The best books about women without kids (that aren’t sad)

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a historian who knows women have long lived not-sad lives without children. I’ve spent years researching the full and vibrant lives women without children lived throughout history—lives that often were only possible because they didn’t have the responsibilities of motherhood. I’m also a woman living a decidedly not-sad life without kids. And yet, in popular imagination, a woman without kids must be longing to be a mother or grieving the fact that she isn’t. I know firsthand that it can be isolating not to have kids. But in writing about the sheer variety of lives non-mothers lived in the past, I’m trying to show that we’re not alone.


I wrote...

Without Children: The Long History of Not Being a Mother

By Peggy O'Donnell Heffington,

Book cover of Without Children: The Long History of Not Being a Mother

What is my book about?

In an era of falling births, it’s often said that millennials invented the idea of not having kids. But history is full of women without children: some who chose childless lives, others who wanted children but never had them, and still others—the vast majority, then and now—who fell somewhere in between. Modern women considering how and if children fit into their lives are products of their political, ecological, and cultural moment. But history also tells us that we're not alone. 

Even many of the reasons women today give for not having children are ones we share with women in the past: a lack of support, jobs or finances, environmental concerns, infertility, and the desire to live different kinds of lives. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Great Circle

Peggy O'Donnell Heffington Why did I love this book?

Great Circle tells the life story of Marian Graves, a fictional woman aviator who went missing in 1950 while attempting to circumnavigate the globe via the North and South Poles.

I’m married to a pilot, so I recognized Marian’s love of flight and her willingness to take risks and make sacrifices to excel in aviation. But the real reason I loved the book is that forgoing motherhood—having children in the 1930s and 1940s would keep a woman out of the cockpit for good—isn’t framed as a sacrifice for Marion.

The life she wants to live simply doesn’t include children. Marion’s certainty about what she wants from life was as thrilling for me as the aerobatic stunts she learns to do in her airplane.  

By Maggie Shipstead,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Great Circle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A TODAY SHOW #ReadWithJenna BOOK CLUB PICK • The unforgettable story of a daredevil female aviator determined to chart her own course in life, at any cost: an “epic trip—through Prohibition and World War II, from Montana to London to present-day Hollywood—and you’ll relish every minute” (People).

After being rescued as infants from a sinking ocean liner in 1914, Marian and Jamie Graves are raised by their dissolute uncle in Missoula, Montana. There--after encountering a pair of barnstorming pilots passing through town in beat-up biplanes--Marian commences her lifelong love affair with flight. At fourteen she…


Book cover of The Pull of the Stars

Peggy O'Donnell Heffington Why did I love this book?

Once, when I was in graduate school studying to become a historian, I met a woman my age who was a midwife.

I was hit with a surprising wave of regret, like I’d found the profession I was meant for but too late, after I’d already chosen another path. Both parts of me, historian and wannabe midwife loved this book, which is set in the maternity ward of a London hospital during World War II.

Nurses are in short supply, so the protagonist is quickly promoted from washing the bedding to delivering babies—which, it turns out, she’s very good at. Yet being surrounded by women becoming mothers doesn’t make her want children of her own.

Some are meant to create life,” she muses, “and some are meant to help them bring it into the world.” The part of me that still thinks I should have been a midwife suspects I would feel that way too.

By Emma Donoghue,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Pull of the Stars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Dublin, 1918, a maternity ward at the height of the Great Flu is a small world of work, risk, death, and unlooked-for love, in "Donoghue's best novel since Room" (Kirkus Reviews).

In an Ireland doubly ravaged by war and disease, Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in the city center, where expectant mothers who have come down with the terrible new Flu are quarantined together. Into Julia's regimented world step two outsiders—Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a rumoured Rebel on the run from the police, and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney.

In the darkness and intensity of this…


Book cover of To the Bright Edge of the World

Peggy O'Donnell Heffington Why did I love this book?

