Sunday, April 8, 2012

Who Represents Us - Them or Us?

One of my favorite television shows in the 1990s was Ally McBeal.  I really loved that quirky show.  So recently, when hubby and I ditched cable t.v. and switched to streaming, I was excited to see that my old favorite was available for viewing, commercial-free.

So, I've been chipping away at the episodes and it's fun because I don't remember much of them, so it's like watching a brand new series.  I'm on Season 2 right now.  Anyway, an interesting thing came up in an episode called "The Dance".  The character, attorney Nell Porter revealed (to the horror of her male colleagues) that she doesn't want children.  Yes, a vocal childfree-by-choice character on a hit television show!  I was very excited (for a few moments). 

This revelation came up because she was defending a law firm client against charges of discrimination against mothers in the workplace (i.e. non-moms get made partner, moms don't).  Outside the courtroom, when Nell's male colleagues begin talking in stereotypical ways about women - that it is every woman's destiny and desire to have children - Nell fearlessly reveals that she does not want children and gives a compelling speech that would make my readers proud.  She lays it all out.  Not all women want children.  Motherhood is an honorable choice, as is the choice not to have children.  Women who go from working 14 hour days (before kids) to 8 hour days (after kids) should not expect the same promotions as women who continue to put in 14 hour days, plowing tirelessly down the partner track.  Moms should not be given special treatment in the workplace, because that would result in discrimination against those who choose not to have kids.

Wow.  Impressive so far.

But then, as it always happens, the childfree stereotypes quickly rear their ugly heads and it all goes off the rails.

First, let's start with the producer's choice to make Nell, a character who is so notoriously cold and buttoned up that her nickname is "Subzero Nell",  the childfree character.  Stereotype #1:  the childfree person as cold.

Second, Nell's argument about moms versus non-moms in the workplace, while noble and on-point in some important ways, centers mostly on the idea that women who choose not to have children do so solely because they are career-hungry and getting ahead in their careers is more important to them than family.  Childfree stereotype #2.

Third:  The plaintiff mom wins the case and the jury finds that the defendant law firm discriminated against moms by not giving them the same promotions as the non-moms.

Fourth, and the final nail in the coffin:  As the episode unfolds, Nell admits to her colleagues, in a moment of emotional honesty, that she is a child of divorce and it is the pain she suffered as a child - feeling torn between two parents - that resulted in her desire to not have children.  At the end of the episode, she is shown sitting by her hope chest, clutching two teddy bears against her (one from each of her parent's homes) and weeping.  Sigh.  The stereotype of the childfree as damaged goods.  Picture complete.

As a childfree woman, it is incredibly disheartening that despite the fact that 40% of U.S. women reach the age of 40 without bearing children, there are so few representations of us in the media.  When a representation of a childfree woman does appear, as in this Ally episode, it is always comprised of tired stereotypes that bear little resemblance to the childfree women I know. 

Ultimately, this drives home this important point.   Real childfree people, like you and me, have a very important responsibility.  We must be our own representations to the world, and we must also be the role models for others coming up behind us.  People struggling with the decision to be childfree need role models, so they can see a truthful representation of what it really means to live a life free of children instead of the tired, negative stereotypes that paint a bleak and unappealing picture of the childfree life.   At 46 years old, I know with certainty that my childfree identity is not one of coldness, emptiness, loneliness and selfishness but rather one of thoughtfulness, intelligence, warmth, fearlessness, engagement, spaciousness, freedom and opportunity, yet I had to discover this for myself because I did not have a single role model to represent this to me.

If you are a childfree person who is happy and comfortable with your decision, do yourself and the generation behind you a favor.  Don't lie about your choice.  Don't downplay your decision.  Don't take the cowardly route and say you are infertile or that you will have kids someday just to get people off your back.  Stand proud and be honest about your decision for the bigger good.  Be someone that others can look to and see that it's great to be childfree by choice - that you are happy, fulfilled and even normal.   Be visible and counted so others will not feel so odd and alone.  If we want the tired old stereotypes about us to be stamped out, we need to be the instruments in writing the new narrative about who and what we really are.


Anonymous said...

Excellent true and so inspiring. I hate it when people pull those tired stereotypes into play.

Tinisha said...

Leave it to tv to perpetuate those stereotypes. I feel though sometimes even if people see you as a happy well adjusted person once they find out you don't want kids you all of a sudden you become some evil cold hearted witch.
I am just getting used to the reaction I am getting from people when I tell them I plan to be child free and at 24 of course I get the you will change your mind when you are in your 30's comments. No I will not change my mind when I am 30, and it is disrespectful for you to say that. I know my own personal feelings and just because you are content with just being a mother does not mean other people do not have bigger goals in their life.

kangamasf said...

