EPISODE 1 - CHILDFREE
HELEN VOICEOVER: INTRODUCTION
When I first started using the internet in the late 90s/early 2000s - when you couldn’t use the phone at the same time and pages loaded in gradual horizontal bars - it was repeated constantly by parents and teachers that you shouldn’t use it to talk to strangers.
These big, beige grey boxy monitors and whirring towers were barred from a lot of kids my age until they made that promise.
Chatrooms were assumed to be dangerous places full of anonymous sexual predators pretending to be 14-year-olds called Ryan. They were looking for their moment to get you to meet them outside a newsagents on their own. So much so, that even the word ‘chatroom’ became suddenly, instantly negative.
The internet is unrecognisable when you remove talking to strangers from it. It feels suddenly less useful. We make friends on Twitter, we work remotely for people on the other side of the world, we swipe right and go for a drink with a stranger until they’re not a stranger anymore.
Surely, now we’re consenting grown-ups with our own broadband connections and a bit of healthy cynicism, we’re actually getting the best out of the internet by using it to talk to strangers.
This podcast is about groups of people on the internet and why they connect with each other. It’s about forums, niche conversations, moderators and new languages. It’s also about how these groups could sometimes, even just a little bit, be compared to cults.
We don’t have to physically isolate ourselves to become part of an intense group anymore. We can spend hours on one message board, only breaking to go to the loo or get snacks. The internet must be full of digital cults, places where people can find something they’re interested in, a community of other people who love it too, and encourage others to join.
You might think the cult label is a bit much, but people’s lives are consumed by the internet quite regularly. In a 2016 article by Alexander Krützfeldt for the German version of Broadly, interviewees described their experience of being sucked into conspiracy theories as cult-like. They felt trapped in a “close-community with rules, hierarchies”.
In June this year, a 26-year-old postman from Moscow was arrested for supposedly starting an online suicide cult in the form of a series of dangerous challenges. It’s been reported that it could have led to 32 suicides.
On the internet, just like in real life, the things we do can range from a way to pass the time, to genuinely unhealthy. But what happens when something appears like the former, and ends up being something that takes over your life?
If the conversation appears harmless at the start, what’s it like if you get sucked in? Do you even notice? Can you log off and leave? And if you do, will you be punished for it in your real life?
I’m going to investigate some of the most interesting and surprising communities on the internet and find out if something is still a cult if you take away the charismatic leader, communal living, and spiked Kool-Aid.
HELEN V.O: ABOUT HELEN
I realise I haven’t actually introduced myself. At all. My name’s Helen McCarthy and I’m a freelance writer, but I’m also extremely nosy. I like to interview people, I like to find out about their lives. Even if their life seems kind of mundane to them, if it’s different to mine, I’m automatically fascinated. I suppose you could say I’m professionally nosy.
HELEN V.O: INTRODUCTION TO THE CHILDFREE COMMUNITY
It’s generally accepted that you grow up, get married, and have children. But there are some people who just don’t want that, and they refer to themselves, sometimes as childfree. It’s been quite hard to find any British stats on this, but according to Time magazine, there are double the number of childfree women in the US compared to 1970. It’s roughly about 1 in 5.
I did most of my research on one of the most active childfree communities on the internet - the childfree subreddit. If you don’t know what Reddit is, it’s basically a collection of forums and communities, places where people post images, text, videos and thoughts on a particular topic. It can be as broad as r/funny, stuff that makes people laugh, and as niche as r/stuffoncats, which is exactly what it sounds like.
The childfree subreddit has 142,000 subscribers and it’s described as “discussion and links of interest to childfree individuals”. When you leave the subreddit and Google ‘childfree’, the articles are all tinged with a tone of voice that suggests it’s automatically a controversial choice. ‘Seven things childfree women want you to know’, and ‘Why I used to judge childfree people’ don’t suggest that everyone’s comfortable with the idea.
There’s even a 2016 Daily Mail article that claims women who don’t have kids are causing “rampant infidelity, a struggling economy, meltdown for the NHS, and shorter life expectancies”.
People take this really seriously, this isn’t just about not having kids or not. I talked to a few childfree people who read and post on the childfree sub reddit and asked them why they are childfree.
