Childless by choice: The Reasons and the Reactions

While parenthood can be one of the most rewarding experiences in life, it may not be the ideal choice for everyone. Read on to find out why.

By Aruna Raghuram

Childless by choice: The Reasons and the Reactions

Why is a parenting platform talking about those who choose to remain childfree? For those who are wondering this, our answer is: While parenthood can be one of the most rewarding experiences in life, it is something that should be entered into voluntarily, not out of social compulsions. When it comes to the life of a child, there can be no compromises...

There was a sudden hush in the room. Aarti and Rohit had just told their close friends that they did not want to have children. “But why?” wailed Meera, a contented, if rather frazzled, mother of two young children. Rohit explained in a calm voice: “Both of us are busy with our careers. We also want to retain the freedom to pursue our interests – to read and travel, which we love doing. A child would change all that.”
Meera’s husband Sunil chimed in: “What about Aarti? Does she feel the same way?” “Yes. I do. I don’t feel a strong maternal urge. I really enjoy my job. I would not like to give it up for anything in the world. I am quite happy the way I am,” replied Aarti with a smile. “You’ll regret it Aarti. Some day you will wish you had had a child. I know it can be exhausting and stressful, but there is nothing like being a mother for a woman,” said Meera. “Or, being a father for a man, for that matter,” she added.

Not having children – either by choice or by circumstance – is no longer as unusual as it once was. However, it is still not an accepted choice. While couples who are childless by circumstance are commiserated with, couples who are childless by choice are looked at askance and disapproved of. They receive a variety of negative responses from confusion, to condescension, to condemnation. Why are such men and women judged harshly by others, including parents? Isn’t it time society broadened its outlook to accommodate all kinds of choices?
Birth rates around the world are going down and one of the reasons cited is the increasing trend among couples to forgo parenthood. According to a 2019 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 43% of Americans view having children as very important, a drop from 59% two decades ago.
Who are the people who choose to remain childless? In a research paper, sociologist Dr. Kristin Park described the profile of such couples. In comparison with the general population, the voluntarily childless are: more educated; more likely to be employed in professional and managerial occupations with both spouses earning high incomes; more likely to live in urban areas; less religious; less traditional in gender role orientations; and less conventional in general, she observed.

THE REASONS BEHIND THE CHOICE
Why do couples choose not to have children? The reasons are complex and varied. Here are a few common statements by men and women that shed some light on these reasons:
Men:

  • I love having time to myself
  • I am worried I will make a horrible father
  • I don’t want to be a bad father like my own
  • My wife and I want to accomplish something in life. Children hold you back

Women:

  • I am scared of the pregnancy experience
  • Babies and children just make me very uncomfortable. I can’t relate to them
  • I would be resentful about the way my life would change with a child
  • I want a child-free life. After a lot of soul-searching, I have come to believe that I am not selfish in wanting this

Absence of parental urge: Some women and men may not have the urge to become a parent. Laura Scott is the founder of the Childless by Choice Project and author of Two is Enough: A Couple's Guide to Living Childless by Choice. The project involved 171 voluntarily childless respondents, both men and women in US and Canada. Her findings were interesting. Only 41% of the respondents strongly identified with the statement: “My lifestyle/career is incompatible with parenthood”. In comparison, 75% of women were strongly motivated to remain child-free because they “had no desire to have a child, no maternal instinct.”

Value for freedom: Couples may just be happy as a twosome, pursuing a carefree lifestyle by travelling, having spontaneous dates, and so on. For instance, Laura Scott said she had remained childless because she valued her freedom and wanted to do the things that she had dreamt of doing all her life.

Rise of individualism: People may not be mentally prepared to shift focus from themselves as individuals to a child. Some may see this as self-centred. But it is usually a choice made after much reflection by two adults and points to a general rise in individualistic values. According to research published in Psychological Science in 2017, individualism is on the rise not just in Western countries but across the world.

The DINK phenomenon: DINKs (Double Income No Kids) couples like Aarti and Rohit in the example above, may just not be ready to give up or sacrifice their ambitions and interests. And, having a child would mean giving up something, including a significant part of their disposable incomes.

Job compulsions: Men with high-pressure jobs may feel they will not be able to give sufficient time or attention to a child. Women may hesitate to have a child as it may mean quitting their job and taking a few years’ break. They might be worried about not getting a good enough job when they do return.

Feminist ideology: Part of empowering women is giving them the autonomy to make decisions about their bodies, especially whether they want to be mothers or not.

Financial reasons: Having and rearing a child is a big financial responsibility. Not all couples are financially secure enough to plan for a child.

Fear of responsibility: Parenting is a lot of work, and entails sleep deprivation and stress. It requires commitment and the ability to love and care for another (dependent) individual consistently. Not everybody is ready to be responsible for another life for years to come.

Self-doubt: Some men and women may have doubts about their parenting abilities. They may feel they don’t have the patience or maturity required to be good parents.

Relationship doubts: Some couples may decide not to have a child because they are uncertain about the stability of their relationship.

A bad childhood: If a man or women has had an unhappy childhood as a result of parental strife or neglect (or some other reason), they may prefer to remain childless. They may not want to repeat the patterns their parents were caught up in.

Environmental reasons: There is a growing belief that having a child may be bad for the planet as a growing population adds to the burden on speedily depleting resources. Film-maker Maxine Trump’s 2018 documentary To Kid or Not to Kid investigates why women choose not to have children. According to her, 20% of women are making this choice, and climate change and an inability to find a suitable partner are top reasons for this decision. 

