about a woman who didn’t want children.” At first, I couldn’t figure out how to write the story. Because I had all these ideas of how I could do it. Because I had had all these fantasies about what might happen if I did this or didn’t do it. And, and it was only when it occurred to me what if I could write all the stories that I sat down to write and it felt really exciting to have all these options, I guess, to sort of play out all these different fantasies and see what might happen. So yeah, so it was a very fun book to write.
Zoë: Yeah, oh, I bet, I bet. I mean, yeah, choice is something that yeah, women we’re often put into a box and it’s like, we can only be this one thing. So, I love this idea of – actually, there are many different paths we can all take, some fit better to other people and, just letting people go with what is true to them and letting them live authentically. It really hurts me to hear how you had people telling you, your life would be ruined if you didn’t have a child. And this – your story is not the only one, this is a running theme for so many women. Was coming from when you were younger, this was from your family or friends or strangers or all?
Donna: Just everywhere. Because, when I was a kid, I really did have this gut feeling that I was not going to do this to be honest. I remember first having the thought that I wasn’t going to be a mother. that I wasn’t going to have kids one day, when I learned about periods. So, I learned about what a period was and I just thought, “Well, that sounds horrific.” And I was a gymnast, also, I was very serious gymnast. And I lived by the beach, and I like to go swimming. And this was just, I was thinking, “Well, this is going to interfere with all the things I like.” And also, my grandmother a couple years before, she had had a hysterectomy. And so somewhere in my, 10-year-old brain, I had internalised the idea that a woman could have all these parts taken out, and then move forward. And I remember thinking very logically, in my 12-year-old self, like, “Oh, this sounds horrible, you can have all these parts taken out and that’s just what I’ll do.” And because, I’m not going to be a mother, I knew this was the logic that my brain used. And I didn’t really know much about bodies. And, that’s the first memory I have of sort of knowing, like, “Oh, I’m not going to become a mother.” And I remember being told that I couldn’t do that. But it was, as I got older, it would come up. People would say, like, when I was 15, or 16, “Oh, someday when you have kids…” And when I was that young, I would say, “Oh, I’m not going to have kids” – I would just reply that way. And this would create a lot of disbelief. And eventually I’d learned to stop saying it. And I kept it to myself, but it was only when I got married, I would say, and people just started assuming I was about to have kids any moment that I began to articulate it again, and really get all this negative feedback. And that was in my late 20s.
Zoë: So then when you met your ex-husband, did you guys have a conversation about your feelings about kids at that point? At what point do you start talking about things like that in your relationship?
Donna: I was actually really upfront, when I knew that my husband and I, my ex-husband, were serious. There was talk of engagement, I must have told him a hundred times like, “Don’t go into this thinking I’m going to come around. I know people assume every woman is going to change her mind and have a child, but I’m not that woman.” And, and so it was, I really thought I had covered my bases. And yeah, and he changed his mind. And I think, in some ways, writing my novel really helped me to forgive him. I think one of the things I had to do when I was writing the novel was really, just really think about, “Okay, what if someone does change their mind?” Kids are a big deal. And they’re one of these big life experiences. And just as a woman, some people do change their mind, some people have ambivalence, and so I had to ask myself, could it be that someone in their 20s could agree to not having children and then in their 30s realise that they can’t live up to that decision? And so, I really tried. I think it helped me to forgive the fact that, but he changed his mind. But I also think about the situation we were in where the second we got married, everyone around us was just pressuring us and, and really talking about how, what would our lives be without children and well, just incredible, incredible pressure and like doomsday sorts of scenarios. And so also, in a way I can understand someone succumbing to that pressure or just really being pushed to change their mind. And so, it was a very hard experience. And I think the older I got, I think in the beginning when I was like in my early 30s, everyone around me really thought like, “Oh, she will change her mind.” And then as I got older, and I was getting into my upper 30s, I think people were like, “Oh, wow, like, she’s not changing her mind – she’s really going to do this.” And then the pressure got even more intense. And that was really hard. And I guess now that I’m way past that, and I’ve sort of gotten out from under all that noise. And I wrote this book, and it came out in the world. I think it’s empowered me to really embrace the fact that like, “Wow, I’m really happy.” I’m so happy that I stood my ground. And I feel like I just really love the way my life is. And it makes me sad that because I think this kind of conversation that we’re having is so new for people to really be open about it in a lot of ways women who feel the way I do or feel the way you do, it’s like, we just have to go into this decision almost with blind faith and hope for the best and hope that everyone around us is wrong. And that makes me so sad and angry, actually, that we don’t really have a lot of models out there for women to look at and say, “Actually, your life could be wonderful if you make this choice.”
