Content warning: this piece contains a brief mention of suicide.
Avery Hallberg rolls up the sleeves of her Saints jersey before she presses her palms into the ball of dough. She loves making pasta from scratch, especially on football Sundays, when she and her husband Andy clear everything else from their schedule. Andy runs into the living room to pause the game before flouring his hands.
Their foster schnoodle, Lola, sleeps next to a side table filled with picture frames: the three of them crouched together in the snow, the couple’s wedding day in Walt Disney World, and Avery with her arms around her niece Scarlett and nephew Leo, the two other loves of her life.
Avery, 34, was six years old when she realized people expected her to have kids of her own when she grew up. She would hear her sister, Jade, talk about her hopes to have at least two kids, making Avery wonder if there was something wrong with her for not imagining that for herself.
For Avery, the thought of carrying a baby inside her and dedicating the rest of her life to raising a well-rounded human didn’t sound like her version of happiness. She wanted to experience living in different places, to spend her free time travelling all over the world and going to football games. She assumed that, eventually, she’d start wanting a child and, somehow, one would just have to fit into all that. But she never did.
At 23, Avery fell in love with Andy, who also knew he didn’t want to be a parent. Marrying Andy made Avery expect the biggest hurdle about not wanting children was behind her. She laughs at the thought of that now.
“I’ve been told my whole life that I’m wrong and that I’m going to change my mind, or I’ll never know what real love is,” Avery said. “We think that we as women have come so far until we start looking at these things seriously and realize that women really don’t have all that much control.”
Study results from the Sociological Inquiry indicate motherhood is still considered to be the primary role for women, and those who decide against it are often perceived as lacking in some way. Statistics Canada reports show 49 per cent of married couples — both common law and legally wed — do not have children, but Avery believes being child-free is only seen as a bad thing for females.
Despite the fact gender equality is heavily promoted in Western society today, women still face evident barriers in the workplace, the doctor’s office, and in their personal lives. Avery believes choosing not to have children adds to this.
“Women are most definitely not equal to men,” Avery said. “People don’t like strongly opinionated women, so being vocal about this kind of stuff just makes people mad. I don’t really care anymore. I’m ready to make people mad.”
Shattering the glass ceiling has been a popular topic of conversation since the term was first used in the 1980s. However, reports from across North America show the barrier is very much intact today, with studies and articles indicating it may be related to women still being seen primarily as potential mothers.
An article for NBC News discusses how the mere possibility of pregnancy is preventing women from getting the same opportunities men do. This “pregnancy penalty” is affecting all women, including those who don’t want to have children. Although Canada has more supportive policies for parents than the United States, such as paid maternity leave, a lot of parallels exist between Canadian and American work culture. A 2020 study for Statistics Canada showed women accounted for 24 per cent of the top tax filers and 52 per cent of the bottom tax filers.
Avery has worked in both countries and believes the possibility of getting pregnant is just one of the many obstacles that stands in the way of women getting hired and promoted, no matter where they live. Although her career wasn’t the reason she chose not to have kids, Avery admits she once thought being childless would open the door for more options.
“I wanted people to know that I won’t be taking mat leave or needing extra time off for kids,” Avery said. “I’d always seen it as a positive thing for people in my professional life to know that.”
Avery says she’s not sure which is the lesser of two evils: people perceiving her as a potential mother or people perceiving her as a cold workaholic. She thinks both are unfair assumptions.
An article for VICE Canada discusses how child-free men seem to receive a socially acceptable bachelor status, while people often perceive child-free women who have careers as lonely or “massive bitches.”
Avery laughs as she reiterates something she tells people when they ask why she doesn’t like kids: “Guys, I worked at Disney for five years. Obviously, I don’t dislike kids.” After she and Andy had their wedding at Walt Disney World, Avery got hired in the special events department and later became a concierge who arranged itineraries for guests.
“I loved working for Disney and working with families,” she said. “But I don’t believe it was what I was meant to do forever.”
Avery found her passion after she moved back home to be closer to her family. She was on a video call with Jade and Leo, a newborn at the time, when she realized she didn’t want to be a long-distance aunt. She wanted Leo to know Auntie Avery would be 100 per cent there for him. Three months after she and Andy returned to Manitoba, she got a call from her mom that sparked a change in her career path: Her stepsister, Ali, had killed herself.
“After that, I knew I wanted to do something good for the world,” Avery said. “Ali saw the world as such a dark place, and sociology really helped me understand what she was thinking.”
Avery is now a few months away from completing an honours degree in sociology. She hopes to land a career as a policy analyst for the Government of Canada, a position that will enable her to study and address social issues like equality and discrimination.
