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Child-free by choice: Why many women are intentionally opting out of parenthood

"Choosing 'child-free' does not equate to a dislike for children."
Baby boy yawning while sleeping in crib by window at hospital
Cavan Images / Getty Images stock
/ Source: TODAY

Not sure about motherhood? You aren’t alone.

Author and activist Rachel Cargle didn’t always realize that she would want to lead a child-free lifestyle. In fact, the Brooklyn-based writer told TODAY Parents that the decision to choose a life without kids wasn’t something she ever really considered growing up.

“I was, very much so, intent on checking the boxes of job, marriage, kids, and so I can't say that I would fit in the ‘I've always known’ category,” the 32-year-old said. “I was under the impression that motherhood was a requisite of my womanhood, and so my desire to be a mother was auto-piloted based on that. It took a lot of honest observation and considerate introspection to both come to the decision and to be able to vocalize it.”

Cargle is among a growing number of women who are choosing not to have children, with many saying they prefer the term "child-free" to "childless" because it fits their feelings about motherhood more accurately.

Their decisions are part of a larger trend: In 2018, the number of babies born in the U.S. fell to the lowest level in 32 years, and the rate has been declining steadily ever since.

Dr. Shannon Curry, a clinical psychologist and director of the Curry Psychology Group in Orange County, California, told TODAY that the social pressure on women to get married and have children is immense.

“The universal narrative tends to be that if you don’t have children you will miss out on the full life experience,” she said.

Curry added that common myths about women without children involve the idea that a woman inevitably will regret a life without children, that not raising children will lead to less happiness, meaning and/or fulfillment in life, that not raising children results in greater selfishness, and that it leads to more hardship in old age due to the unavailability of adult children to provide care.

“In actuality, there is no evidence to support any of these beliefs, as pervasive as they are,” she said.

Author Rachel Cargle says she feels happy and confident about her decision to be "child-free."Courtesy of Matt Sayles

Cargle, who established The Loveland Foundation in 2018 to help give Black women and girls access to therapy sessions and other mental health support, said she worked for much of her adult life as a nanny, in many cases living in the home with the family.

“That provided a particularly immersive lens into the experience of parenthood,” Cargle said, adding the children ranged in age from newborn to 16 years old. “I started to pay really close attention to (the) things I loved about engaging with caring for children.”

She said she came to realize that, more often than not, what she loved about the experience was material — like picking out outfits for ballet, for instance — and she began asking herself if those experiences outweighed the more intensive parts of parenting. Cargle’s honest introspection led her to the decision.

“At some point it was clear that my propensity toward being a mother had diminished,” Cargle said. “The emotional effort of raising a human in a world like the one we're living in — especially knowing I'd be giving birth to a child who would live in Black skin. The financial investment. The reduction in my access to solitude and opportunity for spontaneity. When I really began getting introspective and honest about how I would prefer to exist in the world, parenthood became less and less of a match.”

Curry explained that women worry they might be “missing something” in their reasoning and they’re destined to wake up one day with profound regret, mourning the traditional family life they never had.

“Motherhood has been culturally constructed to be the ‘natural path’ toward happiness and fulfillment, and central to womanhood,” she said. “This causes women who choose not to have children to experience significant anxiety and mistrust of their own values and preferences.”

The psychologist said the effects of such pressure can be significant.

“These fears arise out of a pervasive cultural narrative that women have been taught throughout their lives, throughout generations,” Curry said. “The narrative devalues women’s capacity for reason, their self-knowledge, their diverse interests and talents, and their ability for happiness.”

Emily Dux, a 36-year-old program manager in Salt Lake City, told TODAY Parents that she and her husband discussed living child-free early on in their relationship.

"We both still love kids and have a desire to make a lasting impact on young people's lives," said Emily Dux, pictured here with her husband and their two dogs.Courtesy Emily Dux

“Decisions become a lot easier when you know what the bigger picture looks like,” she said, adding that a big part of their mutual decision not to have children was recognizing and understanding that everything in life involves prioritization and trade-offs.

“We both still love kids and have a desire to make a lasting impact on young people's lives,” Dux said. “Frankly, I think we're well suited to mentor and teach kids as we've allowed ourselves to be fully formed adults, committed to personal growth and living the life we're dreaming about.”

Curry said the primary factors for women who choose to be child-free are having a higher education, living in an urban area, being committed to their careers, being less religious and being less adherent to traditional gender roles.

According to Pew Research Center’s social research on childlessness, 7% of women who lack a high school diploma are childless. This figure nearly doubles to 13% for those who graduated from high school or have some college experience. Among women with a bachelor’s degree or more, about 20% are childless.

Despite social stigmas, Cargle, who fosters a community of nearly 2 million on Instagram, has been open about her choices.

“I really love to engage people around the reality that choosing 'child-free' does not equate to a dislike for children,” she shared. “It's simply a lifestyle choice. While parenting children is not our desire, child-free people very often love being a part of the community that helps to raise, celebrate and support them. It's a role and opportunity that I and many others take deep joy and value in.”

Cargle even has a preferred title for like-minded women and has created an online space to celebrate their choice.

“I often use the phrase ‘Rich Auntie Supreme’ to describe those of us who are indulgent in the lives of the children around us even though we choose not to have our own,” she said.

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