Dolly Parton: ‘Since I had no kids… I had freedom, I was free to work’

2019 MusiCares Person Of The Year Honoring Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton recently turned 75. It feels like we’ve been getting a lot of Dolly-themed retrospectives over the past year, but I don’t think it’s just about the big milestone birthday. I think Dolly has just been open to looking back on her decades-long career in film and music and she’s always looking to stay relevant with the next generation. That’s probably why she’s signed up for the Netflix deal a few years ago, and why she’s been more open lately. I mean, Dolly is a national/international treasure. Surely, she’s one of the few people everyone can agree on: Dolly is the best. Well, Dolly decided to sit down with Oprah for AppleTV’s The Oprah Conversation, which is just one long-form interview. They discussed being childfree and plastic surgery and a lot of other stuff:

Her freedom without kids: “Since I had no kids, and my husband was pretty independent, I had freedom. So I think a big part of my whole success is the fact that I was free to work. I didn’t have children because I believed that God didn’t mean for me to have kids so everybody’s kids could be mine, so I could do things like Imagination Library because if I hadn’t had the freedom to work, I wouldn’t have done all the things I’ve done. I wouldn’t be in a position to do all of the things I’m doing now.”

Whether she believes there were more sacrifices than rewards in her career: “I’ve made sacrifices, but I think, like I said, I believe what I know I’m supposed to do.”

Her approach to aging. “I don’t think about my life in terms of numbers. First of all, I ain’t never gonna be old because I ain’t got time to be old. I can’t stop long enough to grow old,” she shared with a laugh. Parton went on to say that she’s going to be “the best I can be at whatever age. I bet you I won’t look much different when I’m 95, if I live that long, because I’m like the Gabor sisters. I’m gonna look like a cartoon. I’ll have on the makeup. I’ll look as young as my plastic surgeons will allow me and [with] all the makeup and lighting and all that. But I think more than anything, it’s about what comes from inside you. It’s an attitude, and you gotta shine from within. Sometimes, that can make you feel young and make you seem young to other people.”

[From People]

It’s interesting to me that Oprah would ask Dolly about being childfree, since Oprah is also childfree. Two of (arguably) the most famous, powerful and beloved women in the world, and both of them chose not to be mothers. I always wondered if Dolly always knew that she wouldn’t have kids though – I mean, consider her generation, consider the pressure to have a certain kind of life and branding within country music and all of that. She must have gotten the “are you going to have kids” questions for years and years.

As for all of the plastic surgery talk… Dolly gets away with so much because she’ll always be the first person to admit it, to talk about what she’s gotten done and now the plastic surgery is part of her brand too.

2019 MusiCares Person Of The Year Honoring Dolly Parton

Photos courtesy of Avalon Red.

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47 Responses to “Dolly Parton: ‘Since I had no kids… I had freedom, I was free to work’”

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  1. KTate says:

    She is absolutely correct! Especially about the independent husband part. I wish I had one of those…

    • escondista says:

      She’s wrong about having no kids though – she has almost 2 million kids through her Imagination Library. My two girls are Dolly’s and we all love her and her books.

      • La says:

        Agreed Escondista! My daughter gets so excited when a book arrives and always talks about how “Dolly Parton gave me this book”. The Imagination Library is so awesome and they select really cute books for it.

  2. nana says:

    I had read that Dolly did try for kids but because of endometriosis they were unable to have any.

    • Chaine says:

      I’m not sure about whether she tried, but she had a hysterectomy in her 30s so she didn’t have the option after that.

      • nana says:

        I think it was a piece in the guardian? she framed it pretty much like she did here but I could be wrong

      • EliseM says:

        Nana, I do believe you are correct saying she wanted children but had medical issues. I have seen that in several articles over the years. Plus, she says ” GOD didn’t mean for me to have kids” not, I chose not too. As forthcoming as she is, I believe she would have used the word “chose’ if that were the case.

      • Anu says:

        I too remember she said in an interview she would have loved to have kids of their own but it shouldn’t be. Why I don’t remember.