I've never heard of the show Ally McBeal before. Too bad Nell was a letdown, she did seem awesome at first.

I'd love to think the fun-loving teacher Ms. Frizzle in the The Magic School Bus franchise is childfree. When she's done teaching her third graders for a day, she can go home and savor the quiet and calm atmosphere and can have a healthy or unhealthy dinner and enjoy a good movie not suitable for children. Heh.

Person Person said...

Thank you for all that you do! You are an inspiration to me. Reading your blog has truly helped reinforce my decision to remain CF, and feel secure and happy with that decision.

Spectra said...

I forgot about that show, but I will have to watch it now that it's online. I most definitely do not lie about my choice or downplay my decision. I have no qualms about not wanting kids and I have a few CF friends that feel the same way. When you realize that you are by no means missing out, selfish, or a bitch who is incapable of loving kids, you realize that you can be perfectly capable of living a great, fulfilling life without having children. Excellent post!

Liz @ MaybeBabyMaybeNot said...

Great post! And a great call to action. The more Childfree voices that are heard that don't fall in line with these stereotypes, the quicker they can be dispelled. Bravo for putting this out there!

Katie said...

It's been ages since I've watched Ally McBeal but I remember being annoyed and disappointed with that episode too. But, I also seem to remember (it's a bit fuzzy now) being pleased that in future episodes the issue comes up again and Nell continues to hold her ground in much more positive ways. With the way it goes in that first episode that the issue comes up, you would think that maybe she would eventually change her mind, but I don't think that happens.

Anyway, I totally agree that we should be very open about our happy, healthy, childfree lives with others. Our stories aren't going to be told by the dominant culture, so we must find ways to tell them ourselves! It can be heartbreaking, though. A while back I posted what I thought would be a totally non-controversial, lighthearted post about wanting to have a "we're not having a baby shower." My husband and I had joked about it when we saw Samantha on Sex and the City throw one for herself, but in ours it would be a family-friendly affair (we have friends and family with kids we adore!) and we would ask people to make donations to charitable children's causes in lieu of gifts (one of the MANY reasons we decided not to have kids is the number of children who are already alive and in poverty throughout the world). While most of my friends "liked" my status or made fun comments, someone I had considered a close friend (not anymore!) criticized my post, saying that to celebrate childfreedom was offensive, and making sure I was 100% clear she did not support me in that would never, ever attend such a party. It was eye-opening, and heartbreaking, to experience such an abrupt rejection from someone I had thought to be a close friend.

Sanna said...

There's another childfree character later on - Anne Heche turns up as a love interest for Peter MacNicols and the subject of breeding comes between them.

HarveyRequiem said...

That promotion crap always gets me angry. So the childfree person should do all the work, hers and yours too, and give up all her evenings, weekends, and any other free time she has to do the job, change plans on a dime, cancel personal interests and endeavors to get the job done, but when it's time for rewards to be handed out on that suddenly all the work the childfree person did shouldn't count for squat and the decision should be based instead on....what exactly? Drawing names from a hat? Or they should just base it on who has spawned and who has not (which I suspect those entitled women believe should happen)? Or just every third promotion should go to a mommy regardless of whether she put in the work to deserve it? I should do all the work but when the benefits are handed out my efforts should be ignored and you should be able to get the raises and promotions that I, in fact, earned?

I mean, if they actually did the work to deserve it I don't mind them getting the promotion, but if the mommies are all doing half the work they should, coming in late and leaving early, leaving the bulk of the success of the project to the childfree (and the bulk of the risk if it fails), then why should they arbitrarily get the promotions? Don't they always say they "chose family over career" and accuse the childfree of being coldhearted career bitches, that it's just a big trade-off--and in that case, aren't you double-robbing those childfree women by insisting that their work shouldn't count toward their career success? If you're not going to base promotions on quality and quantity of work, then what precisely is it going to be based on?

Torques me off something fierce.

Sherri.S said...

I completely agree. Society will never accept childfree people as long as there are some who make excuses like "I wouldn't be a good mother", "I'm infertile", or "I don't have the mom gene". (I actually wrote a post about that just a few days ago on my own blog).

If we ever want to be accepted by society, we have to stop acting like we need to have excuses or good reasons for choosing not to have children. It's a perfectly valid choice all on its own.

jenn said...

