When you choose to live life without kids, you hear it all — from "Oh, you’ll change your mind!" to "Wow, life must be so easy for you," as if an existence without littles is all last-minute vacations to the Caribbean and a seamless work-life balance. While that’s not a true picture of the PANK (professional aunt, no kids) life — a term coined by bestselling author Melanie Notkin in 2008 — a child-free status is still considered unconventional, despite its rise in popularity.

Since 2008, the total fertility rate (the number of births per 1,000 women) has fallen by nearly 20%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2019, the number of babies born in the United States hit the lowest level since 1985, and the COVID-19 crisis is likely to make those numbers dip even lower. According to one new survey, 17% of millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996, roughly) without kids who were polled said they’ll delay starting a family because of the pandemic, and 15% said they’re not interested in having children at all.

Yet despite the fact that there are more women than ever before opting out of motherhood, the conversation around supporting women, especially those in the workforce, still tends to focus on mothers — a phenomenon that’s understandably picked up steam due to the COVID pandemic and its resulting "Shesession."

Chief Member Robyn Dutra, Vice President of Creative at Estee Lauder Companies, gets it. She has moms on her team and can see the impact the last year has had on work- and family-related choices and resources. "I’m deeply supportive of what they’re going through and will fight to the finish to get them the added support they need," says Dutra. "But I’d like to get to a place where an eyebrow isn’t raised if you say you’ve never wanted to have kids. I’d like to get to a place where we’re supporting women and recognizing that family comes in all shapes and sizes — and doesn’t have to mean children."

This is one of the reasons Dutra jumped at the chance to help fellow Chief Member Paula Rizzo start Othership, a group for members who are not moms either by choice or by circumstance. The group's name can be linked to research done by Notkin, who authored the 2014 book, "OTHERHOOD: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness."

Rizzo, an Emmy award-winning TV producer, media consultant, and author of two books, is happily child-free. She and her husband tried to get pregnant a few years ago, but after her second miscarriage, she realized that life without having kids could be deeply satisfying. "I’ll never forget the doctor staring at me after giving me the news that I’d miscarried again, searching for the devastation, waiting for me to burst into tears," says Rizzo. "But I didn’t have that reaction. My husband and I were like, 'OK, let’s see what’s next instead!'"

The decision felt freeing, if a little isolating. The Othership group, which now has 200 members and is growing, is an antidote to that isolation. They meet virtually once a month to talk about some of the issues facing non-moms who work — everything from how friendships change when women have kids to what legacy means for those who choose not to procreate.

Is There a Cost of Being Child-Free?

As any woman who’s on the otherhood track will tell you, there are a certain set of issues that can surface when you deviate from the norm. For instance, one 2017 study published in the journal Sex Roles found that married-with-kids couples felt emotions ranging from disapproval and annoyance to outrage, anger, and even disgust toward married-without-kids couples. Other research has been consistent with this study, finding the voluntarily child-free are often perceived as less fulfilled and even elicit moral outrage.

Those who don’t see parenthood as a moral or biological imperative may still face issues at the office, from both a workload and benefits perspective. Occupational therapist and host of "not a momma life" podcast, Raphie Wagner has worked countless Saturdays and holidays covering for her colleagues who are parents and want to be at soccer games or watch kids open presents on Christmas morning. "All too often it’s those of us who are kid-free who get stuck with the crappy schedules," she says. "And worse, it’s just assumed we’ll work those hours."

Ushering in a New Era of What Family Means

Both Rizzo and Dutra are hopeful that more companies will start to recognize the specific set of issues and yes, even challenges those who choose the child-free path may face. Cassandra Rose, Partner at Meritarc, a human capital software company, advocates for women who are on the path of otherhood to make the most of their employee benefits. "The only time you might have to step away from your responsibilities at work isn’t when a baby comes into your life," she says. "I tell women without kids to go to their HR department and ask for more inclusive care policies. Too often, when we take time off, we have to use up our sick and vacation days. There should be another bank of time that accounts for leave you might need to take as a caregiver."

While some larger corporations are starting to employ this policy, if your company isn’t on board with progressive approaches, now is the time to ask. "The COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest accelerator of change that we’re seeing in our lifetime," says Rose. "This is the time to speak up." It’s also important to push back if you’re being asked to do more work because you don’t have kids, she adds. "Don’t just take one for the team if you’re not willing to do it," she says. "And if you are willing to do more, document it — and then advocate for yourself when it comes time for promotions, pay increases, and bonuses."

Rose also wants child-free women to feel empowered to use "no" as a complete sentence, and to not let societal norms dictate the boundaries you set for yourself. "I urge women not to let society tell you what’s an acceptable reason to leave work," says Rose. "If you have a need to leave work at 5 p.m. so you can go to the gym, that’s acceptable — and you don’t need to defend your reasoning to others. Defend your choice to yourself, and trust that everything else will fall into place."

Dutra is hopeful that the needle is moving in the right direction. "When it comes to supporting women, we have to recognize that family doesn’t have to mean children," she says. "If we’re truly going to support women, we need to recognize it’s all about choice. What family means is for women to define — or defy."