        I am from Switzerland and adore Dolly very much <3

    • krissy says:

      I watched an interview with Dolly many years ago and she did say she wanted children but was unable to have them due to medical reasons. She then went on to say the same thing she told Oprah – that God had other plans for her.

      Love Dolly!

    • Robin says:

      Yes, it was a really good interview in the The Guardian, not too long ago.

  3. Ann says:

    She is 1 of 11 children. That would be enough incentive for me.

    • Pusspants says:

      I second that! I’m one of 13 kids and never wanted any of my own. When your model for motherhood is always tired, never has privacy or solitude and doesn’t have the time to do anything for herself, it makes motherhood seem less appealing.

    • liz says:

      My recollection is that she also raised a few of her nieces & nephews. She may not have had children of her own, but she has a very close-knit family.

  4. Renee says:

    She is so honest which is what I love most about her. She doesn’t use the Hollywood line of “oh I just get tons of sleep and eat right to keep this tight face” *eyeroll. She owns it and I love it!

  5. Mac says:

    Dolly is truly a national treasure.

  6. wendywoo says:

    As someone who’s just a hysterectomy at 39 for the same reason, also childless, learning that Dolly Parton got through it and found the upside has just helped me immensely. She gets more extraordinary every day.

    • Dazed and Confused says:

      @wendywoo – I had a hysterectomy at 39 for crippling endometriosis as well. If you just had yours, I remember my emotions being all over the place for quite a while. It’s a big change, but going from having about 1/2 of each month in crippling pain or the hysterectomy – I’m glad I did it.

      I’m also child-free. I’ve never really had a drive to have children, probably due to all of the pain I’d been in for so long. Perhaps on some sort of subconscious level, I just knew it wasn’t in the cards for me. As someone who doesn’t have the money and power of Oprah or Dolly, I can agree the freedom is truly amazing. As are the savings.

      Wishing you quick healing.

      • Shelly says:

        Same here! Way too many uterine related issues to have them, but never felt a real sense of loss about it and really enjoy the freedom. I don’t think people who truly long for children can understand it, so it’s always nice to hear from others who do.

  7. Jo73c says:

    I admire and respect hugely that she’s not apologetic about anything. Dolly chose her career, and has always put 100% into everything she does, plus finds time to give back. She’ll have as much surgery, wear whatever wigs & make-up she damn well pleases and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks about it.
    Dolly is who she is and she owns it. And we love her for it.

  8. Anita says:

    As someone who does not have kids, I much appreciate the positive outlook of life without them. It’s refreshing. Good for those who have them, and good for those who don’t.

    • Indywom says:

      I agree. If you don’t want children, don’t have them. If you do, it is okay.

    • Laura says:

      Same. I would love to live in a world that when I say I’m 37 & happily childless, someone doesn’t immediately go “oh…. how sad” It’s not sad! I’ve chosen not to have kids and my life does not suffer for it. I love my partner and my life and would not change it.

      Thank you Dolly. 💖💖

      • Miranda says:

        Or if they don’t say “how sad,” it’s “oh, you’ll change your mind”. So condescending. Most childfree people I know, including myself*, will say they realized at an early age that they didn’t want kids. They’ve put a lot of thought into it, and decided it wasn’t for them. It’s almost like telling your gay son, “oh, you’re just going through a phase”.

        *I always intended to be childfree, but happened to fall in love with a guy who had a daughter. No complaints, though!

      • Maxime duCamp says:

        I’m childfree mostly by choice but also because I never met anyone that I wanted to settle down with and I didn’t have the $ or frankly a strong enough desire to have kids on my own. I’m fine with how things turned out and I’m lucky that for whatever reason no one in my family was big on having kids, mostly for economic reasons, so I didn’t get too much of the “how sad” comments. But man those comments gall me on other people’s behalf. The people making these comments have no idea why someone doesn’t have children and whether it’s a painful topic. Obviously, the fact that it’s no one’s business should be the only one necessary but it’s not.

    • lucy2 says:

      I agree. I am child-free, and there are a lot of positives about it, especially right now. It’s nice to see someone in her position talking about that.
      And I also think you can have kids and still achieve a lot of success and power.

