We Went to the Not Mom Summit to See What the Future of (Non)-Motherhood Looks Like
For the past few years, I've found myself questioning whether I want to have kids. I'd always operated under the assumption that one day, I'd get married and have children. But when I graduated from college and became a "real adult," I started to seriously question whether those two things were actually a priority for me.
I want to devote myself to my career, live in a prohibitively expensive city where it's a pain to schlep a stroller and stay out until midnight on weekdays, just because I can. At this point in my life, these are my priorities, and while I'm not sure if they always will be, I know they're things I won't be able to do with children in the picture.
I'm not the only millennial woman who feels this way. Our generation has become the slowest to have children of any adults in U.S. history, contributing to a growing trend of women opting out of parenthood entirely. And while our culture has traditionally taught us that women without children are sad, selfish, baby-hating spinsters, there are plenty of examples of women without children who are leading happy, fulfilling lives.
I was curious as to what my future would look like if I followed these women's paths. That's how I found myself sitting at the back of the second-floor ballroom of Cleveland's Key Center Marriott on a cool, sunny Saturday earlier this month, attending the first-ever Not Mom Summit.
Held Oct. 8 and Oct. 9, the summit billed itself as the pre-eminent large-scale conference for "not-moms," women who don't have children "by chance or by choice." Organized by the original not-mom Karen Malone Wright, who founded her blog The Not Mom in 2011, the Not Mom Summit was populated almost entirely by women in their late 30s and early 40s, who milled about the Marriott Hotel ballroom getting to know each other.
"The minute you walk through the doors of the hotel, you know you have something deeply in common with every person here," Wright, a gregarious, smiling woman who looked not a day over 50 (she turned 60 this year), told the room. It was exactly what the 110 women from 14 states and five different countries were hoping to find: a place of solidarity, a place free of judgment, where not a single woman would be criticized or asked why she didn't have kids.
Trying to shake the stigma: That the not-moms among us face stigma for being childfree or childless is incontrovertible. It's evidenced in the way we constantly ask them why they don't have kids; the way we treat infertility or miscarriage as shameful secrets; the way we label the pursuit of a career (or anything else besides motherhood, really) inherently selfish. Although data from the Pew Research Center indicates the number of women who don't have kids has doubled since 1970, with a sizable number saying no to motherhood, women are still forced to defend this decision.
At the summit, this stigma came up over and over and over again.
If you're "childfree by choice, you feel like a freak show so many times in your life," Renee, a 40-year-old lawyer from St. Louis, told me. She was impossibly young-looking and stylish, with an expertly wrapped scarf and the flawless skin of someone who hadn't spent sleepless nights caring for a yowling infant.
"Even when I'm in very high-level business situations with other women, the first question they ask me is not about my work, it's about whether or not I have kids," Renee said. "I want to be in an environment and meet other women who aren't encumbered by children, but also who I don't have to justify my views to. Here, I don't have to explain myself or apologize for what I feel."
The summit's dozens of breakout sessions covered a wide range of issues aimed at capturing the not-mom experience as fully as possible. Topics included dealing with rude, unsolicited comments, philanthropy and volunteer work, faith among women who don't have kids and "how to REALLY spoil your pet." The discussions also served as a safe space for attendees to speak freely and hear each other out, making up for all the times they felt their experiences had been shut out of the mainstream.
Here, I don't have to explain myself or apologize for what I feel."
Having missed the first day's sessions due to flight delays, I spent Saturday morning wandering into different talks, such as a session called "Dating in the Real World," held in one of the hotel's five ornately carpeted conference rooms named for each of the Great Lakes. The session was led by Dani Alpert, 49, a New York City-based writer known as "the Girlfriend Mom" who looked like a slightly older Phoebe Buffay, and relationship coach Christy Goldstein, 32, endearingly earnest in a business-casual cardigan.