"I DON'T WANT TO SACRIFICE THINGS I VALUE FOR SOMETHING THAT I DON'T VALUE VERY MUCH AT ALL."
INTERVIEWS: USERS FROM r/CHILDFREE
Jeremy: How much time do we have?
Helen: (laughing) Literally as long as you want.
Jeremy: I guess I started questioning if I even wanted kids back in like middle school when we did the whole week with a baby project.
Jasmine: I don’t know I’m just not that into children you know.
Catherine: So in short I ended up basically raising my brother and my sister.
Abigail: Basically all of my reasons boil down to my personality, what I really want out of life.
Catherine: Just my interactions with kids. That parents just don’t try to parent really turned me off to the idea too. Like I babysat a lot, I think around that time I realised that I wasn’t any good at it, but I’ve never really been interested at all.
Abigail: I don’t want to sacrifice things I value for something that I don’t value very much at all.
Jeremy: You know, kids aren’t cheap and that’s on top of just the amount of work and responsibility they are.
Jasmine: For me I feel like absolutely it is a feminist choice, like I can decide whether or not I want to have kids, I can decide when I wanna have kids you know. That's a feminist achievement.
Abigail: And I decided from a really young age I didn’t want to deal with it anymore so it’s like no, I don’t want kids.
You just heard from Jeremy, Jasmine, Catherine and Abigail. They’re all different ages and from different parts of the US, except Abigail who is based in Germany. They all very kindly let me ask them really nosy questions for a while, which is surprising because they’re all used to a negative reaction when they tell people they’re childfree.
Jasmine: I’m 26 now, and I don’t think people take me all that seriously, so at this point, it’s not, there’s like no, there’s no headbutting or anything, I get push back, but it’s always like "Oh yeah yeah yeah, we’ll see, you know, in 5 years, we’ll see in 10 years, blah blah blah blah". So it’s not, it’s not, like a problem for me to talk about it now, at 26. I think it might be a problem, you know, in the future when I’m older and people are like you know "Hurry up hurry up hurry up you gotta get these kids out".
Abigail: I do notice that my boyfriend is of course also childfree and most of the derogatory comments about our lifestyle do get directed at me. He barely has to feel that sort of thing at all.
Helen: What, what kind of comments do you get?
Abigail: Well, um it’s usually either people just not believing me, they think I’m suppressing some sort of maternal urge for some reason or in denial or that my hormones will make me want children eventually. Either that, or they think I’m some sort of terrible child hater.
Catherine: I’ve definitely met people who consider childfree couples or people that never want children, they’re just not in a relationship, to be like there’s something wrong with them. When I say I don’t want children they just kinda give me this like flabbergasted disgusted attitude. They’re just like "How could you not want children? It’s your entire reason for being alive!" kind of thing.
Abigail: It’s also a relatively new thing I think, like we’ve just talked about a little bit, it’s only within the past couple of generations that it’s even been a choice that you could implement at all. And so there may be some element of other people having to get used to the idea that there actually are people in society who don’t want to be parents and that that’s a perfectly valid choice to make.
Jeremy: The question I always found annoying was when they’d ask "Are you trying?" "Are you having unprotected sex and hoping that, you know, you get knocked up" and it’s just like - how is that any of your business?
HELEN V.O: WHY ARE PEOPLE CHILDFREE?
I’ve been reading hundreds and hundreds of posts and threads on childfree forums, subreddits and Facebook pages. Many people just want their freedom, to stay up late, travel, not be vomited on. Some people don’t want to pass on mental or physical health problems, and some don’t think they’d be fit parents, so they’ve decided just to opt out.
Sometimes you need to talk to an academic, you need that PhD sheen on things. After about 2 months of Googling all things childfree, I found a 2009 research paper by Stuart Gietl Basten. I have absolutely butchered his name there, I don’t think I pronounced it right at all. (Laughing) I’m really sorry, Stuart.
The paper’s called Voluntary Childlessness and Being Childfree. It was part of a series of research for the University of Oxford called 'The future of human reproduction'. Stuart and one of his research students found childfree meet up groups, gave them questionnaires and interviewed them. Not only did they find that the majority didn’t really care if they were referred to as 'childfree' or 'childless', but the root of it all was mainly social.
