A Word (or 900) About Words

I had intended to avoid getting overly personal or political in a blog that’s mostly about writing, editing, and dogs. But I got swept up in a fascinating intersection of personal and professional recently, and when that happens, I tend to want to write about it.

A few things you need to know before we get going.

  1. I am unmarried with no children.
  2. I’m in my late 30s.
  3. I am a podcast nut. I listen to probably 20 hours of podcasts a week, so solidly a quarter of the things that come out of my mouth start with “I heard this great story/interview/research highlight on [podcast] last week! Let me tell you about it!”

OK, now that we’re on the same page, I heard this great interview with Terry Gross on The Longest Shortest Time last week! Let me tell you about it! Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air, is someone I enjoy on several levels, but the relevant one for this post is that she has no children, and she seems to have no regrets about it. The Longest Shortest Time is actually about motherhood, so I am not necessarily the intended audience, but I heard Terry was on to talk about not having kids, so I tuned in.

Most of the interview was very much what I expected; I am about as familiar with Terry’s life as one can be without knowing her personally, given that she’s notoriously private. However, at one point she and the show’s host, Hillary Frank, had the following exchange:

Frank: I've gotten in trouble with some listeners for using the word "childless" when people don't have kids. They would prefer that I use the word "child free," and I wonder what your thoughts are on this.

Gross: “Child free” sounds like a “smoke free” environment, for the health of everybody…because it's a toxin. My personal feeling is, and I'll probably get a lot of grief with this, that “child free” sounds so much like a manifesto or something, and I think it's a personal decision. You make it, and it's nice to be in a society that reinforces the ability to make that decision. But I don't know, “child free” to me still has that tone of “let's keep the bad air out.”

It is frustrating to no end that, when I yell into my earbuds, the people on the podcast can’t hear me. Someone should really work on that. I respect Terry Gross a ton. She made a choice not to have kids at a time when that was far less acceptable than it is today. By her own account, she saw no role models for how to have the career she wanted and a child, so she chose career. That’s amazing. Delaying having kids, or not having them at all, is becoming increasingly common, and I am grateful that there are role models in my own life and in the public eye. It means that I can be a person without children and not feel like a complete weirdo.

Having said that, I have two “buts” to talk about.

But #1: Terry’s assertion that “It’s a personal decision” is one I agree with wholeheartedly. But. When you don’t have children, no one is shy about making your reproductive choices their business. Unsolicited opinions on the subject flow freely, from friends, family, strangers, the media, the Pope…I would love it if this were actually a “personal decision.” It should be. But no one else seems to think so.

But #2: “It’s nice to be in a society that reinforces the ability to make that decision.” Yes. I am lucky beyond measure that I have a legal right to control whether or not I have a child. I am exceptionally blessed to have the resources to acquire birth control, and to live in a place where I am relatively safe from sexual violence that might result in an unwanted pregnancy. But. Every person who has ever said to me…

“You’ll change your mind.”
“Isn’t that sort of selfish?”
“But you’d be such a great mom, and you obviously love kids!”
“Who will take care of you when you’re old?”

…was not reinforcing my ability to make that decision. They were questioning my ability to make that decision, if not downright telling me I am doing a bad job making it.

And I am, again, quite lucky. Most of the people around me are either outright respectful of my choices about parenthood, or they have the decency not to comment either way. There are women who face these questions regularly. (I suspect being nearly 40 and not married has helped me in this realm; if I were 28 and a newlywed, I assume it would be all Bellywatch 2016 up in here.)

Now, I realize I promised you this was about language, and it is. Here’s the issue: I don’t know what to call people who don’t have children. I don’t care for “childless,” since it implies a lack or absence of some sort. It also just sounds super sad. “Child free” is less problematic on the sadness front, but I still don’t like being defined by the absence of something in my life. In the same way we don’t call gay people “heterosexuality free” and we don’t call amputees “leg free,” we should find a way to talk about non-parents, ideally one that is sensitive to all of the many reasons people end up not having kids.

I know there are people who get frustrated at the notion that language is laden with great importance, and those who feel that “PC culture” where we choose every word with the utmost care is silly or even harmful, but language and culture are inextricably linked. They shape each other. As a person without kids, I would like to live in a world where it isn’t quite so alienating to have chosen a path outside the norm, and I think the words we use to talk about that path are a small but meaningful part of that change.

So, anyone got any ideas? I’m tempted to just invent a new word from whole cloth: Blorgens? Artipans? Booplewands? Okay, my vote is definitely for booplewands. Any other suggestions out there?