Credit: Victor1558 on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).
(WOMENSENEWS)–In 2010, a study from the Pew Research Center showed that the rate of American women who did not have children had almost doubled since 1976. That’s nearly 1-in-5 women today, compared with 1-in-10 30 years ago.
The study also showed that American attitudes toward women choosing not to have children have become more accepting than in years past, and most people disagreed that people without children "lead empty lives"–yet a significant percentage, 41 percent, agreed with the sentiment. In a 2009 survey, 38 percent of Americans said that they felt the childlessness trend was "bad for society," up almost 10 percent from a survey just two years earlier.
The 2010 Pew report showed that the most educated women are still the most likely group in the United States to never have had a child: in 2008, 24 percent of women ages 40 to 44 with a professional (i.e., medical or legal), master’s or doctoral degree had not had children. The rates among those groups were similar–25 percent of women with a master’s degree and 23 percent of women with a doctorate or professional degree had never had children.
Though the United States is making progress in terms of seeing women as more than just the sum of their reproductive parts, the stigma surrounding childlessness is still alive and well. Women who don’t have children are still largely viewed as an anomaly at best and at worst, sad and selfish. But stigma aside, they sure do seem to be having a good time.
Robin Simon, a sociology professor at Florida State University and researcher on parenting and happiness, told The Daily Beast in 2008 that parents "experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers. In fact, no group of parents–married, single, step or even empty nest–reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who never had children," she said. "It’s such a counterintuitive finding because we have these cultural beliefs that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life, and they’re not."
The Question to Ask
Perhaps it’s time to ask: Do women who don’t have children know something that parents don’t?
Laura Scott, author of "Two Is Enough: A Couple’s Guide to Living Childless by Choice," says the No. 1 reason women cite for not wanting to have children is not wanting their life to change. Scott conducted a study over the course of two years of child-free women. (Many prefer to call themselves "child-free" as opposed to "childless" as the latter implies an absence or void of something whereas "child-free" is a more positive term.) Of the respondents, 74 percent said they "had no desire to have a child, no maternal instinct." Other reasons given for not wanting children: loving the relationship they were in "as it is," valuing "freedom and independence," not wanting to take on the responsibility of raising a child, the desire to focus time and energy "on my own interests, needs and goals" and wanting to accomplish "things in life that would be difficult to do if I was a parent."
"Parenting is no longer the default," Scott told me. "For a lot of people it’s no longer an assumption–it’s a decision. There’s a trend of the intentional postponement of childbearing for women and men in the United States."
Scott says she started the survey as part of her own personal journey, after she had decided not to have children and had to deal with an onslaught of criticism. "Everyone told me I was going to change my mind, that once I was in my 30s that I would want children. But that never happened for me," she said. "I wanted to know–and understand why–that was, and if there were other men and women who simply didn’t have the desire to have children."
The Missing Piece
And that’s what was missing from the Pew study–the research that they didn’t do, examining childlessness rates among men. Parenting is still thought of as a specifically female endeavor and despite the fact that both men and women choose not to have children, Americans still focus entirely on women’s decisions around parenting.
One of the things Scott was most surprised to find in her research was how many men were actively seeking out a child-free life–she says quite a few men she spoke to had vasectomies in their 20s. Women, on the other hand, had a difficult time finding doctors who would perform the procedure without the women going to counseling or therapy first. Scott also says that women got more push back when telling friends and family that they didn’t want to have children.
"There seems to be an assumption that women are innately maternal and desire children and that men are less so," she says.
For men who had made the decision not to have children, the skepticism most often took the form of curiosity and concern that the men wouldn’t find partners who also didn’t want kids. Scott also noted that a lot of the men got more positive responses from parents than did women. They were told things like, "You’re right not to have kids–it’s really difficult."
Women, however, did not get this kind of validation.
Jessica Valenti is the author of three previous books, including "The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women." She is also the founder of Feministing.com. Valenti – called one of the top 100 inspiring women in the world by the Guardian – speaks at universities and organizations in the U.S. and abroad about feminism, activism and media. She lives with her family in Boston, but remains a New Yorker at heart.
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