Episode 48: Professional women, no kids

September 22, 2014

"We can’t change as much as we’d like to how society looks at us, but we can certainly change how we look at ourselves...we are not second to mother." - Melanie Notkin

"The reason I didn’t have kids is not because I wanted a career instead of children. It’s because I just didn’t want to have children of my own. And I think that’s a valid choice too." - Jennifer Rapach

More and more women are reaching their mid-forties without having children. Sometimes this is by choice, and sometimes it's not. But here's what both sets of women have in common: they're operating in a world where being a mother is still considered the default setting for women. Discussions of women in leadership usually assume every woman has to juggle her work with children. But where does that leave the rest of us? 

In this show we meet three successful women, childless and child-free: Melanie Notkin, founder of Savvy Auntie and author of the book Otherhood, Sara Hinkle, who works in academia and is tired of feeling left out of conversations about work/life balance, and Jennifer Rapach, who has been married for 20 years and has never wanted children. Try explaining that to the rest of the universe. 26 minutes. 


Further reading:

The book I mentioned at the end of the podcast is Singled Out by Juliet Nicholson. Inspiring and moving.

Melanie Notkin is founder and editor of Savvy Auntie. She's the author of Otherhood and Savvy Auntie.

Dr. Sara Hinkle works in student affairs at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. She wrote a blog post earlier this year called The Invisible Single Woman.

Jennifer Rapach works in politics in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and is directing the campaign Tom Wolf for Governor.

Pew Social Trends report on childlessness in the US.

Report from the Office of National Statistics in the UK on childlessness in England and Wales (which I mistakenly called 'the UK' in the podcast - and this was after Scotland rejected independence!)


Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show…

“Feminism was, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the fight for the social, economic and political equality with men. Today I think it is the childless woman’s same fight for the social, political and economic equality with mothers.”

Professional women, no kids. It’s easy to feel left out of the conversation on women and work.

“And I was the only woman on the panel who was single and childless and it just hit me – you know, these books that we’re reading, they don’t capture my experience, they don’t speak to me.”

And if you’re married?

“People just assume that people who are married want to have kids and are going to have kids. I just find that people are very surprised when they find out that I don’t want to have kids.”

Coming up – three women in their 40s, childless, and child-free on not being society’s default setting.

I first interviewed Melanie Notkin for a public radio story four years ago about why marketers ignore single women. She has built a company called Savvy Auntie – it’s an online community for women who like children, but don’t have any of their own.

She’s become a bit of a patron saint for women without kids – and there are more of us now than there used to be. In England and Wales, about a fifth of women now end their childbearing years without having had a child. In their mother’s generation, that figure was one in nine women. In the US, it’s slightly lower – about 18 percent of women don’t have children by their mid-forties, when fertility typically runs out.

Earlier this year Melanie published a book about the lives of women who always thought they’d have kids, but by their late 30s or 40s, are still childless – basically women like her and me. The book is called Otherhood.

“I’m interested in your perception of how society views single women.”

“It’s single women, and frankly any woman who is childless, especially those who is childless by circumstance, not by choice. That they may have married at age 38 or 42 and they’re having trouble conceiving, but it’s this group of women who experience this place, this Otherhood where they are not only not living the life they expected, but they are not living the life that others expected of them. And there is a lot of judgment.”

One common accusation is that you’re too fussy. Or there are the people who tell you to settle – that love and attraction are overrated anyway. Just marry that guy and have his babies while you still can. But Melanie doesn’t buy this. And she doesn’t think other women should have to either.

“The one thing they can’t control is when and how they fall in love. And by the way that doesn’t mean they haven’t been in love or found love but it doesn’t mean that the guy is ready to commit. So it takes two to tango, and society puts all the blame on these women. You’re not doing enough, well if you just tried harder, if you weren’t so picky, have you heard of Match.com? I just heard about this new app called Tinder, have you tried it? As if these single women don’t have these conversations with themselves and don’t know about these things. Or they say well you’re just delaying it. Or, they call them -- and I know this is very relevant to your listeners, they call us career women. And what I found - find so crazy about that is that there are no career men. It’s a very loaded term.”

A term that came into being in a different era, when middle-class women who worked were outliers. But now the majority of women work outside the home, yet the expression ‘career woman’ lives on, with connotations of the dedicated workaholic who doesn’t care about much else…

Why do you think this stereotype persists? Because I hear it all the time.