Zoë: Absolutely. This is why I think it’s so important to have our stories out there. And you can read how people can be really, really happy and fulfilled without children. But we have this kind of, this this stigma and these myths that are like, the spinster woman, the cat lady. It’s all on women as well. We talk about pressure, I mean, maybe you can talk a bit, how was the pressure on you compared to your, ex-husband, and the differences between how men and women are treated with this?
Donna: I think I remember feeling really frustrated and angry that I had to be the woman in the relationship. I was just fantasising about, “Oh, gosh, if only I had been a man, maybe I would – maybe if it wasn’t my body, I could go along with this.” It was like, my entire body and my brain just resisted everything to do with this conversation. I think I have wondered, “Are some women born without a maternal instinct, or some women born without a biological clock?” Because my body sure resisted the idea of becoming a mother, because I did try to change my mind. I tried really hard. I tried for years, because I knew that it seemed like my marriage wasn’t going to survive unless I did change my mind. And I felt very trapped, I think, and it felt so unfair that everything rested on me, me fixing this that like, “Oh, everything could be great if I would just do this one thing that every other woman does.” That was sort of how it’s presented. Everybody is like, “Why are you the one woman in the world is different?”
Zoë: Yeah, that’s a hell of a thing to have on your shoulders every day. And we live in a society, a pro-natalist society, which you see everywhere. It’s in our culture and our media, our friends, our family, it’s everywhere. There’s pressure. And yeah, it’s really a horrible thing for someone to have to wade through, and it’s interesting to know how many women are conditioned from a young age to think they want children and how many, truly, truly want them because sometimes, I’m not sure of that ratio. I’m really not sure because we have such intense pressure from very young ages, that it’s really hard to tell and I think it’s really, it’s good to kind of come out the other side and go, “No, no, I am happy. I am happy. This isn’t the end of my life.” How have friends or family, how do they treat it now? How do they have they accepted it? Do they go “I’m sorry, I was a dick”?
Donna: I have been thinking a lot lately about the times when I was trying to change my mind. And I would tell friends, “Okay, I’m trying to be open to having a baby.” My close friends never pressured me one way or the other. But I do think about how when I would tell them, “Okay, I’m trying to do this”, I definitely got positive feedback like, “Oh, I’m so glad you’d be such a great mother.” As opposed to you, even though I didn’t get pressure from my friends, I thought a lot about how I didn’t really get much positive feedback either from my friends about this choice. I do have a couple of friends who when I told them, when I was really agonising about this, and I was trying to change my mind, who were like, “Donna Freitas, you know yourself on this”, and they were like, “Don’t do this if you don’t want to.” And I think about those conversations, they stand very large in my mind, I almost have flash memories of them, because I thought, “This person loves me and is trying to affirm to me that they know like the real me”. And I do think that, my friends are happy that I’m happy now, and my ex has remarried and has two beautiful children and is very happy with his choice. And we managed to become friends. And I really value our friendship. And I think it’s sad that we ended up in that kind of a difficult situation. I’m so happy I made this decision. And sometimes I wonder what my friends think about the fact that I’ve started to become so vocal about this. I don’t know. I think some of them are very affirming. And I think people have really strong, it took me a very long time to get to a place where I have been able to say in a public way, like, “Oh, I’m actually really happy with my life. And this was a great decision for me, and it would be a great decision for anybody who feels like, they want to make this choice”. And I actually don’t look out into the future and see doom, I see tons of possibility. I feel really excited about my future. And no one told me that when I was going through this, no one said, “Donna Freitas, one day you’re going to look into your future and see exciting things ahead”. And when I was trying to make myself change my mind, all I could see was doom. All I could see was like, “If I do this, my life is going to be over.” And