Keeping mum: TV’s problem with women who don’t want kids

Expecting a friend to be engrossed in a silly anecdote you’re bursting to share while they’ve got a baby in their hands is futile. The realisation that they’re more interested in whether their new child has pooped, rather than hearing a trivial tale “about last night”, can leave an irritating sting, or even a hurtful bruise. Is this the end of how the friendship was? Has everything changed?

Natasha (Michelle de Swarte) captures this in the opening scene of Sky Atlantic’s horror-comedy-drama The Baby. “Is it better than before you had a kid?” she frustratedly jibes her new-mum friend, Mags (Shvorne Marks), at poker night after being repeatedly ignored for the baby. “I’m sorry, am I being rude? Shall we go back to pretending we’re hanging out?” The conversation takes an even more awkward turn when their other friend, Rita (Isy Suttie), nervously announces she’s pregnant.

The series goes on an unexpected trajectory: eight wild, confused but highly entertaining episodes following Natasha after a cursed baby literally falls into her arms one night. But at the heart of the show, the taboos around motherhood and being child-free are deconstructed. During the finale, Mags tells Natasha that she has also been upset that her friend has judged her for “being a mum”, adding: “I already feel like I’m failing at it, all the time.” It’s a reminder that this absolutely isn’t a case of us (child-free) v them (mothers) – even if we live in a world where such a binary is constantly perpetuated (see demographer Paul Morland’s recent proposal to introduce a “negative child tax” for those who do not have children).

Messy, complicated conversations about these issues happen between women in their 30s all the time – we just rarely see them on the screen. For a woman such as myself who doesn’t want children, The Baby is refreshing. I too have struggled with articulating the confusion of being over the moon for my friends who have babies, while also grieving the holidays, theatre trips and wine-fuelled late night deep-and-meaningful chats on the sofa that experience has shown me one too many times will be no more. I have been jealous of a gorgeous baby when their mum has kept a sharp eye on them the whole time I’ve tried to tell her about something I now assume she thinks is too inane to take interest in. I’ve bought the pricey train tickets and got lost in the suburbs because, well, otherwise we just wouldn’t see each other any more.

So, where are these nuanced stories of child-free women on our screens? It shouldn’t come as a shock that you can be a loving, successful and mostly happy person and still not want to have kids. Yet even in The Baby, while Natasha’s character is reassuringly relatable in many ways, her decision is apparently explained by the trope of a dissatisfied, non-committal, messed-up childhood.

The lack of TV that positively depicts women who decide not to have children is particularly disappointing, given that doing so is far from new. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was groundbreaking when it first aired in 1970 in the midst of the women’s rights movement. Moore played Mary Richards – an ambitious news producer who moves to a new city after a breakup. “A woman doesn’t have to have a baby if she doesn’t want to,” she explains to a male colleague in a 1974 episode – revolutionary for the times, considering Roe v Wade was ruled in the supreme court just a year previously.

After that, positive portrayals of child-free women didn’t get a serious look-in on screen until the 90s. In Seinfeld, Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) tires of her friends because they keep telling her: “You gotta have a baby!” “Why? Because I can?” she tells Jerry after he assumes that she wants them down the line. When a man she’s dating gets a vasectomy, she reexamines her stance (this is important; women are allowed to change their mind either way). And in a later episode, she stands up for abortion rights – refusing to pay at a restaurant that funds anti-abortion groups.

Then there was Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart) – the hotshot 90s lawyer who rocked a two-piece and was an icon for single women in the new millennium. Remember that dancing baby that kept popping up? “It tapped into her internal war,” Flockhart told The Hollywood Reporter. “She knew that on paper, a woman her age was supposed to be married with a child, but that wasn’t how she felt she wanted to be. The Dancing Baby represented that feeling.” And yet, in a ludicrous act of scriptwriting during season five, a girl turns up at Ally’s door claiming she was the result of a mix-up at the egg bank where Ally deposited her eggs 10 years earlier. Proof, perhaps, that writers couldn’t bear letting her story end without a baby or husband.

