It stinks for people who are already mothers, who find that they need more out of life than parenting to be happy and fulfilled, and are treated like traitors to their own children for saying so.
It stinks for people who never want to be mothers, whose choice is demeaned and whose lives are devalued with the invocation of the assertion that only motherhood begets true fulfillment.
And it stinks for people who aren't yet sure if they want to be mothers, who have access to all sorts of testaments to the comprehensive fulfillment of motherhood, but far fewer critical assessments of modern parenting from those navigating it, and fewer still stories of lives that are better because they have been parenting-free.
"I wish," said a female coworker of mine once, after a particularly rough day with her three kids, "that I had heard anyone say, even once, that happiness without kids was possible."
She is a great mom—the kind of mom that we should all be so lucky to have. She loves her kids, and she likes them, too, most days. And she wishes she'd never had them.
When she got pregnant with her first, soon after getting engaged at a young age, she'd never even considered not having kids. Having kids was just what women like her did. Even having been raised in a politically moderate suburb in a not-churchgoing household, born a decade after Roe was legal fact, she'd never encountered the idea that a straight, middle-class, cis woman who was married might elect to not have kids.
And be happy with that choice.
My life was full of aunts and older second-cousins who never had children. Aunt Betty. Aunt Lil. Aunt Marsha. Cousins Jane and Joy. And my Aunt Judy—a fat feminist executive who took her nieces on trips around the world, to make sure we knew what it looked like. She worked her way up from a mailroom to a vice-presidency; she traveled; she refused to be obliged; she spent lots of money (and saved lots of money); she drove a cherry red convertible with a guffaw for a backseat. She owned herself. And she told me, plainly, she didn't want children, even while I still was one.
Judy didn't worry about being cautious, lest an eavesdropping parent infer she was impugning their choice. She didn't worry about my potentially inferring she didn't like me, or my sister, or my cousins, just because she didn't want children of her own. If she worried about anything at all, it was making sure I knew that her life, a life that she knew I admired, was fundamentally incompatible with parenting.
Her life wouldn't have been what it was if she had been a mother.
"Having it all" is a questionable concept to begin with, especially when conjured outside a framework that meaningfully addresses privilege. But if among the things you want to "have" are tons of flexibility and lots of freedom, it's a comprehensively useless concept. Freedom and flexibility inevitably necessitate trading something.
I can't know precisely what my life might have looked like if I'd chosen to parent, but I know that building a career that took me from a reception desk to an executive office in six years would have been harder, if not impossible, if I'd had kids. I know that ending my first marriage would not have been as easy if we'd had children—both making the decision to end it, and the legal mechanics of ending it. I know I couldn't have picked up and moved to Scotland on a whim. I know I could not as easily hold firm boundaries with close family members, if I had children who needed and wanted to see them. I know I could not have built and maintained this space, because the demands on my time are too great.
There are people vested in shaming any woman who chooses not to parent who tell me that I can't really be happy, or that my happiness pales in comparison to the incandescence of the happiness uniquely conveyed by motherhood. But motherhood doesn't make everyone happy. What makes people happy is being able to fashion their lives into the shapes they want.
This is a reproductive choice we don't talk about so much, because it's inevitably inferred to be implicitly censurous of parenting and/or children. I am not anti-parenting. I don't dislike children. I am, however, deeply contemptuous of the bad faith interpretations that misconstrue child-free advocacy as one of many reproductive options to be inherently anti-parent/child. I talk about my happiness being child-free because I support a spectrum of equally valid reproductive choice, which includes parenting, too.
It's important for us, collectively, not to silence women who choose and are happy to be child-free—and not just because we're a useful demographic to defend the need for comprehensive reproductive choice and undermine bullshit gender essentialist, cissexist narratives about "natural instincts" and "what women are meant to do." It's important because there isn't really meaningful choice without a public discussion of all those choices, by the people who made them.
And an honest discussion: I am not going to be obliged to acquiesce that, sure, my life might have been even better with children. Never mind whether it's (in)accurate: It's irrelevant. My life is what I want it to be, as much as it can be, given my particular set of privileges, marginalizations, talents, and opportunities. And I am not going to be obliged to pretend that my choice is neutral: It isn't. I wanted to be child-free, and I am, and that is a better choice for me. We talk about these choices in a frame that exhorts us to recognize parenting as The Best Choice! and not-parenting as another choice. That isn't honest. Choosing to be child-free is the best choice, the happy-making choice, for a lot of people.
So. Let me be one voice for anyone, of any gender, who doesn't have an Aunt Judy to tell them the same: It is possible to be happy without children. It is possible your life will be better without them. It's not true that anyone who chooses not to parent and says they don't regret that decision is "protesting too much." Not parenting is an option, and sometimes it's a very good one.