so yeah, I think the thing that worries me most is that everybody, everybody around me, it’s like, they were trying to make me do something that was so inauthentic to me. And you were saying before about, a range of experiences that women have. And I was writing about this a couple of weeks ago, and I wrote about how, like, if there’s a spectrum of motherhood, just like there’s a spectrum of sexuality, if there’s a spectrum of motherhood and if you were a 10, then that’s the woman who was like born to be a mother. Like, that’s all she’s, which I have friends who like, that’s all they wanted. They grew up thinking about having babies, and that’s wonderful. But if that was a woman who’s a 10, I’m like a zero, or a 1, say. And yeah, I’m sure there’s a lot of women who are 1s or 2s and 3s, who, if we really presented this to women as a choice, they would be like, “Oh, look, so this is another great way I could live my life – awesome, this is what I feel in my gut so I’m now going to do this.” But I think we make it really hard to make this choice. And so, I think the women who do it are the ones who are willing to declare themselves and face judgment. It’s like you have to feel it so strongly in your gut that you’re willing to go into all of that resistance.
Zoë: Absolutely. Yeah, through doing this project, it’s made me stronger in that when someone comes back to me with a comment or a judgement, I know truly, that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this decision that I’ve made. So, it’s like I now have, I’m building armour. When I hear more stories from women, it just builds my armour and I know that no, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. I’m not the problem in this equation, you – the society or people who think that life is one direction, one path and it’s a one size fits all – that’s your mindset. And I don’t have that mindset, I want women who are amazing mothers, who love children, I want them to have that in their life, if that’s what they really want, and I think it would serve all of us if we allowed people to be who they’re meant to be and stop trying to force people into these boxes, where they may just not fit. And that’s absolutely okay. Actually, I wanted to ask you, when you said you were trying to change your mind, how were you doing that?
Donna: I was, I don’t know, I was trying to make myself want a baby.
Zoë: So, it wasn’t anything practical. You’re not like looking at baby photos going, “Okay, I could like this.”
Donna: I did – so, when I was going to write my novel, I knew when I was like, “Okay, I’m going to write a whole bunch of different lives with this woman.” I knew where it would start immediately. And I usually when I write my novels, I usually start from something that’s mine. And that it’s like I think about, I give this experience that I had to my protagonist, and then see what she does with it. So, it’s like you give it away. And what’s fun about fiction is that it’s not your life, like you can start with something that’s your experience, and then let your character go in directions that you never did. And so, one of the things I agreed to do, when I was supposed to be trying was to take prenatal vitamins. This was supposed to be a show of my effort. And it seemed like a small thing. So, like, “Okay, I’m just going to, like, take these vitamins, they’re not bad for me, they’re not going to do anything wrong. They’re full of good things. And I’m going to do this.” And so, my novel actually starts off with a fight about prenatal vitamins. So, Rose and her husband have a fight about prenatal vitamins. And even though I thought, “Okay, I can do this thing. I can take the vitamins”, I resisted those vitamins like they were poison. And I would see the bottle like on my nightstand, and I would want to throw it, and I would want to dump the vitamins in the toilet. I would try to take them. And I would like double over and paint like, I think it was like psychosomatic, I’d be like, “Oh, they make me stomach sick.” And it was like, I had rage at the vitamins. I just like, symbolically, it was like, I really felt like I was injesting poison. And I think that was also the moment when I was like, I couldn’t bear to take the vitamins where I thought, “Oh, you can’t change your mind now, Freitas. You’re like, you just really don’t want this, you can’t even take harmless vitamins”. Um, and so I that was I think that was probably the most specific thing that I agreed to do. And then I just couldn’t bring myself to do what, I think I took like three of them. And then the bottle was full, and I kind of was lying about taking them. And then it was like this deception.
