© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2024

Our Place: living childfree

Hannah Powell
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Amie McNee talks about grief in the decision of being childfree.  SUPPLIED

Welcome to Our Place. This article explores being childfree in Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond, discussing expectations, grief, backlash, and the social media movement.

Writer's note: All interviewees aim to contribute to a conversation where everybody feels respected, and they understand there is a joy in both motherhood and living without children.

There’s a conversation being had, and it’s on the topic of being childfree. With the hashtag rife on social media, there is a new visibility for those sharing their choice not to have children.

In its latest report, Stats NZ found that the total fertility rate in New Zealand is decreasing. Fewer women in their twenties are having babies, and more women in their 30s are becoming mums. Overall, it found women are having fewer children than ever before. But, Stats NZ predicts that by 2038, almost a quarter of a million couples will be living childfree.

Although society is still perpetuated by the narrative of a house and kids, many are now asking how viable raising children is in the present day. Some cannot have children due to chronic illnesses, and others have simply no desire to have them at all.

I opened the conversation with women and men from Aotearoa and beyond who are considering or have decided to be childfree. This article explores their unapologetic ‘why’, and why others seem to have a problem with it.

Jessie Gurunathan is 38. She and her partner live in Hamilton with their dog. Their dog, which they love very much, has its own Posturepedic bed. Their eleven years together has been filled with a lot of travel, both solo and together, and currently, Jessie has been channelling her focus into writing, content creating and launching her own skincare brand. She also has stage four endometriosis.

Endometriosis is a chronic illness that affects 1 in 10 women in New Zealand. Stage four comes with a myriad of complications, and challenges with fertility is included. But for Jessie, children were never quite a part of the conversation. It’s only now that she and her partner are considering it, and even then, Jessie says she doesn’t know.

Preparing her body for potential IVF, Jessie is considering freezing her embryos – “almost as an insurance policy”. But although she says her fertility journey has helped her find endometriosis, when she sees her friends and family having a bad day with the kids, she’s unsure if she wants to start a family. One reason is because of current society.   

 “How viable is it to have children now? Like, from a practical standpoint, what kind of quality of life will you have? And what kind of quality of life can you offer a child when there’s all these outside circumstances that are making it feel more and more bleak and overwhelming?”

There are still a lot of questions, but one thing Jessie knows for sure is that she has a good life.

“I do like the idea of just having one child, maybe having a mini-me of me and Adam combined. I know we would be good parents, and I see the joy that children bring, and I love being an auntie, I absolutely love it. I’m good with children,” she says. “But I’m also unashamedly selfish and like the things my lifestyle affords me without that responsibility.” 

She says her act of defiance is living life unapologetically, but her approach to conversations with parents is creating a space that feels safe for everybody.

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Amie McNee, 30, who is an author and creative in Sydney, has decided her future will be childfree.

“When I thought of my future [as a kid], I always imagined having children in it. I grew up pretending, playing house and having children. I was also a kid and a teenager and young woman who had a lot of work with young kids, so I had this very strong narrative of ‘I’m maternal, I will end up having children one day’, and there was not a lot of questioning at all.”

In reflection, Amie says her attraction to children was more her want to be seen as an adult, rather than a mother. She saw a young girl who wanted to be ‘all grown up’. Now, she has no desire for having children of her own.

“It’s only now that I’m realising that I wanted to be seen and respected as an individual, and as an adult. It wasn’t ever really about having a connection with kids.”

Those around her confused by the shift, Amie says she’s received some questions and criticism.

“They're always like, 'Oh, but you've done so much work with children. You know, you've always seemed to connect really well with young kids' like, 'what's happened'. And I think that's been really hard because I think the story was imprinted upon me that this is the type of person that I was. So it's really only been over the last five years from like, 25 onwards that I've been like, this actually isn't something I want.”

Watching friends and family enter parenthood “because it was the next thing to do” has been eye opening for Amie. She says for some, it was clear parenthood was not what they expected.

Amie realised then that something so lifechanging needed to be strongly considered for herself.

“Over the last three years, it’s been something that I’ve gone to therapy about. I write about it frequently, because I’ve felt this huge grief of letting go of a future that I thought I would want and realize that I have literally have no desire for it.”

Grief, for Amie, has been the most shocking part of her journey. She says it’s a strange grief – grieving for something she doesn’t want but is seen as a natural pathway.

“It’s grieving a story that I was sold that isn’t real and grieving a very hard reality check…an un-romanticising of what parenthood actually is.”

Anna Dean is a freelance impact producer and a woman working on many creative projects – including the latest Spinoff video series ‘Chris and Eli’s Porn Revolution’. At 44, she is glad she hasn’t had children.

But grief is something she too has experienced.

“It definitely felt like a mourning period, and a great period of grief that I went through for about six months. I couldn’t watch any TV shows or storylines or plot narratives that involved birthdays and graduation, children’s birthdays, just that whole kind of child rearing thing.”

Although she had given herself a deadline of 38 to be settled down with children, Anna laughs. She says she’s been in lots of different relationships, including marriage, and she’s very glad she hasn’t had children with any of them.

“[Grief] is something that doesn’t get talked about a lot, how yes you can be righteous and you can be clear in your decision, but sometimes the hormonal weight and the social pressure can feel like a death or a process that requires a bit of mourning.”

Anna cautions women who are in their 20s and 30s who are making that decision to be childfree to know there can be a time where emotionally, it’s difficult.

