Why Physicians Should Stop Thinking That A Woman’s Choice To Be Childfree Is Up For Debate

Why Physicians Should Stop Thinking That A Woman’s Choice To Be Childfree Is Up For Debate

A good doctor not only listens, but believes you when you tell them what you want for your own body.

A good doctor is hard to find. And by “good,” I mean a doctor who will not simply treat your symptoms and provide preventative care, but also listen and believe you when you tell them what is true for you. We know that women are treated differently than men when it comes to how their pain is perceived, and it turns out that the gap between what women say and what doctors believe runs even deeper than that.

As a woman who doesn’t want to have kids (I prefer the term “childfree”), it’s been suggested to me over and over that someday, I will change my mind. I’ve heard everything from “You’d be such a good mom,” (okay, but I don’t want to be a mom, so…) to “Don’t you want to have a family?” (because family can only be created by giving birth to children?) to “But what will you do with your life?” (This is just the saddest question I’ve ever heard.) Childfree women are forever having to defend their choice and their certainty, not just to family and friends, but to those we’ve designated to help us maintain our health. It should go without saying that whether or not we intend to have children, we deserve a health care experience in which we’re heard and respected, but that’s not always the case.

Although we’ve likely dealt with health care providers around our birth control needs, many childfree women, all across the reproductive spectrum, report frustrating encounters with doctors. Especially when physicians cast doubt on decisions that have to do with long term birth control, such as an IUD, or in some cases tubal ligation.

For instance, A, who’s 33, asked her provider for a more permanent method of birth control. Her doctor (a woman) responded by laughing and telling her that she could “wait for menopause or have a couple of kids, and then we could talk about it.” Ultimately, A changed doctors and her husband ended up getting a vasectomy.

It might seem insane to imagine that doctors aren’t well aware that women who don’t want children exist, but A’s experience is hardly atypical. When Annie, who’s 34, was diagnosed with HPV, she was told that it was a good thing it was caught when it was, because otherwise, her fertility would have been in jeopardy.

“I shrugged when the doctor told me,” she said. “He said, ‘Doesn’t that bother you?’ I told him it didn’t. He looked horrified, and couldn’t leave the room fast enough. It was another doctor who performed my cryotherapy, but I will never see a male doctor ever again.”

While it’s not hard to understand why women would seek more empathetic health care after experiences like these, there are plenty of women who opt to stay with their providers. Stephanie, who’s 44, has been seeing the same gynecologist for seven years, in spite of the fact that every time she sees her (once a year), she’s told she should consider getting on prenatal vitamins if she wants to have a baby.

“My doctor says, ‘I just want to make sure you’re in the best health possible if you change your mind.’ The conversation has changed since I turned 40, now it’s about how if I do want to have kids, there are different considerations given my age, but it’s still not an issue. I don’t want children. I’ve known that since I was 12,” explains Stephanie.

Dr. Amy Blackstone, a sociology professor at the University of Maine, created the blog, we’re {not} having a baby, with her husband. Through her work there she’s had the opportunity to speak to many women about their experiences seeking permanent birth control. In one instance, a woman shared that she was forced to watch a video of a tubal ligation to make sure she knew what she was getting into. In another instance,  parents of a woman getting her tubes tied were asked if the surgery was “okay with them,” and of course, the question of whether or not husbands were aware of what women were doing.

We’re still not in a place where women are taken seriously when it comes to knowing what they want to do with their own bodies, and that’s not only depressing, but proves particularly daunting when looking for a gynecologist and/or a primary care physician. How can childfree women increase the likelihood of finding a provider who will really listen to women like us? Blackstone suggests two tactics: using your networks (another reason why sites like Blackstone’s, which connect childfree folks with each other, are so important), and looking for health care providers who explicitly identify themselves as feminist. Ideally, this would describe every doctor, but until we’re living in that world, it’s a key part of finding the care we need, childfree or not.

Cover image courtesy of Getty Images