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How Reddit’s childfree community took a toxic turn from empowerment to parent shaming
Some redditors have lost sight of keeping the space safe.
I was eight years old the first time someone disparaged me for not wanting children.
I was surrounded by my cabinmates at church camp, each of them excitedly describing the names, personalities, genders, and number of kids they dreamt of. I shrugged when it was my turn to talk. Kids weren’t really on my to-do list, I said. That’s when an adult male staffer chimed in.
“You should be ashamed to say you don’t want kids,” he told me. “That’s God’s biological purpose for a woman’s existence.”
The room went silent. My cheeks flushed. I laughed uncomfortably. “You’re probably right,” I said, anxious to direct everyone’s attention away from me. Even then, though, some part of me wondered why a thirty-something-year-old man thought it was acceptable to express his views about a little girl’s future reproductive choices. But his unsolicited opinion would be one of many more to come. My unwavering stance against having kids has been met again and again with varying levels of condescension, scandalized horror, and everything in between.
Imagine, then, my delight over a decade later upon recently stumbling across r/childfree, a subreddit dedicated “to those who do not have and do not ever want children (whether biological, adopted, or otherwise).”
After a quick skim, it seemed that r/childfree would rapidly become one of my favorite subreddits. I saw a post from an 85-year-old widow sharing how she lived a long, fulfilling, and childfree life. Another celebrated Jennifer Aniston for standing up for not wanting kids. One r/childfree member posted a victorious selfie after having her tubes removed, followed by many uplifting comments. There were a lot of jokes about having financial freedom, all harmless.
A deeper examination, however, uncovered an unsettling amount of vitriol toward parents and children alike, despite the subreddit’s rule against “jokes/making fun of violence/harm towards kids.” Some of the subreddit’s unique slang is especially dehumanizing—members frequently call parents “breeders” (dads are also “daddicts” and moms are “mombies”), and kids are often referred to as “crotch-goblins” or “fuck trophies,” thus giving off the impression that some members of r/childfree are enraged by the mere existence of children.
While r/childfree moderators have even made sure to clarify the proper use of this slang in the subreddit’s FAQ, casual members seem to use it liberally, regardless of context. For example, the FAQ deliberately makes a distinction between entitled parents (“breeders”) and responsible parents (“PNB,” parents, not breeders). However, r/childfree members seem to use the derogatory terms far more often than acronyms like “PNB.” While the subreddit is primarily a space for venting rather than for praise, the scathing language is still jarring.
SailorMercure, who has moderated r/childfree on and off since August of 2015, defended the subreddit’s widely used terms. They called the slang “innocuous,” pointing out that the language is not used in real life and is merely “shorthand” for “terrible people.”
“Just like other rant-based subreddits call wrongdoers names, we call bad parents and ill-raised children names as well,” SailorMercure told the Daily Dot. “The same way a cashier wouldn’t call a tyrannic customer an ‘old bat’ to their face because it is rude and hurtful but would rant on r/TalesFromRetail, people don’t call bad moms ‘mombies’ to their face as well but they will do so on r/childfree.”
Language aside, r/childfree members also frequently criticize low-income or mentally or physically ill people who choose to have children. These judgments on who should or shouldn’t have children alarmingly resemble the ideas of eugenics, or selective breeding (and sterilization) of certain populations for a “favored” genetic composition.
After a bit of digging, I realized I wasn’t the only one put off by this rhetoric.
One redditor even broached the controversy by posting in r/childfree itself; another sparked a site-wide debate on the contention surrounding the subreddit. While some debate participants argued the harmlessness of ranting about annoying parents and children, most emphasized the danger of negative attitudes toward families. Many redditors also linked some r/childfree’s more aggressive posts and comments.
Unpopular opinion: There’s a difference between being proudly childfree and bitterly hateful from childfree
These problems have spurred active r/childfree members to distance themselves from the subreddit in the last five to six years. One such redditor, user borborborbor, had joined r/childfree after years of seeking medical sterilization, during which she’d been dismissed and condescended to repeatedly.
“It took years of doctors to get the tubal approved,” borborborbor told the Daily Dot. “I left a few visits so angry, so disappointed, that I would be quietly, uncontrollably crying as I walked home…Then, I stumbled on [r/childfree] when I was looking for like-minded people. In the early days of my involvement there, I’d mostly just weigh in with support on people’s posts when they were in similar situations to me. We’d encourage each other.”
Even though borborborbor initially found solace in r/childfree, the tone of the subreddit gradually transformed before her eyes.
“Childfree was a place that felt more driven by women, at least at first,” borborborbor said. “But more and more, men were posting, hoisting up this flag of childfree as some sort of better-than-thou rally call. The comments on [these posts] quickly devolved into people flaunting how much better they were than their friends who had kids.”
Another redditor, Jes, was an enthusiastic member of r/childfree until they realized they’d gotten “swept up” in the subreddit’s culture.
“I think what pulled me in was the colorful stories of the poster having a horrid experience involving some mombie and her menagerie of unruly crotch goblins,” Jes told the Daily Dot. “I went from ‘Huh, it does sound like it sucks to have kids’ to ‘Goddammit, why are these children in Walmart existing near me?’ I admit I absorbed a lot of those ways of thinking and began to express those same attitudes.”