The child-free conversation briefly hit America’s primetime slot when, in 2011, a character in the hugely popular medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh), had an abortion after an accidental pregnancy. Her marriage then ended because she didn’t want kids. “I’m not a monster; if I have a baby I’ll love it,” she tells her husband Owen (Kevin McKidd) when he suggests she’s too scared of not being a good mother, while trying to convince her not to go through with the abortion. “[But] I don’t want one – I don’t want to be a mother.”

More recently, in Succession – the comedy-drama about siblings fighting to inherit the family media empire – television has delved back into attempting to bring some nuance into the issue of whether or not a woman might want a child. Shiv (Sarah Snook) examines the possibility of being a mother. She is clearly ambivalent, and rejects her husband’s pleas to have a baby. She then offers to store her eggs for 10 years – just in case, and to keep Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) happy. However, Shiv’s mum tells her she “made the right decision” and that some people “just aren’t made to be mothers” – which makes Shiv want to, in an act of defiance, have a baby after all. It’s a neat depiction of how the threat of sacrificing a career is a valid concern for women, while the pressures from family members – not just society – can also make you question your decision.

But while these portrayals are memorable and vital in moving forward, they’re mostly one-offs – brief storylines in wider shows that spend little time on this issue. In fact, so few and far between are moments like this, that the conversation has barely moved on from one of the biggest breakthroughs for child-free women on screen: Sex and the City’s televisual debut, nearly 25 years ago.

From the off, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) are firm in their child-free stance – and they refuse to be judged, ridiculed or sidelined because of it. In an episode that is folklore among single women, A Woman’s Right to Shoes, Carrie’s $485 Manolo Blahnik heels go missing at her friend Kyra’s baby shower. Kyra refuses to cover the cost, saying Carrie’s lifestyle choices are too “extravagant”. After calculating all the money she has spent on Kyra’s wedding and baby celebrations over the years, Carrie points out that society only validates and rewards women who start families. She leaves Kyra a voicemail saying she is marrying herself; Kyra can find her gift register at Manolo Blahnik.

Meanwhile, Samantha isn’t afraid to show her disdain for children (unless they belong to her friends – who can forget the time she sacrificed her vibrator to rock little Brady to sleep?). She speaks openly about the abortions she has had and throws herself an “I don’t have a baby!” party – because a woman doesn’t need to be a fairytale witch to not like kids. While the series is sometimes in danger of provoking a mothers v child-free rhetoric, as someone who came to it a decade after its debut, even today these conversations between the foursome are some of the most reassuring, unapologetic and real ones to have been seen on screen.

Sex and the City also did a bold and brilliant job of giving voice to women who can’t have children. Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) desperately wants children but learns she only has a 15% chance of ever conceiving. Over brunch, Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) looks physically pained when she tells her friend she accidentally got pregnant after one night with her ex. “He only has one ball! It isn’t fair! How could you do this to me?” Charlotte reacts. She’s hurt, angry, jealous – it feels very real and relatable. But, staying true to its heart of female friendship, the show continues to put the emphasis on friends talking it out, sharing their perspectives and understanding each other.

Of course, the women of Sex and the City are incredibly privileged. In fact most of the examples of child-free leads are white, wealthy and well educated – an embarrassing sign of how few child-free narratives have been represented. While in the real world there is absolutely no duty for a woman to discuss her fertility, this is television, where audiences should easily feel seen and connected. The fact that a series aired over two decades ago – which, retrospectively, got a lot of things wrong, and was very “of its time” in so many ways – is still the best portrayal of women who don’t want to have children is exasperating. And right now, we need to see the contemporary, positive stories of child-free women more than ever.

The US has just taken away a woman’s right to have an abortion. If you break that law, you are doing something “wrong” – proof that a woman is still deemed bad if she chooses to not have a baby in 2022. It’s little wonder that, even here in the UK, saying “I just don’t want a baby” out loud is inviting debate about your choice. Surely TV has the potential to help change this, even if it starts with a candid chat between friends at poker night.