Who Are You Calling Crazy Cat Lady?

‘Who here has children?’ No hands raised.

‘Who here has a cat?’ A smattering of hands…

This was Jody Day’s opening gambit at the Who’s Afraid of the Crazy Cat Lady? session at the WOW Festival a couple of weeks back. I had baulked slightly at the title. I knew it was tongue-in-cheek, but really? Are we not done with that stereotype yet? It seems not. Last week, while I was still writing this post, The Telegraph used a photo of Holly Brockwell cradling a cat as the main image in its story about her sterilisation at the age of 29. Lazy, predictable, patronising photography.

Day went on to say that: “the most shamed stereotype is a single unmarried woman over 40 without children”. As someone who ticks all four of those descriptors I don’t like this statement and I’m not sure I really agree with it either. For sure, in certain sections of the media, independent women seem to be feared and are therefore pilloried, but to be dubbed the most shamed feels a little strong. While I wouldn’t say I have ever felt shamed, people certainly make huge assumptions.

The predominant assumption is that women who don’t have children must have wanted them. A few years back at a previous WOW Festival, Day, who runs a network for childless women called Gateway Women, introduced me to the terms childless and childfree; childless refers to women who wanted children but either through medical reasons or circumstance did not have them, while childfree is the term for women who made a distinct choice that children were not for them. But whether a woman is childless or childfree, it really isn’t anyone’s right to question or provide opinion unless the discussion has been invited. Nobody can know what emotional or physical struggles may exist behind a single or partnered woman not having children.

A frequent slight levelled at the childfree is that we are selfish. If recognising that the change to my life as I know and love it would be seismic and unbearable, and I would likely resent a child, makes me selfish, then I will live with that label. And if my decision means our overcrowded world and stretched public services feel the ripple effect of my selfishness, then I will suck that up too.

The suggestion that does sting is that a life without children is somehow unfulfilling or incomplete. A complete and fulfilling life is the one that is best for the person living it, not the one that’s best for the person sitting in judgement. There are many things in my life that make me deeply happy and personally fulfilled (including this blog) and I am involved in things that I think make me good for my community and the wider world. I am unspeakably proud of the business I run and the difference it makes to disadvantaged people and communities in the UK and around the world.

One of the most fulfilling things in my life is the role I am able to play in the lives of other people’s children. You see, not wanting your own children doesn’t mean you don’t want children in your life. There is an African proverb that I love and subscribe to – ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’ – and I take my role in that village very seriously. Children need role models living different lives and adults they can trust outside of the immediate family. I have said to my friends that I want my home to be the safe place that when the inevitable teenage tension kicks in the kids can ‘escape’ to, while the parents can (hopefully!) be reassured that the kids will be OK. And when they’re are ready to have their first solo adventures in London then I hope it will be my spare room they crash in. I have an Auntie like that and her role in my life has been transformative.

It’s the politics of the issue I am most interested in. Today, 20% of women aged 45 are childless or childfree and there are 1.5 million women in their 40s and 50s who do not have children. It is likely that this percentage will continue to grow. Yet political rhetoric and policy generally speaks to ‘hardworking families’. Who is speaking to or thinking about us? And it’s not just about children, it’s about being single too. Ten percent of adults aged 25 – 44 now live alone. That is a huge section of the voting population whose votes are pretty bloody important.

The last time there was such a large population of women in the UK who were single and without children was after WW1 when the number of casualties meant there were two million more young women (known as The Surplus Women) than young men. The war ended in 1919. It had only been in 1918 that women over 30 had won the right to vote and it would be another decade before there was parity in voting age for men and women. The Surplus Women had limited political power. We have greater potential to be a force for change.

This month saw the release of Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. It charts social progress in America and looks at how it has been influenced by changing marriage patterns. Day quoted a segment from the book that evidences the impact the single woman vote had on Obama’s victory. The book concludes that through the decades single women in America have been the primary drivers of social change.

Of course, one of the biggest game changers for women and their decision around marriage is shifting attitudes towards sex. In an interview about her book Traister spoke of how previous generations of American women “were reliant on marriage as a way to have a sex life that was socially sanctioned”. Singled Out by Virginia Nicolson documents the lives of The Surplus Women and quotes a ‘sex philosopher’ as recommending the single girl “keep sex in a strong-box, with other interests sitting on the lid to hold it tight”.

Happily, I don’t have to put sex in a box or get married to enjoy it! Of course, sex and living independently is not always an easily navigable thing. You’re horny on a Sunday afternoon but by Tuesday when you have a plan you’re more interested in eating pasta and pesto and watching The Night Manager on iPlayer. You arrive back in the UK from a work trip the day after a lover leaves for a month in America. You’re excited to see one of your favourite people to be naked with but then hormones get the better of you and you cry-talk for three hours and then realise it’ll probably be another fortnight till your diaries match and you can suck his cock. A partner becomes uncomfortable that his wife’s secondary partnership has ended and even though she tries to allay his concerns he still ends your fledgling relationship.

