American fertility rates continue to be at record lows as women increasingly opt out of bearing children. However, that doesn’t mean the social pressure to have a family has declined at the same rate. Savvy Psychologist explores the main reasons behind the choice to be childfree, plus 5 tips for how to come to your own decision.
Today, we are talking about childlessness - the conscious decision made by women to forego having children. To be clear, I am not talking about women who have dealt or are dealing with infertility, but rather about women who view the prospect of motherhood as a choice rather than a predetermined milestone. When we dig into the reasons why this is happening, we see there have been many shifts since American fertility rates were at their peak in the 1950s.
The shift toward increasing childlessness reflects a variety of social trends; these include, but are not limited to, access to contraception and abortion, women’s increased opportunity for education and focus on career growth, and changing attitudes toward mothering. Generally speaking, in my practice as a psychologist, I have seen attitudes toward mothering operate on a continuum. There are women with strong motherhood attitudes, those with strong childfree attitudes, and those somewhere in the middle, who are open to the concept as long as certain contingencies are in place (e.g. stable relationships or financial security).
In this episode we will focus specifically on straight, cisgender women who make the choice not to have children. Research on men and LGBTQ+ individuals' parenting decisions is more scarce. For heterosexual men, it has been noted that some reasons given included loss of freedom and importance of other life goals. While higher levels of education in women is associated with making the choice to be childfree, it was found that men with lower education levels were more likely to make this choice. In general, those who have chosen to be childfree tend to be more politically liberal, less religious, and value independence more highly. In terms of the LGBTQ+ community, please keep in mind that they face additional barriers to being parents. For instance, adoption, finding a surrogate, or donor, and discrimination. Therefore, they may not have freely made the choice to be without children.
That said, here are four reasons why women are choosing to be childless:
Reason #1: Safer sex and access to abortions
Let’s start with access to contraception and abortions. I'm not trying to draw any lines in the sand here...wait, yes, I am! Myself and anyone associated with my practice is pro-choice. We believe fundamentally that all women should have the freedom to decide if and when they become mothers. There is no universal right answer for anyone, and I help people explore this topic from a non-judgmental position every day. Having access to contraception and to abortions allows women to take control of their sexuality. Removal of these rights can force the hand of the woman and, when given the choice, some women are choosing an embarrassing conversation with their pharmacist over motherhood.
Reason #2: Social attitudes and priority shifts
Education, career goals, expenses, and lack of stable partnership also have an impact on delayed fertility and intentional childlessness. We know that women, on the whole, are having children later in life in pursuit of other goals. Secondarily, couples are getting married later and divorce rates are higher. These trends are not limited to the U.S. In a 2018 National Fertility Survey of 14,446 women in Spain, it was found that over 26% of women over age 35 who didn't have children had delayed childbearing because they lacked a stable relationship. Nearly 18% didn't reproduce for work-related reasons and reconciling family and work-life balance. Finally, over 10% of respondents noted economic reasons for delaying motherhood. It’s no small matter for many, as raising a child in the U.S. costs over a quarter of a million dollars on average.
The CDC found that birth rates in the U.S. have declined in nearly all age groups under 35, but rose for women in their early 40s. A possible explanation for this is that many women are holding out to make sure child-rearing fundamentally makes sense for them from a practical standpoint. Historically, we've seen motherhood to be synonymous with womanhood. What we are seeing now is that all over the world, women are seeing it as an important life decision that deserves to be deliberately considered and not tacitly accepted.
Reason #3: The perceived state of the world
A reason I hear quite often from all genders who are considering whether or not to have children is the state of our planet. Many have voiced fears over various political and social situations in the world, as well as climate change, as reasons to not bring children into the world. In fact, studies have suggested an individual choice to have fewer children is one we could take toward helping the planet.
Reason #4: I don't want to
Finally, and not to be discounted, some people simply do not want to have kids, and it doesn’t go much deeper than that. They enjoy having a sense of freedom. A common myth is that they hate children, but that’s typically not the case. Instead it is simply not a way of life that matches who they are or what they want to get out of their existence. For many, this is not an easy decision to make because it involves walking away from social norms. They were likely raised on the ideals that motherhood was the inevitable beginning and end of their identities, not to mention the choice to not have children is often met with significant backlash.
In fact, some people feel morally outraged by a woman’s choice to not have children. We live in a world where a social war can break out over who should’ve won this season of The Bachelor. Can you imagine what it’s like for someone who has defied what many think is a required social practice? Furthermore, there is the myth that women will be happier if they have children. A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Sociology looked at families in 22 countries, and found that having children makes people significantly less happy compared to people who don’t have kids.
This phenomenon has been called the “Parenting Happiness Gap” by researchers. Despite others constantly telling women that their “biological clock will start ticking,” or that they will regret it one day, that isn’t how it plays out for women who have engaged in the self-reflection necessary to make this life-making and life-changing decision.
How to decide for yourself
So, how to decide if you should have children or not? This is a highly personal question and I wouldn’t dare dilute the gravity of the situation to a 15 minute episode, but I'll give a few tips for how to come to your personal truth:
Tip #1: Be curious
Explore the question with a curious mindset. Pretend as though no one has ever given you an opinion one way or another. If you were to look into a future where your decision could be met without societal shaming, what would feel most true for you? For some of us, this answer will be crystal clear, while for others the waters are murkier.
Tip #2: Use science to your advantage
The great thing is that science has given us more options, and many more women, like many of my patients, are choosing to freeze their eggs so they can either have time to answer this question or wait for the timing to be more ideal (e.g. finish school, find a mate). This could be a viable option if you don’t have religious or other reasons for abstaining from this practice.
Tip #3: Do a trial run
Do a few trial runs to see what parenting is like realistically. Offer to care for a family or friend's children. Then imagine if your babysitting time didn't have an end point. If it was your everyday reality. Do you find yourself filled with the warm glow of maternal bliss after a few hours? Or do you have an inescapable thought of "I want to run!"?
Tip 4: Define what parenting looks like for you
Recognize that there are multiple ways that parenting or caregiving to children can be a part of your life. You could lead the classic fantasy of a husband with two kids and a dog, make the decision at 45 to go at it alone and adopt, or take that quarter mil and travel the world while being the best Auntie on the planet. There are no right or wrong answers; only what feels right to you.
Tip #5: Ignore the haters
Depending on what you decide, you may face some harsh criticism. It is important to not turn external criticism into internal doubts. Just because others don’t like what you’re doing, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the wrong choice. This is why I encourage deep processing when making this decision. Read books, talk to people with a wide range of attitudes about having a family, and reflect on your internal responses to the information as it comes in through your senses.
Having an unbiased person like a therapist can be helpful in this work. Be prepared to address others' concerns when you feel the need to. Many of my patients have chosen to have serious conversations with their parents, who were pushing for grandparent status, and it’s not always easy. The most important thing to know about your reasons for making these decisions is that they are yours!
If you feel comfortable doing so, let me know your reasons for choosing to be childfree or not, visit me on Instagram @kindmindpsych, via my email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a voicemail at (929) 256-2191.