Written by Abi Symons


Parent or person?

Kim Cattrall recently said she objects to the term ‘childless’. Abi Symons agrees, but what’s the alternative?

female duck swimmingOn BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour* recently, Kim Cattrall took over for one morning and spoke about the term childless, saying, “Child-less. It sounds like you’re less, because you haven’t had a child.”

(* Are you a human reading this? Good, you should listen to Woman’s Hour.)

And she’s right. The term childless is inherently negative. It implies that all sorts of things are less because you lack an offspring. Your choices, your priorities, your entire life are diminished because you have chosen (or perhaps not chosen) not to fill it with a sprog. But does this only come from the collective judgment of other people or are we judging ourselves for our choices too?

Cattrall suggested another option might be the word childfree but she’s not entirely happy with that either. To me at least this is more reminiscent of being carefree, but it still seems to have the ring of no responsibilities to it. And as adults, we have all kinds of responsibilities, some pertaining to children and some not. Supporting ourselves, taking care of members of our family or friends, these are all equally important and have nothing to do with reproducing.

I believe there is actually is a word for someone who doesn’t have a child. It is person.

Of course, regardless of whether you have a child or not you are a person but the ways in which we define ourselves, at least linguistically, seem to be different once a child is involved. Perhaps in other languages this is dealt with more effectively (the example of having 97,845 Inuit words for snow comes to mind) but in English we don’t have a specific, neutral word for an adult who is not a parent.

“It seems absurd that we change the status of someone based on whether they’ve increased the number of people in their household.”

Is this an implication that once you’re a parent, you’re no longer a person? Or are you no longer just a person? If you’re no longer a person, have you been elevated or demoted to parental status? The words we use seem laced with judgment either way.

There is nothing objectively good or bad about having children. It’s not usually a moral choice. There are the rare examples of designer babies, born to save an older sibling’s life, but I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the people who decide they do or don’t want to have a child. The choice to have a child (providing your body is capable of doing so or that you’re approved for adoption) is entirely subjective. You can be a good or bad parent but it cannot be good or bad to be that parent.

People seem to become redefined by the presence of children, and I suppose things are redefined. Suddenly your time is not your own in the way it once was. Your day is structured around the eat/sleep/poop/repeat schedule of the tiny human now ever-present in your life. But choosing not to sign up to that should not be stigmatised. People don’t have to have children just because they’ve reached 30 or 35 or 40 or whatever arbitrary age it is we’ve decided is a prerequisite to parenthood.

Equally, there’s nothing wrong with choosing to have children at a young age. Some of us look at young mothers and say they haven’t had the chance to live yet, just like some of us look at an older woman without children and think that it’s a shame she never had kids. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe those young mothers are living the life they’ve absolutely dreamed of. Maybe it was the best thing for the older woman, for her body or mind, not to have kids. Maybe she has health issues or never felt financially secure enough or put other existing people before the potential people she never brought into the world or she just didn’t want them.

“I believe there is actually is a word for someone who doesn’t have a child. It is person.

There are so many reasons that people do not have children and so many ways to be an adult without a child. It seems absurd that we don’t have a defined word for these people. It seems absurd that we change the status of someone based on whether they’ve increased the number of people in their household.

I’m 27 and I don’t have children. My best friend is married and has two kids and she has clearly made the choice to be no less interested in the world outside her children. Choosing to remain a person in her state of parenthood is a decision she made as consciously as she made the choice to have children in the first place. But things have undeniably changed for her in becoming a parent.

Perhaps I have no idea how hard it is for her to hold on to her sense of self in the face of screams and bedtimes and songs and nappies and juggling that with maintaining work, friendships and a marriage. Perhaps she has had to find a way to expand herself, to grow to fit the multiple identities she now holds – person, parent, spouse, employee. Perhaps her choice has been defiantly that she does not have to choose. I hope I do the same if I ever have children.

I hope that we, as a society, can expand our understanding of what those choices entail.


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Written by Abi Symons

Abi Symons is a writer, feminist and klutz. She’s handy with a pen and paper but not to be trusted near expensive objects. www.klutzface.com/blog