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Pope Francis holds a weekly general audience at the Paul VI Audience Hall, at the Vatican, on Jan. 12.VATICAN MEDIA/Reuters

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Zosia Bielski is a reporter at The Globe and Mail.

Those of us who choose not to have children often find ourselves thrust in the spotlight involuntarily.

The spotlight grew bright in the first days of the new year, when Pope Francis criticized opting out of parenthood as “a form of selfishness” during a Vatican address.

The Pope cautioned vaguely about the risks of not having kids. He warned about a fast-approaching “demographic winter” – a reference to declining birth rates in developed countries where women have reproductive rights. Next in the Pope’s crosshairs were people who have pets and not children, which “diminishes us, takes away our humanity.” The remarks echoed the Pope’s 2014 complaints about childless pet owners signalling “cultural degradation.”

The ill-informed commentary would provoke much anger from women, obviously the Pope’s intended target. Then, the usual squabbling between parents and nonparents about who is selfish and who is selfless – as if they are monolithic groups. The Pope’s dissing of pets was especially lampooned: Not only did the pontiff fail to live up to his namesake, the animal-loving Francis of Assisi, he overlooked that nuclear families dote on their cats and dogs too, and are more human for it.

As a reporter who covers large-scale shifts in family structures, I felt the Pope’s trolling and the public’s knee-jerk reaction were a distraction from deeper issues at hand. In the days following the blow-up, I asked three top thinkers to reflect on the Pope’s motivations, why this messaging persists and how baby pressure hurts parents and nonparents alike.

“In so many ways, these talking points are reinforced to us: You must have children to be a full human; you’re not a real woman if you don’t have children; you’ll never know what love is; you will die old and lonely. You have to step back and say, what is this all about?” said filmmaker Therese Shechter, whose new documentary My So-Called Selfish Life is an engrossing deep dive into the child-free choice.

“The Pope’s argument is thin and nonsensical and yet keeps being churned out because it speaks to something fundamental that we grow up with,” said Shechter, referring to criticism routinely aimed at childless women that they are incomplete, immature and self-absorbed. “An attack on our humanity, our womanhood and our generosity is effective, unfortunately.”

Bella DePaulo, author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, broke down the hostility.

“People derogate those who don’t have children because the issue isn’t just any random belief but an ideology in which many people are deeply invested. It is a way of thinking that insists that the proper way to live … is to have children,” DePaulo said. “People … who chose not to have kids are defying that ideology. If they are also enjoying their life, then the threat to the ideology is even stronger.”

That ideology has a name: “Pronatalism is a set of pervasive social beliefs, assumptions and forces across different cultures that pressure people, especially women, into having children,” explained Nandita Bajaj, who launched a new online graduate course on the topic at Antioch University New England.

It goes beyond family members who want children and grandchildren in order to uphold tradition or maintain a genealogical legacy. Institutions also exert baby pressure: Politicians and growth-based economists want more taxpayers, big business wants more consumers and religious leaders – the Pope included – want more adherents, argued Bajaj, Toronto-based executive director of Population Balance. The non-profit organization focuses on the ways unsustainable human overpopulation and overconsumption have lead to ecological destruction, creating an “unprecedented life” for young and future children compared to older generations.

Interpersonally, the large-scale pressures to have children are confusing and damaging for people making the most important decision of their lives, Bajaj said.

“There are so many people who say, ‘I did not know I had a choice,’” Shechter observed. “To bring a new human into the world is such a profound thing to do – the disruption of it all, even if you want children, the way it affects women’s health, ambitions and lives so thoroughly.”

The smartest critics of the Pope argued that societies progress when they allow people a say in the direction of their lives.

“The fact that after fighting for personal and reproductive liberation for centuries, women in some countries are finally able to break free from their prescribed biological and gender roles and authentically exercise their right to have no or fewer children is something to be celebrated,” Bajaj said. “It’s a hallmark of a liberated society. It’s neither a loss of humanity nor selfish.”

Ultimately, having a choice in the matter of parenthood means greater financial stability for women, deeper investment in children and a higher standard of living for families, Bajaj argued.

“Given the Pope’s stature, he needs to start elevating discussions on the needs and well-being of children. The real well-being of children, not just having them for the sake of having them.”

What else we’re thinking about:

The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s haunting film adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel, stood out to many women for its atypical portrayal of motherhood. Leda (played by Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley at different stages of her life) is not a saint or a monster but an “unnatural mother” who leaves her young daughters for three years as she pursues an academic career and her sexual impulses. Women’s writing on The Lost Daughter has been as nuanced and revealing as the film. Leda “epitomizes a type of woman whose needs are rarely addressed in American mainstream movies,” writes The New York Times’ Jeannette Catsoulis. The mother is “a person who can embrace and resent the job of caretaker in equal measure,” writes The Atlantic’s Shirley Li. (“It’s a dangerous thing to ask, to relate to this person,” Gyllenhaal told Li of her protagonist.) Vulture’s Alison Willmore captures Leda’s “maternal ambivalence” as “so mundane and at the same time so taboo, that when the characters recognize what they’ve been through in someone else, their instinct is to lash out rather than commiserate.”

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