For many, parenthood is one of life's greatest joys, but now, some are giving birth to a different way of thinking about kids. In "Two is Enough: A Couple's Guide to Living Childless by Choice," author Laura S. Scott explores why some forgo the experience. An excerpt.
IntroductionSo why did you get married if you didn’t want kids?” asked the new dad, the husband of one of my friends.
Huh? “Love . . . companionship,” I blurted.
His question startled me, rendering me uncharacteristically short of words. I had just spent a year doing research in preparation for what I hoped would be a book and documentary on the childless by choice, but nothing I had read prepared me for this question. He cocked his head and waited for more, his curiosity genuine.
In that moment, I recognized just how strange I must have seemed to him. Here was a person who could not imagine a life without kids trying to understand a person who could not imagine a life with kids. I was struggling to find the words to explain why someone would choose a childless marriage, and “love” and “companionship” were all I could come up with. It was the most honest answer I could give, but it clearly did not satisfy him, leaving me with the very distinct feeling that the underlying question was “Is love enough?”
Before I could elaborate, his wife called us to dinner, which she had thoughtfully scheduled between breastfeedings, and we went on to other topics like film and writing, pursuits we all shared. After I left their home that evening, I began thinking of all the other questions that had gone unasked and unanswered:
- Is love enough to sustain a successful union, or are we instinctually or otherwise compelled or obligated to have kids?
- What motivates someone to forgo the experience of parenthood?
- Can couples really find fulfillment and happiness without children?
I could understand why parents might have difficulty wrapping their brains around intentional childlessness. It was strange, even to me. Here I was, a healthy, happily married woman, surrounded by parents and parents-to-be, yet I had never felt a pang of longing for a child. I enjoy spending time with kids and I understand the appeal of children, but I’ve never wanted one for myself.
Like many of the decisions we make in life, my decision to remain childless was motivated in part by fear—fear of regret. I was afraid to take the risk that I might be a bitter, unhappy, or regretful mom. Given my disinterest in the role of parent, this was a real possibility—particularly when I started hearing from parents who felt compelled to speak out, saying things like “You’re lucky not to have kids. They will break your heart.”
In my mid-thirties, as I became increasingly comfortable identifying myself as childless by choice, I started hearing comments like these from parents who felt equally comfortable in the presence of a childfree person to share some of their personal turmoil about parenthood. At first I was shocked, since some of the people who were sharing with me were women and men I knew who had raised “good” children, who were seemingly happy and capable parents. Soon, I became accustomed to being pulled into corners, lowered voices imploring, “Please don’t share this with anyone. . . . ”
I came away from those hushed confessions feeling like I was privy to the best-kept secret in the world: A surprising number of outwardly happy parents have misgivings or regrets about parenthood. At first I felt justified in my choice to remain childless, but mostly I felt sad, especially for those men and women who told me they’d never imagined they had the choice not to be a parent. I was left to wonder if these feelings came from their difficult experiences as parents, or if they were regretful because they didn’t feel they’d had a choice in the matter.
On the other side of the spectrum, I had many encounters with parents who endorsed parenthood enthusiastically, usually in response to my confession that I was devoid of any maternal feelings. They told me I would change my mind, that “it’s different when they’re yours.” They credited their children with bringing joy and wonder to their lives, and they seemed frustrated or sad about my childfree status because clearly, I didn’t get it. I was “missing out” on a whole dimension of experience, the lack of which would leave me less than whole.
Being alternately envied and pitied was bewildering for me. So was the realization that some people believed I had remained childless because I was selfish, immature, lazy, materialistic, or a kid hater—none of which was good, all of which was at odds with how I perceived myself. This disparity between how I was perceived and how I actually felt forced me to question my own ideas about myself and my life. Was I a freak? A slacker? Was I developmentally disabled—in some kind of arrested state, like Peter Pan? Did I have an obligation to procreate?
