llustration by Katherine Streeter
By Shannon McMahon
When I first started teaching at the college level, I was young enough to be considered temporarily-delayed mother material, at least biologically. By then, my husband and I had already decided not to have kids, but I still looked like I had time to change my mind.
One day in class, we were talking about an article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” and my childfree status came up in the course of class discussion. Suddenly, I found myself discussing my choice with a student who seemed to have assumed I had a medical problem that prevented childbearing.
“You can adopt or be a foster parent,” she offered. I understood her meaning in two ways: first, that there were medical advances that could “fix” me, and, second, that I might make a pretty good mom. There was no malice in our repartee but I did find myself in a curious reflective posture. I realized that the student considered me “childless” — namely, that I was lacking in something essential to being a woman and was somehow sad about it. I also realized the student wanted to relate to me as a parent.
Over the years, I’ve fielded my share of similar comments about being “childless,” not just from students but also from well-meaning colleagues who assumed there might be a physical problem and/or just didn’t know what else to say. The issue came up often enough to start me thinking about using a different word to describe my situation: “childfree.”
I don’t feel as though I’ve missed out on something grand by not having kids, nor do I harbor resentment toward faculty colleagues who feel their own equally ardent desire to be parents. Freedom, as a childfree academic, has a slightly different cast or shade to it than it might if I were a parent. Essentially, it means I have different choices as far as what to do with my time — but it doesn’t mean “I don’t have a life” outside of the profession.
I started to mull all of this more seriously after reading Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, a 2013 book about the disproportionate penalty that women with small children face in trying to move up the academic ranks. The book’s findings were wide-ranging and insightful, but one in particular stood out for me: Some childless female academics might, the authors wrote, experience “jealousy. If their own academic careers required childlessness, then why should newer generations of scholars have it any different? Accommodations for mothers might make their own sacrifice seem unwarranted, and childless women faculty may feel cheated or resentful.”
I certainly don’t feel that way about my colleagues with children or about the profession. The very assumption that I would signaled to me that many in higher education might not know much about those of us in the childfree camp. So in the spring of 2018, I went on an internet expedition looking for posts and articles about no-kids academics. I found loads of hits on the “baby penalty” and next to nothing in the way of statistics about childfree academic women like myself.
I’d had conversations with friends about these issues but decided I needed to talk to more women across the profession. Last May I posted a call on an email discussion group, saying that I was searching for childfree academic women to interview, and 25 responded.
My goal in the phone interviews was to plumb the depth and contours of their experiences in and out of the classroom. I focused on three main areas — their teaching, tenure, and social lives with colleagues — and learned that their experiences on those fronts shared a common bedrock with my own. Many were happy just to be asked about these issues. I immediately recognized myself in their frustrations and triumphs in the profession. Virtually every interview ended with “thank you for your work” and “thanks for letting me tell my story.”
On teaching. I asked whether the women mentioned their childfree status in the classroom — and if so, how had it affected their rapport with students. One participant said, “I’m not sure it has [affected it] much.” But another said her adviser told her to talk about her nieces in class “because it will make you more relatable as a woman. … It will make you seem more feminine, more loving than if you don’t have anybody.”
Several said they joke with students about being childfree. I, too, have an arsenal of jokes and anecdotes — like what a bad babysitter I was the one time I was asked to do it. Many of us deploy humor in class to mitigate the fear of being seen as not nurturing and caring enough, or for being perceived as unrelatable and cold.
Most of the women I interviewed said they didn’t bring it up in class at all, unless it was germane to the conversation or students asked. Many also replied that not having parenting experience allowed them, as one academic said, to “treat [students] like adults and not like a kid.”
On tenure. Most of the women said their experience moving up the tenure ranks was “smooth.” They recognized the career advantages of being childfree as a female academic: “It’s been freer in that respect,” said one. Said another, “It’s given me freedom some of my colleagues haven’t had.”
The stereotype of childfree professors as jealous of the “special accommodations” offered to academic parents did not hold true in my interviews. Categorically, none of the women I interviewed expressed resentment or bitterness toward female colleagues with small children who were allowed to stop the tenure clock. “I’m grateful they were able to do that,” one said. Another replied, “I’m at an institution that really supports those who want to have a family, and as a feminist, I think that is fantastic.”
Clear themes of support, compassion, and generosity came up frequently in the context of colleagues needing extensions for parenting or pregnancy.
I took the message “it’s better for all of us,” to be confirmation of the solidarity that I, too, have always felt with my female — and male — colleagues for whom the work-life balance is different from my own.
On their social lives in academe. Another stereotype of the childfree academic is that of the lonely, isolated professor who can’t stand kids yet feels left out of departmental social gatherings and resentful when academic parents meet for play dates or picnics. I asked the women about their social lives with fellow academics, and I recorded a consistent response of “I don’t hate kids.” In fact, many reported that they interact quite comfortably in academic social settings where children are around.
Still, awkward moments do arise. One participant described an incident that had left the impression with colleagues that she didn’t like kids. “Yeah, I do,” she said. “I just like to pick my moments, and that moment wasn’t the right one.”
Another shared that a colleague made a point of telling an administrator at the university that she was childfree. When she asked why, the colleague said, “Oh, I thought maybe he could tap you for some kind of project he’s working on.” The respondent knew her colleague meant to be helpful but he was essentially volunteering her time. “It felt really dismissive,” she said.
I purposely did not ask why the women I interviewed didn’t have children, yet many willingly offered explanations — ones that were wide-ranging yet familiar. One said, “I believe I was born childfree.” Another concluded her interview with, “The option to not have children has blessed my life.”
Indeed, many said that they’d never heard a biological clock ticking madly, and that that conclusion had come to them early in life. Although I didn’t intend to gather this genre of response, I found their revelations arose naturally during our conversations. It is easy to conclude, then, that many childfree female academics want to share their experiences in ways that counter old, ill-fitting stereotypes about barren, bitter, broken-hearted women.
We, too, are role models for our students in and out of the classroom. We work for the success of our institutions. We are caring and supportive friends of our parent colleagues, and we want to tell you all about it.
Shannon McMahon is an associate professor of English at College of Saint Mary in Nebraska, and program director of composition and of the first-year seminar on the campus.