Zoë: Yeah. So, whose idea was it for the vitamins? Was it that you were like, trying to search for things to that that could help you change your mind? Or did your ex, did he suggest things like this?
Donna: I don’t even remember if he came up with it, but maybe he probably did. Maybe he did. And he definitely I remember, he bought them. Because I just thought, “Okay, I’m doing this for you. I’m not buying these things”, because they’re expensive too in the US. They’re very expensive. They’re like, $20 a bottle. And I just thought, “I’m not spending this kind of money on vitamins”. But it seemed like a reasonable compromise. And then because, yeah, it seemed like a really doable thing. But I think psychologically, it wasn’t doable, because I think it just wasn’t doable for me to change my mind. And I was kidding myself. And maybe the two of us were kidding ourselves that we could find a way to compromise on this. But I mean, I look back now and I think it’s sort of funny, like my relationship to these vitamins. But it was a really great place to start Rose, because it was such a married thing to fight about, like vitamins when really you fight about vitamins and really, you’re fighting about your whole marriage.
Zoë: That’s it. It’s the little things when they explode. Yeah, exactly. Tell me a little bit about your childhood then, where did you grow up?
Donna: I grew up in Narragansett on the beach. I had a really lovely childhood and like college experience and I say that partly because I think sometimes people wonder if something terrible happened to you as a child and make you not want… I had a lovely mother, who was very Italian and fed me as much as she could and took me to the beach all the time and was a nursery school teacher.
Zoë: That’s, that sounds idyllic. Yeah, this idea that, you must have been through some trauma to not want children… I had this recent article about We are Childfree came out in the newspaper, and someone emailed me saying, “Wow, you must have had a terrible childhood, you must not have known love”. And I’m just like, seriously, this is what people think in their heads, they truly think there is something abnormal about women like you, and I feel for every person who gets those kinds of comments, and they’re not ready to they haven’t embraced this, because like you had to deal with all of these comments and judgments. And you are kind of unsure about, “Am I the problem here? Is it me?” So, it’s a horrible thing for any person to have to be told the judgment. And I mean, where do you think this comes from? I know, you have a PhD in religion and I wanted to talk to you about, how religion plays into this kind of topic of being childfree and having children, I’d love to get your thoughts on it.
Donna: So, it’s my PhD is actually religion and gender studies, I feel like the gender studies is an important part. Because I think it gave me a framework to question everything and also to question all of the influences. Religion is so influential, and on this particular topic, especially, within Christianity, like, “Women are meant to grow up to be mothers.” That’s your ultimate calling. But one of the things I think is so interesting is that I have a PhD in gender studies, and I still didn’t have a framework to affirm myself on this. Like, it didn’t actually help to counteract all the pressure, actually. Because I do think a lot of our different feminisms, all the different versions of them that we have. And I think, especially in the last 20 years, different feminisms have really worked to affirm so many different identities. That’s where a lot of the conversation is, which is wonderful, but we don’t actually work to affirm this particular identity and I’ve really started to think about it as an identity, I feel like I was built this way. And everything I learned growing up, taught me that it was wrong, and that I should hide it. And I think about all of the mental energy and anguish I went through, trying to defend myself and then also to change myself. And just what I asked myself sometimes – “What if I had had energy to do like, what if I’d taken that energy and done something else with it? What if I could just have been proud of myself as opposed to ashamed or thinking, ‘Oh, I’m so selfish’?” And I’ve actually started to think about how our feminisms kind of take all of us up into our 40s. And then they sort of shift to accommodate all of the issues that mothers face – for good reason, because our society doesn’t support mothers either, even as we push women into that decision – but it really does assume that, it sort of teaches us you can have as much sex as you want, and you don’t have to be married, and you should be free from unwanted pregnancy, but I think it’s still assumes that eventually the pregnancy will be wanted. And eventually you’re going to want that pregnancy and so it also accommodates what happens when you do and I’ve really started to wonder, like, “Why is there this, like, hole, in our feminism?” And what would it mean to respond to that, because I do feel like we have worked so hard to liberate women from so many of these categories and pressures around their bodies, around sex, around marriage, around pregnancy. But we don’t seem to be willing to just go that one little bit. Yeah. And actually, Adrienne Rich in the 70s talked about this issue of motherhood as destiny, and how we have to stop that. We have to sort of untangle our womanhood from motherhood, like motherhood should not be destiny for everybody. And I’m like, “Wow, that was in the 70s. But we still haven’t done that work yet.” So, I’m really interested in doing that work. And I know that you are doing that work with your photography, which is so amazing.