The assumptions people often make about the voluntarily childless troubled me because they didn’t come close to capturing my complex motives. I was not motivated to remain childless because I didn’t like kids or because I wanted to spend my money on cars and diamonds instead of cribs and diapers. I was motivated to be childfree because there was so much about my life that I enjoyed and so much that I still wanted to do, experiences that I felt I would have to delay or forgo if I had children. I remained childless because I valued my freedom to do the things I thought I could do well and happily, things I had dreamed of doing all my life.
The fact that parenthood was conspicuously absent from my “ten things to do before I die” list spoke volumes. I had no desire, no longing, to have a child to call my own. Rocking a child to sleep or breastfeeding an infant held no appeal for me, and on the few occasions when I did hold an infant in my arms, I felt awkward and inept. I had decided that Mom was not a role I was well suited for, much the same way I’d determined I would never be a mathematician or a veterinarian.
I had spent very little time pondering my childless status until I found Madelyn Cain’s book The Childless Revolution at my local Barnes & Noble, which led to a defining moment. Among stories of women who were childless by “choice, chance, or happenstance,” I found myself reflected in a small subsection of the choice group Cain had labeled “positively childfree.”
It was then, at age forty-three, in the sixteenth year of my intentionally childless marriage, that I realized I was “childfree” and was likely to remain so, given that my egg inventory had reached its “use by” date.
The suggestion that I was part of a defined subset of childless people inspired me to read all I could find on being childfree by choice. Books and articles on the subject were hard to track down, however. Most were dated or out of print, or focused exclusively on the woman’s point of view, based on the assumption that motherhood is instinctual and fatherhood is learned. An anomaly in our pronatalist culture, the childless by choice had periodically come under the scrutiny of writers and social scientists, but few had invited the childfree to speak for themselves, outside of the limitations of tabloid sensationalism, academic or scientific inquiry, or the presumption of “deviance.”
I realized that someone needed to extend this invitation: to survey the childfree to see if our realities matched the assumptions, and to identify the most compelling motives to remain childless. I also wanted to explore, through interviews, the decision-making processes of childfree couples. And, because I understood that many of us were wary of being judged or analyzed by those who couldn’t imagine a life without kids, I decided the person to do this work needed to be intentionally childfree, too.
I embarked on what I came to call the Childless by Choice Project. It was the beginning of a four-year journey of discovery that would ultimately include a literature review, a survey, in-depth video and audio interviews with childfree couples, advocates, demographers, and social scientists throughout North America, and, eventually, this book, and a documentary that’s being developed as I write this book.
Before I began researching the Childless by Choice Project, I knew very little about the motives and rationales behind people’s choice to remain childless. I also had very little exposure to those who had made this choice.
There were lots of reasons why I didn’t want to have children: I was content as a childless person; I valued the time, freedom, and independence I had to pursue my passions; and I loved my childfree marriage and our peaceful and quiet household. But I wondered: Am I alone in this? Why do other people make the choice to remain childless? Is it really a conscious decision, or does it just happen?
These were some of the questions that fueled my research for the Childless by Choice Project. I had two primary objectives for my research and the survey: to determine the most compelling motives to remain childfree, and to better understand the decision-making process of the childless by choice. I suspected their reasons were as complex and varied as my own, beyond the scope of what is too often characterized as simply a “lifestyle choice.”
I decided that if I was going to learn anything about this decision making, I would have to survey people who had actually made a choice—who believed they could have had children but had made the decision not to. By focusing the bulk of my inquiries on people who remained childless due to choices they had made, I figured I’d be able to illuminate the decision-making process by concentrating on issues related to personal motivations and preferences, rather than circumstance.
For the purposes of this project, the childless by choice were defined as those who are voluntarily childless, whether they make the decision at age fourteen or age forty. I decided not to include women who had, intentionally or otherwise, postponed childbearing until they were beyond the age at which they could conceivably procreate, even with fertility treatments, and were left to resign themselves to living with the fact that they’d never have children, as they did not actively choose this scenario. I did include some women, however, who had postponed conception or couldn’t conceive and felt they had come to terms with the idea of being childless. These women had consciously chosen to remain childless over other viable options that may have led to their having a child. As you will see in Chapter 5, there are women who have tried to have a child and then later decided to stop trying, choosing instead to embrace a childfree life with their partner.
