Where the Hell Are All the Happy Child-Free Couples on TV?

by Francesca Lewis

My partner and I have agreed — we don't want kids. We don't like kids. No, we will not change our minds when we're "older." And no, it will not be different when they're our own. They will never be our own — I just told you, we're not having kids. Pay attention.

The assumption that couples will inevitably breed is a tiresome one, and yet television reinforces it over and over. In every sitcom and domestic/real-life focused drama every couple either has children or discusses that inevitable "someday" when they will. Recently on The Big Bang Theory, Howard and Bernadette found out they are going to have a baby. It was unplanned, but despite the fact that four years ago Bernadette said she didn't like or want children, now she's super happy about it. When Howard asked her back in Season 4 if she thinks it will be different when the child is their own, Bernadette replied, "Right, when it's our kid that has ruined my body, and kept me up all night, and I've got no career and no future, and nothing to be happy about for the next 20 years... Sure, that'll be completely different." Despite this vehement rejection of the joys of motherhood — a very progressive attitude to a woman's choice not to parent — the writers of the recent Bernadette storyline seem to believe that it is, indeed, different when it's your own.

The announcement of Howard and Bernadette's pregnancy prompted the "Do You See Us Having Kids?" conversation between Leonard and Penny and, surprise surprise, Penny had this to say, "Well, I'm not in a rush, but someday, yeah, sure." In the world of TV couples, you can delay the inevitable, but sooner or later there is going to be a bun in that oven. The prevalence of this attitude is infuriating. In Parks & Recreation’s final season, after finally finding her perfect career, April is talked into getting pregnant despite being "on the fence" at best. In the finale, we even see her pregnant with her second child. In The Mindy Project, Mindy becomes accidentally pregnant by her new boyfriend, Danny. The development of their electric, combative relationship from colleagues to lovers was the best thing about the show, but after they got together, what could the writers do now? Explore the complexities of love, sex and intimacy? Nah, just slap a baby in there. All of these examples in isolation would be fine — women are allowed to change their minds about parenthood — but as a trend, the tendency to thrust a baby upon all couples has a lot of troubling implications.

TV relationships have a formulaic trajectory, with carefully timed peaks that get the studio audience gasping and cheering, and the ratings climbing. Genre TV — thriller, horror, fantasy — they might escape from this, because they have smoke monsters and serial killers to dazzle us. In a show where the plots are derived from everyday life, the exciting story developments usually take the form of relationship events: declarations of love, breakups, proposals, weddings, the announcement of a pregnancy. In the absence of zombie hoards, this is what keeps the audience gripped. Once characters have "settled down" and the "will they/won't they?" phase is over, writers automatically throw a pregnancy into the mix. It is assumed the next logical step — everyone has kids eventually, right?

The only child-free couple on TV I can think of is Frank and Claire Underwood on House of Cards. They do not like children and have actively chosen not to have any. Their relationship is fascinating and complex, with a lot of real deep love in there, but they are ultimately portrayed as cold and kinda sociopathic. At the end of the most recent season, they started a war to further their political careers. I'm reminded of another line TBBT’s Bernadette has in that Season 4 episode, "I know it makes me sound like a bad person, but I just don't like children." People who don't like kids are bad. There are a few other examples of women who choose not to have children on television — the Sex & the City characters Carrie and Samantha, the latter of which makes her dislike of children no secret, do settle down eventually but choose to eschew motherhood. And again, while they are not exactly cold and calculating like the Underwoods, there is a certain selfishness about their portrayal as women who care more for material things and their own pleasure. We are back to the idea that self-interest goes hand in hand with a rejection of motherhood. While I'm the last person in the world to stigmatize a person's right to self-care, self-love, and even self-interest, I find it sad that the only way television can imagine a person's choice to remain child-free is to imagine them incapable of love — the "bad person" to which Bernadette refers.

This is not about attacking women who choose parenthood, or attacking TV shows for showing that motherhood can co-exist with a fulfilling career. My problem is not that we get Leslie Knope or Liz Lemon ending the show as working moms — that's important representation. Some people/couples like and want children and the ways they navigate this is a legitimate storyline. My problem is that the Other Choice — no kids, no fucks — is rarely portrayed, not explicitly and not positively, and that's a sad thing. My partner and I don't want kids and it's depressing to not see ourselves reflected, and to see that, as far as the media is concerned, there is something missing from our lives — oh, and we are probably sociopaths.

Fuck that. Newsflash, TV writers: No kids is a viable, happy option for some of us. Let us SEE that.

Francesca Lewis is a feminist writer from Yorkshire, England. You can find her opinion pieces on Medium