Jes ended up abandoning r/childfree after being called out for such rhetoric, and says they have since grown to develop less aggressive views on parents and children.
“There was a couple who were trying to raise money to adopt a kid, and I said some pretty asshole-ish and unfair things,” Jes said. “My thought being, ‘Why the hell would you try to have kids if you can’t afford it?’ Let’s just say I was promptly schooled in why I was being a dick. It took a lot of wound licking before ‘What did I do wrong?’ became ‘Wow, I was an asshole.’”
Many r/childfree enthusiasts are aware of the criticism frequently leveled at the subreddit but defend their right to express their beliefs, pointing out the cathartic nature of ranting.
“I’m not going to pretend this sub doesn’t have its share of assholes,” active r/childfree member sleepykelvina told the Daily Dot. “But I think a lot of people look at r/childfree and just see a lot of angry, frustrated people complaining about kids and parenthood and just stop there. What they don’t realize is that this subreddit is a safe space to talk about all the cultural baggage that comes with being childfree. You’re getting this ultra-condensed dose of kvetching about kids because it’s one of the few places you can express those views.”
Sleepykelvina also pointed out that while r/childfree’s less palatable posts garner significant attention, members often genuinely help those who flock to their online community.
“We’ve had mothers with postpartum depression come to our subreddit, spilling their guts about how they can’t bond with their babies,” sleepykelvina said. “We end up counseling people contemplating leaving their partners because the other person just assumed they would change their mind about kids. A lot of these people need to be in therapy, but you can’t even count on getting a therapist who won’t judge you for being childfree.”
Many r/childfree members seem to identify as part of a marginalized group for facing such judgment. It’s not that childfree women don’t frequently deal with microaggressions ranging from pithy guilt trips (“Don’t you want to give your parents grandchildren?”), to pressure from non-childfree partners, to the occasional difficulty with finding part-time work accommodations. A 2016 study found that most people still take moral offense at the childfree lifestyle’s infringement of social norms. I can attest that this enduring social stigma is demoralizing, tiring, and fundamentally hurtful.
However, the childfree community is not at a systemic disadvantage because of its chosen lifestyle. On the contrary, we’re actually spared the endless struggles of women who are pregnant or have had children.
Injustice toward non-childfree women is so pervasive, there are multiple terms for it: pregnancy discrimination and family responsibilities/caregiver discrimination. Furthermore, a recent study showed that the gender wage gap is less a result of gender discrimination and more of a penalty for having children. The study estimates that this child penalty accounts for 80% of the wage gap, costing mothers a large chunk of their livelihoods and lending a whole new meaning to the phrase “mommy tax.” Pregnant women experience more hostility, are offered less raises and promotions, and are more likely to be fired.
Things are even worse for non-white women. While women of color certainly face an inordinate amount of cultural and familial pressure to have children, they’ve also been historically targeted by the U.S. government’s many bouts of forced sterilization—making r/childfree’s questionable discourse regarding who is fit to reproduce all the more distasteful. Black and Indigenous women especially suffered from these eugenics programs, making the act of giving birth a personally radical one for many Black and Brown women.
In the end, the misogyny childfree and non-childfree women experience isn’t a contest; both sets of experiences are valid. For this reason, the existence of childfree platforms are not only justified but necessary.
Enter r/truechildfree, a more positive childfree community that, exists as an alternative to r/childfree and is filled with relevant informative links, advice threads, and wholesome conversations about living childfree. Several members migrated from r/childfree to this smaller community, finding that r/truechildfree is, as its moderator ClassyAnalViolator told the Daily Dot, “a pleasant place that [doesn’t] have name-calling or shaming or other hateful/hurtful things.”
Unfortunately, r/truechildfree isn’t quite as active as r/childfree, but other childfree communities do exist online. The Childfree Pub hosts everything from casual discussions to rants. NotMom.com offers several resources for childfree people in addition to a childfree discussion forum. “Childfree,” an open Facebook group, houses over 8,000 childfree people who share childfree stories, memes, and more. Most of these communities have links to even more childfree groups and sites, so there’s no shortage of choices online.
However, if a bustling Reddit community is ultimately what you want, SailorMercure did point out that r/childfree gives redditors the option to opt out of all the rants and instead focus on the subreddit’s encouraging and educational content.
“One click on the ‘NO RANT’ or ‘NO BRANT’ button, and everything that makes the sub an easy target for generalized disdain and contempt disappears,” SailorMercure said. “It becomes evident why the sub exists: to support, to comfort, to inform, and to share with like-minded people who are part of a social minority.”
Despite its problems, the online childfree community is as diverse as it is largely beneficial, helping to remove the stigma against choosing not to have kids. After all, if more non-childfree folks were familiar with the movement, maybe I wouldn’t have had to receive the first “stamp” on my childfree Bingo card at the tender age of eight.
Anna Maria Ward is the social media editor of the Daily Dot. Her work focuses on the intersections of entertainment, pop culture, and social justice. She previously contributed to the Houston Chronicle and Orange magazine.