Your Own Harriet

The tremendous power of life choice representation

This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing

When I was a kid, growing up in a town of around 30,000 in Northern Idaho, one of my parents’ friends was different than the rest. Her name was Harriet, and her defining feature — at least to me, in that moment — was that she didn’t have kids.

Harriet was married, but I don’t have many, if any, memories of her then-husband, who she later divorced. What I remember was Harriet: tall, angular, her sandy blonde hair cut in a way that approximated the Monkees, tan in that freckled, haphazard way of people who spend a lot of time working outside. She was originally from Wyoming, and had that soft lilt you’ll still find with people born and raised in the rural West. She wrote a weekly gardening column for the local paper, which meant that every Wednesday I opened up the ‘Close to Home’ section just to look for her familiar face.

Most of my childhood memories of adults are snapshots and flashes, and my snapshot of Harriet is that she was always happy and rarely doing the things that other women were doing. While other women in my parents’ friend group were rounding up children and making sandwiches and drinking a Coors Light while we were out on the river, she was just drinking a Coors Light out on the river. She never wore dresses, never spent time on make-up. Everyone else I knew went to church. Harriet didn’t. And because she didn’t have children to distract me when we visited her house, I spent time staring at it: it was filled with light, covered in pine, uncluttered by toys.

One time, later in life, she showed me her latest garden project, which was hollowing out small areas of the evergreens in her backyard, nooks where she could just stand or sit or be and observe. I’m sure some people in my town thought she was weird, and I probably did too. But in a place where there were so few acceptable ways to be a woman, she modeled something different, vibrant, and fulfilled.

Years later, I found out that Harriet had been that person in a lot of girls’ lives in my hometown — girls whose families weren’t part of my parents’ circle, but knew Harriet through other things. It wasn’t that she stuck out, though she did do that. She was more like a beacon. Not a warning, but a celebration.

I like kids. The primary reason I don’t have them is because our society is incredibly hostile to mothers and working mothers in particular — a fact that many blind themselves to out of necessity until they find themselves in that position. The other reason is that I am also very happy without kids. I understand this is not true for all people without kids, but it is true for me. I don’t grieve a lost chance at motherhood. I grieve that our society still pretends that it loves mothers, or even loves children, when all indicators suggest that it merely fetishizes “parenting.”

Because I like kids, I also like to talk to them. I like to play, I like to goof around, I like puzzles and card games and sticker coloring books and perler bead design, which is how I spent this past Saturday afternoon. Kids are often fascinated with my dogs, especially with Peggy, who has three legs, and one of my friend’s kids (Kate, age 7) loves them so much that she regularly plays “Peggy and Steve” with her little brother. This past week, Kate asked to go on a walk with them, which, yes, of course.

At the end of the walk, I let the dogs up into the backseat of the car, which is their general provenance. Kate thought it was amazing, because her very nice lab has to be in the far back — the backseat is filled with car seats.

“When I grow up, I want to be like you,” she told me. “No kids, two dogs, and lets the dogs in the backseat of the car.”

I laughed in the moment, but the comment has stuck with me. It was incredibly meaningful to me that I could be that person in Kate’s life — that I was, at least in this moment, her Harriet. I tweeted about it, and so many people shared with stories of their own Harriets, or being Harriets themselves:

But there were lots of women — on Twitter and on Facebook — who also told me how much they wished they would’ve had that sort of representation in their own lives. For them, women who didn’t have kids (or, even worse, didn’t have partners) were always objects of scorn — framed by their own mothers and others in their life as failures whose lives were in continual collapse.

I was reminded of this framing earlier this week, in a piece on Minnesota’s famed “Root Beer Lady” Dorothy Molter, who lived by herself at a fish camp in the Boundary Waters, 30 miles from the nearest town. A nurse by training, she very much lived there by choice, and provided emergency first aid care to canoers and brewed root beer, often with the help of friends who’d come to visit for long periods of time. In the winters, she’d sometimes go stay with family in Chicago, but she loved being alone, in the cabin, most of all. She vowed she’d only marry a man if he could “portage heavier loads, chop more wood, or catch more fish.”

