Stephanie BarnhillGuest Blog by Stephanie Barnhill, Operations Consultant at mConnexions

I am a near 38-year-old woman, happily married for almost 11 years now, living in Michigan with three adorable dogs. No picket fence because our HOA won’t allow it. And no kids either because we’re childfree.

“Childfree” is a word you may not have heard before – I only learned it in the last few years. It’s used in place of the word “childless”, meaning a life without children isn’t negative for us as nothing is “missing”. A life sans children is what we chose. Perhaps the terms feels a bit tedious, but I think it’s an important distinction for some people, like myself. We are without children on purpose, because we do not desire to be parents.

But let’s rewind a bit. As a kid myself, I always assumed I would want to have children when I grew up. Though the thought of having a baby filled me with incredible fear and anxiety, I figured one day my desire to become a parent would override the fear and I would have a couple of kiddos, like pretty much every other family I knew. In fact, I actually felt sad for couples that didn’t have kids – thinking they may regret their decision, or would end up feeling lonely without kids and grandkids around to keep them company. I was very aware, even as a young girl, that it wasn’t “normal” for an adult (especially a married adult) to be without children – not because anyone told me this, but because it was such a rarity in my world. Later in life I would go through a processing of challenging and unlearning my former narrow-minded assumptions as I myself was going to take the childfree path.

I also became aware of the foster care system, and how there were children and teens who were waiting to be adopted. And then I had a light bulb moment : perhaps I would become a mom through adoption. I never really loved being around babies, and providing a safe and loving home for a child without one made the most sense to me anyway. This seemed like the best option to me, but still, I thought someday I’d probably want a baby. There was no rush in my mind, as I decided I would make those decisions with the guy I would marry someday, if that ever happened.

Stephanie and Seth BarnhillAnd then it did happen, when I was 27. I married an absolutely wonderful man named Seth. Amazingly enough, in just the first few moments I met him, I felt as if I’d known him my whole life. I’ve never had that feeling before – like I had just met my best friend who was a stranger and a lifelong companion, all at once. It was eerie, wonderful, kind of frightening but incredibly comfortable, all at the same time. It didn’t take too long for me to realize this guy, this relationship, was the real deal.

We talked about kids before we got engaged. I asked him questions like: Do you want to have children? What if you got married and then your wife decided she didn’t want kids? And would you be open to adoption? His answers were music to my ears: he didn’t know if he wanted children. He always assumed he would someday but never thought much about it. Seth also said he was very open to adoption. But mostly, he always felt that once he found the woman he would spend his life with, that the path they chose together would be the right one. And he meant it. So when he asked me to marry him four months after the day we met, I had no doubt in my mind – this was my lifelong dude.

Once we got married, we decided to push the kiddo convo for a couple of years. We were in no rush and wanted to figure out where we were going to live and build a foundation first.

So we adopted the cutest dogs ever, moved from Colorado to Michigan, bought a house, and it felt like the right time to discuss what we wanted to do about the whole kid thing. First, the baby question. Do we or don’t we want to have a baby (assuming this was an option for us)? I still had no desire to be pregnant and truly had no idea what it felt like to want a baby – it was, and still is, such a foreign concept to me. And it also just didn’t feel right, like that wasn’t the plan for us. And thankfully, Seth completely agreed. It was a quick and easy decision.

What I didn’t expect was the feeling I would have after we made the decision – like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I had no idea that I had been carrying that worry, stress and expectation around like big bags of sand. Perhaps it’s because I was finally accepting my truth. It was as if I finally released myself from my own prison. Sweet freedom!

But did we want to be parents? We contemplated this, and decided that yes, parenting did still sound like a potentially good path for us. And there were children in foster care that were waiting to be adopted. So it was settled – this was how we were going to grow our family.

We found a wonderful adoption agency and started the process. We took all the foster parenting classes and trainings, joined adoption groups on social media, read and researched like crazy, and spoke with others who had been foster and adoptive parents. And finally, the day came when we could start reviewing bios of children who were ready to be adopted. We were told time and again how important it was for the match to be a good fit for both the child and the parents. We read many bios (one more heartbreaking than the next) over the next few months, but none that felt right.

Then one day we got a call from our caseworker. There were two boys, ages 6 and 8, who needed a temporary placement. They were brothers who lived in a nearby town. We hadn’t considered fostering at that time, just adopting – but I felt a pull. Something finally felt right. I gathered the information and called Seth. We discussed it, and decided to step up. We were going to be foster parents.

I could write a book on everything we learned from these amazing boys, our teachers, even though they were only in our care for three months. I could tell you all of the many ways they changed our lives for the better. I could share every detail about the times that I was terrified, and the moments that were filled to the brim with joy. Or the constant state of confusion we were in, wondering what we were supposed to do from one minute to the next. The miracles, true miracles that to this day leave me beautifully baffled. But to keep it brief let me just say that those three months dramatically altered our life path. We believe it was divine intervention.

