I recently was featured on a new podcast, Unchained. Unbothered, by Keturah Kendrick about my blog and experience as a childfree African woman. Please check it out!
I was in a relationship years ago that got serious pretty quickly. I was always clear about the fact that having children was not something that would happen if we stayed together. At first, he was disappointed, but he later on seemed to change his mind. I say “seemed to” because after once having told me that he would be fine if we never had kids, he later told me that he thought the reason I had agreed that we should get married was because I had changed my mind and decided to have children.
I had always been completely honest and never, ever led him to believe that my mind had changed and I would have children.
Before we got together, one of my friends got pregnant unexpectedly. Well, unexpectedly probably isn’t the right word (it wasn’t an immaculate conception), but she hadn’t been planning on having children any time soon. She is also a feminist and we have similar views regarding gender, feminism, and sexuality. My ex wanted to know why, if we had similar views, she decided to have a child. In fact, he asked me this repeatedly, and I think (although I’ll never know for sure) that is because he wanted me to tell him that even though she didn’t want to have children, she knows that it’s her responsibility to do so as a woman.
I think this because I told him at one point that although I always thought I would have children, it was never a thought that filled me with joy, and that it had occurred to me when I was 22 (and had discovered the feminist blogosphere) that parenthood was something I had no obligation to participate in. He kept asking me “who told me” that I didn’t have to have children, a question that really annoyed me, because no one “told” me anything. No one has to tell me anything about my own rights to do what I want with my own body.
Like I’ve mentioned before on here, this same ex’s sister was incredulous that I could “deny” an African man children. I suspect that the reason he kept asking was because he wanted me to eventually admit that the most prominent (English-language) feminist bloggers who talk about not having children are white.
As in, he, along with many other people, believe that it’s something that white women have a choice in, but it’s something that I, as a black, and more importantly, an African woman, have absolutely no right to decide. Aside from my parents, not a single one of my family members has supported my choice.
One of my cousins, whom I have written about previously, told me that I “couldn’t decide” that I wasn’t going to have children, because what if I met someone who really wants kids?
One of my aunts told me I have to have kids, because it would make my dad happy, and because we are African.
Is the idea that the childfree lifestyle is something that white women (regardless of where they come from as long as their ancestry began in Europe) can choose, but as African women, we don’t have this luxury something that you’ve heard? What do you say? What do you do?
What is “normal”?
Many people consider the answer to that question to be “common sense.”
However, some of us feel the same way about “normal” as we feel about the definition (or existence) of “common sense.” Subjective, biased, socially constructed, perceptually based, and culturally and demographically variant. These are among the ways social scientists examine “normalcy” and normative versus deviant, morality versus immorality, and appropriateness versus inappropriateness.
When sociologists say much of people’s awareness and understanding is created and socially constructed, we are not saying our awareness and understanding are any less “real”, “true”, or “factual” as far as people are concerned. Social construction means individual and group identities and forms of reality are, to varying extents, up for debate and subject to change. One illustration of such fluidity and conceptualized realness is when people say “men are dominant” with such definitiveness and assertion, as though this is 100% provable and unquestionable fact.
Well, here is the thing about people’s behaviors that have persisted for generations and for centuries: it can become “real” and “true”, not because it is provable fact; innate; or provably hormonal, biological, or genetic. It is one of many examples of ways in which our beliefs and behaviors influence us physically and mentally. Beliefs and behaviors persist because they are taught from generation to generation—within and across generations. In addition to learned beliefs and behaviors, this is also about people’s attachment to other people and social institutions— including the family, employment, education, and spirituality (or faith or meditation or religion).
Through these institutional attachments and learned beliefs and behaviors, people often exaggerate and attach unprovable or disproven meanings to biological sex, for example, that exaggerate differences between females and males. These turn into exaggerated and unfounded meanings and differences between girls/women and boys/men in a cisgender system. This also can apply to how people understand sexuality, race and ethnicity, and all other meanings and differences across groups of people. People are willingly or unwillingly placed into identities, categories, and groupings which include gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, spirituality, religion, socioeconomic status, physical ability and mental ability, and other sociocultural dynamics. Historically and contemporarily, people tend to compare and contrast themselves to other people and to identify with similarly situated people. This tends to result in what Charles Tilly (1998) called “durable inequality” through which within-group and across-group comparisons and distinctions lead to inequalities.