This is Stuart talking about why it can be difficult for people without children to meet other people. And why they need these real world and digital meet-up groups.
INTERVIEW: STUART GIETEL-BASTEN, SOCIOLOGIST
Stuart: You take your children to dates, you take your children to playgroup, take your children to kindergarten, take your children to school, right. You go to antenatal classes. But if you are childfree, if you don’t have children, then it’s very difficult to meet other people who are childfree. Because apart from the fact they’re not walking around with kids, it’s very difficult to create a network, and so the internet forms a really valuable place - or space - for those kinds of interactions to occur. And you see these pictures of like a childfree group, a bowling night, you know, they go down the pub or they go bowling.
As you might expect, what we found was that almost everybody is doing it for different reasons, you know. Some people are passionate about, childfree, don’t want to have children, it’s a real explicit life choice, and I wanna, you know meet up with other people who support me in that choice and we can support each other. Whereas other people are just like "No, we just like going out. We want to go out and meet people and do stuff, and to do it with other people who haven’t got kids is great." We asked respondents whether or not they thought they themselves were childfree childless, voluntary childless, involuntary childless whatever, and what they actually thought about the differences between those things.
Surprise surprise, while we Sociologists sat up all night worrying about these differences, and how we categorise them. I think the real people in the real world don’t necessarily bother about it so much. We say well, being childless is a negative connotation, there is something, you are missing something, and almost everything with less on the end is bad - like homeless, hopeless, friendless.
CULTS DON'T JUST GET TOGETHER TO GO BOWLING AND THEN GO HOME AGAIN. THEY'RE NOT THAT RELAXED.
HELEN V.O: CULTS AREN'T THAT RELAXED
So I’ve been quite deep into these online groups and forums where people are frustrated and angry on the whole. They try quite hard to keep anything baby or child related out of their life.
Stuart confirmed that there’s actually a massive part of this community who don’t care what you call them, both on and offline. They just want to meet and hear from similar people, and it helps that they might have a little bit more time for social things than the average parent.
Cults don’t just get together to go bowling and then go home again. They’re not that relaxed.
HELEN V.O: THE NEGATIVE LANGUAGE
There’s a bit of a dark 'However' to this though. While there are many who insist they don’t hate kids, there are some who definitely have strong negative feelings about them. There’s plenty of bitching about parents in the workplace being given preferential treatment, 'mombies' assuming their kids are a charming addition to the restaurant.
Mombies by the way, is basically a combination of mom and zombie. Which I think you can probably fill in the blanks with that one.
There’s something about the tone used in these childfree forums that unnerves me a little bit. So I’ve pulled out some particularly aggressive quotes from the childfree subreddit. This is definitely not representative of everyone who is on it, I’ve talked to quite a few of those people. But sometimes anger comes out and it’s...(pause) it’s really it’s hard to ignore.
“Nothing makes me want to speed up and crash into a car more than a baby on board sign”.
There’s another one here:
“We had nine months advance notice and still had two couples claiming they couldn’t get a sitter I call bull heaven forbid you leave the house without your kid and do something”.
Bit less aggressive than the first which was - well - death. And this one on Twitter:
“The way that parents push parenthood on the childfree is nothing short of cult recruitment”.
I DM’d that person but they didn’t want to talk to me. I actually asked to interview quite a few people whose comments were particularly angry. Most of them didn’t reply or became quite sheepish the minute I asked for a direct conversation.
There’s an anger I want to dissect. Is it just people venting, is it darker than that? Do a lot of childfree people see parents as lesser somehow?
This is Abigail again. She and her boyfriend are childfree and she had a lot of really intelligent things to say about why people use the childfree subreddit.
INTERVIEW: ABIGAIL, r/CHILDFREE SUBSCRIBER
Abigail: Well I was drawn to it because it was a group of people who could help me realise that I’m not crazy. I have been not wanting children since I was a kid basically and I always kind of thought maybe something was wrong with me and that I would have to come round eventually so I could have a baby. And when I found that subreddit, I see there are these - there are thousands of people on the subreddit who feel the same way, and it was really nice to know that I wasn’t alone and that I actually could really, in real life, literally not have kids.