Unlike Ivey’s other book The Snow Child, which grapples with the grief of infertility (a book I also love!), this book considers the opportunities a life without children allows for.

It opens with Lieutenant Colonel Allan Forrester as he prepares to lead an expedition into Alaska in 1885. His wife, Sophie, is an explorer in her own right and plans to accompany him—until they realize she’s pregnant and decide she has to stay behind.

Spoiler: Sophie miscarries and learns she will likely never be able to carry a baby to term. But this isn’t an endpoint for Sophie: instead, it sets her on a path toward professional and creative success, as well as love and happiness in her marriage.

We’re used to reading about how motherhood gives life meaning—I loved Ivey’s portrait of how not having kids can do the same.

By Eowyn Ivey,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked To the Bright Edge of the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

SHORTLISTED FOR THE EDWARD STANFORD TRAVEL WRITING AWARDS 2016.

Set in the Alaskan landscape that she brought to stunningly vivid life in THE SNOW CHILD (a Sunday Times bestseller, Richard and Judy pick and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), Eowyn Ivey's TO THE BRIGHT EDGE OF THE WORLD is a breathtaking story of discovery set at the end of the nineteenth century, sure to appeal to fans of A PLACE CALLED WINTER.

'A clever, ambitious novel' The Sunday Times

'Persuasive and vivid... what could be a better beach read than an Arctic adventure?' Guardian


'Stunning and intriguing... the reader finishes…


Book cover of Writers & Lovers

Peggy O'Donnell Heffington Why did I love this book?

At first, the protagonist, Casey Peabody, might seem uncomfortably familiar to a lot of us: a 30-something struggling to make it in a tough field (she’s a writer) while being close to broke and dating all the wrong people.

One of those people, a divorced dad named Oscar, offers her a ready-made life she could slot right into: a beautiful home, an enviable wine cellar, a healthy bank account, and two kids who could use a mother figure.

Watching Casey realize that life isn’t what she wants after all—and then trying to figure out what she does want, and how to get it—felt like cheering for a friend as she came into her own. The ending is almost improbably happy, which just made me love this book all the more.

By Lily King,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Writers & Lovers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

#ReadWithJenna Book Club Pick as Featured on Today
Emma Roberts Belletrist Book Club Pick
A New York Times Book Review’s Group Text Selection

"I loved this book not just from the first chapter or the first page but from the first paragraph... The voice is just so honest and riveting and insightful about creativity and life." —Curtis Sittenfeld 

An extraordinary new novel of art, love, and ambition from Lily King, the New York Times bestselling author of Euphoria

Following the breakout success of her critically acclaimed and award-winning novel Euphoria, Lily King returns with another instant New York Times bestseller:…


Book cover of Motherhood

Peggy O'Donnell Heffington Why did I love this book?

My list wouldn’t be complete without Heti’s Motherhood, which features an unnamed narrator who is approaching her 40th birthday and weighing the question of whether or not to have children.

The narrator carefully considers what she might lose and gain with either choice, weighing the unknown joys and challenges of motherhood against the more familiar joy and grief of her life as it is. The narrator’s agonizing might not be for everyone, but for me it felt equal parts electrifying and uncanny, like finding the contents of my own brain on the page.

Toward the end of the book, a young girl asks the narrator why she never had children. “I had never dreamed of being a mother,” the narrator answers. “I wanted to be free.” That makes sense, the girl says, nodding. It makes sense to me, too.

By Sheila Heti,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Motherhood as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A response - finally - to the new norms of femininity' Rachel Cusk

Having reached an age when most of her peers are asking themselves when they will become mothers, Heti's narrator considers, with the same urgency, whether she will do so at all. Over the course of several years, under the influence of her partner, body, family, friends, mysticism and chance, she struggles to make a moral and meaningful choice.

In a compellingly direct mode that straddles the forms of the novel and the essay, Motherhood raises radical and essential questions about womanhood, parenthood, and how - and for…


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Book cover of Tidelands: Ghosts and Monsters

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What is this book about?

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