“I see it too, and I’ve been called a career woman. I’ve been called a lot of --things around career woman, like a feminazi career woman as if having a job is some sort of radical feminist idea. And in fact of course we have to pay the rent, there are many working mothers, wives, who work as well. We all have to pay the rent. I think it’s bandied around because we as these quote-unquote career woman haven’t changed the conversation. We have to be honest and say, why did you call me a career woman? And this is actually something that happened to me on a date.  He’s an attorney and he said well, so I don’t understand. You’re this, that, and everything else, why aren’t you married? And I said well, I just haven’t met him yet. Clearly I knew this guy wasn’t him. And he said well, you know I understand, I know your type. What do you mean? Well, there’s this woman in my office, another attorney. She’s a career woman. Why is she a career woman and you’re just a roaming bachelor? Well, you know, you know what I mean. No, I don’t know what you mean. Why is she a career woman? Why do you suppose or assume that she has chosen to be an attorney over finding love, marriage and children? Why is it that being an attorney for you is just part of who you are, but being an attorney for her is all of what she is, because chances are, I’ve never met her, but that’s not the case.”

Melanie says she talked to another female lawyer for the book. This woman was at a big firm, on track to become a partner. But she wanted to get married and have kids. So in her early 30s she decided to scale back her work life so she could make that happen. She stepped off the partner track and went into the marketing department. She’s now in her late 30s and she still hasn’t found the guy. And she regrets sacrificing quite a bit of heft and income for an idea.

I had a vaguely similar story – without the starry ascent or the big money. Years ago, I hedged my bets in one direction: my biological clock was ticking, other people were having babies left and right. I wanted to join them. Not only did I want it for myself, I felt it was what I should do.

AM-T: “Looking back on it I actually should have been more focused on what was going on around me at work, more savvily tapping into the politics at work, and things I could have done to advance myself…”

Not that it would necessarily have done any good.

But I wish I’d put fewer eggs in my relationship basket – a relationship that failed – and more in the career basket. I wish I’d paid more attention to what I could manage now.

“I hear that 100 percent. I mean I moved to New York City because I’m Jewish and there are a lot more single Jewish men here, and I thought well maybe I’ll meet a great Jewish guy. And I remember being on a job interview at the ripe age of 23 I think and asking about the maternity benefits, because it was a non-profit organization and I wanted to make sure that I could take time off had I become a mother. For me, this was not only something I desired, it was something I expected would happen. I really, since I was a little girl, yearned to be a mother. And I took jobs in the non-profit world for my first 7 years in New York City. And then it became too costly to live in New York City without actually going back into the for profit world, and so I did that. And I think that we must, we have to prepare for or manage careers that support our other life goals but at the same time we have to make sure that we can afford all the things that we need to afford in order to even freeze our eggs. I mean freezing eggs was not even viable, wasn’t even something we talked about the way that twenty-somethings talked about when I was twenty something.”

Now it is an option, although the outcome is far from guaranteed. And it’s an expensive option – it can be around $15,000 dollars in a city like New York.  Then of course there’s the exhortation by some friends to have a baby on your own. Some women do, of course. But it’s hardly something a single woman supporting herself can take lightly.

When you’re single with no kids by a certain age, you can feel like you don’t fit in. That you’re not in this club everyone else belongs to. And as Melanie and I both know, when it’s a club you expected to be part of, it’s hard. There’s a whole mixture of feelings, including isolation.

“Yes, we can be made to feel outside society, which is actually why I titled the book Otherhood. It’s a little existential – actually it’s a very existential, but one will read as one gets to the end of the book of how really, is it how we look at ourselves, or how society looks at us?”

Who’s actually judging us here – is it other people? Or is it us?

“We can’t change as much as we’d like to how society looks at us, but we can certainly change how we look at ourselves. And that is what I hope the reader is empowered to do when she reads this book, is to understand that she is not second to mother. In fact I look at this as a new era in feminism – that feminism was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, as we know, the fight for the social, economic, and political equality with men. Today I think it’s the childless woman’s same fight for the social, economic, and political equality with mothers. Because when we talk about flex-time at work for women, we’re not talking about single women or childless women, we’re talking about mothers. When we talk about work/life balance, we assume that all women are mothers. I think that we need to really understand what we say when we say ‘women in the workforce’, because often enough it’s really about mothers.”

Melanie Notkin. You can find her at SavvyAuntie.com.

Sara Hinkle couldn’t agree more with Melanie. She’s 44 and she works in academia, in student affairs. She’s in this book club with some friends and colleagues in the academic world. She says they meet regularly, and some of the books they’ve been discussing lately are about women’s leadership. Last year Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was on their list. The women ended up deciding to discuss these books on a panel at a conference in March of this year…

“And I was the only woman on the panel who was single and childless. And as we were talking with one another about what we wanted to discuss, it just hit me. These books that we’re reading, they don’t capture my experience, they don’t speak to me. And it all kind of culminated, and I got a lot of good feedback at the presentation. So I turned my presentation into this blog entry which was very cathartic and very nice to see that other women out there were feeling the same thing and having the same experience.”