It exists not only because there are people out there who don’t want kids but because we often face backlash, large or small, from people in our personal lives, and so it’s kind of a support group in that way. Because we can go online to talk about that and talk about these experiences, ask advice from other people, rant about things that happen.
I think a lot of people on the subreddit come there because they feel judged by people in their lives, and sometimes when you feel judged by other people there’s a temptation to throw it back in their face. And so there are some people on the subreddit who post sometimes things that are very judgemental about parents.
I actually read a comment the other day on there where someone said that they thought people who are childfree are more evolved than parents because we don’t listen to our hormones and something along that pseudo-scientific line, which kinda made me want to post an angry comment.
HELEN V.O: THE CHILDFREE BACKLASH
The backlash that Abigail talks about is no joke. There are people online who talk openly about how being childfree has damaged their relationship with their parents, they’ve lost friends who can’t let the baby question go, and they’re criticised by complete strangers too.
One person who really knows what this backlash feels like, and has experienced it on a national, magnified, televised scale is the writer Meghann Foye.
INTERVIEW: MEGHANN FOYE, AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST
Meghann: I worked in women’s magazines my whole career and an idea for a novel came to me. So it’s actually, it’s fiction. It’s not, it’s not like a policy book. It's about a woman who had been working, she was 31, she worked at a baby magazine and she had sort of gotten tired of seeing all the women around her move on to that next stage of life, like family, kids. And she had felt like she was a little bit passed by, in not only that aspect, but also in her job and she started to see like a shift.
(Apple Mail notification noise)
Helen (interrupting interview): That’s not your Mail app by the way, that’s Meghann’s. I didn’t want to interrupt her flow by asking her to mute her laptop.
Meghann: After 30, it was sort of seen as like almost a detriment that she hadn’t managed to work out having a family. Like she was now an outlier in that sense. So she’s feeling like doubly burdened by both having all the work piled on her when her cohorts, her colleagues left at the end of the night, but yet she was also feeling like, "Well how am I ever going to get this life for myself if I’m constantly working?"
Her co-workers are led to believe that she is pregnant because she’s gained some weight and she’s wearing maternity jeans she got on a giveaway table. She decides "Okay I’m gonna let them believe this for the next month, but I’m gonna, like, use this month to go find new jobs and get myself out of this bad situation."
But over the course of faking being pregnant she starts to have some major revelations in her life about how she got here, you know, how she really wants this, and how the mothers on staff don’t have it easy at all. The major themes of the book are kind of like, we are pitting ourselves, women are being pitted against each other, and we don’t even realise it. And we’re sitting here in offices, complaining about each other and blaming each other, when in reality it’s the system itself that’s creating the stress, it’s not us.
So anyway, let’s go back to last year. April 2016, I was trying to promote the book and I was thinking with my magazine editor cap on, and I was like "How do I break through with a fictional novel?" So I pitched it to the New York Post. I told my personal story about, sort of, like I tried to make it an empowerment story and I thought when we discussed the angle, that was the angle they were gonna go with. But then, unfortunately, they used a headline that said “I think all companies should give 'meternity' leave”.
I checked my Facebook and I was getting messages and messages and messages from my friends being like "Don’t believe what the comments say, you know we stand by you." So it kinda came off as like the height of entitlement and selfishness, it just started blowing up my phone, like essentially getting the most negative possible feedback you can imagine on Twitter and on social media feeds. So I’m just seeing like lots of negativity, but at the same time it’s weird, all the media outlets were contacting to get quotes. So it ended up that both The Today Show and GMA [Good Morning America] both at the same time reached out to have me on.
Helen: I know you had this appearance schedule on Good Morning America that you didn’t go to, was that because the criticism had just become kind of too much or - what was behind that?
Meghann: I said yes in sort of this fit of like "Oh my god what is even happening, I wanna get my name out, I wanna get my, like, my side of the story out."
