In MY SO-CALLED SELFISH LIFE, filmmaker Therese Shechter explores what it means to choose not to have children. GOOD DOCS intern Kenzie Larson interviewed Therese to learn more about the film, which was recently selected to be screened by the American Public Health Association.
Can you give us an overview of what your film is about?
My So-Called Selfish Life is about one of our greatest social taboos - the choice not to become a mother. It’s also about why this choice is so taboo. The film weaves together personal stories, pop culture, history, and politics to show the ways our society reinforces the idea that motherhood is our duty and our destiny. Ultimately, the film explores what’s at stake when we’re denied the right to control our own reproductive lives. Because if a woman can’t control her own reproductive life, she can’t control the rest of her life.
So what inspired you to choose this topic and what is behind this film for you personally?
I first started thinking about the film in 2009 when my friend, the late journalist Anne Kingston, wrote a somewhat notorious cover story in Macleans magazine about people who were choosing to not have children. She had written many articles about controversial topics, but none had gotten this level of pushback and hate mail. As a childfree person myself I found myself wondering why this private life decision would inspire so much judgment and marginalization, especially towards women. So I went from there. My work takes on underexplored issues around womanhood, and I wasn’t aware of any really in-depth documentaries exploring this particular one.
At the time, I was busy with another documentary [How To Lose Your Virginity] so it sat in my to-do pile until 2015 when I noticed an explosion of conversations about being childfree happening under the radar on social media. I knew my own story but didn’t know many others, so I posted a survey on Facebook asking about people’s experiences of not having children. Within a week I received over 1900 responses. I mention this survey a lot in interviews because it’s the only thing I’ve ever done that’s gone viral. The first question on the survey was, ‘Why did you answer this survey?’ and overwhelmingly, the answer was ‘we need to talk about this.’ So I made a movie so we could talk about it. Since then the film’s Facebook page has grown to over 11,000 followers. Ironically, the more open the childfree conversation is becoming, the harder it’s becoming to actually remain childfree.
What made you decide to interweave your personal journey with those that you interviewed?
I’ve always been frustrated by the lack of narratives that mirror my own life, and all the thorny questions that have come up around women’s roles and destinies. Because these stories grow out of my own questions, I can act as a guide for viewers, taking them through the narrative and helping them work through the ideas. It’s like "Hi, I'm going to walk you through these ideas that might be new to you, and may challenge your worldview, and I hope you see the world and your life a bit differently when we’re done."
When making this film, did you find a generational difference in women's experiences with deciding not to have children?
The folks in My So-Called Selfish Life span generations, and cultures, and sexualities, and everyone has had different experiences and levels of comfort with this issue. This group is in no way a monolith, which makes for a great documentary, but also makes it hard to generalize.
One thing is clear: it’s much easier for young people to make that decision and find support for it today. The wide availability of of the birth control pill in 1972, with its relative safety and reliability compared to what came before, and the legalization of abortion in 1973 was a massive turning point. It’s the first time you see public conversations and activism around choosing not to have children, born both out of feminism and the zero population growth movement. But the social pressures to get married and have children were still massive, and the family values conservatism of the 1980s set things back again.
Two childfree women in the film are over 75, and neither has ever regretted her decision. That tracks with the many post-menopausal women I’ve spoken to about this. Both of them have also been very public about their choice, and gotten a lot of pushback; for one of them that ended up being catastrophic.
For some of our film subjects in their twenties, thirties, forties, they know what they want and are living their lives. Others are having a harder time of it. Surrounded by friends and family who are having kids, and with no role models of their own, they’re dealing with a lot of pressure and alienation. There is one queer couple in the film who had presented as two lesbians, until one of then one of them transitioned and looked very masculine. Now that the world perceived them as a heterosexual couple, the pressure from family and friends intensified–even within their own queer community. We did an entire online event on family pressure, called Surviving the Holidays as a Childfree Person, and created a free downloadable guide with crowdsourced advice.
Some have partners who want kids and are pressuring them, sure that they’ll change their minds. Many belong to religious groups, or are part of specific cultures, that exert incredible pressures to conform. Others are trying to get elective sterilizations to make sure they never get pregnant (and that’s ramped up a lot post-Dobbs) and they’re having a really hard time because of medical paternalism. There’s a lot to deal with.
One very interesting thing happened during our test screenings because I wanted to know how the film would land with college students. Part of me thought ‘they're so young…are they even thinking about this?’ We did five test screenings with college students and when we got the feedback forms we were blown away. They were incredibly interested and engaged in this conversation! The thing that came up most was they had no idea they could choose to not be a parent.
As the filmmaker, is that heartwarming to hear the students responses?
I’m glad we could show them that they had options for their life paths, and could offer them some ideas they could explore further on their own. But it’s also depressing that they didn't know people were talking about this, or didn't know they had a choice. What’s also come up speaking to college students–which was also quite heartbreaking, but I'm glad we created a space to talk about it–is that some of these young folks grew up knowing their parents did not want to have them, that they were a burden, a mistake. In the film, we look at the other side of it, people who had children and then realized they didn't really want to be parents and were very unhappy as a result. Both sides of this are tragic.
To me, this just reinforces the need to talk about these questions long before anyone is careening down a path of marriage and kids on autopilot without a clear idea of how they want their life to look. They are fundamental conversations that we should be having in high schools and colleges about the many paths, the many ways to make a family, and the constraint on us to conform. Mainstream society is terrified of this conversation, so it’s even more important to address it. It upends the whole so-called American Dream of creating little nuclear families and growing the fertility rate, and all that comes with that. This is where pronatalism enters the picture.
What was the most shocking information you came across throughout the creative process of this film?
