TV / Women and Gender

Saying No to Babyville: ‘How I Met Your Mother’ One of the Few TV Shows to Explore a Childfree Life for Women

For those who haven’t seen the last 2 episodes of HIMYM, be warned. There be SPOILERS ahead!

I was ready. Poised to be pissed. For the first half of last week’s How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM), my BF Jeff told me I sat on the couch, scowling perpetually.

In the previous episode “The Rebound Girl,” we learn journalist Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders) and playboy Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris)’s adulterous one night stand (although is it really a one night stand if you’ve slept together and dated before?? But I digress…), resulted in Robin telling Barney she was pregnant.

Throughout the entire series, Robin has proudly declared she never wanted kids. In all 7 seasons of Ted’s monologues to his children about how he met their mother, Ted has never once mentioned Robin having children. Nada. Zero. Zilch.

Would Robin have an abortion? Would her pregnancy be a false alarm? As abortions are a common medical procedure yet rarely seen in movies or TV shows, I was hoping for an abortion storyline. But I knew that if Robin was in fact pregnant, the writers would give her a child. So when Monday’s episode opened with Robin narrating to her future kids, I was bullshit.

Why the fuck does EVERY woman in movies and TV series want children?! Ugh.

As an unmarried woman in her 30s with no children, I’ve chosen to not get married and not have children. I’ve never really wanted them. Yet I’ve been told repeatedly (I cannot stress repeatedly enough) that I will eventually change my mind and have children. As if my choice is some cute and trendy passing phase. It’s the same bullshit response I’ve received from ignorant peeps when they find out I’m vegan. Oh, you’ll start eating meat or at least dairy some day. Oh, you’ll start having babies one day. Gee, thanks for enlightening me about MY life choices, asshole.

Now, I’ll admit that as I creep ever so closely to 35, my biological clock (god I hate that term but it does fit here) has been softly ticking. I know the statistics. My chances of having children drop substantially after age 35. In last week’s episode”Symphony of Illumination,” Robin struggles with this very same dilemma when she discovers not only is she not pregnant, she can’t have children. At first she’s relieved. But then she starts to mourn her infertility.

Instead of telling her friends the truth, Robin tells them she just learned she can’t be an Olympic pole vaulter. Later, when best friend Lily asks if she’s alright, Robin tells her she’s taking the news harder than she thought. Lily asks her if she ever even wanted to be a “pole vaulter.” Robin explains:

“No, I was always adamantly against having a pole vaulting career, even though it’s what most women want…In Canada, it’s very big up there. You know, it’s meet a nice guy, get married, vault some poles. But I never wanted that.

Of course it’s one thing not to want something. It’s another to be told you can’t have it. I guess it’s just nice knowing that you could someday do it if you changed your mind. But now, all of a sudden that door is closed.”

Later, Robin reveals:

“So I can’t have kids. Big deal. Now there’s no one to hold me back in life. No one to keep me from traveling where I want to travel. No one getting in the way of my career. If you want to know the truth of it, I’m glad you guys don’t exist. Really glad.”

Robin had been telling her story to imaginary kids. At the end of the bittersweet episode, Ted narrates that Robin never did become a “pole vaulter.” She became “a famous journalist, a successful businesswoman, a world traveler” and briefly a bull fighter…”but she was never alone.”

These scenes broke my heart. Tears streamed down my face (yes, I’m a weeper). I was sad Robin couldn’t have children. But a wave of relief washed over me. FINALLY, a TV series depicted a female character choosing a different path.

The HIMYM writers could have had Robin become a parent through adoption instead like Monica and Chandler on Friends and Carrie and Doug on King of Queens. Robin laments her infertility not because she wanted children. But because her choice, the choice to change her mind, was taken away. It’s one thing to not want something. But it’s quite another when the possibility of that thing that you didn’t even want is gone. Robin’s dialogue – her worries, her hopes, her fears – eerily echoed my own.

What if I wake up one day and regret my decision? What if I want a daughter or son to read to, cook vegan food for, play games with, take to museums, teach feminism to (hey, it could happen)? But what if I don’t? Do I want to uproot my entire life? Wouldn’t my life be just as complete if I never have kids? Yep. It would. And therein lies my problem with the media.

Through movies, TV series and ads, the media perpetually tells us all women want children. If they don’t, they must be damaged, deluding themselves or they just haven’t found the right man yet. Because you know silly ladies, our lives revolve around men. Tabloid magazines repeatedly report on female actors’ baby bumps. As Susan J. Douglas argues in Enlightened Sexism, “bump patrols” reduce women to their reproductive organs, reinforcing the stereotype that women aren’t real women unless they procreate.

Now, please don’t mistake me. If you’re a woman (or man) who wants kids or has kids, congrats. Mazel Tov. Seriously. I love my friends’ children. I love seeing their cute pics online. I love playing with them…and giving them back at the end of the day. Children are adorbs (sometimes) with their rambunctious spirits, incessant questions and inquisitive natures. But not everyone wants kids. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t.

Choosing to be childfree is on the rise as 1 in 5 women (up from 1 in 10 in the 70s) in their 40s doesn’t have a child. But you wouldn’t know it from watching TV. The only TV shows that come to mind where a female character questions whether or not to have children and chooses not to are Samantha on Sex and the City, Elaine on Seinfeld, Emily on The Bob Newhart Show, Jane Timony on Prime Suspect (the original with Helen Mirren) and Christina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy.

Jessica Grose at Slate points out Whitney differs from HIMYM in its portrayal of a woman questioning her child-free choice. Independent Whitney doesn’t want to get married or have children. But in last week’s episode “Up All Night,” she completely reverses her position and concedes once she discovers having no kids is a deal-breaker for her boyfriend Alex. The message is that Whitney “has to agree to consider all the trappings of traditional womanhood” to be considered “a person.”