Agreed agreed agreed with all of the above. :)

My boyfriend is a filmmaker and is actually currently working on a movie having to do with these ideas. Unfortunately, I don't think I'm at liberty to talk much about the plot (and I'm going to err on the side of safety, even if I am), but it's an awesome message and I'm super excited about it; I'll make sure to swing by and drop a link when all is said and done!

He and I are both happily and firmly childfree, and his film career greatly depends on us not being distracted by the UH-MAZINGLY time-consuming undertaking that is child-rearing. And no, we're not sacrificing kids for his career--we each decided to opt out long before we met and long before he started his company. Hooray!

Trista said...

I've been told, "When you have kids someday let me just tell you..."

And I've cut the person off and said, "I am not having kids."

(I'm 30, by the way. FAR old enough to say it and not sound juvenile, nor sound like I don't know what I *want* in life.)

And on more than ONE occasion, the other person says, "OH well you could always adopt." assuming I *can't* have kids - not assuming that I simply don't want to.

And I always say back, "No. I do not WANT children."

I did this to an inlaw once, and they immediately stopped speaking to me at family functions. Another family member even told me that for some reason, out of the blue, this particular inlaw has told a few people he doesn't like me.

And I haven't engaged him enough for him to justifiably dislike me. The last conversation we had, prior to him telling the rest of the family that he flat out doesn't like me, was the discussion about me not wanting children.

He has kids.
He took it as a personal insult.

Dee said...

I went back to my small hometown in Indiana for Easter. I was at the bar and ran into a girl who I knew a long time ago. She is 37 and has two kids, one of whom has Down's syndrome. I am 35 with no kids. Inevitably, she asked me if I had kids. I said no and that me and my husband have no intention of having any. To my surprise, her response was "Good for you. Kids are overrated." She went on to tell me that she loves her kids, but she can appreciate the decision not to have them and she was jealous of my freedom. I was shocked. It's rare for someone to be so honest and blunt. I thanked her for her honesty. It was a nice change of pace, as I spent most of the weekend hanging out with my family and their little ones explaining that no, I still have no interest in breeding, no matter how cute their kids are. I also had to correct my best friend who has two kids because she told me it's her responsibility to have smart kids to make up for all of the dumb kids in the world. No joke. She actually said that. But she also lumped me into the child-free career woman stereotype, which I quickly corrected. Sure, I work hard and want to be successful. But I also take Spanish classes for fun and volunteer for fun, and I am in two book clubs for fun. I have a life outside of work. My job is not why I chose not to have kids.

Also, in regards to TV shows that deal with the child-free woman, did you see the recent episodes of How I Met Your Mother? One of the main characters first thought she was pregnant, and she was mad because she didn't want kids. Turns out she wasn't pregnant and the doctors found she was infertile. So, of course, they made her out to be sad about this and now she seemed to want kids. In the voiceover they always do at the end that typically describes where the character is in the future, they reveal that she never had kids but she did become a famous journalist. As always, they go for the career woman stereotype. I don't know what's worse, the show caving and making her character pregnant or making her the child-free career woman.

Temujin said...

Heck, yeah. Represent.

With one caveat. This may not be a danger yet, but let's not overcompensate by going too far with fighting the stereotypes. I could be a cold, lonely, bitter workaholic person who just happens to be childfree. I'm not about to bend over backwards to prove to the world that I'm actually warm, friendly, generous, and love kids if I'm not really like that.

I'm not much interested in living my life as some kind of counterexample. For one thing, people who are trapped in stereotypes generally aren't interested in absorbing counter-evidence anyway.

Anna said...

Dee, I saw that episode and I too had mixed feelings about it. I guess she was just sad about being infertile because it was no longer her choice not to have children, the choice was made for her (although it was still a choice really). The end was all about how she traveled the world and had an amazing career "and was never alone" but then showed her all sad which kinda undermined all that. While it was saying all the right things, the general tone was sad. Someone recently mentioned Dr O'Hara from Nurse Jackie as a positive childfree representation. Yes she is career focused but she also enjoys her life, her money, her spare time.

My workmates know I'm CF and in the staff room one day as we were having lunch one of them said "would you ever adopt?" to which I replied "well that would kinda defeat the purpose of not having kids wouldn't it?" then just recently I was visiting said workmate and her new baby and she said (knowing my husband has had a vasectomy), "Are you SURE you don't want kids? You can always adopt!". So yeah, I'm wondering when I'll get past the stage where people think I will change my mind.

Roxie Harlow said...

It is unfortunate that this stereotype persists. A woman can't want kids only because of a career? Pfft.

