Image Credit: Poster for My So-Called Selfish Life
Therese Shechter is the feminist filmmaker behind the new documentary “My So-Called Selfish Life,” a look at women who have chosen to be child-free and the forces of pro-natalism in the US (a topic that is perhaps more relevant than ever). The documentary premieres on May 6th, and you can watch it just about anywhere from May 6th – 23rd.
Therese spoke with me about her film, why the childfree inspire such ire, and what makes a woman “selfish.”
What was the genesis for this project? Where did the idea come from?
I have never wanted children. It’s one of those things I always thought about but never talked about, and felt pretty alone—I didn’t know anybody who felt the way I did. Growing up, our family friends who didn’t have kids seemed like sad objects of pity.
The one person I did talk to was my friend Anne Kingston, who is in the documentary, and who did the article on childfree life in 2009. We always talked about feminist things that drove us crazy, and she said, “you need to make a film about this.”
At some point in 2015, I noticed this bubbling up of conversation around the topic that I had never noticed it before. That inspired me to send out some feelers, and I created a survey asking people to tell me about their experiences not having children. It went viral! I got 1900 responses in a week.
Making documentaries is a very thankless long slog, and you have to be super obsessed with whatever you’re working on to be able to go the distance. It became clear to me that this was a subject I could get pretty obsessed about.
It’s also the kind of topic that I like making films about—the things that we’re told as women that we’re suppose do do or to be. And if we haven’t signed onto that idea, then there’s something wrong with us. Once I started researching it, I went down these rabbit holes.
Anything surprising in those rabbit holes?
When I first got involved in this film, my thinking was: why was it that every time there was a holiday dinner, somebody asked me about having children? Or why, when I went to somebody’s baby shower and I told people I didn’t want children there was this…silence? Why were people jerks about this? That was basically my question.
In time, I realized they weren’t really jerks. There was something much bigger going on around us. People were doing and saying these things because that’s how society viewed our jobs: we had one job to do, and that was to have kids. We all grew up in this soup of pronatalism. That was the biggest rabbit hole: I went from an aunt saying something at Thanksgiving to wait, this is a system! I saw it everywhere I looked, the pushing or coercing women to have children. It was popping up in popular culture a lot, in history, in bad science. That was the most surprising thing for me. I did not go into this project expecting to discover an entire system, akin to patriarchy or racism or nationalism, these frameworks that were created for a purpose, to create a particular kind of belief system. This interconnectedness around these issues of gender roles and bodily autonomy and nationalism—a lot came together.
My initial thesis was far too simple compared to what this turned into.
For the unfamiliar, what is pronatalism?
Pronatalism is basically suggesting or demanding people to have children. It means “for birth,” literally, and it can be super benign, like the family dinner interrogations, or something like getting extra money when you have a baby used as an incentive to have more children. It can be my favorite, commercials for pregnancy tests where nobody is ever happy with a negative. In every single pregnancy test ad, with very few exceptions, people get a positive and they’re happy and hugging each other. And just based anecdotally on my friends over the years, that was not the response to a positive pregnancy test. But the reality doesn’t exist in the advertising world, that you might be happy to find out you’re not pregnant. It’s TV shows, if there’s a childless character she’s generally unpleasant or messed up in some way—or eventually she sees the light and gets pregnant and has a baby, because the idea is that every woman deep down wants a baby they just don’t realize it yet. The Big Bang Theory had two main female characters who were outspokenly uninterested in having children, and the writers knocked both of them up by the end of the series.
The individual things don’t seem like a big deal. But when you get this pile on, you start asking, why can’t I see these other things? Why doesn’t that exist?
Other than the choice not to have children, did you observe any other commonalities in child-free women? What makes them buck the norm?
One commonality is access to reproductive healthcare. Over the last 50 years, that’s been a big factor in more and more people not having children. Historically, I think a lot more people would have preferred not to have children if they could have prevented a pregnancy. A stat I have heard is that something like half of all pregnancies in the US are not planned, so if half the people in this country are getting pregnant without intending to, I wonder how many of those people never intended to have children at all, but they couldn’t get effective birth control or abortions. So part of this is having the privilege of deciding to NOT get pregnant. That’s a very big thing.
There are a million ideas about why people don’t want kids. This is an obsession, finding reasons for why someone could possibly be so wayward as to refuse to have children. What trauma happened in their past? A lot of the time it’s like: I just don’t want them, and I have the ability to not have them. It’s as simple as that. “I don’t want kids” is the complete answer.
If I have to come up with a list of possible reasons, sometimes it is because there’s been some kind of trauma around family relationships, or there’s a genetic problem they don’t want to pass on, or they feel they will never be able to afford to raise a child the way they think a child should be raised, or having a child would derail ambitions that they have. One big one reason we hear is it’s the environment—people don’t want to bring a child into a world ravaged by climate change, they don’t want to add to the population.
Those are reasons, but what is reality? There’s an interesting Pew research study that asked people who didn’t want to have children why, and over half the respondents said “because I don’t want them.” There were other reasons with smaller and smaller percentages, and at the very bottom of the list was climate change. And I have a theory that it’s a reason you can give people and they’ll stop bothering you. Not that people aren’t sincere about these concerns, but it’s a reason you can give someone and you may not be challenged. It seems altruistic and it shuts people up.
