Defending The Word “Childfree”
I do not, and will never have, kids. But I am not childless. I’m childfree. Parents are neither.
The word childless implies that I am lacking children, that I wish to have some, as is expected of me by a society obsessed with living the life-script, but for some reason, do not. The word “childless” therefore invites sympathy. Maybe I haven’t sufficiently stabilized my life. Maybe I can’t get a man. Maybe I’m infertile (which is to be seen as a flaw.) I must be lonely and sad. I am to be encouraged to procreate, or else pitied for my perceived failure. That is, if I use the word “childless.”
So I don’t use that word. I have another one. I didn’t invent it, but I imagine the people who did had similar rationale (if there is some older origin of the term, I am not familiar with it and it has evidently fallen out of popular use.) They, like me, didn’t want to be lumped in with people who want kids but don’t, or can’t, have them. This dissociation isn’t meant to be demeaning of those who are childless, but exists to distinguish from them. People who want kids but don’t have them are a completely different group of people than those who never want kids at all, so it makes no sense to use the same label for both.
Having a unique name is important. We don’t want to be encouraged to have kids, or pitied for not having them, or seen as lonely or sad, or as selfish and hateful. The word we identify with exists to legitimize our choice, and to be a word for the lifestyle that we’re keen to talk about among ourselves and encourage acceptance of in the public sphere. We can’t do any of this without a unique word so that everyone knows exactly what we’re talking about.
This word is “childfree.” The word differentiates us from the childless, and from parents. More importantly, the word communicates that the absence of children is a positive thing for us, something we’re happy about and do not wish to be pitied for. To be childfree means that we, each for our own reasons, do not want kids ever, and have therefore chosen to never have any. This is not some temporary status, but a permanent state.
Unfortunately, the word has been more popular than the meaning. It seems to have become a trendy word for parents to use. I often see parent try to appropriate the word for themselves, either to refer to their life before they had kids, or something to gleefully call themselves when they’ve dumped their precious kids off with someone else. Neither of these fit the meaning of the word childfree, and misusing the word this way tends to annoy childfree people.
If you’re scratching your head and wondering why this would bother childfree people, you’ve not been paying attention to what I’ve written so far in this post. How can we have a conversation about a very specific lifestyle, and gain public awareness and support for it, if the word we use to identify ourselves with loses its meaning and becomes ambiguous? We can’t. The whole reason that we started identifying with the label “childfree” in the first place was to solve that very problem. And now that parents muscle in on it, whether they mean to or not, they set acceptance of the childfree lifestyle back.
I don’t think that childfree people are the most oppressed group out there, and we certainly don’t face bigotry to the extend that blacks, gays, Jews, and other groups have been and still do. But we are still a heavily marginalized group, often treated with suspicion and prejudice, if not completely invalidated, by various different groups within society, and face a great deal of discrimination in private and public spheres. The only way to combat this, to gain acceptance, is to stand proud and publicly talk about our childfreedom, and we need a word to do so. Not only do the childfree wish for the constant harassment to have kids, and the stereotypes about them to be ended, but those who are childfree might like to know that there’s a word for it, and that it’s OK to live this way, and that they aren’t alone.
That’s why it’s so important to have made our own word, and to go on to defend it. It’s not as petty as it may seem to an outsider. A word’s only value is its meaning. A misused word loses that. If the meaning of the word “childfree” is diluted, it sets acceptance of the lifestyle back. And acceptance of the lifestyle is important.
Do you think I’m exaggerating about the importance of a unique word? I once spoke to a parent about her misusing the word “childfree,” and she responded that she wasn’t aware that childfree people (people who don’t want kids) even existed at all, and had a word for that lifestyle choice. The reason she didn’t didn’t know about childfree people, or respect that choice for that matter, was because of parents like herself misusing the word. She was perpetuating that cycle. Somewhere down the line, parent ran across the word and thought it sounded hip, and without understanding the meaning, went around misusing it.
Now there is nothing wrong with parents discussing their pre-parenting days, or being happy about temporarily having a break away from their kids. A person is well within their rights to discuss either. But please, get your own word.