You know that old nursery rhyme about kissing while sitting in a tree? First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage. I remember singing it a lot in my childhood—although at the time we were all way too afraid of cooties to actually kiss anyone.
Later, I watched as several of my best friends got engaged, married, and pregnant within a few years. Some repeated the process. I am so happy for these women, and I love spending time with their kids. But I may well choose not to follow in their footsteps.
It’s a scary thing to admit. Even as record numbers of US adult women are child-free (47.6% between the age of 15 and 44, according to the US Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey), the idea that a woman would opt out of motherhood remains something of a taboo. Conventional wisdom still considers becoming a mom the logical, traditional next step for women after they get married. Women who choose to buck this trend are viewed with confusion—and even suspicion.
No one is safe from this judgment, not even A-list celebrities like Jennifer Aniston. The 47-year-old actress and producer, who came to fame as Rachel on the sitcom Friends in the 1990s, has now spent the better half of her life in the harsh Hollywood spotlight, and has become something of a spokeswoman for childless women. The tabloids have spent many years and considerable resources prying into her personal life, and specifically her lack of children.
In an essay penned for the Huffington Post on July 11, Aniston responded to the latest untrue rumor that she was pregnant, and offered a fiery and at times powerful rebuttal to the idea that any woman is somehow incomplete without a child:
We are complete with or without a mate, with or without a child. We get to decide for ourselves what is beautiful when it comes to our bodies. That decision is ours and ours alone. Let’s make that decision for ourselves and for the young women in this world who look to us as examples. Let’s make that decision consciously, outside of the tabloid noise. We don’t need to be married or mothers to be complete. We get to determine our own “happily ever after” for ourselves.
Aniston may be an imperfect messenger for body positivity tips—with her stick-thin physique, pale skin, and perfect hair she’s the walking embodiment of traditional beauty standards–but she has been an effective and prominent advocate for childfree mothers for many years. In 2015 she told Allure that she didn’t “like [the pressure] that people put on me, on women—that you’ve failed yourself as a female because you haven’t procreated. I don’t think it’s fair. You may not have a child come out of your vagina, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t mothering—dogs, friends, friends’ children.”
There are in fact many good reasons why women might choose not to have children. While we have made strides to try and close the wage gap, women still struggle to achieve pay equity in the workplace. Even if they do, they may face bias from employers who don’t want to pay for maternity leave and who assume children will make mothers less reliable or less dedicated to the company. This so-called “motherhood penalty” also affects pay. Add in kid-specific expenses like childcare and education, and suddenly not having kids seems like “the rational decision,” as Mic’s Liz Plank once put it.
And for all the women who choose not to have kids, there are many others who simply are unable to. As a lesbian woman, my options are significantly curtailed—having a child will require additional planning and logistics, not to mention money.
But just as importantly, female virtue should not be measured by our ability or willingness to bear offspring. As Catherine Mayer wrote in TIME, ”to abjure [motherhood’s] joys is to call into question your capacity for unconditional love, selfless care for others, dedication to the wellbeing of future generations and service to your country.” It’s 2016 and Manifest Destiny is a thing of the past—there’s nothing patriotic about childbirth anymore.
Perhaps the most pernicious argument is this idea that you can only understand true love when you parent a child. This just isn’t true. That’s why I liked Aniston’s point about determining our own “happily ever after.”
There is no universal metric for love, and no threshold for it either. You can love your partner deeply and completely even without kids. (In fact, some research suggests adding kids makes married couples in the US less happy.) You can also ditch the whole nuclear, heteronormative thing and find fulfillment in your relationships with friends, with your career, or with your cat. Who cares!
Love is love is love is love, no matter who you give it to.