To gather the necessary data, I designed a questionnaire that would feature eighteen motive statements (which are detailed extensively in Chapter 4) and some open-ended and multiple-choice questions relating to motives and decision making. I arrived at these motive statements by first identifying the reasons for remaining childless that were cited most frequently in the literature I had read. I then turned these reasons into motive statements and invited my survey participants to rate them on a scale of 0 to 5, to indicate the degree to which they did or did not identify with the statement (see Appendix B for the questionnaire used in this survey).
I recruited two childless by choice sociologists to assist me in getting the language just right and making sure we had the most common motives covered. I also enlisted Jerry Steinberg, the self-described “founding non-father” of No Kidding!, an international social club for the childfree, to help me find participants. He put me in touch with club leaders in North America, who helped spread the word. I used word of mouth as much as possible, asking friends and acquaintances if they knew of anyone who was childless by choice. These efforts, along with some publicity generated by a newspaper feature article on the Childless by Choice Project, netted 171 qualified, self-identified, voluntarily childless survey respondents ranging in age from twenty-two to sixty-six, 71 percent of whom were female and 29 percent of whom were male.
Since I am a writer, not a statistician, I also recruited statistician and educator Dr. Charles Houston of University Consultants. He helped me analyze the data and, to my relief, reassured me that although my sampling of respondents was not large enough to be representative of the childless by choice, I did have enough respondents for a qualitative survey and enough quality data to do a statistical analysis. This was good news to me because I wanted my research to yield data that was scientifically sound and could be used confidently by others for the purposes of future research, books, articles, and studies on the childless by choice.
As Dr. Houston and I would find upon completing our analysis of the survey data, the Childless by Choice Project participants were compelled to remain childfree based on a combination of motives. Almost all of them identified strongly with at least three of the eighteen motive statements. We also found that when it came to the most compelling motives, men and women were in agreement (see Chapter 4 and Appendix A for more on our findings on gender). The survey data also allowed us to analyze the most compelling motives by age and by decision-making category.
Our analysis yielded some extremely valuable information, resulting in findings that would provide much of the foundation for this work. However, I feared that the statistical analysis of the data generated by the questionnaires alone was not going to be enough to illustrate the complexity and nuances of the decision-making process of the voluntarily childless. Therefore, I supplemented the survey with twenty-eight in-depth interviews with childfree by choice couples and partners. Many highlights from those interviews are included in the chapters that follow. Over two years, I traveled to ten states and two Canadian provinces to do audio and video interviews with people in childfree partnerships. I asked them to elaborate on their motives, decision-making process, lifestyle, and the pros and cons of a childfree partnership. These interviews with couples were important to me because, from the outset of the project, I felt it was necessary to include men and get their perspective. After all, they are (in many cases) the other half of the decision-making process. Their choices and ideals play an equally valid and important role in establishing the demographic that is the childfree. Many of the published works on the childless by choice have been written for and about women. Those that are tend to focus on the gender-identity aspect of childlessness, asking some variation of the question “How does a woman define herself outside of motherhood?” Within that narrow scope, the influence of the male partner in decision making is often overlooked. In an attempt to avoid that trap, I made it my goal to direct at least 40 percent of my interview questions to the male member of the partnership. I was happy to discover that the men had a lot to say.
These interviews allowed me to flesh out the statistics and identify some of the challenges people face in the course of making this choice. And through these conversations, I came to understand that making this choice is often just one stage in the process. I found people who had moved beyond the assumption of parenthood, who were forging identities in a culture that still holds parenthood as the ideal, and were navigating a pathway that is increasingly acknowledged but not yet fully understood or accepted.
To date, no one has ever conducted a random, large-scale survey of the childless by choice in North America. Most of the surveys on voluntary childlessness, including mine, are described as qualitative rather than quantitative, utilizing self-selected participants (mostly women) in samples too small in number to be representative.