Zoë: Oh, thank you. Yeah, this whole womanhood connected with motherhood. This is in all parts of our lives. It’s what, I don’t know if you had any experience with doctors, for instance. But what I’m hearing from so many women is that doctors do not believe them, when they say they don’t want children, they will not give them sterilisation procedures. So, it’s like we have this hidden thing going on, where we actually don’t have bodily autonomy, even in so called progressive countries, because womanhood is tied to motherhood. And doctors truly believe that it’s in our genetic makeup that when we say we don’t want children, we don’t even know our own minds, we will change our minds. And it’s incredibly frustrating. And those are the stories that hit me the most actually, when, women can’t, they can’t manage their reproductive health or their health in general, when doctors are putting them in a box and saying, “You’ll change your mind. So, we’re not going to even talk about sterilisation.” Or, “If you have endometriosis, we’re not going to talk about hysterectomies, you’re going to live in pain – we’d rather you live in pain for years and years and years than remove your fertility”. So, I think, yeah, it’s true. You’re right. It’s such an important thing, and to have it be talked about in the 70s. And so many years later, why is the progress so slow, do you think?
Donna: I don’t know. Actually, I’ve really been thinking about that. Because well, so before we started recording, I had been telling you that so many women, after having read my novel, have been reaching out to me and saying things like “I finally feel seen.” And you’re just writing these like, long emails, just like beautiful emails that make me think, “Okay, if I never read another book, or whatever, this book, I’m so glad I wrote this book.” And then, because I wrote this essay in The Times of London that also made all these women reach out and, and because I’m also a researcher, because I have my PhD, and I’ve done these national studies about x, y, and z over the years. I just thought like, “How have I not done this study before?” And, I started interviewing women. And I’ve probably interviewed about 40 women now. And one of the things that has shocked me is, so the first woman I interviewed told me the story about how she knew since she was like, 15, that she never wants children. And I was like, “Huh, interesting” because I have never met another woman like me, who knew at the time, she was very young. And I was like, “Isn’t that crazy? There’s another woman like me!” Even when I went into these conversations, I kind of assumed that the reasons women would have would be very diverse as in – children are too expensive, so that’s why I’m not having them. Or I never found a partner. So that’s why I’m not having them. Or climate change. that’s not why I’m having them. And if I, let’s say, 39, out of the 40 women I’ve interviewed so far, have a story like mine: “I knew from the time, like I’ve always known”, and one after the other. And then they’ll say things like, “Oh, well, when people ask, I’ve learned to say, ‘Oh, climate change’,” or ‘Oh, I couldn’t have kids, so that’s why I don’t have them’, because if I tell them the truth, they won’t understand and then they’ll just call me selfish”. And so women learn to hide the fact that, we just sort of know this is who we are. And if we don’t, we get shamed for it. And I’ve really started to think about how this is an incredible failure in our conversation about women – like, what is going on here that we are so unwilling and unable to accept the idea that a woman, her only reason for not wanting children may simply be it’s not for her, she just doesn’t desire them? She doesn’t have the desire. If a woman doesn’t want kids or doesn’t have kids, we want her to have a good reason and lack of desire is not a good enough reason. And I have been puzzling about this, like what is going on in, and I think this is also coming from, this is not just like a Republican issue or like an issue on the right. I think women experience pressure and judgment from people on the left, just as much as and I don’t know, I want to fix it.
