ISO of a Label that Fits


Long before the Internet became the social hangout it is today we had personals. Do you remember them?  They were little windows on society. The acronym-loaded text boxes all but required the equivalent of a decoder ring.

I never placed one but I did scan them as a source of amusement — the best ones were in the local alternative newspaper. My fingers would get all inky as I flipped through the cheap news print. There was something for everyone.  Some read like poetry, others made me laugh or blush.funny_personal_ads_05

But what all personals shared in common were distinct labels, categories that people would organize around.

NDSWF – Non-drinking single white female … um, not someone I can relate to as I likes my infusion cocktail or red wine too, too much to hang with that tribe.

DM seeking LDR – Divorced male seeking long distance relationship … sorry, buddy, not interested.

Acronyms are the way to go when purchasing by the character, but regardless of how they’re depicted the various groups have transferred into the online world. All kinds of communities are self-organizing. But what happens when people don’t fit neatly into a category or community and why are groups and their related identities so damned important to us anyway?

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I continue to read with curiosity the heated debates about group or tribal loyalties. For instance for a brief period of time  blogger Ken Wagner was looking to organize an online community under the label Childfree Marriages. (Update 6/29/2010:  the blog has ceased since I first wrote about it here.) While I appreciate his efforts to enable people with common interests to locate each other more easily, the label childfree continues to make me uncomfortable. As I wrote in a blog comment my issue with the term is that it seems to celebrate the lack of children in a way that doesn’t fit those who are, well, without children because the fertility treatments didn’t work. Does that make me childless by default then? Hmmm.

Another blogger, Tiffany, has the following subhead: “happily childfree by choice, or miserably childless? I’ve experienced both extremes and everything in between.” That certainly covers a wider gamut but it’s a tricky acrynom: hcbcomciebeaeib. In a post she responded to a more divisive look at “breeders vs. childfree” that carried a larger insight. What I heard her say is that the more we highlight our differences the more we perpetuate stereotypes and overlook the continuum of characteristics we possess — and some don’t sort neatly.

We are multi-dimensional (well, most of us anyway) and we move from group to group and affinity to affinity as our lives evolve and change, and that’s cool. It’s when there are judgments applied to labels, tribes, groups (or what have you) that I get all that’s so not cool!

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Maybe the reason I dislike childless or childfree as descriptors is because they are loaded terms. Loaded with prejudices about the circumstances or choices that led to that state of being.

ISO answers as to why this quest for belonging seems so hard to navigate. Any ideas? Welcome your thoughts.


19 Responses

  1. Christina

    November 14, 2008 11:57 pm

    I, too can’t identify with that “kicking up our heels because we’re CHILD-FREE” label. It’s not appropriate for the many of us for whom fertility treatments didn’t work, or for whom health and money issues made adoption NOT an option. I’m someone with the distinction of being passed over by the fertility gods AND the adoption system.

    The book “Sour Grapes” — which is a staple on every infertility reading list, says we must “choose” to be “child free.” But if we didn’t?

    Child-less indicates something is missing. The best thing I’ve come across is “Living Without Parenting.”
    O.K. — there’s a negative in there, but “living” is certainly positive. It’s got something good and something bad in it, something that’s working out and something that isn’t. Kind of like life itself — everyone’s life, whether they have kids or not.

    As the holiday season is upon us, I’d like to share with this blog a little op-ed piece I published in the Providence Journal five years ago, as timely now as it was then: – 6k –

    If you poke around, there are a few more childless-themed published pieces on the site, including one I had to publish under a pseudonym in Working Woman.

    • Pamela Jeanne

      November 15, 2008 1:03 am

      Thanks, Christina, for the link to your piece and for your comment.

      Unless it was intentional (or perhaps a Freudian slip?) I believe you are referring to the book “Sweet Grapes,” not “Sour Grapes.” Either way it made me laugh — and yes, I have the book on my bookshelf along with quite a few others on the topic of infertility…

    • Christina

      November 15, 2008 3:30 pm

      Eek! What a slip. But the very story of sour grapes isn’t really so bad — I believe it’s about someone for whom the rich, juicy grapes are out of reach, so he comforts himself by saying — they were probably sour — meaning not right for him — anyhow.

      In my case, this isn’t a negative — with a ci (chronic illness, for the uninitiated) daily life, money earning and management are huge challenges. Sometimes I can’t even get to water my plants when I’m having a health crisis, or if I’m in pain and unable to smile for long periods of time, my husband thinks I’m mad at him. If I were a Mom, a kid could — no, I’m afraid the answer is would, no matter how hard I try not to, feel the same. And he or she may not get that the times when I’m in an SOS mode about my own health have nothing to do with him or her. When a parent has a ci, the message is, Why does it always have to be about her? When it needs to be about the child.