Though it was a one episode only appearance, Heather Graham played a childfree woman (a substitute teacher) on Arrested Development. She began a relationship with the man character (Jason Bateman) who was a widower with a teenage son. At the end of the episode, he tells her how much he likes her and thinks she'd be a great mom for his kid/how much his kid needs a mom. She tells him she has no desire to be a mom and in fact can't stand kids!

Trista said...

Sorry to keep supplying you with information that will probably drive you right up the wall, but I read the following article about a year ago and it p*ssed me off:

Again - go for it.

Trista said...

AND... just to lighten the mood (and sorry I keep replying on your comments section - I don't know your email) have you ever read stfuparents?

It's hilarious. I love that woman.

Temujin said...

In reply to Anna and the whole "you can always adopt!" bingo:

Imagine how the childed co-worker would feel if you told her that it's never too late to give your children up for adoption. She can still become childfree if she really wanted to. There are agencies out there to help her find new homes for her children.

I mean, if she's encouraging you to be like her, then you should be allowed to encourage her to be like you. Fair is fair. :-)

She might be shocked by the suggestion, but don't let her be so bitter and close-minded....

Tatyan. said...

Dear Mandy,
first thing first: sorry for my english, but I am Italian :) So, I apologize in advance for any mistake.

Second, I wanted to talk about childfreedom and how we can influence the life of other around us.
I wanted to talk, or write I guess, about my Aunt Giulia.

She is not really my aunt. "Just" a real good friend of my mother.
And she is childfree.

She never married, and, until recently, she never cohabitated. She lived her life and spoiled me and my sister and loved us, she often claimed that I was the "child she never had". And she also claimed that, if she had a child, it would be surely somebody she couldn't stand and she was happy to "have" me.

Even when I was little (and I mean, really litte) I found her life charming. She had no chaos, she loved her job, she traveled a lot and every time there was a gift for us.

Recently she had fallen in love with a man (she is in her late 50th, like my mother) and she is living with another person for the first time in her life, proving, in my opinion, that childfree people stay younger longer and can change their life if they want it.

Even though my mother often said -she still says- that Aunt Giulia "wanted children" I have always found it difficult to believe. In my opinion, in absence of medical condition that, as far as I know, she doesn't have, it is not so hard to have a kid. So, if she didn't have them, she didn't want them. But my mother never once told us that Aunt Giulia was selfish, or any other stereotype about CF folks.

Needless to say, Aunt Giulia had always been my role model. I have always wanted "to be like her".

At 26, I am a committed childfree, and I have to thank her for it.

Thank you Aunt Giulia! :D

phoenixxphyre said...

I especially like the end of this post. It's good to remember. I just had someone give me a "when you have kids..." statement the other day on FB. I responded "I may not be having my own..." because I haven't made it widely known I have decided not to have kids and didn't want family to find out second hand. But it didn't feel right and I instantly wished I'd said "I'm not..." Next time.

phoenixxphyre said...

I especially like the end of this post. It's good advice. I recently had someone give me a "When you have kids..." statement on FB. I replied with "I may not be having my own..." because I haven't made it widely known I decided not to have kids and didn't want family to have to find out through the comment. It didn't feel right though and I instantly wished I'd said "I'm not..." Next time.

DowagerLadyUrsula said...

Dee, I was totally going to bring up How I Met Your Mother. It's a show I sometimes have trouble enjoying because it is fairly backwards with how it represents women. And of course the childfree (female) character is tomboyish, mean, selfish, and career-driven. And of course she's sad when she is found to be infertile. Also, does anyone else find Ted's quest to find the "mother of [his] children" a little unsettling? Like this woman is just going to exist to fulfill his fantasy of the perfect woman who will marry him and have his children.

I really can't think of an example of a positive childfree female character on television. Usually the male characters aren't skewed one way or another, but that's a whole other discussion. All childfree women characters seem to come from the stock "career-driven woman" mold.

mona said...

I just wanted to say a person to person (via the internet, but still) thank you. You wrote something about striving to be an example for those coming after you, well I can say that as a 25 year old woman (I have known I didn't want kids since I was about 6 years old), you have achieved your goal. Your words are making it easier for me to navigate my life as a childfree individual living in a child centric world. I look up to you, and you have shown me that I am not a freak or complete weirdo for feeling the way I feel. You have shown through your example that, no, not all women regret not having children (as I am constantly told,perhaps because I still "could" have kids). So to you, and to all the other women and men who are sharing their years of experiences, THANK YOU. Thank you for making it easier for my generation, I hope that when I am in my forties I will be able to do the same for the next generation! Viva la Childfree Life!