Zoë: Yeah, same. So I’m the same as you with the women who contacted me, it’s the same the majority have been, they always knew from a young age. And, that tells me that some of us just know, we just know. And what hurts me is to think of all of the women, hundreds of years ago, or even 50 years ago, who weren’t able to even make this choice, they just have to have children. And what comes with that. So, I feel very privileged, we are privileged to be able to be able to make this choice, but you’re right, it’s like we are still at a place where we have to have a reason. And it’s easier for people to understand if you say, “I’m worried about the future of the planet” rather than you just say, “I just never wanted them”. And that is a real shocker to me, because I just, I just don’t know, how long is it going to take for society to see that we are just all very different people, if now in 2021, women still can’t just say, “I just don’t want them” without, “You’re selfish”, “You’re going to be alone.” Why? And it’s really sad that in 2021, we still have this and I’m just like, I’m waiting for this to speed up so we can get through. But it does seem to be like the last taboo, women who do not want children feels like the one of the worst things that you can say out loud. And if you have friends or family that support you, at least you have that cushion around you, but if you don’t, and you’re receiving the messages, and I’m receiving them from the women all over the world who they don’t have that cushion, and they are completely isolated, and I just hope we can help them. I mean, do you have any words of advice for anyone who’s particularly, going through what you went through with a partner about, you were really clear to your partner about who you were, but it wasn’t enough for him? He didn’t, he still didn’t really maybe believe that you were being honest. Do you think that’s what he thought you – you would change your mind?
Donna: I think he did believe me. I think he didn’t know that he would change his mind or that the pressure around him would. Both our lives changed a lot during the early years of our marriage, and he switched careers. And I think in some ways, it is one of those big things and you can promise one thing in your 20s and feel differently in your 30s. I know people do change their minds. But I don’t think he knew that he would change his mind or he realised how much pressure he would get or like, there would be around us on our marriage, for us to do this one thing and so I think some of it was that but I think what I wish for and I know what I am doing, like what I’m trying to do with these interviews and what I think you’re doing with your photography, and this podcast is, I wish that there had been a woman in my life who was older, who could have said, “You are going to be okay. In fact, you are going to be great. If you stay true to yourself, like you are going to have your happiness, you know yourself Donna Freitas, you know yourself, listen to yourself, because you’re a smart woman, and go with your gut and just trust that you know what’s best for you and that your happiness depends on you sticking to your beliefs on this one.” I wish I could have looked into our culture, and seen a whole bunch of really cool women, and been like, “Oh, my life could look like that.” And I because I do think still women who make this choice are very hidden from us. And blind faith is scary. It really did feel like I was leaping into the abyss and hoping I didn’t crash. And now that one of the weird things about, I’m basically to the age where most people assume that like children are not in the cards for me anymore. I’ve wasted my eggs or whatever, like they’re no longer viable. And to be honest, it feels like the biggest relief. Because I feel like finally, people may feel bad for me or sad for me or think I’m a villain or whatever. But I do not care. I just feel like I got out unscathed. I feel excited about my future. And I guess for me, that is the best thing I can be for women who are younger than me who feel this way as to reassure them that actually like, “No your future could be wonderful if you make this choice.” And I think we have to spend some time in this culture really looking at why are we so fearful of women making this choice, because I do think it’s like a pathology. Now that I look back on what people said to me and what I experienced, I think this is a pathology, it’s like people around me, not only couldn’t they hear what I was trying to tell them about who I was or what I believed about myself. But they refuse to hear it to the point where they were – and they needed to change me to the point where they were – willing to destroy me almost like, because I think of it as like, it almost felt like they were like someone was trying to destroy me or destroy my life or erase everything I knew I was. And that they were doing it as though it was nothing, like casually. And I want us as a culture to, to look at that. And I think it has to be, I think we have to do two things. I think people like you and me and all the rest of us, we have to be there for each other and show each other that, give each other support and also provide models for life so that women who are in their 20s and feel this way can look ahead and say, “Oh, I could be in my 50s and my 60s and living my best self.” But I also think the other piece is I think we have to get everyone else who’s not making this choice to really look inside themselves and ask them, “What are you so afraid of? What about us scares you so deeply or repulses you so much that you are willing to casually pressure us to the point where you’re essentially asking us to give up what we know about ourselves in order to become like you?”