People have used stories, myths, fables, and spirituality-faith-meditation-religion to understand life, explain life, and justify life across different societies and cultures. Understanding how people operate shapes our understanding of the subjectivity of “normal.” “Normal” exists in the sense that it is culturally variant and contextually relative. It is through this lens that I do work (also) in mental health, suicide and self-harm. Yes, mental health is “real.” Yes, mental health conditions are “real.” But, no, mental health and suicide and self-harm are not objective and culturally neutral. While there are trends, patterns, and generalizations to be made, a factor that influences the well-being and life outcomes of one individual or one group does not necessarily have the same effect on the well-being and life outcomes of another individual or another group.
So, what do we do?
One of my first missions is to add voice to Black women (across various demographics including spirituality-faith-meditation-religion, gender identities, and sexual identities) who experience sadness, depression, anxiety, and other longstanding mental and emotional conditions. A common misconception is that mental health concerns, suicide, and self-harm are uncommon in African diaspora communities around the world. Historically and contemporarily, people of the African diaspora have been taught and encouraged to use denial, silence, submission, violence, aggression, assertion, defensiveness, or spirituality-faith-meditation-religion to “heal” or “cure” physical and emotional ailments. This is partly based on the strongly held notion that if something is ignored it does not exist— an example of this is the persistent message in spirituals and gospel songs that “trouble don’t last always” and “God does things for a reason”.
It is my argument that mental health among the African diaspora and especially women of the African diaspora is negatively influenced by a number of factors including overt and covert reproductive force and reproduce coercion. Examples of force and coercion include longstanding cultural beliefs that reproduction is not about personal health, personal decision, and choice, but instead about cultural obligation, true womanhood, and spiritual or religious meaning. This is one of many examples of “pronatalism” in almost all societies.
Since I used the “p” word, let me say, it is quite difficult to call something “pronatalist” and criticize “pronatalism” in a manner that is culturally non-combative and sensitive. In turn, it is understandable when people are dismissive or outraged when told their beliefs, behaviors, and overall way of life are potentially problematic. Although this can be disconcerting for most people, women across (predominantly patriarchal and gender unequal) societies are the people left with the responsibility of investing in and using their fertility, and women are also the ones who primarily care for their offspring. This responsibility tends to be forced upon women (overtly and covertly) through cultural, religious, social, and physical means. There are also millions, if not billions, of women who seem to willingly and voluntarily commit to such a life. Is this, however, the true meaning of “choice”? It remains a topic debated by some feminists, Black feminists, womanists, and gender egalitarians whether this is the true meaning of “equality” and “liberation”— when women can choose whatever they please even if it is a lifestyle that might be frowned upon in certain settings.
Is it possible to not be presumed judgmental, condescending, and patronizing when telling women of the African diaspora that they are not, and do not have to be, perpetually strong for the sake of raising children and saving families? Can women of the African diaspora be told to focus on self-identity, self-health, and being self-aware? Because, after all, people who are not physically healthy and mentally healthy cannot make their families physically healthy and mentally healthy.
Is this an unreasonable request?
Or, are women of the African diaspora free to choose a life in which they might end up stressful, worried, exhausted, and in which their identity and happiness are fully within the context and confines of other people (their families, religious institutions, and anything other than self-health)? Can women of the African diaspora define their happiness and fulfillment in that manner?
Is this “normal”?
And is it okay for this to be one person’s “normal,” let alone billions of people’s “normal”?
Kimya N. Dennis is a criminologist and sociologist with interdisciplinary research and community outreach on suicide and self-harm, mental health, and people who choose not to have children. Kimya reaches a wide range of communities with particular emphasis on underserviced communities and Blacks/African diaspora. Originally from Richmond, VA Kimya collaborates with community activists and researchers in New York, Virginia, and North Carolina. Kimya gives presentations and participates in panels on various correlates of crime and deviance, mental health, suicide and self-harm, and cultural dynamics including gender, race and ethnicity, and religion-faith-spirituality-meditation.
One thing that African people like to ask me— well, if I’m being real, it’s not just Africans, it’s damn near everybody— likes to ask me when they find out that I’m not having children is “What about your husband?”
I asked my mom a few years ago if she wanted grandchildren. She said it wasn’t really about whether or not she wanted grandchildren, but that was about what I wanted. And besides, would I really have a kid just because she told me to? I was not expecting her to answer this way, and I extremely relieved to have that pressure lifted. Then she said “What about your husband?”
I have a Japanese friend who also doesn’t want to have children. In his words, “I can see no benefit to having a child.” We talked about it a lot. Then one day he asked me “But what about your husband?”