Childless by choice: The Reasons and the Reactions

WHY NEGATIVE REACTIONS?
The decision by couples not to have children is a personal one. Yet, it is usually met with disapproval and even outrage. Parents may feel that such couples are leading incomplete and unhappy lives.
Moral outrage: A study published in the journal Sex Roles in 2017 revealed that parenthood is thought of as a moral imperative. It observed that the cultural prescription to have children persists and voluntarily childless people were perceived as significantly less well-adjusted and leading less-fulfilling lives than those with children. The decision to forgo parenthood, arguably an individual’s most personal choice, evokes moral outrage – anger, disgust, and disapproval, says the study.
Women are probably judged more harshly than men. Traditional gender roles and what researchers call the ‘myths of motherhood’ (the idea that a woman’s true purpose can be found only in motherhood) ensure this.

Understanding and supporting all types of families can lead to positive outcomes for parents, non-parents, and children alike.
- Dr Amy Blackstone, sociologist and author

A belief in ‘natalism’: Natalism promotes child-bearing and parenthood as desirable for social reasons and to ensure the continuance of humanity. Then, there are those who subscribe to the view that the very rationale of marriage is having children and that the purpose of sex is procreation.
Dr Amy Blackstone, sociologist and author of Childfree by Choice: The Movement Redefining Family and Creating a New Age of Independence argues in her book that motherhood is a choice, rather than a duty, destiny, or an instinct.

Religious beliefs: Most religions place a high value on children and their central place in a marriage. Children are seen as ‘gifts of God’. Those who are very religious may perceive it as wrong to reject the potential gifts.

Negative stereotypes: Couples who are childless by choice are perceived to be lonelier, more materialistic, and even as people who disliked children. Women who don’t want children may be seen to be selfish, immature, irresponsible or lazy.
A study published in the Journal of Family Issues in 2015 revealed that women who had no plans to have children were rated as being significantly less caring, warm, and nurturing than mothers or women who were childless by circumstance. Similarly, fathers were seen as being warmer and kinder than men who did not want to have children. Both childless men and women were perceived to be emotionally troubled.

The envy factor: At times, the other side of the grass is seen as greener. Some parents may be envious of the freedom and carefree lives of those who are childless out of choice (also called ‘child-free’). They may be seen to be leading easier lives without having to worry about nappies, school admissions, visits to the paediatrician, and teen troubles.

Nothing in common: Parents may not find much in common with old friends who don’t have children of their own. They may feel they can’t share their own experiences and can’t relate to the child-free. Their unease might make them defensive and they may conclude that their old friends are leading unnatural and unhealthy lives.

Childless by choice: The Reasons and the Reactions

EXPERT TAKE
Parent Circle interacted with Dr Bella DePaulo, social scientist and author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After on the subject. Here is what she had to say:
Q. What are the reasons more couples remain childless by choice these days?
A. Some of the reasons people choose not to have children are probably the same as they have ever been. What’s new today is that people feel freer than they once did to live the life that works best for them. No longer do we all think that we need to follow the expected path, the one that gets the most respect. This is part of the rise of individualism, a global phenomenon.
Having children, especially once you were married, used to be so routine that a lot of people never even thought about whether it was what they wanted – it was just what you do. Now more people do think about children as a choice. And, as more people choose not to have children – and are vocal about it, others realise that it is a possibility for them too.
We often think, for women especially, that wanting children is somehow natural. But it is hard for people to know what they really want when social pressures and expectations pile up and are rarely challenged. Now that people feel freer to live in accordance with their own temperaments and wishes and values, it is becoming increasingly evident that not everyone is interested in having children.

Q. Why do people judge couples who are childless by choice harshly?
A. People in many societies have strong expectations about how adult life should unfold. Expectations about how you are supposed to live your life aren’t just neutral beliefs. People are invested in them. They think that marrying, then having children, isn’t just the expected way to live, it is also the good and moral way to live. As a result, when married couples decide not to have children, then stand by their decision, other people express moral outrage.
If you think a certain way of living is morally superior to others (and maybe especially if it is the way you live), you don’t want to hear that other people are rejecting that life path. You especially don’t want to hear that they are standing by their decision, and are happy about it.

MILLENNIAL SPEAK
Why my wife and I have decided not to have children is basically to preserve our sense of freedom and flexibility. My wife likes to travel a lot and do other things that would get constrained if we have a child. I like a sense of my own space. These two came together and helped form our decision.
There have been mixed reactions to our decision. The elders in the family, who feel that we have a responsibility to have children, feel very disappointed and let down. At the other end of the spectrum, there are some who accept that it is our personal decision. Peers, of course, know of others who have made similar choices and are far less surprised by ours. Also, they are much more open to the idea of individual choice than people of the last generation. So, they have lesser dissonance with the idea of couples choosing to remain childless.
- Vasanth Balachandhran, 35, human resources expert

While parenting can be a great joy, it is a role one has to take up voluntarily. Not everyone is cut out to be a parent. Realising this requires guts and self-knowledge. Some couples do realise this, and decide to remain childless. Isn’t that better than if they had children out of social compulsions and then regret it?
And, parents and society should refrain from judging couples who choose to remain childless. The Dalai Lama says: “People take different roads seeking fulfilment and happiness. Just because they’re not on your road doesn’t mean they’ve got lost.”

In a nutshell

  • Many more couples are remaining voluntarily childless these days
  • There are several reasons for this trend, including the rise of individualism
  • People (including parents) should avoid judging those who remain childless by choice
  • Couples who become parents should not do so out of social compulsions

What you could do right away

  • For parents: Get back in touch with that college friend who has chosen to remain childless. You may find you still have things (other than children) in common
  • For those who are childless by choice: You can enjoy being a ‘cool’ aunt or uncle
  • For others: Avoid judging people – you may not know exactly what motivates them or their decisions

About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 3 September 2019.
Aruna Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. Presently, she is a consultant with ParentCircle.

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 5 September 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.

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