I've been thinking a lot about words lately. As a writer, words are important to me. There is a reason why we choose one synonym and not the other, why we say that something is 'gargantuan' instead of just 'big', for example. I myself have been known to prefer the term 'barren' because the former conveys the bleakness of my lost hopes in a way that the medical 'infertile' does not. Lately, as we ponder the life ahead of us, I'm wondering about 'childless' versus 'childfree'.
This is a polarizing topic. Those who choose not to have children often define themselves boldly as 'childfree', showing that they feel unencumbered by the societal pressure to have a family. It's something I admire, but I do not relate to. I do not feel like I belong among the 'childfree', those who are pleased to choose a life where they can go across the country on a moment's notice, trek the Andes, or just go for drinks after work without ever worrying about who will do the daycare pick-up. Moreover, my inability to conceive feels less like freedom and more like a millstone around my neck, dragging me to the depths, a perpetual burden. I do not think that I will ever view my lack of children as anything other than a lifelong grief.
On the other hand, there is the term 'childless'. Some people, particularly mothers, prefer this term because 'childfree' denotes a sense that to have children is burdensome. I sympathize, because I do experience my situation as marked by loss; however, I do not like those who have children deciding on the term that I - who cannot conceive - should use to define myself. More importantly, I do not wish to constantly define myself as 'less than'.
Those of us who have been in this position, pushing into the 30s with nary a stroller or a bassinet or a baby bump, have perhaps experienced the sense that at some point, their lack of children made them somehow 'less' than others. With phrases exalting a "mother's love" and a "mother's heart", and declaring that "moms are special people", we who are not mothers are defined as less loving, less compassionate. Our time is always less important; it is we the childless who should work late in the office and cover all the holidays. I hear this constantly as my husband consistently works almost every holiday in the year so that the parents in his practice can 'be with their families', as though I am not my husband's family, and as though Gil does not deserve to attend church on Easter like the rest of the doctors can. As though my punishment for being barren is that I should spend the next 20 years of Christmases alone while my husband works at the hospital, so that the deserving fertile people get to be with their families. We are told that our opinions and experiences are less meaningful when people throw around phrases like, "Well, you'll feel different about that when you have children." In churches, we are often an afterthought, the ones asked to teach Sunday school or hand out programs at the multitude of 'family-friendly' events; we are part of the body of Christ, but we're one of those less vital organs, like the appendix or the spleen. The moms - special as they are - get to be the heart and the lungs.
So when I am told that I ought to use the phrase 'childless' to appease some mothers, I wonder why? Why should I walk around defining myself constantly as lacking, as less than, as having a piece missing? But maybe, in fact, we don't need a term for us as all, because we don't really exist. We are like the wallpaper that you might have noticed at first, but after a while you've forgotten whether it has flowers or polka dots. I don't need a word for my lack of children because my deep grief barely exists, it is invisible to most - even those have been told about it repeatedly - and in a sense, it's as though I don't really exist either.