What sets my survey apart from others is the attention given to the decision-making process and the motives and influences that drive that process. Some of the most interesting and valuable information is the qualitative stuff—responses to open-ended questions, which typically resist statistical analysis. The survey was important to me not because it allowed me to break down the childless by choice rationale into a series of percentages or numbers, but because it gave me access to diverse voices and rationales, and the insight I needed to confidently communicate and accurately present the childless by choice perspective.It is my hope that my efforts will inform or inspire additional exploration and research into the voluntarily childless demographic. As you can imagine, much work remains to be done.
The Caveat Much of what I have learned through the Childless by Choice Project has been organic, a continuous spiral of questioning, filtering the information through the soil of my own experience and assumptions, and then standing back. I became like a fox on a scent trail, tracking back and forth, going over new ground and old, alternately in the mindset of the hunter and the hunted. Other times, I was simply the amused and delighted observer.
All of these perspectives are offered here. By virtue of my own status and because of the nature of my interactions with the men and women I interviewed, it is impossible for me to present what I have learned in a dispassionate or scientific way. I am childless by choice, and I came to this project with all the biases and the baggage we bring to any journey. I can speak only for myself and for those who volunteered to share their experience as participants in the Childless by Choice Project. However, I suspect that any readers who’ve ever toyed with the idea of not having children will see their own motives and complex feelings reflected in my participants’ responses.
In addition to my deliberate information gathering, my journey included diversionary trips to Philadelphia for a No Kidding! convention, to Maryland to participate in a hang-gliding event with one of the No Kidding! social clubs, and to a “free coffee in exchange for advice” event in Calgary, Alberta, where we invited parents and the public to help a couple with their decision about whether to have kids.
Had I been a desk-bound academic or a scientist with a prestigious grant, I might never have taken the opportunity to experience these events or have been offered the privilege of meeting childfree couples in their homes and in pursuit of their pleasures.
The childless by choice are everywhere: They are your teachers, your neighbors, your colleagues, your sons, and your daughters. Although the majority of the people I interviewed one-on-one were Caucasian, people of very diverse backgrounds are represented in the survey.
This book was not conceptualized to be the definitive work on the childless by choice. The childfree by choice have yet to be counted in North America—there are no lobbyists working on our behalf, no powerful political organization, no talking points. Trying to identify the childfree by choice as some sort of homogenous group, based on who we are and what we value, is a bit like nailing Jell-O to a wall. If I leave you with as many questions as answers, trust me, that’s intentional.
For many of you, this book will be your first exploration of voluntary childlessness. You may be a parent, a student, a teacher, or childfree yourself. Regardless of who you are or how you came to be reading this book, our common ground is curiosity. We have questions, and these questions open avenues for exploration, and exploration leads to discovery. For the Childless by Choice Project, my agenda was exploration; discovery was the destination. Conclusions, if there can be any, will be left to you.
Two Is Enough is written from the perspective of a small but growing minority of the North American population. I, like most of the people I have interviewed, have no agenda to convert anyone to a childfree life. Nor do I offer my story and others’ stories as a cautionary tale, meant to dissuade anyone from considering a life without kids.
When I say “a life without kids,” I mean a life without a parental or guardianship responsibility for children. Dr. Carolyn Ray uses the term “ward-free,” which can be a useful synonym for “childless by choice” or “childfree,” given that some of the childfree are actually not free of children at all. Quite a few of the childless by choice welcome children into their lives by being mentors, teachers, volunteers, advocates, stepparents to grown children, or aunts or uncles. Some admit to needing a regular “kid fix,” while others try to avoid children as much as possible.
The voluntarily childless population is a diverse group, and it’s for this reason that I use the terms “childfree,” “childfree by choice,” “childless by choice,” and “voluntarily or intentionally childless” interchangeably. “Childfree” is currently the nom du jour. However, our pronatalist society does not always know how to interpret this term, and there is the risk that “childfree” could imply motives that may not apply to all who have adopted it as a way to communicate their well-being. (See “Childless or Childfree?” on page 18 for my perspective on this.)
