- People without children may struggle to survive in a natalist world.
- Natalism can render individuals without children invisible.
- Natalism holds no space for those without children.
I am childless not by choice. That’s not easy in a natalist world.
Never heard of either of those terms? Well, you have now.
Childless Not by Choice
The growing childless not by choice (CNBC) community is probably the largest group you’ve never heard of. Just go to Instagram, search any version of that label or acronym, and there we are.
CNBC means just what it says: It describes individuals who don’t have children and that wasn’t their choice. It doesn’t mean that everyone who is CNBC has experienced infertility, but a lot have. It doesn’t mean that everyone who is CNBC has undergone fertility treatments, but a lot have.
In my case, I’m CNBC due to severe endometriosis and endometrial cancer. But think of the various reasons someone who wanted children might not have them: systemic racism, financial limitations, health issues, partnership status—the list is endless. That’s CNBC. It’s not a monolithic group, but it is a group of people who share a common, painful experience that renders them invisible.
Whether by choice or not by choice, not having children in a natalist society is nearly impossible to navigate. There just isn’t room for us.
Natalism is, essentially, the promotion of childbearing. It’s when having children is the norm. Don’t have kids? You’re not normal. Welcome to life in the U.S. and most other countries.
“But Not Every Space Is Natalist!”
Yes, in my career I’ve been surrounded by enthusiastic academics and activists for whom a woman wanting children is utterly horrendous. Focus on your career, be proud that you don’t have kids, and for goodness sake, at least don’t admit that you want them.
While there are pockets here and there that both honor people without kids, women in particular, and in some cases shame women for wanting and/or having kids, these are bubbles in an overall context of natalism. Even in academia, natalist culture is the norm:
- At a psychology department meeting, a fellow professor (a man) asked me if I had kids. When I said no with a neutral affect, leaving all emotion out of my voice, he responded, “Don't say that! You don’t know that you won’t have them.”
- In a Ph.D. student orientation, the dean told us all that we have to make sure we spend time with our kids. “You had them so you could spend time with them,” she said, followed by a long conversation about the importance of our families (meaning our partners and our children).
- A campus on which I work refused to remove me from the Mother’s Day distribution list, even though HR agreed the messaging and event were both exclusionary and “aggressive.”
- A student asked me if people are infertile because it’s nature’s way of saying we shouldn’t spread our DNA; that we have no value.
If you belong to this community, I’m here to tell you that you are gaining visibility and there is now space for you in a traumatically natalist world. You are, truly, not alone.
While this article isn’t about assistive reproductive technologies, it’s important to note that experts like Dr. Aimee Eyvazzadeh assert that such treatments are traumatic. Eyvazzadeh, in her popular podcasts, has indeed stated outright that IVF causes trauma. Period.
Additionally, anyone and everyone who addresses the mental health aspects of infertility is astutely aware of, and usually shares, research confirming that an infertility diagnosis is just as traumatic as cancer and HIV diagnoses.
Again, not everyone who is without children has undergone fertility treatments. And they don’t have to have done so to experience what can seem like insurmountable trauma. Trying to survive within a context of natalism is like trying to survive in a world without gravity; it’s a world that is not made for you.
We know from psychological research that just because a person is aware of an issue, that doesn’t mean they’ll do anything about it. Awareness does not translate to behavior change. A common statement you’ll find in any introductory social psychology textbook is something like, “Attitudes follow behavior.” The central tenet is that if you can get someone to change their behavior, that will change their minds.
That being said, when issues like natalism are so deeply engrained in a culture that barely anyone sees them, maybe it’s time for a bit of awareness. Natalism is profoundly embedded in today’s world. If we want to make room for everyone, if we want to ensure psychological health and well-being, we need to hold a spotlight to it and a mirror to ourselves.
One of the cruelest statements ever posted about me was, “She hates kids.” That was posted as I was going through my first embryo transfer failure, having just lost two embryos.
We all need to make room in our lives, and in the world, for people who don’t have, can’t have, and/or don’t want children. This requires checking our own natalism and working toward a world in which there’s a place for people without kids. Yes, some people are happily child-free. Others aren’t. Either way, they’re all struggling to exist in a world that tells them they don’t belong here.
Being there for someone trying to navigate a natalist world means being less natalist yourself. Do you assume that everyone has or wants kids? Do you assume everyone has the ability to have kids? Do you think that people who don't have kids must hate them? Do you assume everyone without kids is devastated about it? Do you talk about your kids all the time, in all of the spaces, to all of the audiences?
A natalist culture encourages its members to do the above, but if even a few of us start acknowledging natalism in our own behaviors, in our workplaces and other environments, and check ourselves when we find ourselves perpetuating it, then maybe, just maybe, there will be more room for us all.
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