But aren’t there hiccups, hormones and hurdles to get over however you carve out your relationships? I am much more comfortable having my own space than sharing it and I don’t want to be anyone’s priority or to have to consider anyone else in the decisions I make about my own life, so these arrangements work for me. And I am happy. Day closed her talk by making the point that despite all the progress we have made, a woman in her 40s or 50s who is happy being single is still seen as countercultural but, she said, “you cannot shame me with my singleness or my childlessness.”

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47 thoughts on “Who Are You Calling Crazy Cat Lady?

  1. I absolutely love this post! (and I apologise beforehand for a longish comment)

    I want to highlight two things, because they have struck a chord with me:

    “But whether a woman is childless or childfree, it really isn’t anyone’s right to question or provide opinion unless the discussion has been invited. Nobody can know what emotional or physical struggles may exist behind a single or partnered woman not having children.”


    “A complete and fulfilling life is the one that is best for the person living it, not the one that’s best for the person sitting in judgement.”


    I am a woman, almost 50 and I have three children – two of my own & one stepchild – and I love all of them to bits. But… I fell pregnant when I was 16, on my very first time having sex. I was never a girl who dreamed of being married or having kids. I chose to keep my child, and I had another 5 years later because I wanted another. My stepchild came into my life 14 years ago. Like I said, I love them all to bits, but I cannot wait for me and my husband to be alone, for the all the kids to be living their own lives in their own homes. I am not alone in this. I know there are others with children of more or less the same age that feel the same, even though they love their children. Am I sometimes jealous of those who don’t have children, who are childfree, who have made a conscious decision? Yes. Does this mean I wish I never had children? No. I am happy, even though some choices were not thought through before the act.

    What I am trying to say? I think all of this boils down to respecting another’s choice, to understanding that we all have the right to live our lives the way we want. It’s sad when someone is childless, when they desperately want to have children but they can’t. Still, I don’t think those people want to be pitied or want to be reminded of their infertility all the time. We should respect that they might not want to talk about it, or allow them to talk about it if they want. If someone choose to be childfree, we should respect it and if someone choose to have children, we should respect that too. We are all the creators of our own destiny, and no one else should judge it.

    I have no idea if this comment makes sense…

    Rebel xox

    Liked by 1 person

    • This comment makes perfect sense and thank you for taking the time to write it. Yes, it really is all about respecting choices. I don’t know why people feel the right to interfere with people’s decisions on this. I had dinner with three other people of similar age to me on a work trip last year. Me, childfree, one with a stepchild, one with one child, one with two boys. All of us had been subjected to nosy questions: don’t you want your own, is a stepchild enough? Don’t you want to try for a girl? Don’t you want a little brother or sister? So rude!!


    • I love this post and your comment. I have always been asked about my choices and told how they should be different. Seriously people need to go and do one. Child free, childless, parenting or any other decision/outcome is for the person and not for others to stick their nose and opinions in. I am one of the most devoted parents that I know and I find it very fulfilling, yet I do look at childfree friends with a significant slice of envy about the difference in their responsibilities and opportunities. I adore my children and get far more from.them than they take from me and yet, I absolutely look forward to opportunities that I get to be childfree, whether for an evening, a weekend or eventually when they are all grown, every day.

      Just like I love my career and yet would currently advise anyone to steer clear of it, parenthood is something that I would advise caution before seeking out. I have seen many friends who got caught up in wanting the cute baby and never thought through the longer term. Wouldn’t it be great if people took the view that starting a family was the active decision instead of people expecting justification of a choice to be child free.

      Ooo. Look at how ranty I have been. Sorry for splurging over your post and comment. I will buy you both a drink.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes! This. All of it. Thank you! I heard an interview with Rebecca Traister just the other day and definitely want to check out her book. Your points about being there for other people’s kids and the sometime hilarity of future plans for sex (sometimes I want a fully functioning, conversant android in my closet for this reason) were spot on for me. I’ve also found that once I reached an age where having children was physically impractical or possibly risky health-wise, I’ve had far less questions about when I’m having my own. Also the political stuff is huge. I’m not sure we’re the most shamed group, but certainly overlooked when it comes to political discourse.

    Really loved this!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Childless, or childfree? Really? The world doesn’t have enough divisive labels? Unbelievable. I must say, it is a very noticeable difference in how free people feel to make such comments to my wife. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to step in to deflect such things, especially with extended family. They’d never say such things to me. I don’t know why people think it’s ok to say them to her.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have the same thing with my family. It’s just the strangest thing. I actually like childless and childfree as I think there’s a difference in how you feel about not having children whether it was choice or circumstance and the words ‘less’ and ‘free’ probably speak volumes about how women feel depending on their experience/decision.


