Earlier this year, a government report found that the U.S. birth rate dropped for the fifth year in a row, reaching its lowest rate in 35 years. Experts suggested a potential population crisis and the inevitable demise of the human race, all because more women are choosing not to have children.
Now, a survey by the Pew Research Center has found that 44% of Americans age 18-19 without kids say it's "unlikely" or "not too likely" that they'll have kids ... ever. As a result of the media coverage detailing why more women are declining to reproduce (financial constraints, low marriage rates, more opportunities for women), there is a palpable moms vs. non-moms dynamic — which pits women against one another just because their personal and reproductive health care decisions may not align.
But, if it takes a village to raise a baby, we need kid-free people to help create that village.
As a woman who has made the personal decision to have children, I don't think a person who decides not to have a child is a person who has decided not to parent. They are parenting, even if it's finding the best ways to parent themselves, and we all — moms included — benefit from their kid-free acts of caregiving.
My sons, ages 7 and 3, certainly benefit from having more than a few "kid-free parents" in their lives. Their aunties, for example, love on them as if they were their own — at times my pseudo-sisters are even better prepared for a looming birthday or an anxiety-inducing first day of school than my sons' forever-procrastinating mother (hi!).
They're the friends who don't get tired of playing with my kids because they're not already clocking in three hours of "tummy time" with their own offspring. They're the visitors most fascinated by the cute thing my 3-year-old just did or that silly thing my 7-year-old just said; new parents in their own right, watching little lives flourish in real time, just like I did the first time my sons crawled or walked or spoke their first spit-covered word.
My child-free friends are the gatekeepers to all the whispered secrets my sons ask them to keep — harmless closet skeletons now ("I took an extra piece of candy, don't tell mom.") that, one day, will remind my boys that their kid-free parents are trustworthy, supportive and loving. They will be the guiding light for my sons when they stray too far away to see the lighthouse I've built.
They're also the people I turn to most often when I need mothering — the ones who mother the moms who are encouraged to put themselves last in the name of acceptable parenting. When I feel lost, they help me return to myself. When I feel like I am failing, they remind me of the near-Herculean efforts I make every day to best support my children — things moms are made to feel uncomfortable celebrating but are the very things that fuel our families.
Sure, at times I feel as if my decision to have children is one they don't quite understand and, from time to poop-smeared time, even judge. From the latest financial crisis and recycled fears of overpopulation, to climate change and global warming, parents are no stranger to birth-related scrutiny either. Women who have decided to have children also parent other people, too, including their own parents, friends' kids, nephews, nieces, and community members. As shown time and time again, you don't have to give birth to someone in order to be the mother, father, or parental figure in their life.
And yes, there are more than a few moments when I find myself jealous of my child-free friends' spontaneous vacations, lazy Sunday mornings and expendable incomes. No, I can't think about the half a million dollars people save when they don't have children without wanting to burn my bank statements. But I can think about all the ways the non-moms in my life have made me a better person, woman and mother.
I think about the loving ways my friend cares for her geriatric dog — how she carries her outside every morning; the elaborate birthday party carefully coordinated and photographed; the way she puts love into every mundane action and important detail.
Or how my best friend was present for the birth of my first baby. As I became a mom she was simultaneously becoming an aunt, and suddenly such a big change didn't feel so scary. She was there.
And how my child-free friend is working so hard to parent herself with love and kindness as she navigates her mental health struggles, silently encouraging us all — through her actions and vulnerability alone — to do the same.
And how my friends make continuous, concerted efforts to celebrate themselves. They acknowledge that the choice and ability to procreate does not make a woman more of a woman, and they don't view motherhood as an inevitability but as a personal, medical decision — reminding me that "mother" is just part, and not the whole, of who I am.
So while the experts continue to share the potential global ramifications of another historically low birth rate, and media personalities pontificate on the pros and cons of women's personal and reproductive choices, I'll say another silent thank you for the women deciding not to have kids.