But even in a field dedicated to human rights, Avery says the prejudices surrounding women in the workplace are still evident. The Canadian government mandates protection for pregnant employees, but Avery says there are always ways for employers to avoid dealing with any of that if it benefits them.
“I’ve been asked very slyly during interviews about my parental situation,” Avery said. “I just did one recently where they asked if I needed to wait until the end of the school year to move my kids.”
Being childless gives Avery confidence to answer these kinds of questions, but she still doesn’t feel she should have to. She says she imagines herself calling out employers for inquiring about her personal life but doesn’t think anyone could do that without kissing the job opportunity goodbye. Fellow child-free female Brittany Neskar agrees.
Neskar, 29, has known she has no interest in being a mother since she watched her friends play with dolls in kindergarten. Her career as a registered nurse has confirmed her decision time and again by providing a perspective she says no other job could give her. Working in medicine has given her a lot of insight about how life as a mother would likely be for her and her partner, Ed.
“Medically, I understand how genetics work. Eddie has ADHD and autism runs in my family,” Neskar said. “We understand how hard that would be, and we just don’t want it.”
Being a nurse has also given Neskar a first-hand look into the whole process of childbearing and birth, something she says she has never wanted to experience. Despite the popular belief that all women have natural maternal instincts, studies by renowned journalist-turned-psychologist Darcy Lockman show parenting desires and skills are not instincts and that it’s quite common for a woman to not want to have babies.
Avery says childbirth is not something she feels she’s missing out on. She and Andy have always taken steps to prevent an accidental pregnancy. But Avery wants to remove that anxiety from her life and totally take pregnancy out of the equation; for her, tubal ligation is the best way to do that.
Tubal ligation, also known as getting one’s “tubes tied,” is a surgery in which a woman’s fallopian tubes are cut, tied, or blocked to permanently prevent pregnancy without affecting her menstrual cycle.
Approximately 20,000 tubal ligations are performed each year in Canada, and about 73 per cent of them are performed on women who already have children, according to a 2018 study for the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada.
The procedure has been around since the late 1800s, when it was only performed for women who faced serious health complications related to pregnancy. The tools and methods have come a long way, but the general perception of women who choose to get the procedure has not evolved as much.
Until the 1960s, many medical centres around the world used a specific formula to determine if a woman was eligible for sterilization, according to research for Human Sexuality: From Cells to Society. The woman’s age multiplied by the number of children she had already conceived needed to equal 120 in order to qualify. While there may not be a standard formula in place today, it’s still common for doctors to deny women permanent contraception.
Avery says as soon as she started telling people she didn’t want to have kids, they were telling her she would change her mind. Every doctor she spoke to about it suggested the same thing. She was 27 when she first asked for a referral for a tubal ligation, which her doctor denied. She switched doctors three times over the following few years, hoping to find one that would take her seriously.
When Avery was 30, she found a gynecologist who recommended she get an IUD, a small birth control device that’s inserted into the uterus. The gynecologist suggested Avery try the IUD, wait the prescribed five years, and if she still wanted to remain child-free at that point, then they would revisit the tubal ligation idea. Avery gave in, knowing she would be 35 years old when it came time to remove the IUD, the age all of her previous doctors had told her to reach before making this decision.
“Doctors are afraid of people changing their minds, but I’ve been married for almost a decade, so it seems obvious to me that we’re not changing our minds,” Avery said. “If I’m choosing to never have children, I shouldn’t have to be on birth control for my entire life. IUDs can fail and then all of a sudden, I’d be pregnant.”
Online resources on sexual health from Women’s College Hospital state that IUDs are generally very effective at preventing pregnancy but, like any form of birth control, come with a list of possible side effects. These side effects include irregular bleeding, weight gain, headaches, acne, back pain, and an increased risk of ectopic pregnancy — a pregnancy that develops outside of the uterus.
Doctors pushing for IUDs over tubal ligations is something Dr. Carol Scurfield says is very common. The medical director for Women’s Health Clinic, who’s been specializing in women’s health for more than 35 years, says a lot of her patients over the years have said they don’t feel their doctors take them seriously about not wanting kids.
“Medicine was, for a long time, a male-dominated profession and there are still a lot of women today who don’t feel they are ‘believed’ by their doctors,” Scurfield said. “When I was in med school, the argument always fell back to the ‘They’ll change their minds’ thing, and there’s still a bit of that today.”
Scurfield says even those who do get the go-ahead from their doctors for a tubal ligation need to see a gynecologist, and that gynecologist may have his or her own criteria.