      But there is a prevalent message out there: Baby for Everyone! 60? No prob! Paralyzed from the neck down — get someone else to do your parenting work for you. I don’t want to ever say that anyone who is older (I know many people successfully raised by their grandparents) shouldn’t parent. I know a few chronically ill women with a lot of money and huge support systems for whom parenthood has worked out. Many more for whom it didn’t, who wind up whacking their kids in the name of Christ, have four year olds running and fetching for them while they are in bed.

      That’s not me! So — a long way of saying, the Sour Grapes tag isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just realistic.

  2. luna

    November 15, 2008 3:40 am

    I had to laugh at the sour grapes comment.

    I’ve always disliked labels, unless I’m applying them to myself. I feel like I’m the only one who has earned the right to label me.

    you’re right, the terms are often loaded and incomplete, and usually inaccurate on some level. that’s because humans are complex, and labels are our way of categorizing in an overly simple way.

  3. Dr Bad Ass

    November 15, 2008 4:03 am

    Here’s the problem with whatever label you adopt: it assumes that something related to the label is the norm, and everything outside of it is not the norm. So the labels “childfree” or “childless” — both of which I reject for myself, although I certainly have no children, either born from my body or adopted — assumes that I should be defined by the presence of children or the lack of children. I’m more than that simple dichotomy, so I reject those labels. I’m a person. I happen to be female (I’ll accept that one). I’m a professor, I’m an educator. I’m a liberal. I was born a Texan, although I’ll probably never live in that state again (can’t take the summers). So — I’m not in search of a label because of what any label assumes about me, and because of the answers any label provides to questions I don’t want to have asked.

  4. WaterBishop

    November 15, 2008 3:36 pm

    I have a love-hate relationship with labels. While on one hand, I like the idea of finding a niche or a word to describe me, the other hand shows that none of the terms are very accurate.

    I am not technically Childfree, because it was not really my choice. And I do believe that being Childfree means you are celebrating that status.

    However I do not feel Childless either. Perhaps I just reject that label, or perhaps I am in denial. The best I can come up with is Nonparent. While I know that label does not describe me well, and I am much more than that, it IS how society will compartmentalize me, and I can’t really change that. For many people, being a parent is as much a part of them as their gender. It is a major facet of life for most people so I don’t find it unreasonable for people to label me based on my nonparent status, whether I like it or not.

  5. Deathstar

    November 15, 2008 8:49 pm

    Mmmm, I’m still waiting for my status to change aka waiting for my peace and quiet to be shattered. How about involuntarily non-smug?

  6. Io

    November 16, 2008 11:46 pm

    I keep trying to think up a label and have nothing. It appears that if I needed an old school personal ad, I would have spent many Saturdays alone.

  7. loribeth

    November 17, 2008 2:29 am

    The problem with labels is that there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t quite fit the cozy niche we try to shove them into. I certainly feel that way. “ChildLESS” sounds so forlorn (even if that’s how I feel sometimes)… “childFREE” sounds like I am glad to be free of the burden of children, when that’s not the case. There ARE, of course, people who never wanted children who use the term “childfree” & I think that has caused a lot of confusion in the general population. (After all, anyone who REALLY wants a baby can get one these days, what with IVF and adoption, can’t they??)

    The counsellor dh & I saw when deciding to stop treatment referred to us as “a family of two,” which I rather liked. Yes, I believe we are a family, even though we don’t have any (living) children.

  8. Alacrity

    November 17, 2008 2:03 pm

    I have given this a lot of thought as well. I tried on the “childfree” label, but it absolutely does not fit – it chafes actually.

    “Nonparent” is one I have considered, but again, who wants to be defined by the lack of something? Same for “childless.” And I certainly don’t want to label myself with something that reminds me that I couldn’t have children!!

    I like “family of two” because it is neutral (or even slightly positive), and acknowledges that you can be a family without having children. It is flexible to describe any partnership – gay, straight, married or not.

    I guess that it has its limitations though – in that it doesn’t describe the individual, and it does exclude single people without children.

  9. Cindy

    November 17, 2008 7:22 pm

    I think part of the problem of finding a label is that I don’t want to be a part of this group. I was forced into by my circumstances and health, and I won’t like any label that defines my loss and places me in a group based on it. I may come to accept it, but I can’t find any way to make it a positive thing.

    On the flip side, while I’m not happy to be in this group of childlessness, I’m extremely happy to have found others who understand my experience. It sometimes gets lonely when no one in my non-cyber world understands the painfulness of our experience.

  10. stepping up

    November 18, 2008 1:29 am

    There’s so many great replies here.

