Are you a woman who is not a mother? How do you label that? Do you know a woman who is not a mother? What term do you use for her, and is there implied judgement in it?
This is a space where words matter.
In recent years, the terms ‘child-free’ and ‘childless’ have become frequently used to describe women without children, with each carrying their own connotations.
The term child-free describes a woman who has made the decision not to have children. In most cases, they have evaluated the pros and cons of having children and determined that having children is not for them. Essentially, they are child-free by choice.
On the other hand, the term childless describes a woman who wanted to have children but was not able to, due to circumstance. This can happen for a number of reasons, including infertility, the loss of a child, or perhaps their life never followed a path that enabled them to have children. The decision is out of their hands.
As you can see, there is a distinction between being child-free and childless – and the difference matters.
A term that feels appropriate
Judy Graham, counsellor and founder of WomenHood, a specialist support service for Australian women who are childless by circumstance, told SHE DEFINED women have claimed language “that reflects their experience and we should listen to that”.
“Childless is generally used by women who didn’t choose or plan to not have children, and child-free is used by women who decided against motherhood. However, there are nuances. Within the childless realm, some women use ‘childless not by choice or involuntary childlessness’.”
Graham said a woman adopts a label depending on what she needs in her life.
“She finds a term – often when seeking out other women like her – that accurately reflects how she feels. You need words to search for information or groups, and as you use them you see other words and you have to ask yourself, is that me?”
Graham said some women change their language later – a woman who has described herself as childless can, after she has processed her grief and “come out the other side”, switch to using the term child-free as a truer description of where she is and how she feels now.
“Sometimes as women get older, they realise a freedom they enjoy, allowing time for self-care or travel, and the child-free term feels appropriate for them,” she said.
While Graham works with women who are involuntarily childless, she is equally adamant that women who identify as child-free raise their voices and have their stories heard too.
“There is an ever-growing number of child-free women and they are speaking up more and more about why they (voluntarily) made that choice,” she said.
“Often the term sparks judgement from others. Many women have endured being labelled selfish or somehow deviant for straying from the norm.”
Being child-free or childless is a ‘multi-faceted issue’
American writer Kate Kaufmann lamented in a blog post Words, Words, Words that the only words to describe a woman who hasn’t had children are negative, including labels like “Barren. Child-free. Childless. So much judgment implied by those terms. Non-mom, woman without children, nobody’s mother,” she wrote.
There are also those who are undecided about having children, and Kaufman said many women, herself included, “straddle the space” in between childless and child-free.
“The less versus free suffix can depend on how we view our current life situation and the subject under discussion,” she wrote.
“I suspect mothers will always outnumber non-moms. But with the worldwide increase in those who don’t have children, it would be helpful to find better vocabulary that describes us less negatively. In the meantime, if we recognise there are pluses and minuses in having kids, as well as not, maybe the negative tone will lessen some.”
New York based writer Chanel Dubofsky warns “to get what we need”, both terms – child-free and childless – must be destigmatised.
“And we have to understand that they are different, and have separate and distinct implications in our society,” Dubofksy said.
Graham agrees that destigmatisation is a must.
“We live in a very pronatalist society and some people judge those – whether childless or child-free – who don’t conform to that,” she said.
“What others should bear in mind is that regardless of the terms women use, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all. It is a complex and multi-faceted issue and all the stories of how women came to be childless or child-free are as individual as the women themselves.”
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 24 per cent of Australian women will never have children, and child-free homes will overtake the number of households with children by 2031.
It is up to these women to define who they are, and Graham urges parents not just to listen to the words these women use, but also their own language.
“When you meet someone don’t ask ‘do you have children?’ as a starting point for getting to know them. And if the subject comes up at a later point, listen to the words used by the woman as means of understanding where she is at.”
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on August 16, 2020 but has since been updated to include new content.