Zoë: Yeah, yeah. Maybe it’s that they would like their life choice affirmed. And it’s about making sure everyone around them is going to be following the same path, we’re on the same path. We’re going to, get the marriage, get the child, have the house, have the job and just follow that path. And if you deviate, especially as a woman, and it’s almost like “Hold on, we can’t control – you hold on.” Maybe there is this kind of fear, like you said about the childfree choice and what women are doing with their time and their money? “What are they going to do?!” Do you feel that as well?
Donna: You know what? One of the things that has been so joyful for me about interviewing all of these really amazing, interesting women is that a lot of them – and this is why maybe people don’t like it when women make this choice – a lot of them talked about how they’re single, because like, they just feel free, like they don’t have a biological clock, or they don’t hear one. And so, they’re like, “Maybe I’ll meet someone when I’m 65 and get married.” There’s just this sort of total sense of freedom in their life. Whereas, I know a lot of people, like a lot of my friends who wanted children very strongly felt like in their 30s if they weren’t married, they had to find a partner. So, I think there was a sense of freedom around relationships, and also a lot of the women that I’ve spoken to, that they may be American, but they’re like living in London, or like Paris – they’re expats, because they’re like, “Oh, I love to travel and I realised I can just live somewhere else.” Or, “I’m in this career, I can have a more itinerant career because I’m not worried about having, supporting, a child or supporting children and sending them to college”, and even their relationship to their money and their career, I think is different. So, I just, I see women who feel like they have a lot of options and freedom in this way. That’s really exciting. And, for me, this isn’t about one life is better than the other or, pitting – it makes me sad that journalists would ask you, “Aren’t you pitting women against each other?” Because I feel like that’s such the wrong way of thinking about it. I feel like this is about teaching girls, as they grow up, that there are many different valid life paths. And as a girl or a woman, one of the things, one of the questions, one of the biggest choices you’re going to face in your life is whether or not to become a mother. And it’s a choice. And one of the things that’s been striking to me, and I feel like this happened in my own life, too, but I’ve learned to ask the women I’ve interviewed, “When did you learn that it was a choice not to become a mother?” Because a lot of the women didn’t realise it was a choice until they were in their 30s. And I had this one woman who, she told me the story of how like she was the oldest of 13. And so, I think it was six half siblings and five, she had like five sisters or something. And she said she knew she knew that she didn’t want children. But she thought motherhood was an obligation. So, when people asked her, she would just say she would adopt because that was like in her head. That was like the only palatable alternative. But then, when she was getting older, she saw a Margaret Cho skit. And I guess Margaret Cho, I came up to look this up, she has a skit where she talks about her ovaries are filled with sand. And I guess, she didn’t want to become a mother. And she said that’s how she learned that she didn’t have to become a mother. And she said, she watched that skit, and it felt like this revelation and her life and this like light bulb went on and her and she felt this huge sense of relief. And then she knew, “Oh, I don’t have to do this thing.” But I thought, “Wow, okay. So, you had to learn that from Margaret Cho.” Which is great. Like, I mean, Margaret Cho, herself. Sarah Silverman is very vocal lately, you know? I love that they’re out there saying these things, because we need to learn this from somewhere. But we should be teaching this to kids, we should be teaching, there are valid options either way – motherhood or not motherhood, they’re both valid. We shouldn’t have to just assume, “I have to do this thing”, until maybe in our 20s, or 30s, or even our 40s, when we realise, “I can’t do this thing”, and then feel like a failure or, “Oh, my gosh, I actually have a choice. And now I’m going to make it.”