While the session itself offered interesting information — when and how it's best to tell a potential romantic partner that you have no interest in kids, for instance — perhaps the most telling moments arose from the Q&A afterward, when Alpert and Goldstein opened the floor up to questions. Immediately, the attendees shared their struggles finding suitable partners in the limited dating pool of stable, unmarried not-dads. One woman said she had dated a slew of abusive addicts, gamblers and con artists in a decades long effort to avoid anyone with children.
Renee, the lawyer from St. Louis, said she had been told by multiple dates that she shouldn't look for a relationship if she wasn't in it to start a family. "More than one guy has asked me, 'Why are you dating if you don't want kids?'" she said.
As attendees shared stories about breaking up with partners they'd been with for years after their boyfriends decided they did want kids after all, it became clear there was a common thread to the narratives: If living in a culture that stigmatizes childfree women wasn't hard enough, dating in it was even harder.
"It feels like not being seen": Time and again, in breakout sessions or in casual conversation, women brought up the emotional scar tissue they'd developed over years of being judged or even shamed for evading motherhood. Wright, the founder of the conference, had much to say on the topic.
"Stigma is stigma, but our reactions to it are different," Wright told me after breakfast, while we sat down in the ballroom to talk. "It's not always quite stigma. It feels like not being seen. If you've got the guts to speak your truth, and you're willing to say you don't want kids, you're going to get pushback — 'you're going to be sorry, you're going to wish you had.' That's not stigma. That's you not hearing me ... that's you refusing to hear me. And that's hard."
Since she launched The Not Mom four years ago, Wright has made a point of trying to de-stigmatize the childfree experience by any means necessary — so long as the means are respectful, considerate and constructive. In her world, a step to persuade someone that not-moms are thoughtful, kind, normal human beings — not heartless, cold, baby-hating shrews — is a step well taken.
"A few people have said to me that they don't understand why I'm promoting a 'separatist' culture," Wright said. "We're not trying to be separatist. It's just that no matter who you are or where you go, at some point you think, 'I just want to hang with the fam today.' That's all these women are looking for. This is two days out of 365 that they're with the family. They're accepted the minute they get off the plane and walk into the hotel."
At some point you think, 'I just want to hang with the fam today.' That's all these women are looking for.
Wright was especially concerned about bridging what she says is the gap between women who are childfree (a label used to describe women who made a conscious choice not to have kids) and women who are childless (a term used to describe women who don't have children due to an external biological factor, such as age or infertility).
For various reasons, Wright said there is tension between the two communities: Childfree women tend not only to be more accepting of their not-mom status, but happy about it as well, feeling their lives are plenty fulfilling without kids. Childless women, in contrast, are more likely to feel their lives are missing something, that not having children means having a little "less."
Wright herself belongs between the two categories: a self-described "by-chance not-mom," as she explains on her website, she "expected and wanted be a mother for years, [but] ... by the time my health became a factor, age and ambivalence had been in play for years." She sees herself as bridging the gap between both worlds.
"People assume if you never wanted children, you have absolutely nothing in common with the woman who wanted them once," Wright said. "And they do have something in common! If you're one-fifth of America's women, there's more that unites you than divides you. There just is." (Editor's note: According to 2014 data, 47.6% of American women between age 15 and 44 do not have children.)
When a temporary choice becomes a permanent decision: As women age and the window to have children becomes smaller, the gap between the childless and the childfree becomes smaller too. There's one group of women who are opting out of parenthood for whom that doesn't apply, though: millennials.
Although the data shows that millennial women are increasingly opting out of or delaying parenthood, it's still very much an open question as to whether that trend will hold fast throughout young women's lives. Unlike most of the women at the Not Mom Summit, who were predominantly over age 35, today's 20- and early 30-somethings still have the option to have biological children at some point in their lives. That young women even consider not becoming a mother as an option instead of a foregone conclusion is what differentiated millennials from the majority of attendees at the Not Mom Summit.
With this in mind, I couldn't help but wonder where people like me fit in at the summit. When I brought this up with Wright, adding that I'd seen few women under the age of 40 at the conference, Wright was quick to note that millennials were just as quick to self-identify as not-moms as the older women in attendance.