I do not endorse one term over another, because my intention is not to encourage a political or social movement, or to define the childfree in North America. My intention is simply to tell a story that is rarely told, to give voice to those who are rarely heard. It’s my hope that this book finds its way into the hands of those people who want and need these stories, and for whom this information is timely or instructive. My hope is that in moving beyond the assumption of parenthood, this book might serve as a compass and a guide for those navigating in a world that has yet to construct pathways for all of us who remain childless by choice, or by circumstance.
Chapter 1: Who are the Childless by Choice?
Miss Vickers was one of my favorite teachers at Lakeport High School. In a school on the southern shore of Lake Ontario known more for its drugs and athletics than for its academics, Miss Vickers stood out. She looked like a nun without the habit—birdlike and intense, but always smiling. She was my English teacher, a grammar Nazi who was determined to prepare us all for a college education, even though she knew that many of us would end up at the A&P supermarket or the General Motors plant instead.
I liked Miss Vickers because she liked us; she was one of a handful of teachers who would volunteer to stay after school and help with the drama club and other extracurricular activities. I have a photo of her playing a villain in one of the student productions. Since she clearly enjoyed working with us kids, I often wondered why she didn’t have any of her own.
Until I started the Childless by Choice Project, I had no idea how many people like Miss Vickers were out there. As it turns out, there are a lot. In 2002, a whopping 44 percent of women between the ages of fifteen and forty-four were childless in the United States; in the forty-to-forty-four age group, 18 percent remained childless. Same thing in Canada: 18 percent of forty-to-forty-four-year-olds remained childless in 2001.
Back in high school, it didn’t matter to me if Miss Vickers was childless by choice or by circumstance. The result was the same—a life without biological children. In the absence of any openly childfree role models, she showed me that it was possible to be childless and happy. That revelation was timely, too, as the idea of a childfree life was something I was just beginning to entertain.
Back in the ’70s, in St. Catharines, Ontario, a predominantly working-class city historically populated with immigrants and their kids, a single, childless, thirtysomething woman was pretty rare. If there were any childfree by choice people in my neighborhood, they blended in seamlessly with the rest of the childless folks. No one ever spoke about someone’s actively opting not to have a child.
So who are the childless by choice? Are they really any different from the rest of the population? Sociologist Dr. Kristin Park, in an analysis of her own and previous studies, found that in comparison with the general population, the voluntarily childless are “more educated, more likely to have been employed in professional and managerial occupations, more likely to have both spouses earning relatively high incomes, more likely to live in urban areas, less religious, less traditional in gender role orientations, and less conventional.”
After years of working on the Childless by Choice Project, I have found this to be mostly true, with the exception of “more likely to have both spouses earning relatively high incomes.” Although I did not seek income-range data as part of my survey, plenty of the couples I interviewed had different income levels, and many earned what is best described as a living wage.
Park’s findings that the voluntarily childless are more likely to be “more educated” and “less religious, less traditional in gender role orientations, and less conventional” were also true in my findings. It makes sense. After all, people who are more religious, more conventional, and more likely to gravitate toward traditional gender roles are probably also more likely to adopt traditional family models.
The conventional family model of Mom, Dad, and two-plus kids is the default in populations with little exposure to other viable models, exposure that might come from travel, education (formal or informal), or the introduction of nontraditional role models or new and appealing ideas and ideals. In 1998, U.S. census reports showed that 30 percent of childless couples were college graduates, compared with 17 percent of couples who had children. Consistently, researchers find that the more education a woman has, the greater the probability that she will not have children.
In 2002, it seemed every North American media outlet was quoting Sylvia Ann Hewlett, mother of five and author of Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children. Hewlett had surveyed 1,658 high-achieving women and found that about 40 percent were still childless at age forty-five. According to Hewlett, a “crisis of childlessness” exists among the professional ranks of American women.
Creating a Life sounded alarm bells. The message: Don’t delay—have a kid now, or you’ll be sorry! The resulting media spin made it sound as if a life without children was not a life worth living.
