Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them… or not.

The following guest post was written by Rachel Scott Everett. Her voice and support have been invaluable to many women and men in the infertility and childless not by choice communities – even those childfree by choice, as people without children (for all reasons) often struggle with a shared sense of not belonging.

It’s that time again. April showers bring May flowers and… a complicated holiday known as Mother’s Day.

While many will be celebrating, many will not. Mother’s Day is a tough time for a lot of women. They may be mourning a mother or child who has passed, grappling with a strained relationship, or grieving the fact that they never had the opportunity to become a mother. For these reasons and more, the holiday is a painful reminder of loss.

Mother’s Day can even be difficult for women who have chosen not to have children. Although they’ve made a conscious decision, it’s hard to ignore the extraordinarily high value society places on women who are mothers, leaving those who aren’t to wonder where, and how, they fit in.

Whether someone is a good mother or not is often irrelevant. In our current social construct, being a mother seems to offer an automatic pass to purpose, validation and achievement.

What’s interesting is that childless women (defined here as women who wanted children but were unable to) and new mothers tend to experience some of the same feelings. Research into these disparate groups show they share a sense of loneliness, isolation, judgement and invisibility. Countless articles point out how being a new mom is lonely and discuss why new moms often feel isolated.

But as new moms get the hang of things and find other mothers for support, negative feelings are replaced with confidence and empowerment. Crossing the threshold from “new” to “experienced,” mothers become welcomed, accepted – in some cases, even glorified. 

This is where the similarities of women with, and without children, abruptly end. 

In our modern day culture, it’s often said that mothers have the hardest job in the world and that staying at home with kids is harder than going to work.

Certainly, raising a child into a self-sufficient individual is no easy feat. Mothers rightly deserve the praise and respect. Some handle the majority of the parenting workload, while holding down full-time professional careers. There’s also been a steady increase of moms who serve as the family breadwinner, adding to an already intense workload. 

The saving grace is that while mothers carry most of the burden, they also receive most of the recognition.

Mothers experience a sense of belonging and inclusion – not just within their family, but within society at large. While moments of isolation and judgement may still occur, mothers remain inherently united together. Because not only is being a mom considered the hardest job, it’s often referred to as the most important job any woman can have. 

Which raises the question: where does that leave women without children?

Currently, women without children, ages 35 and older, make up between 15-20% of the U.S. population. Whether by choice, chance or circumstance, these women will not have “the most important job any woman can have.” In fact, they’re in what society may deem the greatest tragedy of all: the role of not being a mother. The reasons for their childless – or childfree – status are as varied and complex as the women they apply to. 

Women who wanted the chance to be mothers, but are not (for whatever reason), are living out a narrative they didn’t envision for themselves. These warrior women step out into a world filled with landmines that trigger a range of emotions – from sadness and shame to pain and frustration. Every day, they bear witness to women carrying out the very dream they hoped would eventually happen for them. A dream that seems so ordinary and effortless, yet to them, is totally unattainable. 

Women who are childless by choice must navigate a different set of obstacles – typically related to validating their reasons for not procreating. A situation that childless men seldom find themselves in. They may be subjected to unasked for thoughts and opinions, presumed selfish, or told they will come to regret their decision.

Historically, society has not looked kindly on women without children.

They tend to be a mystery. Assumptions are drawn. Stereotypes are made. They’re met with criticism or worse, pity. You could be a woman who went through years of failed IVF. A woman with a genetic condition that prevents you from having biological children. A woman who didn’t meet a suitable partner or got divorced during child-bearing years. A woman who pursued adoption but did not end up with a child. Or a woman who simply didn’t want to bring a child into this world.

No matter the reason, society lumps all of these women into the same category: an abnormality.

The idea that women without children are unwelcome, unworthy or undesirable, takes a unique emotional toll that others rarely experience. And while not applicable to all, this stigma weighs heavily on most childless women who are forced to learn a variety of coping mechanisms.

They become adept at fielding well-meaning, yet insensitive comments from family, friends – even strangers. They tune out the media’s constant obsession with pregnancy and babies. They let advertising’s depiction of the ideal family (mom, dad, kids) wash over them. They ignore the stereotypes on TV and in movies where the childless female character is relegated to the one-dimensional role of the crazy drunk aunt, the ambitious career woman, or the spinster cat lady. They avoid cruel labels found in articles that perceive women without children as self-centered, bitter and unnatural, among a litany of other baseless misconceptions. 

Here’s the reality: Women without children can be just as kind, empathetic, strong, compassionate and tenacious as mothers.

Many are incredibly selfless and generous. Think of all the wonderful women without children who exist in the world – the aunts, godmothers and girlfriends in our lives. These women often take on the unheralded supporting roles as the helpers, givers and cheerleaders.

Consider all the incredible women without children who’ve inspired us throughout history: Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa, Julia Child, Gloria Steinem, Condoleezza Rice, Oprah Winfrey. In a way, these women are less of a mother to none, and more of a mother to all. And like all human beings, these women simply want to be happy, fulfilled, and valued. 

No woman – or anyone for that matter – should have to justify their existence. But in order for that to happen, we must not only respect women without children (understanding it may or may not be their choice), but accept them – fully and unconditionally.

We must create a culture where women without children are no longer hidden in plain sight. Where their worth is not tied to the sole role of motherhood – or potential motherhood. Where their narrative is not defined by society’s expectations. And where they feel they can speak freely, own their story and perhaps even encourage other childless women to come out from the shadows.

After all, it takes courage for a woman to say, “I’m not able to have children,” or “I’m giving up on trying to have children,” or “I don’t want children.” 

So yes, mothers should be celebrated on Mother’s Day. But for the other 364 days of the year, let’s work on shifting our collective mindset to help shape a culture that truly values, and celebrates, all women – whether they’re mothers or not. 

If you, or someone you know, needs support, encouragement and validation as a woman without children, a sampling of resources is listed below. And if this article inspired you or helped open up a new perspective, please leave a message in the comments.

  • Gateway Women – a global friendship and support network for childless women founded by Jody Day who has become the leader of the lost tribe of childless women. Her book, Living The Life Unexpected, offers an actionable plan for those seeking a meaningful and fulfilling Plan B without children.
  • Savvy Auntie – an online community for cool aunts, great aunts, godmothers and all women who love kids founded by Melanie Notkin. Her book, Otherhood, sheds a light on the growing demographic of women who have gone without definition or visibility until now. 
  • The Uprising Spark – an online revolution founded by Isabel Firecracker helping modern, childfree women be the very best version of themselves. Her podcast, The Honest Uproar, features life stories of modern, childfree women and discussions on topics important to the kidfree community.
  • To Kid or Not To Kid – a new documentary film created by award-winning director Maxine Trump that aims to dispel the myth that choosing not to have children is weird, selfish or somehow wrong. Releasing worldwide in 2020.
  • Chasing Creation – a blog and online community developed by Katy Seppi focused on designing an unexpectedly childfree life. Katy hosts Virtual Childless Support Circles, including happy hours and discussions with special guests.
  • Tia Gendusa – a Childfree After Infertility Advocate offering private 1:1 and group coaching. Tia is also the founder & CEO of the first ever Childfree after Infertility mentorship platform, Principal of InfertileAF.
  • Dr. Loree Johnson – a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) & Coach offering psychotherapy and therapeutic coaching with a focus on creating a self-care plan that meets your mental and emotional needs. 

This article was originally published on Thrive Global on May 8, 2020.

Rachel Scott Everett is a freelance creative director and contributing writer. She is passionate about raising awareness of, and advocating for, women’s rights and social equality.