Over the phone, Vanessa is telling me about her upcoming Sayulita, Mexico vacation. There’d be a house with a pool, another house “in the hills,” a bunch of people, and long, lazy days spent drinking and hanging out. I’m doing my best to actively listen while my 3.5-year-old daughter is jumping on me, gleefully yelling “Mexico! Mexico!” “I hear your little one,” Vanessa chuckles. “I can’t imagine what I’d do with a mini-me.”
I met Vanessa, a talented cook and artist, last summer. I was interviewing her for my local paper, and instantly became enamored with her house, her devil-may-care attitude, her delicious food, and animated stories about trips, impulsive decisions and adventures. We became loose friends, texting and crossing paths every so often. You might have guessed by now that she doesn’t have kids, and that’s no coincidence. Vanessa (and I hope she doesn’t dump me after reading this) is one of the many child-free women I cherish—and secretly obsess over—in my life.
You know how, when searching for the perfect summer sandals, all you notice is other women’s chic sandals? Before I had children, I never thought of women who chose not to become mothers. Now I think about them constantly and notice them everywhere. They have something I’m searching for, a window into a life path I didn’t choose.
It all started with a little black door. In March 2017, six months pregnant, I was in New York City for a media conference—my last solo trip pre-motherhood. Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern was showing at the Brooklyn Museum, an extensive exhibition showcasing the painter’s wardrobe and accessories alongside quotes and anecdotes from her life. She went camping alone! Painted at dawn every morning! And she once fell in love with a black door in the desert and decided to buy the whole estate around it! Standing in front of O’Keefe’s custom-made Pucci and Balenciaga, I thought, for the first time, about the acute freedom and vast possibilities a life without children could entail.
Around the time my daughter was born, in the summer of 2017, the British movie star Helen Mirren—the original poster girl for child-free living, predating even Oprah—was promoting The Leisure Seeker in a series of dazzling, body-hugging red carpet looks. I followed along, gulping her interviews, soaking up Mirren’s youthful glow and deep self-confidence through my computer screen.
Gradually, admirable child-free women started finding their way to me on the big and small screen, in books I’ve been reading, and in articles I’ve been retweeting. There was Tracee Ellis Ross, who I’d see walking the red carpet at the Emmys and Golden Globes, with her magnificent style and effortless, infectious joie de vivre. And author Meghan Daum, whose 2014 book of essays, The Unspeakable, about her decision to forego motherhood, made me weep on my maternity leave. (Not only did Daum opt out of having children, she also edited an anthology in which 16 talented writers talk about making the same decision.)
As my daughter was changing from a baby to a toddler, I’ve often found myself playing a guessing game, and becoming increasingly good at it—if a female artist, writer, or visionary drew my attention, chances were, they were child-free. Ann Friedman, the woman behind the best-selling Big Friendship I recently finished? No kids. Anne Helen Petersen, my personal writing idol and the author of Can’t Even—in which she pinpoints the financial and societal reasons that led her to decide against motherhood—is child-free also. I don’t know these women, but I rely on them for advice and solace. And, as with Vanessa, I’ve been seeking out their real-life counterparts too.
I was brought up in a Russian household, so traditional family values have been probably baked into me from the get-go. I remember feeling delight and tenderness towards babies and toddlers as a young girl and a teenager, and I’d often fantasize about my own little human that I’d have one day. In Israel, where I grew up, procreation and family life are national obsessions, but even after moving to the U.S, where being child-free is much more socially accepted, I still found myself wanting to get pregnant. All of this is to say, I’m someone who always had clarity about wanting children. Hell, I’m thinking of having a second one as I write this essay. And yet I’m drawn to child-free women like a magnet.
There’s Marcia, the fabulous food writer I’d see at local events in a colorful kaftan, dangly earrings, with a flurry of adoring gay men around her at all times. There’s my friend Christina, an accessories designer from Mexico who likes to cuddle my daughter, but fully admits to enjoying a life free of child-related hassle and fatigue. There’s also Gail, the quirky editor I love catching up with, who collects shoes and lives alone in a gorgeous apartment. And there’s Danielle, a talented artist I met recently, who turned her home into a by-appointment museum, because she can. I cherish every interaction with them. I study them.
Part of it is good old FOMO. How much more could my life be if I didn’t want kids and had decided not to have any? Could I be a better writer? Would I have a book deal already? Could I travel to more places? Buy a house in the desert on a whim? But part of my fascination with child-free women is that, aside from the fact I am a mother, I want to be just like them.
Once you have a child, it’s incredibly easy to internalize society’s expectations and give in to the narrative of being completely changed, reborn, erased, whatever you want to call it. I see it often on Instagram; once a woman, influencer or acquaintance, has a child, her posts quickly become enveloped in baby drool, plus dream-like proclamations about sacrifice, work-life balance, unconditional love, and organic cotton onesies.
But what if, against all odds, you want to birth a human baby and remain totally, unconditionally, loudly, yourself? Motherhood does take a decent chunk of my time. But while I carry the love for my daughter deep inside, and give her much of the attention that I could instead have channeled into a future bestseller, for the most part, I feel I’ve remained unchanged. I still consider myself child-free in the sense that I love my freedom, cultivate my choices, listen to my instincts, chase my dreams, and indulge in plans that have little to do with her. Obsessing over child-free women reminds me of this persistent part of who I am, of who I’ve always been.
I know that no two child-free women are the same, and that saying no to motherhood is a tough, tricky decision fueled by circumstances hidden from the eye. But to me, what all of these women—in history, in media, and in my social circles—have in common is that pure true-to-yourself-ness that I so desire to remember and preserve. They don’t need to “balance” work, hobbies, and mothering—instead, they can fully prioritize their solo life journey, on their own terms. And while I’m not able to walk in their shoes, looking up to them is close enough. Yes, I tell Vanessa at the end of our call, I’ll join her for a Sunday “pizza, beach, and biking adventure.” And as I hang up, the sliding door I never entered, but frequently stare in the direction of, once again flaps open.
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