Hewlett’s book focused primarily on childless females who wanted children but had postponed childbearing because of career demands or lack of opportunity. But those women represented only one slice of the childless pie. In fact, 14 percent of the high-achieving women Hewlett surveyed had determined by the time they were in college that they would remain childless by choice. These women were the classic voluntarily childfree “early articulators.” Yet none of these happily childfree women were profiled in the book.
At the same time that the press was reviewing Creating a Life, I was beginning my own literature review. I found out that there are in fact four categories for the childless, ways in which people come to remain childless through their choice, actions, or intent:
- “Early articulators” are those who make the decision to remain childless early in their lives.
- “Postponers” are those who delayed having a family and remain childless.
- “Acquiescers” are those who make the decision to remain childless primarily because their partner wants to be childfree.
- “Undecided” are those who are still in the decision-making process.
Many of the women featured in Hewlett’s book would fall under the category of postponers, but within that category, Hewlett’s subjects were limited to women who expressed some regret about the choices they had made—or didn’t make.
What Hewlett’s work exposed, though, was not just these women’s feelings of regret around childlessness, but their regret around the lack of options available to them, options limited by the harsh realities of biology, economics, workplace policies, time, money, and the availability of suitable partners. And though these challenges are universal, the women featured in Hewlett’s book were, by and large, middle- to upper-class working women, women who are better off than most North American women, many of whom do not have the luxury to choose from what Duke University fertility expert Dr. S. Philip Morgan calls “competing opportunities”: fulfilling, full-time work or other pursuits that might be as appealing as or more so than full-time child rearing. What Hewlett’s work did was propagate the assumption that childlessness leads to regret, asserting that those high-achieving women who feel compelled to forgo motherhood amounted to a “crisis of childlessness.”
In contrast, the women I interviewed who identified as childless by choice expressed very few regrets. Only 41 percent of them strongly identified with the statement “My lifestyle/career is incompatible with parenthood” (indicated by a 4 or 5 rating on a scale of 0–5). Compare that with the 75 percent of women I surveyed who were strongly motivated to remain childfree because they “have no desire to have a child, no maternal/paternal instinct.”
Clearly, this is a different slice of pie than the one Hewlett wrote about. When a person has no desire to have a child, the choice to remain childless seems natural and true to oneself—some would even say it’s a no-brainer. Seventy-nine percent of the men and women who identified as early articulators in my survey strongly identified with the statement “I have no desire to have a child, no maternal/paternal instinct.” Yet the majority of the people I interviewed recounted a decision-making process that required a considerable amount of thought, time, discussion, or introspection, often made more problematic by the fact that their families and their communities expected them to have children. Then there were those who considered themselves “hardwired” not to have kids and couldn’t imagine another way of being.
Among the childfree by choice are people in our population whom society does not expect to have kids: singles, gays and lesbians, and infertile couples. Childfree by choice is as much a way of thinking as it is a way of being. Early in this project, I met a happily childless lesbian who complained about the intense pressure she and her partner faced from peers who thought they should have kids. She reminded me that same-sex couples and the unmarried are making this choice, too.
Because of their diverse natures and sensibilities, the childfree resist stereotypes. In general, I agree with Park’s characterization of the childfree as more likely to be college-educated, less religious, and less tradition bound in their gender roles. Beyond that, I don’t know that I can make any other generalizations about the childless by choice in North America, based on my survey and interviews.
Childless or childfree?
What do we call people who don’t have kids? Are they childless or childfree? It depends. Let’s take a moment to clarify the nomenclature pertaining to childlessness.
Those who prefer to identify themselves as childfree point out—rightly—that the word “childless” implies an absence, a void, or “less-ness.” “Childfree” seems to them like a more positive term, and it makes the distinction between the childless by circumstance and the childless by choice.
The difference between the two is mostly self-definition. If you are without children because you made that choice, then you might consider yourself childfree or childfree by choice. If you are without a child because of circumstance, rather than choice, you might describe yourself more accurately as childless.