What has gotten out there could be hurtful to moms, so what I wanted to do was take a second to figure out what my position was and be able to speak about it clearly. And as the course of the night went on and so much more feedback was coming out, and people were writing, you know colleagues were writing nuanced takes. My head was swimming and I was just like "I know that I am not prepared to go on national TV tomorrow morning and talk about this."
So I tried to just say to the producers "I really prefer not to go on like I’m not ready like I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna go out there and stir up more mommy wars and I’m sort of worried that like that’s how it will be positioned."
Anyway I tried to get out of it but I apparently was too late, so they ended up talking about it on air.
It’s fascinating. I think now I have some distance and some perspective and I think I needed to take some time to really see what was going on. And, honestly, through the media lens things get refracted in ways that are like a funhouse mirror.
"ONLINE, WHEN YOU SEE STUFF THAT IS VERY CLOSE TO YOUR HEART, AND IT TRIGGERS YOU, THE FIRST INSTINCT IS TO FIRE OFF SOMETHING VERY VICIOUS UNDER THE COVER OF ANONYMITY."
HELEN V.O: REFLECTING ON MEGHANN'S EXPERIENCE
Meghann isn’t consciously or vocally childfree, but she’s a woman with no children who chose pregnancy, and how we treat maternity, as a subject to dissect. Was this why she experienced such a backlash?
If she was already a mother, and wrote an honest book about how people treated her in the workplace while she was pregnant, then the New York Post couldn’t have picked up that 'everyone should be able to take maternity leave' angle. How different would things have been?
INTERVIEW: MEGHANN FOYE, AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST
Meghann: Honestly I really thought no one would look at it I thought mom’s would kind of go, like fluff by it and be like oh, and I thought maybe, maybe single women might see it and be like a little bit heartened, that was my goal.
Helen: What’s interesting to me is that, it’s a novel, and, (laughing) it’s not real!
Helen: I realise it’s based on your real experience and…
Helen: ...the backlash that it seemed to get, I mean, I’ve seen the phrase "fire storm of outrage".
Meghann: I think people read a headline and start getting fired up and rarely even go into the article itself and read it.
Helen: I noticed something really interesting. I had a look at the Amazon page and I look at some of the reviews and there was one person who gave it 1 star and said that she. (pause) What did she say? I’ve written it down, she said... (Pause) I’m sorry I’m reading a horrible review out to you, by the way.
Meghann: Oh don’t. I totally, you don’t have to worry about it…
Helen: She said “A book about blatant lies, deceit and trying to take advantage”. And I thought, I wanted to know if she was just an Amazon troll or, like, what her deal was, so I went on to her profile to read her other reviews, and it’s all random stuff. But she also reviewed Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and she said she loved it and she gave it 5 stars.
Now, Fahrenheit 451 - I’ve not read it but I had a look, I looked it up - Fahrenheit 451 is about a dystopian world where firemen burn books because they’re illegal. I just thought it was really interesting how she could see...she could see one was fictional and got enjoyment out of it even though it’s about a really dark subject. And yours is a bit, you know, a bit more fun but she took it so seriously and almost like a personal criticism.
Meghann: I think I definitely - I’ve had to think a lot about this. Online, when you see stuff that is very close to your heart, and it triggers you, the first instinct is to fire off something very vicious and mean under the cover of anonymity.
HELEN V.O: WHAT MUMSNET USERS THINK
Speaking of firing off something vicious, I want to go back to the language again for a minute, because I don’t want to criticise it unless I have, you know, actual evidence that it’s upset people.
So the people most likely to take offence to particularly negative childfree language are going to be people who are the polar opposite - parents. Where on the internet do they like to share their views? Mumsnet. I searched Mumsnet for childfree as a keyword to see what came up.
Top of the search results is a 2011 thread called 'Is the childfree movement anti-feminist?' I won’t say their username because they potentially wouldn’t want any involvement in my nosy little podcast, but the user who started the thread wrote the following:
“Not sure how to word this, but while I absolutely agree that there is nothing wrong with not wanting children, this whole idea of a movement with a lot of men in it that seems to despise mothers and children with a visceral repulsion, and also encourage women to remove their reproductive organs, is very unsettling.”
(Deep breath) God that was a long sentence.