In the social media space, many women are feeling more comfortable to share their journey – whether it’s on the identity of being childfree or becoming a mother. Amie says she sees many mothers expressing the raw vulnerability and reality of motherhood, stories she doesn’t think have been heard before.

Amie shared her decision to be childfree in an Instagram post earlier this month. She’s grateful for the supportive replies, but for some content creators, the backlash can be brutal.

Danni Duncan, a 32-year old from Ōtautahi Christchurch, posts regularly about her choice in being childfree.

On her Instagram page, she shared a comment a person made to her: “it seems like you’re defining your choices by the very thing you don’t want to be defined by.”

In reply, she wrote, “as a woman, society defines me whether I want them to or not, so why not embrace and celebrate the positive parts of my decision not to have children?”

“It’s always “when do you think you’ll have children and how many do you want?” rather than “how’s the career going and what things have you been doing for yourself lately?”

Danni continued, “I wish women were seen as far more than a womb and a mother, and maybe we’re slowly getting there, but until the expectations go away I think it’s very fair those of us choosing not to procreate define ourselves by what is a very important, self-aware decision.”

She asked her followers to imagine being a mother who had never been given the space to think about motherhood, and how the decision has impacted your life. “You’re ‘just meant to live it’”, she says.

In the same post, she writes, “it may be perceived as showing off, but surely as a mother you can understand the frustration of not feeling seen as anything beyond having children? All women want to be celebrated, and rightly so.”

The comment section is saturated with other woman’s experiences – those who are both mothers, and childfree.

Receiving another comment on her social media saying, “why are more people feeling proud to say they are choosing to be childfree”, Danni makes it into a post.

She writes, “while I’m absolutely not the sole reason (there’s many others), I’m still very proud to have publicly shared this journey of me realising I don’t want to have children. If you don’t understand why I chose to “make it my whole personality”…well, you don’t understand and that’s the point.”

“I’m so glad to have helped create this movement of people who feel more comfortably to discuss their reasons for maybe not having children and to not feel shame in that.”

Sharing reels, stories, and posts on being childfree alongside fashion, interior design, and lifestyle, Danni could be described as a “childfree activist”. Being childfree isn’t all that she posts, but as she navigates her choice, like many other women do, bringing visibility to her decision is a big part of it.  

Jessie, Aimie, Danni, and Anna all understand and feel positive that for some women, motherhood is the right choice. Many have friends and whānau who have little ones, and they enjoy spending time looking after them.

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Amie says there’s a divinity and magic to being a parent, even if there can be a pain and sacrifice that no one talks about. She says there are lots of images and ideas as to what women who don’t want children look like, such as ‘hating’ children, or being intolerable of mothers. But that is simply not true – Jessie, Amie, and Danni want to open the conversation for everybody, and enjoy the time with their nieces, nephews, and friend’s kids while they can. The three have said there is always room for their decision on children to change, too.

Women, of course, are not the only ones involved. Men can also make the choice to not become a parent.

Jessie, Amie, and Danni have told me and/or social media that their partners are on the same page, respectively.

Jack*, a 25 year old working in the music industry, is also considering a life without kids.

“I have always thought like, ‘oh kids? Not for another ten years’. That’s just sort of been the joke I make. But it might not ever be…I’m kind of leaning that way.”

He and his partner have ‘kind of’ had conversations around children, and Jack says although they are postponing the definitive one, it’s something he thinks they should look into in the next five years.

The biggest reason to his uncertainty is the climate.  

“There are a lot of problems in the world, and we’re not very kind to the earth. I think that’s very much to do with the fact that it’s a tiny globe with eight billion people here.”

He admits children is not a topic that comes up often amongst his male peers.

Acknowledging his age, he says he doesn’t know a lot of friends who have children or are trying for them, and his older brothers are also not thinking about having children anytime soon. When he brought up the topic to his father, his father’s response was of surprise and shock - a reply Jack didn’t quite expect.

“It’s definitely interesting bringing it up to your parents, because obviously they opted to have kids and that’s why you’re alive. They get so much joy on hanging out with you in this mid-twenties age.”

But one of his fears is parenthood putting “a stop on things”, especially when it comes to establishing a career.  

One stereotype of a life without kids is that energy instead will be invested into a life-long and busy career.

But Jessie wonders why society can’t celebrate milestones that don’t include marriage or having kids. Danni recently shared a post outlining a list of what people could celebrate instead, such as graduation, job promotions, moving to a new house, or adopting a pet.

Amie hopes everyone can take the opportunity to think about what they actually want and make a conscious choice.

And Anna, sharing a memory from her high school reunion, outlines the need for more graciousness in the world. She says her headmistress apologised to her former students, regretting the fact she had said women can do anything, by having children and a career. Instead, her headmistress said the most important thing you can be is a mother. Anna was shocked, looking around at ex-classmates who were unwell, had fertility issues, or were mothers themselves. What was more shocking, she said, was the smiling and nodding from her peers.

“Here was the headmistress of a girls school saying it’s very hard to do all of the things, it’s very hard to have a career and juggle having a family and making your mark. What I’m seeing with so many women of my age [is that they’ve] tried to do all that but are incredibly burnt out and struggling.”

Anna empathises with the mothers trying to juggle what they can.

But when it comes to the decision on children, women can do anything - whether that is deciding to become a mother or being childfree.


*Jack is not his real name.