For Avery, the frustration of not feeling like she has control over her own body is amplified by the fact her husband does. She mentions the story of Kelsey Silverstein, a woman from Nashville who made headlines across North America when her doctor required her to bring her husband into the office and grant permission for her to get her tubes tied. Avery laughs and says it doesn’t surprise her at all, and although she doubts that happens in Canada, she doesn’t think doctors here are all that different.
“Andy could go down on Tuesday and get a vasectomy with way less questions asked,” Avery said. “He’s willing to get one, but it’s something I want to do and should have the right to.”
Receiving permanent contraception is a less complicated medical process for men. Canada has one of the highest vasectomy rates in the world, according to data from the United Nations, with more than 55,000 Canadian men getting vasectomies annually.
Allan Pineda says he’s been planning on getting one for years but hasn’t gotten around to it. Pineda, 42, has always known he didn’t want to be a father and has never been discouraged by his doctor from getting a vasectomy, even when he was much younger. He says even though he hasn’t gotten one yet, he knows he can whenever he decides to take the time off work.
Pineda believes everything about being childless is easier for men, based on what he’s seen the women in his life experience. He and his wife Amanda have been together for almost 10 years, and Pineda says the pressure and negative comments from other people have always fallen on her.
“I can’t speak for women, but I can see it,” Pineda said. “I get judgments, but women get told that they’re supposed to [have children].”
Avery hopes turning 35 will finally qualify her to graduate from the “supposed to have children” stage of her life, but she’s not holding her breath. After decades of feeling the pressure, it’s hard for her to imagine life without it.
Of all the negative comments Avery has heard over the years, the one she says people never seem to get tired of telling her is that she’s selfish: selfish for not wanting to give life, for choosing to focus on herself, and for denying her husband the chance to be a father. She says she’s become indifferent to the finger-pointing, but she still feels angry about the fact she takes the “blame” for both her and her husband.
“If Andy’s with his buddies who have kids, they tell him he’s lucky. Meanwhile, I’m the barren old lady who’s withholding children from him,” she said. “It’s like he’s made the right decision, and I’ve made the wrong one, somehow.”
Women who choose not to get married or have children are often perceived as damaged or desperate, according to a study for the Sociological Inquiry, while men who make the same decision are mostly seen as independent, even mysterious.
Social media platforms allow people’s opinions and perceptions to become public knowledge, resulting in users often feeling pressured to look, act, and live a certain way. A study for Personality and Individual Differences showed the term “#babyfever” was reserved almost entirely for young, childless women, and this term made them feel aware of the social stigma associated with remaining childless.
Avery says pressure from other people won’t ever be enough to make her change her mind because she doesn’t care what other people think she should do. To assume she doesn’t know what love is just because she hasn’t carried and delivered a child is, in her opinion, a huge discredit to what people of all genders are capable of.
“You’re telling me that I’ll never know real love? I changed my life because of how much I love. I moved countries to look after my family, to make sure that Leo and Scarlett know how much Auntie loves them. I’ve been with the same man for over 10 years, and I love him more today than I did then. We kept Lola because we fell in love with her after a few days of fostering her. I know love. I love myself enough to not force a life that I know I’m not supposed to live.”
After decades of practice, Avery says she’s accepted this stigma as just another part of her life. She doesn’t expect it to stop any time soon.
Nancy Bargen says it still happens to her at age 54.
Bargen knew she wanted to work with kids before she started school herself. A career in education opened the floodgate of comments about what a great mother she would have made, but it’s the pity looks and comments that have bothered her the most over the years.
“My standard response has been, ‘Childless by choice,’” Bargen said. “Not sure why, as it’s nobody’s business, but I always felt they would feel more comfortable if they knew it was a choice and not a medical condition.”
Medical condition or not, Avery says she doesn’t care to try to make other people feel more comfortable about her decision. She stands by her belief that she wouldn’t have to if she were a man.
“I think that people just still want to avoid confrontation with men a lot more than they do with women.”
Avery rotates her glass of Diet Pepsi on the table, her brow furrowing as she considers why she thinks women still aren’t accepted the way men are. She leans over and scratches Lola’s ear, turning down the volume on the commercials while Andy loads the dishwasher in the kitchen.
“I think it comes down to that we’re still seen more as people-pleasers,” she said. “Like we can expect women to do more for us in return for less,” she said.
Avery knows her story won’t be enough to solve the problems child-free women deal with, and she doesn’t know what or how long it will take, but she believes bringing attention to them is a step in the right direction.
She looks over at Andy on the other couch with Lola in his lap. Avery shrugs and smiles.