Despite what some childfree women have said to me about their own feminist choices, what this Mumsnet poster was saying was actually the perfect way to articulate why some of the childfree communities’ language unsettles me. It sounds really misogynistic, even if it’s not intended that way. And can we really say for certain that it isn’t intended that way?
A lot of the language ‘breeder’ ‘crotch fruit’, ‘mombie’ - which we’ve already (pause) covered - it’s really ridiculing the idea of having a baby. Which I think is, you know, a hard thing to do. That’s not very feminist at all.
One of the replies to the original post sums it up perfectly, I think:
"They’re always blaming the women for having kids, and then daring to try and have a life."
HELEN V.O: HOW HATEFUL ARE THE TOP r/CHILDFREE POSTS?
A lot of the posts are angry at parents for existing, for bringing their children into any space. So to test this I went to the childfree subreddit and looked at the 25 most popular posts. This was on the 15th October 2017. I read through them and looked at where the anger's directed, if there is any. Is it at a woman, a man, or both?
It was actually mainly directed towards children or parents as a unit, but that doesn’t mean the anger at mums isn’t there. You can do it right now, actually yourself if you’re interested, because the content’s different everyday. So if you go to the childfree subreddit, or just Google 'childfree forum' and have a look around.
Just see what you think of the language, whether you’re a parent or not. I don’t really know what to make of it, I feel kind of like it’s (long pause, sigh) it’s a lot of bitching and moaning. Everyone needs a space to do that, but I feel like even if you’re in a very small community and you share similar thoughts, and you want a sounding board from similar people, I don’t think you can really ignore the fact that you’re on a public domain and anyone could read what you’re writing. I think people should always take responsibility for that. If they don’t care, they don’t care, but if I was a parent and read this and saw these people basically telling me to stay in my house with my kids and never leave, I’d be pretty fucking mad (pause) actually.
HELEN V.O: STERILISATION IN THE CHILDFREE COMMUNITY
So are childfree people encouraged to have their reproductive organs removed? No. Far from it actually. Many want to be sterilised and have wanted it for years, but it’s very hard to actually get the procedure done.
In the UK, you have to meet a set of criteria before you’re considered for female sterilisation, which basically includes acknowledging that you’re of a sound mental state, you’ve tried every possible method of contraception, and you’ve had counselling. It’s often not as simple as ticking the boxes though. In a 2016 article for the Telegraph, journalist Holly Brockwell wrote about asking for sterilisation for 4 years before finally being referred. Her GP thought she was too young to make such a big decision, so she really had to persist.
It’s clear to me that the childfree forums don’t try to convert people or convince them to be sterilised, despite what the Mumsnet commenters thought. There are lots of people who really want this procedure and have for years.
The forums and message boards are where they go for advice on getting started, support when they have to persevere, and celebrate with people when it’s finally done, or they’ve finally been given their operation date.
"I THINK MORE AND MORE PEOPLE ARE TAKING THEIR TIME WHEN IT COMES TO DECIDING IF THEY WANT FAMILIES. IT'S NOT SO MUCH A REQUIREMENT ANYMORE."
INTERVIEW: CATHERINE, r/CHILDFREE SUBSCRIBER
Catherine: Well, mine actually turned out to be medically necessary…
Catherine: Okay so I had five tumours on my uterus that actually grew into the uterine wall. They were so big that people actually thought I was pregnant. It was the size, like it was the equivalent of being 6 and a half months pregnant.
Helen: That must have been uncomfortable as well.
Catherine: Oh my god, it was so uncomfortable. And I remember the closer I got to my surgery just feeling like, "Oh, I don’t ever want to do this". It was hard to walk and my bladder was being constantly pressed on, so I felt like I had to pee all the time, it was ridiculous. And bending over was uncomfortable cause where the tumours were placed, it was a lot of pressure, so I could feel the blood pressure from that area.