HIMYM suffers many gender problems. Yes, it infuriated me Lily received so much backlash when she went to LA to pursue her dream of an art career. Almost everything Barney says or does – his sexist stereotypes, objectification of women, and fat-shaming – pisses me off. And yes, it bugs me that Robin’s unconventional female personality of Scotch drinking, hockey loving, cigar smoking and gun ownership has been pinned on her father raising her as a boy…even going so far as to name her Robin Charles Scherbatsky, Jr. But the show hasn’t fallen into the sexist trap that a woman isn’t a “real” woman without a baby.

When Ted shares with his kids (and us the audience) that Robin never had children, he highlights the full life she led. Her life wasn’t empty because she didn’t become a mother. Women are socialized to want to get married and have babies. But what if you don’t want babies? Is something wrong with you? Or is something wrong with the system reinforcing the notion that all women want to be moms?

Ladies, you’re not broken, incomplete, unfeminine or any other nonsensical bullshit if you choose not to have children. Whatever you decide, whatever is right for you…well, that’s just fabulous. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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11 thoughts on “Saying No to Babyville: ‘How I Met Your Mother’ One of the Few TV Shows to Explore a Childfree Life for Women

  1. I agree that HIMYM handled this subject better than Whitney did. It was great to hear Ted explain that Robin went on to live a successful and happy life. But I’m not sure why this episode had to exist at all. Wouldn’t Robin have had the same successful and happy life if she *had* been able to have children and still chose not to? Making her *unable* to have children seems like a cop-out.

  2. It just really annoys me the BEST TV shows cannot keep the main female actress from being a mother. When Bones (played by Emily Deschanel) becomes preggers with Booth (played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s David Boreanaz) I just lost ALL interest in my favourite show. Ditto for Criminal Mind (the blond one got knocked up).

    I don’t see why these ass-kicking heroines have to be mothers for! Can’t they all save the day without changing Junior’s diaper at the end? The closest show to portray childfreedom was Sex and the City but portraying childfree women as man-eating, provocative nymphs (Kim Cattrall) or as a materialistic shopaholic like SJP, it would be nice for a popular TV show to portray the woman as we are: ambitious but funny, sensitive, loyal to our friends and hubby/partner and real.

    But hey, until then, I’m glad How I Met Your Mother producers added a CF storyline! Yay! :D

    • I think I do want children someday, and it annoys me too, especially when some series feel the need to end on a “complete” note and that note is apparently babies for all, as if that’s the only way you can be complete. But in some cases, pregnancies not planned in the show get written in because the leads get pregnant and they want to keep shooting. While you can shoot around the bump in theory, it’s really awkward, and I’ not sure if you can do it effectively in shows that have lots of action shots. (The HIMYM version of this with the actress who plays Lily was really obvious, and she was sitting down most of the time). Bones, I think, was one of these cases.

  3. I was about the give up on the show, as the last two seasons have been erratic and a bit undisciplined, but this one got me back on board (the show frankly thrives when it focuses on Robin, but that’s another story). As for the other examples, the Criminal Minds one is less bothersome as the show has had several major female characters throughout the run, including two long-timers (Emily Prentiss and Penelope Garcia), who are child-free eight years into the series run. At this point, we now have one of the female members (JJ) who has a child and one male member (Hotchner) who does as well.

  4. I haven’t ever watched this particular show.
    The only things i view consistently are: 2 broke girls (my fave), The new girl & Dexter.

    I’ve never really wanted children, yet i adore my three & a half year old niece, like
    she was my own.
    That little kid & i just bonded somehow, and i find myself actually enjoying
    reading to her, playing with her & just hanging out.
    I find myself thinking, “But if i ever had a kid, it wouldn’t be as good as this one!”
    Then i think, “What a terrible attitude to have, maybe i SHOULDN’T have children.” LOL!

  5. This same theme — that all women must want children — also drives me crazy in books. I love mysteries, where often I can find strong women protagonists. Yet in so many, if the woman is in her 30s and doesn’t have kids, her driving internal conflict is that she despairs of ever finding a man to complete her life & is petrified that she may never have children. Or she can’t have them and she’s depressed and empty. It’s as if authors, both male and female, just can’t imagine a woman not devastated by being “childless.” Or maybe it’s laziness – it’s easier to fill in the character that way than to create a real person with individual desires and hopes.

    On a more personal note, one of the many great things about being in my mid-forties is people finally stopped telling me I’ll change my mind about wanting children, will be “sorry later” that I didn’t have them, or that “it’s not too late.”

    Thanks for the post!

      • Funny! I’m amazed no one has said that, at least not lately. BTW, I love having nieces and nephews as well. My master plan is for at least a few of them to have kids so I can in essence be a grandmother without ever having had to have children myself.

  6. I think everyone is losing track of what shows shouldn’t be airing that socialize women into thinking they want children – teen mom. I think that having women who are 30 years old and having a baby is the least of our problems, that’s just saying to women “you can keep your job and still be a mom.” But teen mom? That just teaches teens that having a baby so young is somehow glorious, no one focuses on how much of a struggle it actually is for these girls.
    Plus, most women watch these shows, and most women have kids. It’s just the way you’re looking at it. When I saw that Bones had a baby, it told me that strong women can have a career and a child – it is not a burden to yourself to explore the natural miracles that can occur in it. If you have a predisposed biased disposition against women having children, you’re going to see these children as baggage to a character, but if you can see the strength they have to be powerful women and still birth a baby, I think that’s saying a lot more.

  7. Pingback: ‘How I Met Your Mother’ One of the Few TV Shows to Explore a Childfree Life for Women | Fem2pt0

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