Sandra Oh in Killing Eve (Photo: BBC America)


Childfree women need a new storyline

With television still focusing on married mothers or childfree single women, writer and actor Naomi Sheldon asks: does the world think we’re not enough without motherhood?

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By Naomi Sheldon on

“Could you take off your wedding ring please? It’s confusing for an audience,” he said. Then he added with a shrug: “I mean, where are the kids?”

On set, I sat in my pretend armchair, in my pretend home, pretending to read a pretend utility bill, wondering why I couldn’t pretend to be married because there weren’t any pretend children.

Praise be to the commercials that have kept me in hot dinners and fresh underwear in the otherwise financially precarious industry of performing arts. I’ve played a plethora of “quirky”, “not-too-attractive, please” women in fairly recognisable situations. I’ve played love-struck girlfriend, keeping-it-real mum, mischievous singleton and yet, there in my pretend armchair, I realised I’ve never represented myself in these roles: married and without kids.

So, where are the commercials – and even TV shows – featuring married women who happen to be without children? On closer inspection, they seem to be in short supply. If a couple are without children, it’s a central conceit of the drama. It seems odd that a slice of the population can’t find themselves portrayed on-screen, with or without their childfree status being central to the plot point.

I’m not a Victorian headmistress. I’m not saying you must be married to have kids. The number of marriages in general hit an all-time low this year, leaving those of us with a gold band a deficit in the region of £25K (but very nice photos in the album), wondering if we’ve been duped. I perceive that a bonus for unmarried couples is they are less harassed by the query, “When are you having a baby?”, while married couples can be divided into two factions: those with and those without children.

The moment she returns from honeymoon, beady eyes watch the newlywed to see if she reaches for the wine... or the orange juice. I say this from guilty self-knowledge of making exactly these hawk-like observations of others. Breaking 33 years of neural pathways dictating that the sequel to happily ever after is children is a hard task. There’s an ache in my chest when I think about having a baby. But deciphering its exact root is complicated. Disentangling the pang of a genuine impulse to be a mother from the pain of feeling like a failure for not having a child is a messy affair.

The reasons people don’t have children are varied and complex. The Telegraph reported in 2017 that the proportion of women who have never had children has doubled in a generation, with women putting off having children until they can no longer have them. My husband and I haven’t been on the difficult infertility journey, and poverty or health problems haven’t played a role in our choices. We simply haven’t decided to have children – yet. But the pressure to cross off the next square on life’s bingo card after marriage is palpable and the tension is rising.  

Childfree men are innumerable and yet perceived differently from childfree women. My husband is never questioned about his childfree status. While men’s fertility declines with age, it is less predictable than women’s. How often am I reminded that my eggs aren’t in infinite supply? Colleagues and friends gently tap their watches. The friendly advice shifted from “Freeze your eggs!” to “Freeze your embryos!” after our third wedding anniversary. Will putting my motherhood on ice alleviate society’s anxiety that I’ll miss out on being a mother? One thing is certain: people are concerned with the activities of our wombs. It’s no wonder we rarely see the childfree mother on screen without the action being centred around her childlessness.

Tamara Jenkins, the writer/director of Netflix’s fertility comedy, Private Lives, talks about “the tyranny of the female condition” – which is the very real anxiety that if we delay motherhood to “focus on career”, we might find ourselves infertile. This messy fertility landscape has for too long been underexplored on TV. More, please.

It’s important. The power of representation in the media cannot be overstated. You’ve got to see it to be it and I don’t see happily childfree women in long-term relationships on-screen. Perhaps this starts to unpick at that ache in my chest. Does the world think that I’m not enough without motherhood?

I’m more represented than most, in being a white, able-bodied, educated woman. But surely more varied female stories would benefit us all. Call me greedy, but if our only representations are the Macbeths, the Underwoods or the couples in The Good Place, I think there’s a gap in the market. Claire Underwood and Lady Macbeth present us with cold, ruthless, killers whose choice to be childless is an extension of their selfish ambition.

Recently, Phoebe Waller-Bridge adapted Killing Eve and Sandra Oh burst on to our screens with the protagonist we were waiting for. Eve Polastri, a talented security operative whose obsession with a female assassin is not overshadowed by the fact she’s married without children. It’s simply not pivotal to the plot. Hallelujah!

We need more childfree women and childfree couples on our screens. We need to change the narrative that leaves long-term couples at risk of feeling as if they’re merely pausing in the waiting room between marriage and children.

Motherhood is a fascinating and rich realm to explore. Motherland, Catastrophe, Transparent, Bad Moms, Lady Bird and Tully are finally narrowing the gap between onscreen and real-life parenting (although the lack of people of colour is startling).

In parallel to these much-needed stories, I’d like a shift of focus away from motherhood as if all women are mothers, should be mothers or could be mothers. Motherhood can come in many forms; it doesn’t only involve having your own children. The implication that people who choose a career “miss out” on having a family, and that a childfree marriage is an unhappy one, is wearing thin.  

Perhaps if we had more Eve Polastris on our screens, I’d spend less time deciphering whether that ache in my chest is a yearning for children or teachings of Sex And The City. I’d accept more easily that motherhood doesn’t have to be the driving force of my own story (but can be a sub-plot, if I choose). If the heroine doesn’t make that choice, that’s cool. Maybe she’s fighting crime instead.


Sandra Oh in Killing Eve (Photo: BBC America)
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women without children
women in the media

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