They wanted to get them out because it was almost completely blocking off my colon, they were worried that it would cause other problems. She tried to convince me to just remove the tumours and leave the uterus in, but couldn’t promise me that it wouldn’t be happening again within the next year. And then they found out that they were in the uterine wall, so I was like "Just take it all out, I don’t want it. I don’t wanna deal with it again in a year." It was an unpleasant, uncomfortable experience, and it was just like a great opportunity. I didn’t want kids anyway so…
INTERVIEW: JEREMY, r/CHILDFREE SUBSCRIBER
Jeremy: It sounds like it’s a lot harder for women. Women get a lot more questions. It sounds like cause they’re, like expected to be mothers and stuff like that, that’s just like the lifeline. After reading some of the horror stories of people and just the steps people had to take to get it done. My experience, like I don’t know if it’s just because of my insurance or because I’m 32 and married, and so maybe I’m considered more mature or whatever.
Basically I emailed my doctor when we got back from Hawaii just saying "Hey, what steps do I need to take to start for a vasectomy?" And he referred me to a urologist and they kinda went over the whole - well this is what happens, like it’s permanent. I had to sign, a document after I watched a video and talked to a nurse about it.
The day of, like I, it was like "Hey, remember when you signed this form? Well read it again and sign it again." The procedure itself was just kinda looking up at the ceiling and talking to another doctor. There were some weird uncomfortable parts but since everything was numb, you know, I felt when they stuck a needle in me. I went in at 9 o’clock and I was out there a little before 10..
INTERVIEW: CATHERINE, r/CHILDFREE SUBSCRIBER
Catherine: I think more and more people are taking their time when it comes to deciding if they want to have families. It’s not so much a requirement anymore. It’s becoming more of a choice and I think a lot of people are choosing to either wait longer, or actually thinking about whether that’s something they want to do. And then if they don’t, they don’t.
INTERVIEW: STUART GIETEL-BASTEN, SOCIOLOGIST
Stuart: There’s a guy who writes social theory - he’s dead now - called Beck, Ulrich Beck. He has these two concepts, the first is individualisation. So in the past you had status fate, what you called status fate. So women, for example, the status fate of a woman was to be a housewife. Ultimately, you would have children and then you’d stay at home.
Over time, through modernity, and kind of late modernity, post modernity, your choices changed completely. And so actually, your priority is about designing your own biography, as he calls it. So you make the choices that you want to do in life and some people are more or less free to do those kinds of things. Ultimately, people do what they want to do and then he allied to that, this idea of risk society.
Having children in the past was not particularly risky. It was risky in terms of maternal mortality, but it wasn’t risky to your career because you didn’t have a career. Having 2 or 3 or 4 kids, frankly, didn’t really matter that much because that was your fate as a woman, to be a housewife. But today, the risk actually is very great.
Where it becomes interesting is if you’re comparing different parts of the world. If you’re in Sweden or Norway, actually the risk of having children is arguably lower, because your job is protected, you have very high rates of gender equality at home and in the workplace, which is protected by law. You’re not going to go back to work with a shitty salary or given the crap things to do. You’re not going to lose a load of money because you’ve got free - or almost completely free - child care. The schools are really, really good, so you don’t need to spend money on extra tuition fees and cram schools and stuff like that.
Whereas of course, here in Hong Kong or Japan, and I would actually argue in many ways in Britain, the general risk of having children is very, very high. Because all of the things I’ve just said in Sweden don’t exist. If you look at that big package around risk and then you say "Well this is it, individualisation, people wanting to design their own biography". And you match them up, then actually it’s no surprise that people are actively choosing this pathway, a childless/childfree pathway or whatever. A pathway where children are just not an essential part.
INTERVIEW: MEGHANN FOYE, AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST
Catherine: In our country, our economic situation is pretty terrible right now for a lot of Americans, and women in particular, and women of colour even more in particular. And this is again one of the themes of my actual novel, when you become a working mom, when you become a mom and you’re working in a corporate environment, you essentially may or may not get maternity leave. It could be as little as 6 weeks, no more than 3 months not even paid, like paid 60%, which is not really liveable.
You’re already living paycheck to paycheck, like 78% of people in America are, you probably carry a debt burden in your household of $127,000 because of student loans and home loans. Credit card debt is at $17,000 for the average American, so you’re paying, like $1,300 a month of your salary already to credit cards and to your debt, so you’re not saving. And then when you have a kid, we don’t get childcare in our country so after three months, you can figure out daycare at $12,000 a month.
