One Legacy of the Pandemic May Be Less Judgment of the Child-Free

The coronavirus could change lingering cultural assumptions about what makes for a full and happy life.

The Atlantic

A few weeks into the pandemic, a meme circulated among some of the mothers I follow on various social-media platforms. “Check in on your friends with little kids,” the words in a tiny black serif font on a light-pink background read, followed by a fairly long list of things parents with young kids couldn’t do, including “go for a run by themselves,” “peacefully read a book or start a new project,” and “go to the bathroom by themselves.” This innocuous-seeming post caught my eye because it felt like a cry for help. My friends were getting honest about how hard it is to raise children right now.

I also read it as an indirect plea to not take my child-free privileges for granted. I don’t know what it’s like to parent a young child, let alone parent in a pandemic. I can imagine it, but like most life-altering experiences, it’s one of those things you have to live to truly understand. I’ve always been ambivalent about whether I would have children, but as I entered my early 40s, I started exploring the possibility of having a child on my own. And then the pandemic happened.

The COVID-19 crisis has revealed the brokenness of America’s institutions: police violence and the inhumane criminal-justice system, a medical system that lacks infrastructure and essential equipment, precarious employment for an in-debt population getting by month to month, the toxic effects of globalization and climate change. Add to that list middle-class parenting, long an aspirational experience, whose social protections are now showing themselves to be a bit of a charade.

While the parents in my life have been openly acknowledging the challenges of parenting during the pandemic, my child-free friends have for the first time been sharing that they are relieved they don’t have children. Many of us have been quietly admitting to one another that a decision we’ve often been told we’d regret or should be ashamed of doesn’t seem like the worst decision in the world. These types of conversations have garnered renewed interest in recent weeks, and not just among my friends. An essay series in The Guardian, called “Childfree,” explores that decision, with reasoning that runs the gamut: not enough money, focusing on your own life, the climate crisis, being fine with being alone. The series wasn’t pinned to life amid a pandemic, but it seems especially apt in this moment. The gap between parents and the child-free has also been evident on Twitter. In response to a harmless tweet from a parent about how “non-parents have no idea how hard it’s been” to parent during the pandemic, thousands of people chimed in with some version of: Yes, we do—that’s why we don’t have kids.

That particular exchange has all the supercharged, often annoying characteristics of internet debate, but it highlights a long-standing tension. This is hardly the first moment that the idea of marriage and a baby as the primary path for women has come under scrutiny. Early feminists openly discussed the pressures of motherhood. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique started with “the problem that has no name,” which was the unhappiness of married women stuck at home with children. She wrote, “There is no other way for a woman to dream of creation or of the future. There is no way she can even dream about herself, except as her children’s mother, her husband’s wife.”

That has obviously changed. Nine years ago, Kate Bolick’s Atlantic essay, which became her memoir about single life, Spinster, made waves. In it, she detailed all the ways that women were upending what society expected of them. She wrote, “A childless single woman of a certain age is no longer automatically perceived as a barren spinster.”

Friedan and Bolick were both generally speaking to the experiences of middle-class white women. For less privileged women and women of color, of course, becoming a parent has not always been framed as an empowering “choice” (single Black mothers, for example, are routinely demonized, not heralded, for exercising their choice). Still, I started thinking about these texts again as I reflected on what my friends with children were going through and how, despite our recognition of the oppressiveness of these expectations, they appeared unchanged.

The pandemic has only intensified the pressures that already existed for middle-class parents. Child-care costs were high, but they at least gave you some freedom to work; now families are raising children without the usual support. As schools and day-care centers reopen, they must address new safety concerns. For heterosexual parents, the bulk of the child care falls on the mother. The global health crisis has worsened this sexist division of labor, and the long-term effects could damage women’s careers and, despite the best intentions, become a new norm.

Single parenting during the pandemic is especially hard if you don’t have live-in support, but on some level the assumption is that it is going to be tough—single motherhood, like motherhood generally, has always been seen as a type of all-consuming self-sacrifice. For people who were planning to have a child, those plans might now be on hold; the process of seeking fertility treatments, for example, has gotten more complicated as access to medical procedures for elective reasons has been limited. I certainly felt dissuaded when I heard stories about the difficulty of giving birth right now, and when I called to check in on my friends with young children and saw how they were faring.

Even before the pandemic, the overall trend was that women were delaying having kids. Statistically, educated, urban-dwelling, middle-class women are having children later in life or forgoing having them at all. And while there is a divide along lines of education, class, and race, for younger women, birth rates are down—for many reasons, including financial instability, increased access to contraception, and choosing your career over having a child.

Childless people have long been chastised for being selfish or for not fulfilling a role their body seemingly bound them to. These expectations may have grown less explicit, but the pressures remain. The timid ways my child-free friends are currently having this discussion contrasted to the sharpness of the debates online suggest that, on some level, we haven’t been able to move beyond this impasse. In her 2015 anthology, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, Meghan Daum wrote that the complexities that make people decide to have or not have children are endless. She was frustrated that the conversation “so often pits parents against non-parents and assumes that the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living large on piles of disposable income.” That divide isn’t as obvious today, but it hasn’t entirely gone away.

Not having children hasn’t made the pandemic a yoga retreat for me, exactly. As a child-free woman in my 40s, I’ve been tasked with taking care of my parents. After my father died last year, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Navigating her recovery during the pandemic has certainly given me a taste of what parenting is like—keeping someone safe who is too vulnerable to do things on her own.

Being child-free during the pandemic also means running the risk of losing sight of the bigger picture. Having children can give you a daily, front-and-center reason to fight for a healthy and safe future. Some parents are welcoming the additional time they are getting to spend with their families. In a moment like this, it can be hard to convince yourself to get out of bed. With kids who wake up early, you have no choice.

But for the first time in a long time, I don’t think it really makes sense for me to have children; the future is too uncertain and the current environment too unsafe. Many other child-free people are similarly grappling with a recognition that the structures—social, educational, medical—that we often assume will provide us with support won’t serve us.

As Rebecca Solnit writes in The Mother of All Questions, her book of essays on the barriers to embracing a life without children, “The problem may be a literary one: we are given a single story line about what makes a good life, even though not a few who follow that story line have bad lives. We speak as though there is one good plot with one happy outcome, while the myriad forms a life can take flower—and wither—all around us.” One legacy of the pandemic may be less judgment of the child-free. The life we can all build together after that is yet to be imagined.