    As Cindy wrote above, where would we be without the understanding we find here? Recently I’ve decided that I would make my feelings much more vocal to fertiles. But it seems that my efforts have only made me feel MORE lonely. Our loss doesn’t seem substantial enough to register to others. People out there JUST DON”T GET IT!!! Everyday seems like a life long obstacle course. Children and talking about children EVERYWHERE!

    And as we move forward, I really like the description of a “family of two.”
    If evokes the kind of picture I want to share with others. One entry Pam sent a few months ago was very helpful to me. Going thru the IF process has strengthened our marriage and the chances of divorcing are 40% less than the rest of this country. I’ll hang my hat on that any day of the week.

  11. Summer

    November 18, 2008 1:36 am

    I also dislike the connotations of child free and childless. A fellow infertile once wrote about being underchildrened–having lost pregnancies/children yet may have other living children–or unchildrened–in a similar vein that people who are homeless are unhoused in that they are without shelter.

    To me, these terms ring more truthfully than childfree or childless even though they are not “real” words.

  12. Bea

    November 20, 2008 1:45 am

    I think labels get dangerous when we allow others to apply them to us. When we choose our own labels, well, it’s still loaded, still tricky, still fraught with a sense of wanting to neaten our lives and find a place to fit in, and still leads to others perceiving us in ways that may or may not fit with how we see ourselves, but I have much less problem with it when we choose our own labels ourselves. At that point, it becomes more of a quick-reference guide for those who don’t know us yet.


  13. Donna

    November 20, 2008 7:28 am

    Cindy’s comment above: “I think part of the problem of finding a label is that I don’t want to be a part of this group. I was forced into by my circumstances and health, and I won’t like any label that defines my loss and places me in a group based on it. I may come to accept it, but I can’t find any way to make it a positive thing.”

    Genius! My thoughts exactly. I was sexually abused by a family member for many years, but like the infertility labels, I have always chafed at being called an “incest survivor”, it just makes me cringe. I don’t want to be defined by a hugely negative part of my life. Our circumstances are all subtly different, yet we want to know that there are others out there like us, or if that isn’t available, just someone out there who GETS IT. Personally I feel bombarded by the constant media references to children. If I see one more commercial about a family with 5-8-12-16 kids…

  14. Childfreeeee

    February 24, 2009 12:14 pm

    I think you are missing the point. The term “childfree” is not intended to be used by people who are dealing with infertility issues or people who want kids, but presently do not have them. It is a term specifically created to describe people who do not have children because they do not WANT children – people who think a life without children is desirable and preferable.

    The appropriate term for people who want to have children but do not, or cannot for whatever reason, is “childless” but this term does not apply to the childfree because the term implies that one is missing something they should have or want and we do not feel that way.

    Try to understand that from a childfree person’s perspective, not only do we not see our lives as one of lack, but quite the opposite – we see it as one of abundance primarly BECAUSE of our choice not to have children. We see our lives as a celebration of all the extra things we HAVE precisely because of our CF state – for example freedom, time, sleep, substantial adult relationships and conversation, money, hobbies, an unstrained relationship with our spouse, flexibility and spontanaeity, and the list goes on and on.

    If the term “childfree” feels insulting to a childed person, realize that the term “childless” presents similar reactions from us. Whereas you may feel “childfree” is insulting because it implies children are something good to be free of, realize that we see “childless” and insulting AND inaccurate, so it’s worse.

    In the end, I think having 2 different terms works. The childfree and childless are really like apples and oranges and I do not see how it would be possible to have one term that accurately portrays both.

    • Pamela Jeanne

      February 24, 2009 4:20 pm

      No point is being missed. I fully understand the vociferous “childfree by choice” community philosophy, which in extreme cases like the Momzilla and Dadzillas of the world seems to pride itself on being exclusionary — rife with specific requirements to be met before acceptance into the club.

      Lovely, yet another group that recoils from those who find
      themselves infertile.

      Your comment seems to imply the “childfree by choice”
      community wants nothing to do with those of us in limbo — those trying to move beyond the
      losses of being infertile (which extend beyond the experience
      of having and raising children and reaches much more broadly into our lives and place in society) and into a place of peace and understanding.

      Depending on where we are along the path, it’s hard to imagine a life
      without the full human experience of being and contributing to a long chain of those who came before us and those who will come after. We are stuck somewhere between childless and childfree.

      This particular post was simply musing on the odd state women and men find ouselves – and the difficulties associated with labels and the biases that come with them.

      BTW: Is there a trademark on the term “childfree”? You’ll find it is touted on the RESOLVE website and as a way to see life in the wake of infertility.

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