Childfree, with No Regrets and No Apologies
My So-Called Selfish Life, Therese Shechter’s new documentary about a woman’s right to choose a childfree life, was an intensely personal watch for me. Like many of the talking heads in this documentary, I knew from an early age that mothering wasn’t going to be part of my life path. Shechter’s film highlights the negative responses those of us who decide to remain childfree often receive: We’re told that we’re selfish and perverse, that we’ll change our minds, that we’ll regret the decision when we’re old and there’s no one to take care of us. Yet the beauty of this film is that it goes beyond the usual critiques, using animation and the perspectives of social scientists, OB-GYNs, and the joyously childfree to enlarge our collective understanding of reproductive justice.
My So-Called Selfish Life explores the many ways that motherhood is assumed to be women’s destiny. These include pregnancy test ads that show a positive result uniformly greeted with joy, contraceptive ads that assume women are delaying motherhood rather than passing on it, college courses focused on women and reproduction that neglect the possibility of not reproducing, all the “biological clock” talk that is actually about cultural expectations. And, of course, Mother’s Day, which the film dubs a “global celebration of pronatalism” and which I experience as an annual landmine. (I try to avoid being churlish when someone wishes me a “Happy Mother’s Day” or “Merry Christmas,” but the assumption that I’m a mother or a Christian is a cross I’m often unwilling to bear.)
And then there’s the phenomenon of “mommyjacking,” discussed in the film by Blair Koenig, blogger and author of the book STFU, Parents. When you’re “mommyjacked,” a conversation about any feeling or experience shifts into commentary on parenting. Note that you’re exhausted or having trouble keeping up with email, and a mommyjacker will tell you to wait until you have two kids and will then overshare about what her little darling did to keep her up last night. The false pregnancy rumors that plagued Jennifer Aniston often mommyjacked her career.
My So-Called Selfish Life is particularly attuned to the historical and political complexities of women of color choosing a childfree life. Black women’s reproduction during slavery was key to keeping that institution going. Post-slavery, pronatalism for white women and forced sterilization for women of color became the linchpins of eugenics and “the white race panic” that continues today in anti-immigrant, white supremacist movements.
Within the context of white supremacy, Black women who choose a childfree life are often viewed as complicit with white racists antagonistic to Black families and communities. Given such cultural pressures, reproductive justice movements need to include the childfree explicitly. Dr. Kimya Nuru Dennis, who is profiled in the film and defines herself as an African diaspora activist and social scientist, developed a course on being childfree at Salem College, a women’s college in North Carolina, to expand the discussions around Black motherhood.
White Jewish women are also under culturally specific pressures to, as Genesis puts it, “be fruitful and multiply.” Many years and books ago, I sought information about graduate school from my academic advisor, who was also the director of the local Hillel chapter. He enthusiastically recommended Brandeis University, a school with a sizable Jewish population. As the conversation continued, it became obvious he considered the pool of marriage prospects the big draw, rather than academics. When I expressed doubts about marriage and children, he informed me that smart women like me had a responsibility to replenish the Jewish people after the Holocaust. I left his office silently cursing the kosher pig and wondering whether my desire to live a childfree life would mean I’d have to divorce the Jewish people.
Although the “J” word is never explicitly invoked in My So-Called Selfish Life, the director, Therese Shechter, has been identified as a Jewish feminist, and the film is making the rounds at Jewish film festivals. Shechter’s mother, who appears in the film, is described as a refugee who first escaped from Hitler, then Stalin, before landing in Israel in the early stages of pregnancy without money or knowledge of Hebrew. Because of her desperate circumstances, it was assumed that she would want an abortion, but she opted to keep the fetus that would become Therese. Yet her own escape from Hitler’s eugenics program and her subsequent reproductive journey did not lead her to assume that Therese should become a mother. Her embrace of her daughter’s choice to remain childfree, as well as her explicit disdain for Mother’s Day, demonstrates that Jewish mothers can be powerful allies in the childfree movement.
Other Jewish voices included in this documentary are Israeli sociologist Orna Donath, author of Regretting Motherhood, and Chanel Dubofsky, a Jewish writer and reproductive activist who has written about the “tons of examples of how Jewish communal pressure to have children manifests itself.” In the film, Dubofsky turns the charge of selfishness on its head, smartly pointing out the self-centeredness of those who would categorize children as a form of prospective eldercare.
Such pushing back at natalist narratives is a strong feature of this film, as are other counterintuitive pleasures. Blair Koenig, of STFU, Parents fame, is shown on a playground with the child she ultimately decided to bear. However, rather than becoming a natalist convert, her advocacy of the childfree choice is as strong as ever.
The film also follows a young woman named Lauren who had to work tirelessly to find a doctor who would sterilize her—the medical establishment generally insists that childfree women don’t know their own minds and refuses to tie their tubes on demand. While mainstream culture fetishizes the baby bump shot, Shechter brilliantly chose to include a shot of this young woman’s tiny tubal ligation incision covered by a Band-Aid, once she was finally allowed to make her own reproductive choices.
And then there’s the tattoo designed by Michelle, an infertile woman who started out thinking of herself as childless and then reenvisioned herself as childfree. The tattoo shows a woman giving birth to things other than babies: books, representing literature; a microscope, representing science and medicine; and scales, representing law and justice. Michelle’s design represents the diverse paths women can take to define their legacies.
Although tattoos go against Jewish tradition, and I would never get one myself, Michelle’s inclusion of books in her tattoo strongly resonated with me. I am a childfree woman of a certain age who has no regrets and who considers my extensive writing part of my legacy—in my case, writing about Jewish culture is a contribution to Jewish continuity.
My So-Called Selfish Life focuses on a too-often overlooked part of a truly inclusive reproductive justice movement. This makes it a significant feminist documentary and, if only obliquely, a Jewish one, too.
My So-Called Selfish Life will be released to the public in the coming months. See here for information about how to bring the film to your school, library, or nonprofit organization.
How to cite this page
Meyers, Helene. "Childfree, with No Regrets and No Apologies." 8 February 2022. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 28, 2022) <https://jwa.org/blog/childfree-no-regrets-and-no-apologies>.