We have a very robust Facebook page for the film, and when I post something about the environment, I often ask: if the world was perfect, would you have children? And although people are passionate about climate change, everyone still says no, because they just don’t want children. Period. That’s the reason. That’s it.
Working on My So-Called Selfish Life, my editor Siobhan Dunne and I decided not to offer up reasons from the folks in the film on why they didn’t have children. Unless the subjects really wanted to talk about that, we decided we were past all that, all the explanations. They don’t want children. Let’s move on and talk about their actual lives.
And people rarely ask parents why they have children.
I have occasionally. And sometimes I’ve gotten some quite powerful and lovely responses from people who have done a lot of deep thinking about it. But the answer is usually because that’s what people do. It’s a given. It’s “normal.”
That’s why we have words like childfree and childless, because we have no language for describing us that isn’t the opposite of being the norm, by which I mean having children. Non-parent, not a mom, no kids. We have no way to describe a state of not having children in a way that it exists in and of itself. The language is frustrating and I can’t think of any other way to say it.
One thing that seems to animate this conversation is the fact that for centuries, children have been a source of meaning and purpose for women, and I think there’s a sense that, without them, women won’t have meaningful lives. Where did the women in your documentary find meaning outside of childbearing?
So, I ask myself this question: Do people ask men this? Are men asked, how will your life have meaning if you don’t have a child? It doesn’t seem to roll off the tongue. In fact it seems silly asking a man, how will your life ever have meaning if you don’t have a child? Men are the ones who do grand and heroic things and that’s their legacy and their contribution to society. And women, well, women have children and that’s what they do.
People have very earnestly asked me about this, like what will your legacy be? But for me it’s a confusing question. What is legacy? Is it treating people kindly while you’re alive? Is it mentoring or nurturing other people? Is it creating work that lives on after you that maybe has some good effect in the world? I did make these documentaries, and hopefully they’ll live on beyond me.
But it’s not something that I think about, to be honest. I’m trying to have a meaningful life in the way I find meaning, which may be through my work, it may be through my relationships with my husband or family or friends. But legacy? I don’t think about it too much.
People just want to be allowed to live the lives that are the best lives for them. It comes down to that. Why wouldn’t everybody want that?
Why is that so hard for people? Why do the childfree inspire such blowback?
This isn’t a terribly original idea, but women are still here to help other people. We’re here to help the man achieve his goals, we’re here to help raise children into upstanding adults, we’re here to sacrifice for someone else’s success. Like every film script ever. I think when we say, “actually I’ve got my own stuff that I might want to do and maybe you could help me,” it still, in 2022, a big ask.
This idea of rejecting the self-sacrifice that we’re called on to make, not giving over our uteruses in the service of the economy for example, makes people mad. I don’t know whether it’s that we’ve been so conditioned to expect that from women, or if on the other hand people are just really pissed off that you got to do what you wanted to do and they didn’t. Sometimes I do feel like these negative reactions, there’s some small part of them that is like, ‘well, I didn’t know I could do that, and now I’m stuck,’ so stop flaunting your happy life.
I really try to stay away from the parent against non-parent thing. I think it’s a complete dead end in every possible way. Because my quarrel isn’t with parents. It’s with our oppressive social structures. Being forced to sacrifice our lives or our health or our time or whatever in the service of something bigger than us because we’re women, maybe some people want to do that. Cool. But don’t give me a hard time if don’t.
The film is called “My So-Called Selfish Life,” with “selfish” clearly a little sarcastic. Is it selfish to not have kids?
There’s this moment in the film where I’m talking to my mother about her being pregnant. I won’t spoil it, but it’s a very moving story about my mother dealing with whether to have a child or not. And she says almost off-handedly at the end of our conversation that she was called selfish for having a child. That’s such a profound thing. My parents were immigrants, they didn’t have money, they barely spoke the language, and there were people who thought she was incredibly selfish for wanting to finish university, instead of going to work somewhere. So whatever we decide to do, someone’s going to have a problem with it. If you’re doing something that you want to do, then that would be considered selfish.
There’s that question of who’s going to take care of you when you get older. You should have children so you can give birth to your eldercare, which strikes me as an incredibly selfish thing to do or even suggest. It’s a lovely thing to do for your parents, but it’s not a great reason to have children. It’s an extremely selfish act, but it doesn’t get flagged as such.
That word selfish is in the title of my film and I obviously care about it. It’s hurled at people who don’t do what you want them to do, and it’s not restricted to people who don’t want children.
What do you hope people take away from this project?
I want them to take away a sense of love and support from the film. I’m pretty sarcastic and I do tend to roll my eyes at a lot of things and get angry about a lot of things, but I think this is a very loving film that celebrates people’s lives and celebrates the choices we can make if we’re actually allowed to make them.
For people in the childfree community, but also others, I want people to walk away with a feeling like their lives are their own, their bodies are their own, and if there’s something that’s preventing that—and there are a lot of things, especially now, that make it hard to make your body your own—then we have to fight for it. Because it’s crucially important.
Jill Filipovic is a Brooklyn-based journalist, lawyer, and author of OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind and The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.
This post originally appeared on her Substack.