I don’t understand why people are so preoccupied with this phantom husband. Why do the wishes of this hypothetical man trump my own rights to determine what happens to my own body?
I was at a conference for work a few years back in Accra, and I met a Ghanaian woman who had married a Norwegian man and moved to Norway, and yet somehow had the audacity to lecture me about not having African values. Yes, of course; the best way to demonstrate your commitment to African values is to marry a white man and then immigrate to Scandinavia. (Note: I’m not against interracial marriage. Or immigration. I just found this a strangely obtuse and hypocritical thing to say, given her choices.) Among a bunch of other stupid shit she said, she told me that my boyfriend at the time was going to have to be the head of the household, because he’s a man, and there’s no way two people can be equal because the United States has a president and a vice president.
Obviously, I disagreed, since I’m a grown-ass human being, and no one is going to be the “head” of anything in my life simply because he was born with external genitalia and I wasn’t. She asked “what about when you have children?”
I can’t lie. If I had been able to lie, I would maybe have said something along the lines of “We will parent them equally.” Or as one of my friends said about her house “We rule jointly has heads,” which cracked me up. (Specifically her use of the word “rule,” as though her house is a kingdom. Queendom, I mean) Unfortunately, I said “Yeah, I’m not having kids.”
[Cue storm of shit.]
“But- you- well, he’s still an African man, you know. If you’re not going to have kids you need to tell him now. You have to have children.” (This same woman had passed around pictures of her “three beautiful children” earlier completely unsolicited, so she might just have had an irrational preoccupation with parenting.) Why she thought I wouldn’t have discussed that with my own boyfriend, I will never know. I told her that being my boyfriend, he was already well aware of the fact that I was not having children, and she did a bunch more sputtering about “the love you have for a child” and how “he’s an African man” and that “No one ever dies wishing they had spent more time at the office.” And you know what? She convinced me.
Just kidding, of course she didn’t.
When I was still with the aforementioned ex, he told his sister that I didn’t want to have children, and reported that she had something along the lines of “How can she deny an African man children?” and that she was going to want to lecture me about it when we met. He also told me that she said he could find a “better girl” than me who will have kids.
The idea that a man is entitled to use someone else’s body, a woman’s body, for his own desires makes me sick. This “what about your husband?” business is rooted in misogyny. It’s just a way of reinforcing the idea that a woman is secondary to a man in every way, and specifically that African women are secondary to African men. The idea that a man is entitled to use a woman’s body because of where he comes from is completely abhorrent, and it’s completely sexist.
For most people, the expectation that a woman is “supposed to have children” doesn’t seem to be an issue because most people want to be parents, and most people also don’t question the ideals they were brought up with. That’s how it’s all “supposed” to function. The man pays a dowry (buys a woman from her original owner, her dad), then she moves into his house, becomes his property, and when she gestates, births, feeds, and raises the children, they get his name, because he is the “head of the household.” And according to these patriarchal standards, a woman who understands that her role is to submit and to continue a man’s lineage is “better” than one who has the audacity to think she’s in charge of her own body.
My mom’s question floored with me with how sexist it was, and it also showed me that I’m a child that she had for her husband, and I have nothing to do with her family. As a woman, I’m to do the same thing for my husband, even if I don’t want to, or even have a husband. According to my ex(’s sister), I don’t have the right to “deny” an African man a child. What fucking right does anyone have to “deny” a human being the right to decide what happens to their own body, African man or not?
Oh, that’s right, I’m not a human being. I’m a woman. By default, I have conceded control of my sexual and reproductive rights, because some man somewhere might marry me, and my life and body are all about what he might want.
What do other childfree Africans think? Are you married? Do you want to get married? Will you forego marriage because it means that you don’t get to be childfree? Did you want to have children when you didn’t want to because of societal expectations? What’s the obsession with the imaginary husband?
Photo credit: Mila Supinskaya via Shutterstock
One thing people love telling me when they find out that I don’t want to have children is that I’ll change my mind. I remember when I was living in Shanghai, when I was 23; I was with an American friend, his Spanish girlfriend, and another American guy. All three of them kept insisting that I was going to change my mind, and that I should “never say never” and a bunch of other clichéd expressions. I was a woman, after all, and all women want to have children. Even the ones who are absolutely certain that they don’t want children will change their minds, because women are too stupid and fickle to know what they want. Clearly.
