Childless women push back against ‘cat lady’ stereotype

Posted at 4:53 PM, Jun 06, 2014

Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two. 

(CNN) – Women without children like Patrice Grell Yursik, who just celebrated her 12th wedding anniversary, get the same questions all the time.

“I can’t even tell you how many cab drivers in Chicago, in New York, in L.A., have asked me, ‘So any kids? No kids, why no kids?’ It’s just the way that people engage with you,” said Grell Yursik, 35, of Chicago, creator of the beauty and lifestyle blog She and her husband have not decided whether they want to have children.

Laurie White, a 43-year-old writer and social media manager, who has referred to herself over the years as “accidentally childless,” said people always come up with solutions for what they perceive as her “problem.”

“Why don’t you just parent by yourself? Why don’t you adopt? There are so many kids who need homes,” White, of Olney, Maryland, said people tell her. “It really discounts whether or not that’s something a) that I want to do and b) whether that’s something that’s really wise for me to do as a single person.”

Kitty Bradshaw, creator of an online destination covering lifestyle in Los Angeles and New York, said, “More and more guys are saying ‘Oh there must be something wrong with you if you are 35 and you’ve never been married and you’ve never had kids.’ ”

Bradshaw, White and Grell Yursik are not alone by a long shot; 47% of women between ages 15 and 44 don’t have children, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data, an increase from 35% in 1976.

That’s a massive group comprising nearly half the women of childbearing age, and yet this demographic remains misunderstood, poorly portrayed in the media and nearly invisible to Madison Avenue, many women without children say.

‘The Otherhood’

Best-selling author Melanie Notkin, 45, coined the term “The Otherhood,” the title of her newest book, to refer to women like herself who don’t have children either by choice or based on life’s circumstances. In her case, she experienced what she calls “circumstantial infertility … the pain and grief over not having children” because she’s single.

Too often society perceives women like herself as making a choice between having a career and having love, marriage and children, she said.

“This implication that we have chosen a career as opposed to falling in love is, as I say in the book, about as preposterous for me as having an elephant as a household pet,” Notkin said at a recent panel discussion hosted by DeVries Global, a public relations and social media agency.

“I have never said no to a man who proposed to me with whom I was madly in love because I had a conference call to take.”

Pop culture certainly doesn’t help, Notkin and other women say. Think about how women without children are often portrayed in television and film. There’s the singularly focused career woman (think Peggy Olson on “Mad Men”), the frivolous fashionista waiting for Mr. Right (Carrie Bradshaw on “Sex and the City”) or the crazy cat lady, who sits home, with her cats, depressed and lonely.

“If you are single with no kids, you’re desperate, you’re in a house, you’re living with your parents, you’re overweight or you’re not a pretty girl. It’s just very negative and in most cases, that’s not the case,” said Kitty Bradshaw.

Now 35, she said she always dreamed of having children but heeded the advice from people who said she had plenty of time to wait.

“I also listened to the old saying, ‘Don’t go looking. It’ll come.’ So I didn’t go looking and it never came,” said Bradshaw, who recently moved to Los Angeles to actively look for a husband.

“We are maternal”

To gain insight into the hopes, lifestyle habits and spending patterns of mothers and non-mothers, DeVries Global partnered with a survey company to conduct an online survey of 2,000 women across the country, 1,000 moms and 1,000 non-moms between ages 18 and 50. Notkin served as a consultant on the research.

Of the women without children, “almost half of them, 46%, actually want to eventually have children, 18% were on the fence and 36% … said no” they did not want kids, according to Michael De Cicco, senior director of research and analytics at DeVries Global. (Since the survey was conducted online, it may not represent the views of women who are less tech-savvy or don’t like answering questions online about such personal issues.)

A large majority of the women without children said kids are still a big part of their lives, according to De Cicco, a finding that clashes with another misperception of these women: that they don’t like kids.

“We are maternal,” said Notkin, who is also the founder of Savvy Auntie, which bills itself as the first online community for “cool aunts, great aunts, godmothers and all women who love kids.”

“We do love the children in our life and the survey showed that 80% of women could still be happy whether or not they had children, and part of it is because we get to exercise our maternal muscle on the children we love.”

Attention marketers: These women have power

What the survey also found is these women are a consumer force that marketers have not yet reckoned with: “Women without kids spend on average 35% more per person per month on groceries than moms,” according to the DeVries report. They also “spend on average nearly twice as much as moms on beauty and hair related products,” said the report.

“I think a lot of the brands that make advertising decisions still very much see the world through kind of a ‘Mad Men’ lens of womanhood,” said Grell Yursik, the married blogger who now has an annual conversation with her husband about whether they’ll have children.

White, the single social media maven, remembered a hilarious incident at one of the first blogging conferences she attended years ago when she was talking to a representative from a detergent company.

“He said something throwaway like, ‘Oh, well, for your children,’ which is a way they figure out who’s in your house and I said, ‘Well, I don’t have any’ and he just basically ended the conversation,” said White.

Brands that “get it” will be rewarded, said Notkin, pointing to a specific social media campaign she produced in 2010 with Tropicana, in which the retailer wanted to reach women in her “Savvy Auntie” community along with moms.

“When I tweeted out that Tropicana was a new sponsor and ‘values the roles aunts play in the lives of the children they love,’ the immediate ‘tongue-in-cheek’ reply from my Twitter followers included tweets like: ‘I always knew their orange juice tasted better,’ ” Notkin told me via e-mail.

“There is a real opportunity for brands to capture this market by simply acknowledging it. It’s a powerful opportunity when done authentically.”

‘Multi-faceted’ and ‘multi-fabulous’

How will we get to a place where perceptions of women without children — in society, media and marketing — shift to better reflect the reality of who these women are and what they want in life?

“We are multi-faceted, multi-dimensional, multi-fabulous women,” said Grell Yursik. “And there’s no reason to pigeonhole us into one box based on what the traditional tropes have been.”

“I always say I’ve thrown a lot of baby showers. I have a lot of friends with kids. I don’t have my own so people would be smart to invite me to the conversation because I have influence in that area,” said White.

Attitudes need to shift significantly, but they have come a long way since the ’70s, said Sheila Hoffman, 64, who made the decision to live child-free at a time when just about nobody else was doing it.

“Just the fact that there are role models around that have made the choice and have lived happy, successful lives” has made a difference, said Hoffman, a married graphic designer in Seattle.

“There were no role models. You need to remember I grew up with ‘Leave it to Beaver’ and ‘Ozzie and Harriett,'” she said with a laugh. “Those were the norms.”