That’s how I found her – a friend on Facebook alerted me to her blog post, entitled The Invisible Single Woman. Sara says that’s basically how she feels a lot of the time.

“One of the things that Sandberg talked about is you know, one of the most important career decisions you are going to make is whether or not you want a life partner and who that partner is. And so I thought well, huh. Somehow I seem to have created a successful career for myself without a partner, so am I somehow deficient or less than because I don’t have this supportive partner? So that was one of the things I found frustrating. And also, all the discussion about having children: you know, there is this idea that the single childless woman is this sort of cold, non-maternal career woman who has just focused on her career and has made this decision to delay having kids, which may or may not be the case but I don’t think you can assume that.”

She says that stereotype really bugs her – more than bugs her, actually, she finds it insulting. I said to her, what’s always struck me about the popular media view of single women or any woman without kids really, is that it’s so reductive…it’s like women have only one script – and we have to stick to it.

"Exactly, exactly. And I mean I do care about my career, I would be lying if I said I didn’t but I also care very much about my personal life and I would like to have a family. So yeah, I think reductive is a great word for that. “

But you know what Melanie and I were just talking about – this idea of, do you matter less because you don’t have children? Sara’s thought about that herself. She’s bought into it, in fact, when colleagues have had to leave work early for one reason or another. 

“It’s sort of this double standard where the parent is applauded and no one bats an eyelash because well of course he or she needs to pick the kid from daycare or go to the baseball game or go to the doctor appointment. But if you’re a childless person, you may be perceived as selfish because you want to go to yoga class, or go meet friends out, or do whatever you’re doing. One of the things that I realized as I was reflecting on this, no one has really made a negative comment to me about it. It’s really my own guilt that I place on myself in that I too think that a parent’s time is more valuable than mine so really it needs to start with me. And I need to respect my time and realize my time is just as precious as anyone else’s.

But after I stopped recording, Sara told me something. She said she wasn’t sure whether to mention it earlier because she feels so strongly about women with no kids being left out of these workplace conversations – and how that needs to change. But seven years ago, she froze her eggs.  

“And so I am very lucky in that I had success, I became pregnant in February. When I was writing the article, I felt like a little bit of a fraud because I was pregnant but I wasn’t able to share that at the time. But yeah, so I’m really interested to you know, cross over to the other side and have that different perspective. But I also feel this sense of loyalty to my single childless sisters out in the world in that I want to make sure that I, as a mother-to-be, never make them feel deficient or less than or that they’ve made a bad choice, if you can even call it a choice. So I think that’s something that I intend to be very mindful of. I feel like mothers often talk about motherhood as this great sorority. I had a colleague who said, oh, I can’t wait till you join the club, and I thought, well, this is not a club. You’re making a choice to take on this responsibility, which is great, but it’s not this secret sorority that you should make other people feel like they are less than if they’re not a member of.”

Her baby is due in late October. 

Yes, there are many women who don’t have children and want them. But there’s also a sizeable minority that has no desire to have children. And if you’re one of those women and you’re married or partnered, that can be tough to explain to an expectant public of friends, family and colleagues.

Jennifer Rapach works in politics. Right now she’s the western Pennsylvania political director for the campaign Tom Wolf for Governor.

“Actually this is my second career – I started off my career in teaching, I was a music teacher, a band teacher for 12 years. I went into politics in 2007 when I left teaching. I always tell people I left teaching and went into politics because there was so much politics in education.”

Then there’s the politics of being married and child-free – that’s how Jennifer describes herself. She’s 43 and she’s been married most of her adult life.

AM-T: "When did you discuss whether or not to have kids?"

“Well, my husband and I started dating in high school so we’d been together a while before we got married at 23. And we had talked off and on about not wanting kids or possibly wanting kids, it was never really an issue – when we were in our early 20s we always said absolutely not right now, maybe some day, but definitely not right now. And I think it was, when we were in our early 30s I said I don’t want to be one of these woman who just puts off having kids and puts it off and puts it off, and finally has baby fever at 39 and can’t have children. So we need to make a decision whether we want them or not. We decided we liked our lives the way they were, we didn’t have a burning desire to have children, and so that’s when we made the decision.”

AM-T “When you wrote to me about this you said a married woman who chooses not to have children is an enigma to most people…expand on that if you would.”

“I think that when people – when women who are single don’t have kids they understand why they don’t have kids – but people just assume that women who are married want to have kids and are going to have kids. I get a lot of people who think that I’m younger than I am, simply because they know I’m married and don’t have children so they just assume I haven’t decided to have kids yet. And also I just find that people are very surprised when they find out that I don’t want to have kids – and I’m married.  Like I said, I think people assume that if women don’t have children it’s because they don’t have the opportunity to have them.”