"Oh, you fit in here," Wright said. "Millennials fit in. [The Not Mom has readers] between 22 and 28 who have known since they were children that they don't want to have children — they know in their souls that they don't want to."
The thing is, though, a lot of us aren't sure about forever. Wright is probably correct: There are plenty of millennials who have never wanted to become parents, and who therefore probably never will be. Yet the rest of us aren't so sure.
While many young women seem to be firmly in the childfree-by-choice camp for the moment, some of us appear to be biding our time while we make a decision either way. Vanessa Bean, Wright's goddaughter and a volunteer at the summit, is one of these women.
"I'm not against [having kids] at all, but I just wonder if it would make me sad [to have them now], or if I'd have any sort of postpartum or something," Bean, a 24-year-old woman with a bright smile and a crown of spiky dark curls, told me over lunch. "So, frankly, I just avoid it. I'm not dating anybody, I've got other stuff to care about, I don't want to think about it. It's not making a choice — it's avoidance."
Bean was clear that despite her presence at the conference, she did not self-identify as a not-mom. "I'm still deciding," she said. "I feel like [age] 35-ish is when it's going to be hardest, because maybe you made a choice when you were young, but then it's not a choice anymore."
Lindsay Sims, a 35-year-old who was one of the other few young women I met at the summit, took a slightly different approach. As we spoke by a window and watched a lone couple making out in the grass outside, she said that although she doesn't want kids, she still won't make any firm decisions about her reproductive destiny. But, because she's never had children, she identifies as a not-mom right now.
"I like to think of it this way: I'm not making decisions for my future self," Sims said. "The idea that I will never have children is different from the fact that I don't have children. I don't see myself developing a burning desire to have kids. But I am giving my future self permission to do what she wants."
"I don't see myself developing a burning desire to have kids. But I am giving my future self permission to do what she wants."
A future generation of not-moms: Whether women like Bean and Sims end up having children or staying not-moms forever, it's clear that opting out of motherhood, while still stigmatized, is a far less taboo option than it was a few decades ago. Celebrities like Kim Cattrall and Cameron Diaz have spoken frankly about their desire to not have children, which has contributed to not-motherhood increasingly seeming like a legitimate life choice.
While the DJ set up the ballroom for the Wild Women Rock! dance party later Saturday evening, several of the 30- and 40-something women sitting at my table told me over chips and queso that there's been a rapid shift in our cultural views of not-motherhood. The women predicted that the sense of defensiveness and muted rage I'd seen bubble up in the dating and relationships session probably wouldn't be as common among future generations of childfree women.
"I think part of it is that when we were your age, we didn't have [women like] us accessible, so we didn't know it was OK [not to have kids]," Claire, a blonde woman in eye-catching tortoiseshell glasses, said. "For us, people have always thought of it as a negative thing. But [millennials] can say, 'Why is it a negative thing?'"
In a way, most of the women at the summit were proving exactly that. With the possible exception of women who truly felt they didn't have a say in their choice not to have kids, most of the women I spoke with ultimately chose not to have children because they truly didn't want them. Like me, they had other priorities in their lives, and they were OK with the decisions they'd made.
I ran into Renee, who I'd kept seeing around the summit, one more time before I left for the airport. I asked her what it meant to be part of this distinct group of women, or if she had any advice for not-moms of the future. She'd said throughout the day that she never, ever wanted children, so it didn't feel like a difficult decision for her, but she understood the identity wasn't immutable for everybody.
"Regardless of why or how we're here, we're all in the same place: we're all women without children," Renee said. "Just because we're not mothers doesn't make us not women. It doesn't make us not people. We got here from different paths, but we're all here together.
"I wanted to meet my people. These are my people."
It might be another 20 years before I know who my own people are, whether they're women with kids, women without or some other group entirely. What I knew when I walked away from Renee, though, was that she and her people — all those kind, smiling, content not-moms — had welcomed me as if I were one of their own.
As I left the hotel with my one small carry-on, unencumbered by a diaper bag or a stroller or a baby strapped to my chest, I didn't feel my ambivalence subsiding. I just felt like it would all be OK.