I say “might” because I have had the pleasure of meeting couples who wanted children, struggled through infertility, and came to describe themselves as childfree. I also know people who are happily without children and prefer to describe themselves as childless by choice—including me. The reason I have chosen to describe myself as such is that “childfree” can imply judgment: that what you are free of is bad for you, based on our common usage of the terms “sugar-free” or “smoke-free.” Most of us remove the hyphen from “child-free” in an attempt to neutralize that association. It’s a useful trick when writing about the childfree, but it’s useless in conversation.
I think we need to acknowledge that in a pronatalist society, “childfree” can be a loaded term. It can imply more than we intend, inviting people to ascribe motives—such as dislike of children—that may not apply to people who are using the term as a way to communicate their well-being. “Childfree” also implies a type of lifestyle that may not accurately reflect the lives of some of the childless by choice I have interviewed: teachers, childcare workers, and those who choose to welcome other people’s kids into their lives.
“Childfree” is likely the most politically correct term in common usage at the time of this printing; however, it has yet to be widely adopted by those who are without children by choice. For this reason, I will refrain from endorsing any one specific term and invite you instead to choose the one you feel most comfortable using.
How Many of Us Are There?
We have yet to accurately quantify the voluntarily childless in North America, because the majority of our studies and surveys do not distinguish between the childless by choice and the childless by circumstance; or if they do, they narrowly define the childless by choice as those who have voiced their intent to remain childless in their teens or early adulthood. This ignores the fact that many of the intentionally childless are individuals who may once have anticipated parenthood, but who later made the decision to remain childfree in their thirties and forties—whether because they postponed conception or because of their choice of lifestyle, or a number of other factors.
The limited definitions of the childless by choice used in most studies make it difficult to get an accurate count. Many studies are conducted under the assumption that men and women will decide whether or not to have kids during the time of high fertility. But increasingly we are not doing that, because we are postponing parenthood. In 1970, the average age at which American women gave birth was twenty-one.5 Now, on average, an American woman gives birth to her first child at age twenty-five, a Canadian woman at agetwenty-nine.
Some surveys have also presumed that eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds can accurately predict how many children they will have. But often they do not. As Dr. Morgan told me during an interview at Duke University, “In the contemporary United States, people have slightly fewer children than they say they intend [to] at a relatively young age. The normative answer is two,” said Dr. Morgan. “It’s going to be one boy and one girl—that’s how people picture their future, so that’s the very common answer for that group of people.”
However, our circumstances and perceptions change over time. As I have heard in interviews, a woman who perceives her childlessness as undesirable at twenty-eight years old might celebrate her “childfreedom” ten years later. It’s tough to count the childless by choice in North America because they are a constantly shifting demographic. We do know that in the United States, the number of women who describe themselves as voluntarily childless increased from 2.4 percent in 1982 to 6.6 percent in 1995 (the most recent figure, according to the National Center for Health Statistics). In Canada, a 2001 Statistics Canada survey revealed that 7 percent of women and 8 percent of men from ages twenty to thirty-four intend to stay childless.
The Changing Face of the Childless by Choice
Will the childless by choice population continue to grow? Ask a young adult you know. In the United States, childlessness among women aged forty to forty-four has doubled, from 10 percent in 1976 to 20 percent in 2006. Whether this trend will continue remains to be seen. Gen Xers and Yers are the wild cards because they’re facing a whole new array of choices, particularly where the definition of family is concerned. Will it be two parent, single parent, same sex, unmarried, blended, or childfree?
The bulk of today’s eighteen- to twenty-five-year-old single nonparents, today’s generation of emerging adults, have yet to seriously contemplate marriage or having kids. Many of them are still in school, dependent on their parents for financial assistance, or still living in the family home. Parenthood may not be on their radar, and even if it is, their ideas may change as they grow into full-blown adults.
A 2004 Time magazine poll found that only 61 percent of Americans aged eighteen to twenty-nine described themselves as “an adult”; 22 percent believing that “moving out of a parent’s home” makes you an adult, and another 22 percent felt that “having your first child” does.