Zoë: Absolutely. Oh yeah. I’m trying to think when I realised that was a choice. I mean, I think I was very lucky in that my family supported me. And because I moved to Berlin in my 20s, which is a relatively progressive, alternative city. So different ways of life are kind of accepted here. So, I was very, very, lucky in that respect. So, I guess I never had to think of whether this was a choice growing up. But when I think about back to my childhood, no one ever said – I always heard, “So when are you having kids?” when I got married. “So, when are you going to have children?” No one ever said, “Hey, so what are you going to do with your career?” or, “What are your plans for the future?” It was always “When are you going to have children?” And you’re right, if we can, we can really instil in those raised as girls that they do have a choice, there’s going to be so much less heartache and feeling alone and feeling isolated and feeling like there’s something wrong with you when that absolutely isn’t. So, I’m so excited that you’re interviewing women as well. Is it going to be another book? what’s the plan for it?
Donna: I hope so. That is definitely my plan. And I it feels like a bit of a feminist manifesto book, because I really have started, I was thinking about how in my 20s I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique like I think maybe a lot of women in my generation read in their 20s, at least if they’re American – it’s like one of these feminist classics. And I felt like, “Oh, Betty Friedan is talking to me”. Because she’s like talking about all the problems with being a mother and like, the sort of like unnamed despair, basically. And “the problem with no name” is what she calls it and I kind of thought, “Oh, Betty Friedan, you’re talking to me, like you’re talking to me, you’re telling me it’s okay that I don’t want to do this thing.” Yeah. But I think about how like those books are, that book came out in the 50s, Adrienne Rich’s came out, it wasn’t like feminists weren’t questioning this. And they were questioning in a time when you weren’t even supposed to question marriage or sex outside of marriage or abortion. And somehow, I feel like they held out a baton, and we didn’t take it, and I feel like, “Okay, I’m reaching for the baton, ladies.” I want to figure this out. And so, it feels like a really important project. And I hope I find a home for it. So, but it’s been so good to do it and to meet all these amazing women. And it’s also kind of reassuring that, to hear all these stories of things that people have said to them that I’m like, “Oh, okay, this is all of us”. And, they were joking about how people, women, and they’re like, who are like 42, or 43, people will say to them now, “There’s still time.” And I like now the question for me is more like, “Why don’t you have kids? Why did you have kids? Why did you?”
Zoë: Basically, the judgment never ends. Let’s say that, women are judged for every decision they make. If they have one child, they’ve got to have two; if they’re a mother, they have to be perfect. And if you don’t have children, then, “What is wrong with you?” It’s a frustrating process, you hope that the questions can go away. They just change they change into a different kind of judgment. You’re right.
Donna: I do think that now though, now, when I get the question, “Why didn’t you have kids?” I’m able to, it doesn’t feel so – it doesn’t land the way it used to. Before it was so destructive. And I think now I’m in a place where I feel like I’ve finally embraced like, the person that I am. And I feel so confident in that person. I feel so confident in my decision, but I was so uneasy, or unsure, because of all the pressure and the feedback I was getting, when I was younger and so I just wish that I didn’t have to get into my 40s to feel this way. I wish I could have felt this way in my 20s. Or even in my teens, for that matter. And that is definitely what I wish for. For other women like me and you and I hope that projects like the ones that we’re doing, or novels like mine, or, I don’t know if you’ve read Emma Gannon, like everyone. So, when my novel came out, a bunch of people were like, “Have you read Emma Gannon’s Olive?” And I said, “No.” And then I went and read it. And it was so strange to read another novel, where I was like, “Oh, this is like me.” It’s exciting. It’s like, yeah, well, also, because I didn’t have to write it. I just felt like I was, like, I wrote the novel that I wished I could have read. And it felt so amazing to know that another woman had written a novel that I wish I could have read. So, it wasn’t just on me. So, I feel like these things are really important. And these Instagram sites and these podcasts and these clips from Sarah Silverman and Margaret Cho, like they’re all really important because they affirm this, I think what is considered an unusual choice that some of us make.
Zoë: We are Childfree is hosted by me, Zoë Noble, and produced by James Glazebrook. If you liked this episode, please leave a review on your podcast app, as this really helps other people find us. Head to wearechildfree.com to read more inspiring childfree stories, find out how to share your story with me and to be first to know when the We are Childfree community launches. Speak soon lovelies :)