  9. TaraBest says:

    I believe she did try to have children at one point, but was unsuccessful. She chose to stop pursuing having her “own” children and focus on her nieces/nephews and then ALL the children. She’s been a huge inspiration to me since I first visited an aunt and uncle in Nashville as a child and they drove me by her house. The older I get and the more I learn about her the more inspiring she becomes!

  10. OriginalLala says:

    I’m happily childfree and it’s nice to see positive role models who are also childfree living their best lives, not giving a fluff about society’s bullshit expectations! Go Dolly!

  11. Mina_Esq says:

    I was free too work is such an American thing to say :) It’s like when we can’t wait for the weekend so we can catch up on work. I love Dolly so much.

  12. KinChicago says:

    I adore her.
    There was a magazine that wanted to feature her without makeup and she sent a letter (I paraphrase): Miss Dolly Parton is not a natural beauty nor does she want to be known as one.

    I love her. She is talented, refreshing, funny and a inspiration!

  13. Rose says:

    I mean…it’s true. There’s only so much energy and effort and mental bandwidth available in a day. My husband is a director for a large arts program in a public school; his assistants (all male) all wanted to be the head at some point but family obligations mean you have go pick which gets put on the back burner. The directors with kids, of which there are few, openly admit they don’t see their spouses or kids at all around football/the competitive seasons. Someone is going to have to lose out.

    • Margot says:

      It’s nice to hear this. I am a SAHM of 3 young kids and it seems like there is this pressure to work on a side hustle and figure out ways to make bank, but also be there for all the appointments and also be a tutor, nurse, child psychologist, in-house caterer, cleaner, landscaper, etc. I take my role seriously and I just don’t have the bandwidth to come up with that side hustle right now.

      Dolly is so awesome.

  14. ennie says:

    I love that she is childfree, but at the same time so caring.

  15. Miranda says:

    I practically worship Dolly Parton, and have done so ever since I was a little girl. I’ve played guitar since I was about 5, which was somewhat unusual (music was really emphasized at my school, and virtually everyone took private lessons as well, but most of my classmates were taking piano or violin), so my dad made sure I was exposed to as many female singer/songwriters as possible. Dolly was hands-down my favorite, because besides being a talented musician, she always beats you to the punch and makes fun of herself before someone else can get a joke in. I was kinda bullied in school for being weird, outspoken, and a bit of a loner, but used the Dolly Method to deal with it, and actually made more friends that way (that is, being a smartass) than I would’ve if I tried to change myself to meet my bullies’ approval.

    Also, I’m glad Dolly’s charitable work is getting more attention. She just has the biggest heart in the world. Funding the vaccine is saving countless lives, of course, and the Imagination Library is such an amazing program that she should go down in history for that alone. In college, my sorority partnered with an organization to help immigrant kids (in our case, mostly from West Africa) settle into American life. I stayed involved even after I graduated, and was constantly referring parents to that program. Books are obviously integral to learning English, but for the most part, they were a luxury that these hard-working families couldn’t afford. Enter Imagination Library. Those books also helped the parents, who could practice their own English by reading aloud with their kids. Perhaps more importantly, it also showed them that people truly did care about them and welcomed them. That was a pretty big deal for immigrants in Trump’s America who came from so-called “shithole” countries.

    (Sorry this post is so long. Like I said, I WORSHIP this woman!)

    • dawnchild says:

      Thanks for putting down all these wonderful things about Dolly Parton. She’s also very gifted with her music, and from I understand, freely shares that with other musicians as well. I get the feeling she’s a deeply spiritual person.
      As for being childfree, I can truly say (as the parent of a biological child) that having children is just another access ramp to love. Does that mean they have to be yours, or that everybody with a kid takes that ramp? Absolutely not. Does it even have to be children to get that access to love? No. As long as we have the ability to give and receive love we can create a community based on love around us. And if we cannot, it’s mere transaction based on projections and fears and norms.

  16. Triscuit says:

    Dolly is a cool lady. The question about being child free, I don’t think men are asked that question in interviews. It is a double standard because I can’t recall any man being asked that but several women who were asked about being child free/having children.