Yet this demographic is challenging the assumption that children are an essential component of marriage (and by that measure, I would dare to say adulthood as well). Of those aged twenty to twenty-nine, only 20 percent agreed that the main purpose of marriage is having children.
For those young couples who do opt to have children, they will, on average, have fewer kids than their parents and grandparents. The reasons for this decline vary from increased education and workforce participation to more effective birth control, higher divorce rates, economic uncertainty, and the fact that women are increasingly postponing marriage and childbirth.
The current generation of young women is more likely than any previous generation to delay marriage and child rearing beyond age twenty-five. Most experts agree that peak fertility in women is between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, so these women are delaying marriage beyond their most fertile ages. In contrast, their mothers, on average, were married by their twenty-second birthday.
Almost all demographers see a direct relationship between postponement of marriage and parenthood and declining birthrates, but continue to debate whether this is a temporary phenomenon or a trend toward long-term sub-replacement fertility.11 In my interview with Dr. Morgan, he acknowledged that the “fertility window is shrinking” and total births often fall short of intentions, and attributes this fact to postponement and other factors. All demographers agree that the trend to postpone parenthood shrinks the fertility window for women, increasing the likelihood that they will have fewer children than they may have intended or expected previously.
Financial considerations are also a factor. In Time magazine’s poll of young adults, 66 percent of college graduates surveyed were more than $10,000 in debt when they graduated. Canadians typically don’t have as much school debt, but they still feel pressure to delay marriage and kids due to financial instability, which is attributed to debt and a more competitive job market.
“Postponement is the major story in contemporary fertility,” according to Dr. Morgan. “Sometimes postponement leads to unanticipated childlessness—not by choice. The alternative is that, as you postpone childbearing, something fills the gap; there are experiences that a person has during those years when they don’t have children that can compete with childbearing—that is, they can develop careers or leisure interests that they see childbearing would compete with. And that, for them, raises the cost of having children, and may tip the balance in favor of either continual postponement or not having children at all.”
Dr. Morgan reiterated what I had heard from my postponer couples and singles: During the time when we remain childless, paid and volunteer work, responsibilities, and leisure interests “fill the gap” to the extent that there is no discernable void. We also tend to do things sequentially, based on priority, necessity, or tradition: We go to school, we get a job, we find a partner, and we have kids. Or not. We do these things anticipating a reward or some value—a paycheck, a sense of accomplishment or well-being, happiness or security. In today’s world, we are increasingly making our choices from a menu of competing opportunities—and responsibilities.
The Freedom of Choice
I don’t know what Miss Vickers’s menu looked like, but I suspect, given her single status, her past-her-prime-fertility age, and the time in which she lived, her choices might have been more limited than mine. I did have the means and the opportunity to have children. I was married at age twenty-six, during a time when working mothers were common. When Miss Vickers was teaching in the 1970s, intentional single moms were rare and certainly not encouraged or supported, so even if she wanted children, I doubt she would have gone that route. Instead she had us, her students, at least one of whom is extremely grateful she provided a role model for something different.
Had Miss Vickers married, she may still have remained childless by choice or by circumstance, free to go beyond the call of duty and spend extra hours with her students; free to create a family of affinity, rather than blood; free to be the self-sustaining, happily employed person she appeared to be, outside of our traditional idea of family.
A 2000 Current Population Survey indicated that thirty million married couples in the United States do not have children. That total includes empty-nesters along with childless couples, but it represents a growing demographic: couples who are currently living a childfree life. By 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that married couples with children will account for only 20 percent of households.
The conventional family is a declining demographic. Marriage itself has become optional for many of us. The intentional single parent is now welcome at most sperm banks and adoptionagencies. Single-parent families are the fastest-growing segment of our population. Same-sex families who can now choose to adopt or conceive though donors and surrogates are on therise, too.
So why is it that when we think of families, we still think of Mom and Dad and the 2.5 kids? Because it remains our cultural ideal. And we cling to it like a baby does to his blankie.