I told them that I didn’t appreciate being patronized, which set off another round of patronizing drivel. My friend said it wasn’t patronizing, because did I believe the same things now that I believed when I was five? No? Well then, I shouldn’t be so sure that I would never have children, because I would change my mind someday.
A Ghanaian and American friend of mine (as in, same person who is both Ghanaian and American) kept insisting that I would change my mind. A few years ago, I was going through an awful break up and trying to find a way to convince myself to have children (because I certainly didn’t want to have them). She said “you’re never going to change your mind, so why bother?” I was really confused, and said “Aren’t you the one who kept insisting that I’d change my mind?” She said that she had been convinced that I was on the fence, but now she realized I wasn’t.
Why would you think I was on the fence? Why does anyone ever think that I’m not sure about what I want? I never say anything that even comes close to implying that I might change my mind about wanting children. I have always been 100% certain and clear about the fact that I absolutely do not want and will not have children.
One of my best friends who is a mother, but still supportive of childfree people “That’s like telling someone that you’ve gotten engaged, and that person saying ‘oh, don’t worry, you’ll change your mind.’” Interesting analogy, but she has a point. Why is it that one’s personal decisions need to be met with condescension if they’re not the same choice you’ve made for yourself? I’m the one living with my own mind, I’m fairly certain of what’s inside it. I will not change my fucking mind.
Do any childfree African men or women have people keep insisting that they will change their minds? How do you respond? Have you ever had anyone not insist that you’ll change your mind and just accept your decision?
It is not African to not have children.
People use culture a lot to justify social pressure. “Culture” is what says that women should not wear short skirts or dresses, and if they do, men have the right to rape them. “Culture” also says that women mustn’t wear trousers, if they do, men can assault them. “Culture” condemns people for having subaltern sexual orientations or not following a mainstream religion. The same “culture” is used as a basis for the expectation of childbearing.
So, let me rephrase what I said before: it is seen as simply “unAfrican” to not have children: Part of your responsibility as a member of an African family, tribe, society is to reproduce. In my experience, it is seen as selfish, unnatural, or abnormal to not have the desire to have children. I keep hearing that all women have the desire to grow life- I have never, ever felt that desire. Not even a mild curiosity.
The burden of stigma is doubly felt by women: Although men are almost as likely to be infertile as women, most cultures place all of the blame on women if a couple doesn’t have children— and I don’t even believe that “blame” is something that belongs in a discussion about something like reproductive function.
In my experience, the justification for the expectation that I must reproduce is that it is African to have children. Whatever they do “outside” is because it’s “outside.” However, growing childlessness in the United States, Japan, and Germany is evidence of the opposite: That the decision to have or not to have children has nothing to do with your location, nationality, or race. These countries with widely differing cultures, traditions, and expectations all have an increasing number of people who are choosing not to breed. Just because you live in one of these countries, that doesn’t mean that the entire culture supports the choice not to become a parent. However, it hopefully reflect a growing acceptance for people to exercise control over their own bodies and lives; and hopefully a growing acceptance for people who for whatever reason are unable to have children.
For some people, raising a child does not rank highly on their priorities list, and there is nothing inherently incorrect or unAfrican about it. After all, people from all countries are able to reproduce, as are every animal and every species. The difference between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom is that we are able to make conscious decisions about what is the best path for each of us to take. For some of us, not having children is the best path.
While those who are childfree are constantly castigated as being selfish, it seems to me that marks a lack of the understanding of the word. If it means “chiefly concerned with one’s own interest, advantage, etc. esp to the total exclusion of the interest of others,” how is it not selfish to try to force people to use their bodies in ways that they don’t want? The only person on earth whose body you have the right to control is your own— how is trying to take that right away from others not selfish? How is the decision to reproduce for your own advantage – you can’t be doing it for the wellbeing of an egg or a sperm— inherently more selfish than not creating a human being that doesn’t already exist?
It’s not about hating children— although if one does hate children it seems that’s a pretty good reason for them not to have them. Some children are awesome, and some of them are not, just like every other type of person in the world. Most are probably somewhere in between. I don’t hate children, and that makes me all the more aware that I shouldn’t become a mother—why would anyone want someone who doesn’t want to be a mother to become one?
I realize Africa is a huge continent with 54 countries, but there are certain expectations consistent across all of them. That’s why I’ve created this blog — as a space for Africans without children to talk about what it means to be both childfree and African, no matter where you are. If you have a story about being childfree and African, please share it in the comment section below. I’d love to hear from you.