In ‘My So-Called Selfish Life,’ Therese Shechter Tackles What It Means To Be Child-Free

The Feminist Lens series offers an inside look into the world of film-making and media production through conversations between women in the film, television and digital media industry and Aviva Dove-Viebahn, a Ms. scholar and professor who writes about gender and race in popular culture.

“One thing I hope for this film is that it will become more and more apparent that it is not actually true that you will never know love until you have a child,” said director Therese Shechter. (Jenny Nichols)

Earlier this month, Pope Francis once again called childless couples “selfish,” extolling the virtues of parenthood as essential to the human experience and sparking a significant backlash. Thank goodness, then, that there’s the perfect film waiting in the wings to counter this baseless claim: award-winning filmmaker Therese Shechter’s newest documentary, My So-Called Selfish Life.

Following on the heels of her two earlier feminist documentaries that question the expectations and norms embedded in our societies, I Was a Teenage Feminist (2005) and How to Lose Your Virginity (2013), My So-Called Selfish Life is an engaging and incisive portrait of what it means to proclaim yourself “child-free” and the insidious forces at work driving women toward motherhood, whether they want it or not.

I’ve followed Shechter’s work since the mid-aughts and have had the good fortune to interview her for Ms. before. After watching My So-Called Selfish Life, I couldn’t wait to talk with Shechter again about her striking and imaginative documentary, which addresses this oft-overlooked facet of reproductive justice. Including a diversity of perspectives and issues affecting those who are childless by choice, My So-Called Selfish Life tackles everything from reproductive oppression and pronatalism to being joyfully single and child-free with meticulous research, deft analysis and just the right dose of humor.

And while it’s not yet widely available, My So-Called Selfish Life is currently making the rounds at film festivals and can be ordered for screenings at educational institutions, libraries, non-profits and professional organizations. For information about buying an institutional copy or scheduling a screening, plus some fun bonus content, see here.   

What follows is my conversation with Therese Shechter about her new film, edited for clarity and length.

Aviva Dove-Viebahn: The Pope’s comments from last week about childless couples being selfish really struck me, as it seems to corroborate the thesis of your film.

Therese Shechter: I mean, the first thing to say is that the Pope said something almost identical to this in 2014. We actually used the clip of a newscaster talking about the Pope in our very first trailer, which we cut in 2017. When [the Pope said these things] in 2014, people thought it was kind of funny. People who cared about child-free issues—and there were fewer back then—maybe noticed, but it was nothing like what happened this time. This time the response was massive and mainstream, and I take that as a wonderful sign that many, many people, both in the child-free community and mainstream media heard it and went “what?!” and then proceeded to either mock it or write think pieces or create memes around it. I find that heartening, that there is a heightened awareness of these kinds of comments and how ridiculous and insulting they are to people.

Even though my film is called My So-Called Selfish Life, I feel like this debate over who’s more selfish is a distraction. It’s not the point. It’s just another powerful man telling women what to do with their bodies. He is part of a long line of powerful men who have made decisions and been prescriptive about women’s bodies, and we know the Catholic Church’s stance on things like contraception and abortion. So, he’s basically expressing the things they’ve been expressing for a very long time.

This debate over who’s more selfish is a distraction. It’s not the point. It’s just another powerful man telling women what to do with their bodies.

Dove-Viebahn: Absolutely. We already know the Catholic Church’s stance, but your film demonstrates quite effectively that these kinds of views are coming from all over—not just from conservatives or religious institutions. Can you speak a bit about how you see the root cause of these critiques as not always coming from positions of conservatism?

Shechter: I think we have to start with this concept of pronatalism. At its most basic level, it’s encouraging people to have children, requiring people to have children, and coercing people to have children. It takes many forms, from something as simple as sitting at a family holiday meal and your aunt turning to you and saying, “When are you going to give your parents grandchildren?” and somebody else saying “Yeah. You don’t want to die alone” or “You know, you’re not a real woman if don’t have a child.” And this is happening around your family dinner table with people who are supposed to support you.

It is the same dynamic happening in popular culture, where female characters on TV shows who don’t have children tend to be portrayed as either angry or bitter or sad or in some way repellent. This is changing a little bit, but not that much. It goes into advertising; as I point out in the film, it’s rare to see a pregnancy test ad where someone is happy not to be pregnant. It’s like they’re obligated to only show people happy with a positive pregnancy test, but I maintain that most people take these tests in the hopes of a negative outcome, no matter who you are or whether you want children.