From that second that you become a mom it’s like your life has gotten so increasingly complicated. And the way that daycares are structured - you gotta get there at a certain time every day. But corporate America doesn’t really like to think of you as a family member, they like to think of you as like a 100% dedicated worker.
"HAVING 2 OR 3 OR 4 KIDS, FRANKLY, DIDN'T REALLY MATTER THAT MUCH BECAUSE THAT WAS YOUR FATE AS A WOMAN. BUT TODAY, THE RISK ACTUALLY IS VERY GREAT. "
HELEN V.O: CONCLUSION
So full disclosure, I don’t have any kids. I consider myself far too young to make that decision and I’m very attached to my Microgynon prescription.
After talking to Jeremy, Katherine, Abigail and Jasmine, I totally understand why they’ve all made that choice to be childfree. I could definitely see myself making the same choices. Meghann showed me why people are sensitive about how we discuss motherhood for very valid reasons. And after talking to Stuart, I can see that those posts on the subreddit are ultimately people wrestling with how the choices they make are going to impact their home, work, and relationships. It’s a very human concern.
Having children might be a biological imperative but it really shoves a spanner in the works of your life. According to the world’s most reliable dictionary - what comes up immediately in Google search results - a cult is:
"A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange, or as imposing excessive control over members".
Religion is often the focus of a cult, and a strong enough reason for people to devote their entire life to a group. The focus can be anything that a group of people feel strongly about - strong enough that they want to surround themselves with people who share the same beliefs. And also there’s the basic fact that people don’t easily walk away from a cult. It consumes their life, it swallows up their relationships. And if they leave, they might well have nothing left to go back to.
So, is the childfree community a cult? No. (Pause) Definitely not.
Originally, before I did all this research and talked to people who were close to it, I thought it could be cult-like, purely because the community was so hell bent on standing by the choices its made. Then there’s the, "we’re more evolved than you, we’re better than you" language that creeps in from time to time. But ultimately who hasn’t been guilty of thinking like that? In isolation, it definitely doesn’t prove it’s a cult.
The childfree community is a group of people with all kinds of different motivations, and the main thing they have in common is that they don’t want kids. They don’t convert, they don’t blind people with bullshit to get them onside. They’re just themselves and occasionally they like to have a bit of a moan. Their practices are sometimes regarded as strange by other people, you’ve heard examples of that, but the issue is clearly with other people. This isn’t someone nattering on about conspiracy theories while you edge your chair away. This is someone making a personal, and actually very sane choice.
r/childfree is currently my most visited page according to Google Chrome. It’s ahead of Youtube and Netflix, and that’s big. I haven’t subscribed to it yet officially because... (pause, thinks for a moment) I don’t know, while I’ve been doing this I’ve felt like I needed to keep a bit of a wall between my normal Reddit activity and this. Now though, while I have no kids and I’m quite happy about it, I think I might actually subscribe to r/childfree for real.
HELEN V.O: END CREDITS
You can find all the sources I’ve used for this episode at thatsacult.com so you can do your own reading and research, if you’re a bit nosy like me.
A huge thank you to my interviewees Jeremy, Jasmine, Katherine, Abigail, Meghann and Stuart. The podcast would absolutely not exist without them and I’m very, very grateful that they took the time to talk to me. I’d also like to thank Ann Davidman, who is a motherhood clarity mentor. I also interviewed her at the very start of this process and like an absolute dickhead my recording failed and I lost the interview. BUT she really informed my research so I wanted to thank her too.
The music in this episode was produced by a really generous guy on Reddit called Antti Luode, definitely said that wrong. He’s made over a thousand pieces of his music free for people to use, royalty free as long as you credit him. You can find out more about him at anttismusic.blogspot.fi.
I’ve donated to his PayPal as a thank you, and if you use his music for your own projects I recommend you throw him a few pounds too. It’s hard out there for a creative.
If you want me to investigate a specific community or potential cult, email your suggestions to email@example.com. They don’t have to be internet-based, just compelling and enjoyably weird.
Thanks for listening.