First and foremost it was discovering this concept of pronatalism. To me, pronatalism had meant giving money to families when they had a baby, or child tax credits. It was shocking to understand pronatalism as an entrenched and invisible system that encouraged or even required childbirth, doing its work in insidious ways throughout our culture. But only encouraging childbirth for the "right" people, mind you, and discouraging it by any means necessary for the "wrong” people. We spend a lot of time in the film showing how it works, how it hides in plain sight in pop culture, and how it has upheld white supremacy in the US. It’s akin to when I first learned the concept of patriarchy. I knew there was something going on with how I interacted with the world as a woman, but I didn’t have a way to explain it as a system. When I learned the word patriarchy, everything clicked into place.
My favorite “shocking” discovery was the myth of the Biological Clock. The concept was invented by a male journalist in an incredibly condescending article about women he knew who had become “baby crazy” because of something that happened in their bodies. The headline was “The Clock is Ticking for the Career Woman” and he provided no scientific backing or evidence whatsoever. This was in 1978. The pill was available to everyone, abortion was legal, more women were entering the workforce and delaying marriage, and the fertility rate was dropping precipitously. It’s not surprising that an article like this one was picked up and amplified as a threat to all the liberated women who were causing so much trouble. By the way, this seemingly sudden desire for children is actually a social phenomenon, influenced by what’s going on around you with friends and family, not by a ticking time bomb in your body.
What do you think will challenge viewers who watch your film?
Since the Dobbs decision there has been a massive spike in people asking for sterilizations–this got real very fast, and the medical community has not caught up. The stories in this film about people seeking out these procedures can go a long way to making that happen, but these stories also shock people.
The story we tell about the university student who wants to get her tubes tied, for example. She’s nineteen, incredibly smart, and determined to get an elective sterilization, and I think that that has been a big challenge for people, being confronted with her story thinking she's too young. Doctors have the same attitude, turning down requests because they feel women are too young to decide these things for themselves. Some of these women are in their late 30s, by the way. A tale as old as time - not trusting women with decisions about their own bodies.
I think the other challenging thing is when we turn pronatalism upside down and say it's not just about making people have kids, it's also about preventing some people from having kids. The film goes into eugenics, forced sterilizations, white supremacy, anti-immigration. It’s an intense part of the film and it enriches this story we are telling. In researching the film, I was shocked that no one was dealing with that side of pronatalism and reproductive control, but it’s very much part of the story to this very day. We are still living with racist and nationalist policies and it's not something people tend to think about if it hasn't affected them or their communities directly. I’m grateful for the generosity of people who agreed to be in the film and talked about these issues from their own personal perspective.
Are you at all afraid of some of the possible responses you'll get because of the topics that you're covering?
I expect it and welcome it, to be honest. Based on what i’m reading, conservatives are obsessed with dropping fertility rates and feminists who are masterminding this destruction of civilization. We are going against God and family, etc. But I’m pretty sure no one spewing this stuff has actually watched my film, though.
These ideas that we are trying to upend in this film have been baked into the social fabric since Victorian times. Rejecting motherhood goes against everything we are led to believe about women’s innate desire for children and their ‘natural maternal instincts.’ We are still seen as shirking our duty to our husbands, our nation, our femininity - and according to some questionable medical ideas, our good health. And the fact that women have taken control of their own bodies is terrifying for many people and has resulted in some terrifying backlash! As I said above, one of the best ways to control women is to control their reproduction.
I have no problem with people having children. I just think everyone should be given the tools to make a good decision about it. Some parents have reacted in a very defensive way to the film. In part it’s because they may not have wanted children but were pressured into it, and it’s pretty tough to see people celebrating being childfree under those circumstances.
Overall though, parents and folks who wanted children and couldn’t have them have been incredible allies. They see the ways pronatalism impacts us all, and it’s opened up some very good conversations within their families as well.
Overall, what is the goal of your film and how can it be used for students?
When you're in high school or college, you're there to learn about yourself and the world, and to explore different ideas and try them on and see how they fit. And you’re there to be exposed to different systems that affect our lives in ways we may not recognize. Although the film is ostensibly about choosing to not have children, the message of self-determination and self-invention extends to any life choices that’s outside the narrow paths presented to us.
The film is intersectional. It is very much at home in gender studies and as a new way to talk about reproductive justice. Childfree issues are a part of sociological studies, as well as ObGyn medicine. We also intersect with environmental studies, population and sustainability, and workplace equity for people who don’t have children. We have a great discussion guide and an outline of our impact goals, and both are free to download.
Importantly, it's an entertaining film by design. Aside from just learning from it, students will enjoy watching it. There are lots of TV clips in there, and people who are snarky and funny, and it's just an enjoyable experience. When people are being entertained, I think they pay more attention.
What do you want the audience to take away from your film and what response would you like to see?
Our first goal is to open up possibilities for new ways for living our lives, creating families, and choosing our destinies, whether you have children or not. And doing so in a way that’s full of love and joy, providing validation and support for anyone who isn’t interested in the one path offered to us.
The second is to give people a better understanding of the social context of choosing not to have children and the pressure to become a parent. We want to provide tools to decode what’s going on around us, and why.
There are many kinds of families beyond the nuclear family, and our value is not tied up with our reproductive system. As I say at the end of the film: “In a world that’s open and full of possibility, we can imagine different lives. Because self-invention is not only possible, it’s necessary.”
Is there anything else that you would like to talk about in regards to the film?
I want to encourage folks to get a preview copy and watch the film, because you only understand the full value and power of this project once you see it. There is literally nothing like it out there. And there are so many ways that it can be used in colleges and organizations. We owe it to our young people…and everyone else.