And then it goes all the way up to the state level, to nations and their pronatalist policies. The other things I’ve mentioned up until now may be unpleasant, may be manipulative, but when you get to a national level, it can become horrifying. We have things that seem innocuous like payments for parents when they have children, which then turns into you never having to pay taxes again if you have four or more children in Hungary, all the way up to policies like we saw in Romania in the 1980s where [dictator Nicolae] Ceausescu wanted to grow the population, so he outlawed contraception and abortion, which led to many, many women dying of illegal abortions and many, many, many children called “orphans” who grew up in these horrible circumstances and are adults today and deeply scarred.

So pronatalism works at your family’s dining table and it works when the head of state decides they want certain kinds of people being born and other people not being born. All this trickles down to things that we somehow think are common sense. In fact, they’re not common sense, they’re constructed ideas that have infiltrated our brains and our social interactions as being truths.

One thing I hope for this film is that it will become more and more apparent that it is not actually true that you will never know love until you have a child. It’s just something that has been absorbed by your skin because you live in this world. This is completely different from [discussing] who wants to have children and will make great parents and people who are excited to have children.

It takes many forms, from something as simple as sitting at a family holiday meal and your aunt turning to you and saying, “When are you going to give your parents grandchildren?” It is the same dynamic happening in popular culture, and it goes all the way up to the state level.

Dove-Viebahn: This makes me think of when my partner and I had our child, whom we really wanted, and we talked about how hard it would be if we didn’t want to be parents. Babies can be pretty terrible. We barely slept the first year.

Shechter: Exactly. One of my very dear friends, whom I’ve known since I was a child, turned to me and said, “You’ve got to really want this, just remember that. Because it’s hard. So, you’ve got to really be sure you want children before you take this on.” He and his wife are ridiculously happy; they have three daughters, and it’s all good, but that’s really stuck with me.

The idea that you can force people into having children or trick people into having children, it’s monstrous, because the effect of a child on someone’s life, and especially a woman’s life, is profound. We treat motherhood and having children as such a mundane, ordinary, everyday thing, which, in some ways, I suppose, it is because it happens so much, but I don’t think there’s anything mundane or ordinary about what it creates.

Dove-Viebahn: How does your film speak to the larger conversation about reproductive rights?

Shechter: When my editor Siobhan [Dunne] and I were shaping this film, we had to make a lot of decisions, and one of the decisions we made was that our sweet spot was reproductive justice. If we were going to focus on something, it was going to be the ability for people to control their bodies. This film is deeply engaged in the issues around reproductive rights, reproductive justice, and bodily autonomy.

I don’t think it’s the usual conversation. There are a lot of ways to handle these issues, and I think that we bring something new to the conversation.

Kimya Dennis in My So-Called Selfish Life. (Therese Shechter)

Dove-Viebahn: That’s one of the things I really like about your approach. This isn’t the conversation people usually have; when people think about reproductive rights, they often think abortion or contraception. It seems that you’re thinking about broader, social and cultural issues that feed into these same conversations about having a choice to not engage in the process of pregnancy and parenthood.

Shechter: And I’ll add to that list voluntary sterilization, which is a big issue in the child-free community. We have people like the young woman in my film who’s still in university and wants her tubes tied, and she’s wanted her tubes tied for years. I think a lot of people who hear the beginning of her story are pretty horrified by that.

For young women, especially for women who haven’t had children, it’s very hard to get a sterilization procedure. And the reason that is very hard, in part, is because of the assumption that every woman will want a child. Doctors have a serious reluctance to get in the middle of that. So, that’s another aspect of reproductive rights that we don’t even talk about—the right to get permanent contraception, as I like to call it. That’s not even in the conversation right now.

Dove-Viebahn: Let’s talk a bit more about the subjects in your documentary. I was really struck by the cross-section of people you spoke with, like the woman who was fired from her job as a teacher for openly stating she wanted to remain child-free on a 60 Minutes segment in 1974 [Marcia Drut-Davis] or the young woman you just mentioned who wanted a tubal ligation [Lauren]. How do you make decisions about who you want to talk to? How do you find them?

Shechter: My whole life, pretty much, I knew I didn’t want kids. Around 2015, I decided I was ready to make a movie because I was hearing more and more conversations about it, but I didn’t know anything beyond my own story. So, I decided to do this online survey, which I talk about a lot because I still find it sort of extraordinary. I did this online survey to ask people, what’s it like, what are your problems, why did you do this, and I also left it open for people who were child-free not by choice. I posted this once on my personal Facebook page and within a week we had over 1900 responses. And that number doubled again after a couple weeks.