  4. Excellent piece, but I think the conclusion is that whether women have or do not have children, any opinion or judgment is surplus.
    And as to childless vs. childfree, as a woman who wanted children, had that not happened, I hope I would have grown into a more positive place than to be categorised by what I had not done. I find the need to label women by this function utterly facile.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m a single unmarried woman over 40 without children and without pets and I can’t seem to keep plants alive very long either. Am I selfish and self-absorbed or just to busy living a fabulous life with so many things and people to do that I haven’t time to think about marriage, children, pets and plants? A little from Column A and a little from Column B. But I am fine with that. Absolutely fine. I never pictured myself married with the requisite white picket fence and 2.5 children (how does one have 0.5 of a child anyway?) and I never felt lacking in any regard. I did not fit the norm, and likely never will.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I had a child when I did because I knew I wanted one and wanted to make sure that I still could. My then husband didn’t know that he was being used in that way, but then I didn’t know he was cheating on me at the time either. But anyway, I got what I wanted and was never sorry. However I didn’t go there again.

    Yes, this is about choice. To be the woman you want to be, to have the ability to choose. As a nurse I have cared for women who didn’t want a child (yet?) and women who desperately wanted one and couldn’t. Sometimes you just don’t know what you want until you feel you missed out, and somethings you wish desperately for something you can’t have only to lose the thing you already had (often a relationship).

    What am I trying to say? Choice is vital, but choice removed sometimes makes it difficult to cope with the outcome.

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. Even as a parent I have experienced this. When Michael and I first got married I had a ‘friend’ ask me if were going to have a family of our own. When I replied… fuck no, I would rather have my hair set on fire, she looked absolutely shocked and appalled. I also said, we both have children and she said, ahhh but its not the same as having your own child together…. I was absolutely gobsmacked at that point because everything about that sentence is just wrong.


    Liked by 1 person

  9. Well said! There is so much I have to say about this topic it actually warrants a post of its own and one day when I’m ready I will do so.

    I am someone who falls into both the childless and childfree camps. I’m free to live my life how I chose to live it, free to do what I want when I want. Or at least if I have a cat sitter I would be, yes, I’m a mad cat lady too!

    If I had a pound for every time I’ve been told I’m running out of time, I’m selfish, I’m a freak of nature I would be considerably richer than I am now!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I made the choice to have two children and it is an exhausting, thankless task. One of the things that makes the stress of having two children a little easier are my childless and childfree friends. They have been my lifeline on more than one occasion, whether because they were part of the village that is raising my children or because they are a refuge from the mom part of my life if I need one.

    They help keep me sane–they love my kids and are interested in hearing about them, but we’re more likely to spend a two-three hour conversation primarily on other topics instead of constantly circling back to our kids as typically happens with my friends who are moms. My mom friends also keep me sane, but in a different way.

    Honestly, part of me is counting the days until my kids are out of my house and I can enjoy the empty nest phase of my life.

    A woman’s worth shouldn’t be derived from the status of her uterus.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Utterly brilliant post. I have so much to say that I think I may put it into a post of my own. I don’t have children although I did want them, but in many ways I now feel glad that I did not and there are many reasons for this, so a post it may well be in the future.

    Thank you for making me think about this.

    Velvet x

    Liked by 1 person

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  14. I don’t know…….. in today’s overpopulated and resource-drained world, maybe people who *have* children are the unhappiest and most selfish of all.
    The truth is that nowadays, I think we need both: people who have children and people who don’t.

    Liked by 1 person

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  23. An excellent post. I’m childless so much of what you said resonates with me, but I have been fortunate enough to find a ready made family with my husband so I now have two stepsons and a stepdaughter, five step-grandchildren and one step-great grandchild who I have known since birth.

    I will always regret not having children, but you have to live with the cards with which you are dealt and I have the most wonderful loving marriage with lots and lots of sex.

    Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for the lovely comment, and I’m glad you have such a wonderful marriage and a great big family in with the bargain. My stepmum always wanted children but knew that my brother and I coming with my Dad would mean that wouldn’t happen (mainly financial impact of a second family). I often wonder how she feels about it now, but would never ask as she’s would probably worry that the question suggests we were not enough for her and that isn’t what I would mean! Xxx

      Liked by 1 person

  24. This post resonates so much for me. Thank you for writing it! & Congrats on the ELust top 3.

    I lived alone for 10 years before I met my husband. It was a wonderful chapter in life…I grew so much. I enjoyed not having to compromise. I’ve remained happily childfree and expect to keep it this way. I’m proud of our household’s smaller carbon footprint. Life is good!

    Liked by 1 person

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