    • Katie says:

      yeah, this is so true! didn’t notice this before. and now that I think about it, I know parental status of about 95% of female celebrities that I am aware of and at most 50% of male

  17. Veronica S. says:

    I wish more people would come out and bluntly say that – children are a burden. They are lovable and worth nurturing, but they are absolutely a calculated risk you take that severely limits your freedom and opportunity. The amount of flexibility I have in socioeconomic situations compared to my friends with children is outrageous, and I wish more people would be honest with themselves before they have them about what the sacrifice will be. Women, in particular, need to be honest about how reproductive access is essential to our freedom because children have very much been a shackle and chain by which patriarchal cultures have controlled us.

    Dolly is a really cool lady. Brilliant musician and entrepreneur, honestly. She cultivates an image that she knows makes people underestimate her, but she’s got a career spanning decades and a lot accomplished in her seventy-five years that puts most of us to shame.

  18. candy says:

    Dolly is known to have infertility, at least that’s what I’ve heard from my different support groups. I really love her for being so open about this.

  19. Sue Denim says:

    Love her too, and she’s so funny. Two of my fav jokes — calling her breasts “weapons of mass distraction” and when asked how long it takes to do her hair, “I don’t know, I’m never there.” And recently her support of vaccines, financially and w her new song “Vaccine” to the tune of Jolene. She’s a treasure!

    • Sue Denim says:

      And also great that she can help reframe the conversation for women w no children, her perspective def resonated for me…

  20. missbliss says:

    Thank you to ALL of you amazing women and to Dolly for sharing your childfree experiences. As a 40y/o childfree woman I am saddened by the narrow minded judgements that the most valuable thing I can do with my life is breed!! I am happy for those who have kids I get that they are a joy but it was never for me. I know I was put here to help a lot of ppl and there are only 24hrs in a day. I believe I can help a lot more ppl and love a tonne of kids who need extra support which I would not be able to do if I had kids of my own. My best friends understand but I have always felt alone in this interpretation of life’s responsibilities. Society is so narrow minded!! Thank you to ALL of you and especially to Dolly for being such amazing role models and doing life on your terms. I can’t tell you how good it feels to realise that I’m not alone in these feelings/choices.

  21. gaitanalyst says:

    Since I had no job I had freedom … I was free to raise kids.

  22. Alex Schuster says:

    Not having human kids it is the most freeing experience and I am glad I made that choice. I knew that I had nothing to contribute to a human child because of my unresolved past childhood traumas as much as you try to change your past some of those hurtful teachings will become your present behaviors even escalating to new heights. You don’t know what you dont know. I am speaking for myself and I have a deep admiration for the one’s who take that leap by bringing up successful and whole in life productive members of society.

  23. Skyblue121 says:

    Also happily child free. I’m the oldest of five and remember telling my dad when I was sixteen that I was never going to have children. He said I’d change my mind. Ha! Never wavered, not once. I love that I don’t have to negotiate or compromise anything in my life. I also felt that the five of us were a huge source of stress, both mentally and financially. That said, my nieces, nephews and friends children are a treasured part of my life.

    • Anna says:

      Same. I always knew from a young age I would never have children and it was largely because I never wanted to bring anyone into the world who might possibly go through what I and my siblings went through. There just was so little joy. Like, why bother? But I love my nibblings and dote on them including the ones who are not related by family but are the little ones of my friends. But I only have patience for them, no other kids! lol I am so happy to have my time to myself and to be able to pursue what I want without any obligations including to pets. Just some plants that do alright on their own if I have to be away (not an issue in pandemic) and are scrappy like me. ;) People have told me, too, that “oh you’ll want them one day” and I’ve always known better. I have enough to deal with as a Black woman in this world, and the way things are going, I’m so relieved I didn’t bring children into this world. It breaks my heart to address what we’re going through with the nibblings, and I would be beside myself if it were my own children. I teach so I have 80+ new students every semester with many expectations of emotional labor. It’s too much. And in 2021, I’m wondering why I feel like I need to justify being childless…guess those ideas get deeply ingrained…

  24. Juno says:

    I think this is the one and only person that everyone in the entire worlds likes.