Once again I found myself without doubt. I knew these kids were meant to be with us for this short time, not only because they needed temporary parents, but because we needed them too. We were a family of four that was trying to figure out life, together. It was messy. At times, really messy. We were inexperienced parents learning on the fly with two boys who were going through a traumatic experience. There were times I was moved to tears, not thinking I could make it another minute. And there were times that were so filled with fun that the joy was palpable.

Then one day we got another important call from our caseworker. She had news that a family member had discovered that the boys were in foster care and wanted to see them. We were excited and intrigued! Who could it be? Soon after, we met up with the most amazing woman, and her wonderful husband, who already loved and cherished these kids. We were grateful to learn a bit more about the boys, their family and history, and the couple’s hopes to potentially bring the boys into their home. To say we were overjoyed for the boys would be an understatement.

Fast forward a bit to the boys moving in with their family, where they were to have the best parents and home imaginable. Six years later they continue to thrive. And more good news – we continue to remain in their lives and see them regularly, as extended family. We get to play the wonderful role of auntie and uncle!

All this to say, we were each able to try on the role of a parent. We took them to karate practice, to the doctor, to the movies. We arranged daycare and field trips, met with their teachers and therapist. We helped with school work and packed lunches, went to the park and put bandaids on skinned knees. We held them when they cried, and tried to teach them right from wrong. We felt overwhelmed when tantrums occurred, and worried for their safety when they weren’t with us. We laughed when their faces were smeared with ice cream, and read them bedtime stories in the evenings.

We got to be parents. And we learned that it wasn’t for us.

Having nothing to do with the boys, and everything to do with Seth and me, we realized that the role of parent just didn’t feel right. Despite the immense love we had for these two amazing kids, parenting felt like we were wearing a jacket that was 10 sizes too small. It wasn’t a fit.

Not because it was hard – though yes, parenting was hard. But because we discovered it was not our desire, our calling, or our purpose. And we realized that living our best lives meant being childfree.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love among many other wonderful books, spoke to Oprah in an interview about three camps for women: the mommy camp, the auntie camp, and the camp for women that shouldn’t be within ten feet of a child. No camp was better than another, but it’s really important to know which camp is right for you, and then move forward accordingly. This was incredibly validating for me. I learned that it was truly okay to not want to be in the mommy camp – that there was nothing wrong with me for not wanting to parent. That the auntie camp was where I belonged, and that it was a good thing!

I could still be a loving, supportive person to the kiddos I loved but in a way that felt right for me.

Seth and I finally had our answer: we were an auntie and uncle, and not a mom and dad. And we celebrated! Finally, our parenting decisions felt right and complete.

I share our story because I want to speak up about being childfree, to normalize it, and emphasize the fact that each and every person must decide for themselves what is right and best for them. We all have different stories and perspectives, unique desires and callings. Not everyone should be a parent. Sometimes we think we know what’s best for other people, and then judge them if they disagree. I follow a childfree Facebook page and have heard countless stories from people who have been bullied and even shunned for their choice to not have children. Others are dismissed and told they’ll change their minds, or are pressured to make a different choice. They’ve been told they’re selfish. And in my own life, I’ve heard people say (not to me, but in general) that they never knew love until they became a parent. Which, to a person who is childfree, sounds like I don’t know love unless I become a parent myself. And even though that wasn’t the intention, it was hurtful. It can chip away at your spirit.

Childfree doesn’t mean love-free, or joy-free, or purpose-free. For us, it just means that Seth and I are living the lives that brings us the most joy and happiness – that we each have a purpose that is geared towards other areas of life rather than parenting. It’s not a better or worse choice, it’s just our choice.

Seth and I are grateful for all our family and friends who have been so loving and supportive about our decision. We braced ourselves for negative feedback, but there was none. We got a few questions here and there, which we welcomed, but nothing rude or accusatory. Even now, six years later, I’ll try to anticipate how someone will take the news when they ask if we have kids. My typical answer is no, that we don’t want to be parents. And shockingly, for living in a somewhat smaller town in the midwest, the response is usually something akin to “oh, cool” or a joke like “ah, who needs kids anyway”. We know this isn’t the response many others get, so in these moments I am thankful for the kindness of strangers.

So let’s be kind to our childfree friends – whether they are in the auntie camp or don’t wish to be anywhere near kids. And let’s be kind to our friends who are parents, and those who want to be parents but it just hasn’t happened quite yet. We’re all on our own paths, so we should be thoughtful about our words. When we embrace one another – resisting judgement and stretching our hearts to welcome in empathy and compassion – we all benefit. Humans are at our best when we feel safe, included and lovingly supported.

About Author Stephanie Barnhill: Organizational Consultant. Advocate and Volunteer. Devoted dog mama. Lover of dessert and folk music. Writes to process and organize her brain sprinkles. Click to learn more.