AM-T: “Yeah, and I think there’s also this assumption sometimes that if you are partnered or married and you choose not to have kids, it’s because you don’t like children, and then what kind of a woman are you?”

“Yes! And I was a teacher. So people were perplexed by that – why don’t you like children? You’re a teacher. And there’s the thing when you don’t have children, one of the things that I’ve found throughout my life in not being a mother is that you have to have little quips to be able to deal with all of the questions. One of the things people had questions when I was a teacher and didn’t have children…my standard would be, ‘That would be like the ultimate bringing my work home with me.’ People would laugh and move on. But you have to deal with those things in order to – because having a child is kind of the default setting in our society, so when you go against the grain there are a lot of complex reasons that you have to explain to people, and a lot of times it’s just exhausting and you don’t want to have to take the time to do it, and other times it’s just personal and like, why are you up in my business?”

And some people do make it their business to give Jennifer a piece of their mind….

“I had a co-worker tell me that I was selfish for not having children. Now this was in a job where I was spending literally 60 to 70 hours a week in a job where I was advocating for working people and the poor. And he’s telling me I’m selfish because I don’t have children. And I kind of threw that back at him and he said, OK, I see your point.

You know, I’m doing this work that is for the betterment of a large group of people but because I don’t have children you’re assuming I don’t have children because I want to have a frivolous life.”

It’s not the only time she’s been accused of selfishness.

“What’s usually the funniest thing is people will say to me – and they don’t understand the cognitive dissonance when it comes – they’ll tell me that I’m selfish and then they’ll say, who’s going to take care of you when you get old?  If that’s not the most selfish reason to have children then I don’t know what is. I’m going to bring a child into the world just so they can take care of me when I get older? That’s crazy.”

She thinks it’s something others feel they have a right to challenge her on simply because most people do have families. The most aggravating aspect of this, she says, is when people have assured her, ‘Oh, you’ll change your mind.”

Like the other two women you’ve heard from in this show, she feels the phrase ‘work/life balance’ only applies to people with offspring. Not having kids has allowed her to work the crazy hours a job in politics requires pretty much guilt-free – but there are times she wants to leave at a decent hour, just like her colleagues who are parents.  

AM-T: "Going back to what you said about work/life balance essentially meaning work/family balance. Do you find that your husband counts as family in other people’s eyes?"

“No, definitely not. I have to struggle sometimes to explain to people that I need to take time off or to go home at certain time because I want to see my husband. My husband also travels for work quite a bit so there are times when I say I’m going home early because my husband and I are going to have dinner… but it takes a lot of explaining of my husband is my family, and that…I’m not articulating this well...”

AM-T: “No, but I know exactly what you mean. Essentially so many people believe that it’s looking after someone else, someone who needs you, someone who’s maybe a bit more helpless, like children up to a certain age…that’s more respected than just spending time with the partner you love.”

“Right. And I think it’s seen as more worthy. Leaving work to take care of children or even work to take care of an elderly parent is more worthy than leaving work to take care of your marriage, and having a relationship - or even to take care of yourself. I remember listening to one of your podcasts before about women and sex and pleasure. And it really got to the issue of what’s happening to all people and work in our society. We find work worthy, we find raising children worthy, but we don’t find taking care of yourself worthy. We don’t find that just going home to read a book or going out to a movie is worthy time.”

True. And I suspect it could take many years – and perhaps some kind of cultural revolution – for those perceptions to shift.

Before we stopped talking, Jennifer wanted to clear up another common misconception about her life…

“Another thing that has always – I don’t want to say bothered me but something that’s kind of expected of me, is that people think I’m choosing a career over children. And it’s not that. Yes, I’m very invested in my career. Yes, it’s a very big part of who I am, and I dedicate a lot of time and energy to my career. But the reason I didn’t have kids is not because I wanted a career instead of children. It’s because I just didn’t want to have children of my own. I never had that baby fever, I never had that burning desire to have children. And I think that that’s a valid choice too. I just don’t want to have children. And you know if I fill up other time with my job that’s fine, but if I fill up other time that I do that with volunteering or having a hobby or taking salsa dance classes, that’s fine too.”

Jennifer Rapach.

Now I’m going to make a recommendation – a few years ago I read a wonderful book called Singled Out – it’s by Juliet Nicholson and it’s about the generation of British women who ended up unexpectedly unmarried because so many men were killed during the First World War.  These women were raised to be nothing other than wives and mothers but they built incredibly full lives for themselves – some of them were real pioneers in the world of work. Inspiring stuff.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.  I’ll be posting show notes as usual under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com.

Thanks again to April Laissle for her help putting this episode together.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.