“I’m really, really living for the first time.”

Kate, Germany

We are Childfree started way back in 2017, as an intimate portrait series shot in my home studio in Berlin, Germany. One of my first subjects was Kate, a good friend and great supporter of this project. We met through expat blogger community (very 2010s!) and found common ground in the experience of moving abroad and having our eyes opened to a different way of living. Join Kate at full health for the first time, finally living a full, fulfilled childfree life.

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, teenagers babysat all the time, but not me. I never sought it out, and I never thought, “I can’t wait til I have kids of my own”.

When I was nine, my parents adopted my brother, because they really wanted more children and couldn’t conceive again after having me. My brother isn’t any less my brother because we don’t share DNA. I learned early there are alternatives to giving birth to your own children, so I didn’t grow up with a conventional childbearing mindset. 

Every now and then, my mom will make a comment about grandkids, but she’s fully supportive. She knows the kind of person I am, and knows I’m making the choice that’s right for me. When my brother settles down, he’ll probably have kids. He was always loving and caring, always helping the younger kids around the neighbourhood; he has that innate thing that I never had. 

Growing up, I didn’t even think I would get married. When I did meet my husband, it definitely challenged my idea of what I thought my future could look like. We talked about having kids, but in an abstract, maybe-one day way. Neither of us was like, “Oh my god, I love kids!” And then life started to happen: We moved to Germany and started travelling and doing all the things we wanted… and we started rethinking. We realised that we weren’t in love with the idea of having children; it just wasn’t part of all of the possibilities we saw unfolding in front of us.

We left America at about the same time that our friends started having kids. It feels expected, once you reach a certain age there. You see it happening: get the house, start the family, and do the things you’re supposed to do. Even if you don’t feel that particular pressure, it’s like you’re on autopilot. Moving over here was the best thing for us, because it made us question those things: Do we really want to have a house we can’t afford? Do we want to be strapped down with kids? Not necessarily.

Almost no one we know here in Berlin has kids. I don’t know if it’s because we had subconsciously made that decision ourselves before we arrived, that the city attracts people of a certain mindset, or if it’s a factor of the environment… But we’ve also gravitated towards younger people, some who aren’t even thinking about marriage yet – to just don’t want to. A few years ago, I was out with some roller derby teammates ramp skating at a park and mentioned my husband, and they were like, “you’re married?!” I just thought, oh my god, I’ve been married for seven years – I’m so old! I was just coming from a different place. 

From when I moved to Germany in 2009 up until about four years ago, I didn’t have the health to hold a job, to fully take care of myself. I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2014, and I’m sure the onset was back in my late teens. I was anaemic for years, and that was just the start of it. I was always exhausted, and I struggled with depression and all the things that come from being malnourished, because the unknowing gluten consumption damaged my intestines and I couldn’t absorb any nutrients from what I ate.

All through my twenties – between an undiagnosed autoimmune disease and running myself ragged with the pace of life in the Bay Area – I didn’t have the well-being to do all the things I wanted to be doing. I feel like finally, now, in my late-thirties, I’m living a full life. I had this epiphany: This is what it feels like to be strong and healthy! 

I started running on the treadmill at the gym – something I’d never been able to do for longer than a few minutes – and even took up roller derby for a year and a half. I’ve always loved skating, and I wanted to play ice hockey in high school, but my mom wouldn’t let me. Derby was this great positive thing, and sure, there are risks involved, but the fun and the enjoyment and the love that I got from it – you can’t beat that. I’m really, really living for the first time, and that’s what I want to focus on – my life, and all the things that I didn’t get to do. If that’s selfish, then I don’t think that’s necessarily a negative thing.

Celiac is hereditary, and autoimmune diseases also run in my husband’s family. His youngest brother was on the list for a kidney transplant for a few years due to his condition, which he thankfully received last year. With all of these additional health concerns stacked against us, why would we even think we were the right people to bring another human being into the world? People say not having children is selfish, but I think it’s selfish to say: I could create this life, which could likely be spent in the hospital and full of horrible pain, but still think, “I want a child, so fuck the consequences!” 

Several years ago, I had a doctor here who asked me, “why are you not going to have children?” And this was at the peak of my illness, when I was quite literally dying. She was telling me about these older patients she has who are lonely, implying I was assigning myself the same fate, but I thought maybe I should worry about my health before I think about making another human. The implication that fear of loneliness should override one’s own wellbeing, physical or otherwise, is appalling. The fact that Germany instituted Kindergeld (child benefit) tells me that women in Germany are choosing careers, having fewer children, and that the country’s trying to do something about that. 

“Having children isn’t the only thing that defines us.”

I feel like you should err on the side of not, rather than erring on the side of doing, especially for something you really can’t change course from. I fucking hate this book, but Eat, Pray, Love includes one of my favourite quotes on the subject: “Having a baby is like getting a tattoo on your face. You need to be really certain it’s what you want before you commit.” 

Things are shifting, I feel like it’s easier for women to make this choice. But I do think there is still this underlying, conservative, straight-up backwards thinking about women, that everyone else is somehow entitled to judge us – or worse, try to make decisions for us – around reproduction. You have to let women make the choices that are right for them and their children, if they choose to have them. It just seems silly that we’re even having this conversation.

Women are choosing themselves and their careers, and the things they want to pursue. And it’s definitely still there, but the stigma of not having children is certainly not what it used to be. Obviously, there are pockets, certain countries and cities where people have more conservative views, but generally speaking, people aren’t shocked by a woman who’s unmarried or doesn’t have kids. Having children isn’t the only thing that defines us.

Photos by Zoë Noble
Words edited by James Glazebrook