That was the beginning of the research, because I didn’t know anything about why other people didn’t want to have children, and I didn’t know how other people were experiencing things. It was incredibly informative for me to read people’s responses. The very first question I asked was, “Why did you answer this survey?” and I was overwhelmed by how many people just simply wrote, “because we have to talk about this; because nobody is talking about this.”

Then I started researching for real, and I started interviewing people and made a Facebook group. That Facebook community was also incredibly helpful. I got to know more people who were in the child-free community and who were experts, who’d been writing about this and talking about this for quite a long time. And Marcia is kind of a legend. If you’re in the community for any length of time you will hear Marcia’s story, and I found the story remarkable. I knew I had to include her, because people have been talking about this in an organized way since the early 70s, and it keeps being pushed down.

You find people in different ways. You might have an idea in your head of the kinds of stories you want to tell and then you might find people who are telling those stories. Sometimes you meet people you didn’t even know you wanted [to meet].

Dr. Kristyn Brandi from My So-Called Selfish Life. (Iris Ng)

Dove-Viebahn: As you’ve been thinking through child-free issues for a while, do you get a sense that public sentiment has started to shift? Is it becoming easier or more accepted to establish yourself as child-free and not feel the social pressure to have children?

Shechter: I think that people are becoming more vocal about it, and I think the Internet has a lot to do with that. It makes a big difference, once you have a community of people to talk to. So, that’s one thing, but as more and more people are comfortable talking about their desire to not have children, not having children is becoming more and more difficult, with the Supreme Court, with everything that’s been going on. I know this didn’t start yesterday. This has been happening for decades.

Like many other people, a lot of people who identify as child-free aren’t really politically active. I just feel like, wow, if we could harness this—who more than people who never want children should be fighting for the right to control that? Part of my call to action has been and will be saying, “Hey, you have more at stake here than a lot of other people.”

So, I publish some kind of reproductive justice related post on social media every Friday. [For example,] I’ve done a bunch of stories from Shout Your Abortion. A few years ago, I had a lot of people who were not happy that I was doing that, but now it’s completely different.

Dove-Viebahn: This makes me think how often, even with abortion narratives, the stories are about not being ready for a baby right now—as in, “I had an abortion at 16, but then at 25 was able to have the family I wanted”—but we rarely hear about people who never want children at all.

Shechter: I’m glad you brought that up. I just want to put in my two cents, as this is another one of the impact goals I’d love to achieve. Child-free people are left completely out of this conversation. We are not on brand. The woman who never wants to have children and gets pregnant and has an abortion and, five years later, gets pregnant and has an abortion and never intends to have children—we’re like their dark nightmare. I find it very upsetting that we’re not part of this conversation. If you’re fighting for reproductive rights for all, you need to let us in to the room.

I think it’s a reflection of how precarious everything is all the time [with the fight for reproductive rights]. It might seem like a huge risk to bring someone in who doesn’t even want children, but this is another one of my impact goals, to give child-free people a seat at that table.

If you’re fighting for reproductive rights for all, it might seem like a huge risk to bring someone in who doesn’t even want children. But this is another one of my impact goals, to give child-free people a seat at that table.

Dove-Viebahn: It’s part of that same moralizing, right? Because if you’re pro-choice but your logic is “well, that person is going to have a baby, but needs to do it at the right time” or, say, have a healthy pregnancy, it’s still about the assumption that a pregnancy will happen, it’s just been delayed.

Shechter: This is why I really like the reproductive justice framework, because the reproductive justice framework explicitly includes people that don’t want children as one of its three pillars, which is nice, although I think they’re not really being served.

Shanthony Exum from My So-Called Selfish Life. (Therese Shechter)

Dove-Viebahn: Throughout, you portray such a diversity of perspectives, which is one of my favorite things about the film—hearing from many different people about what it means to be child-free and how it fits into the reproductive rights conversation.

Shechter: One thing that was important in this film was my feeling that child-free communities were very white. This is not actually true, but in terms of visibility and the mainstream conversation, it was a very white point of view. As with many things, this gets taken to mean that whatever white people are doing is the story, and we know it’s not.

I’m really happy that we have a pretty diverse group of people in our film, not just because of that, but because they can speak to things that have to do with their own lives, their own history. I don’t want to speak for them, so I’m glad we have an amazing group of people who are happy to broaden this conversation that has been more narrow. So, the fact that we could get into reproductive oppression—that pronatalism is also reproductive oppression, deciding who should have kids, who shouldn’t have kids, and our whole history from slavery to eugenics to forced sterilization in our prisons.

I’m just glad that these collaborators were there for it.

My So-Called Selfish Life is now available for educational, non-profit, and other group screenings. Shechter’s site also includes child-free comics, educational and community resources, and a space where you can join the conversation.

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.