Molter, who loved to greet visitors in the summer, was often called a hermit. A Saturday Evening Post feature declared her “the loneliest woman in the world.” There was no way to publicly conceptualize her life as fulfilled, even with the obvious magnetism of her life. When you equate a lack of kids with “failure,” it helps solidify the societal understanding that the only way for a woman to “succeed,” or at the very least find happiness, is to have children. That conception is slightly less rigid today, but it endures — and if you think otherwise, you haven’t had a frank conversation with a woman who doesn’t have kids.

That conception endures in part because the patriarchy endures, but it also endures because there’s a general lack of exposure to people like Harriet or the Root Beer Lady. So many people said that women they knew without kids were Aunts or Great-Aunts — people who were part of their life through familial relation. When it comes to friends, people with kids have just generally gravitated towards other people with kids. I get it: the schedules, the frameworks, the rhythms of the day, all of it’s easier when everyone has kids. But there’s something missing there, too.

As one woman put it, “I have a friend whose kids were always questioning me: Where is your husband? Where is your boyfriend? They were very up to speed on gay couples and are very loving to all people. But my friend admitted she missed something: teaching it was ok and great and normal to be on your own.”

Again, I do think that this is changing, however slowly. The U.S. fertility rate is declining for many reasons, but one of them is absolutely the visibility and viability of choice. My friends who grew up in or are raising their kids in largely queer communities have been surrounded with so many representations of what adulthood and relationships and parenting can look like, but predominantly cis-het communities have been far slower. I had a Harriet in my life. My friends’ kids have a Me. But I think kids’ lives should be overflowing, truly abundant, with celebrated life choice representation.

Maybe this is terrifying! Maybe you’re scared your kid is going to end up alone! And maybe you’re actually imprinting that fear on your own kids right now! You might want grandkids so badly that you don’t want them to even consider those other choices. But there’s something far, far worse than not having grandkids, and that’s watching the shame, sadness, and despair that foments when a certain way of being feels compulsory or unavoidable.

As another commenter put it, “Representation is so important. For years I have felt pitied and small and less important than others for not wanting to be married or have kids.” And another: “The only family friends living that kind of childless life were deeply lonely women whose husbands had died decades before they did. It was one of my deepest fears, especially once my divorce began, that I would end up as miserably lonely as they seemed to be. Years of therapy work later, I'm trying to embrace whoever I end up as, whether that's the single kickass professional aunt or the single foster mother.”

Some people want kids and can’t have them. Some people never wanted kids and had them because they didn’t realize there was another way to live their lives. Some people don’t have kids because they didn’t want to but are nonetheless terrified that they’ll have no one to care for them in old age. You can exchange “partner” for “kids” in any of those sentences and the sentiment holds. We’ve somehow managed to create a societal scenario where the most desirable iteration of the status quo (partnered, with children) is incredibly difficult, the variations on that status quo (single, with children) are even more difficult, and the aberrations from that status quo (partnered with no children, single with no children) are “easier” in many meaningful ways, but accompanied by constant societal friction.

It doesn’t have to be this way. But transforming into a society that actually values all sorts of life choices will take more than just making sure your kid has a Harriet in their life. Representation matters, but policy that makes other choices viable matters more. That means: policies, programs, and safety nets that make it easier to be a single parent, that don’t pretend that most homes have someone who can stay home full-time, or that schools hours are the same as working hours, and that make it possible to age with dignity and without fear, even if you don’t have children to care for you. It means conceiving of more collaborative ideas of family and community and care, and hanging out with people who aren’t related to you, in the same exact life stage as you, or have made the same exact life choices as you.

There are just so many ways to make life easier for each other: to make the road feel more welcoming, the on and off ramps more viable, the journey less terrifying. But they require a more expansive and endlessly iterative understanding of the look, the feel — even just the basic arrangement — of happiness.

If you have a Harriet, or even just someone who’s modeled a way of living that challenges or subverts the status quo, I’d love to hear about them, too. Comments are open below.

If you read this newsletter and value it, consider going to the paid version. From here on out, the weekly “Things I Read and Loved,” including the “Just Trust Me,” only go out to Paid Subscribers.

Subscriber Perks = weirdly fun/interesting/generative discussion threads, just for subscribers, every week, plus Sidechannel, where there’s dedicated space for the discussion of this piece.

If you are a contingent worker or un- or under-employed, just email and I’ll give you a free subscription, no questions asked. If you’d like to underwrite one of those subscriptions, you can donate one here.

If you’re reading this in your inbox, you can find a shareable version online here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here — and you can always reach me at