How Child-free People Decide Not to Have Kids

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Photo: Thomas M. Barwick/Getty Images

Despite the recent findings that having kids might be harmful to your self-esteem, it’s pretty safe to say that American culture is “pronatalist”: As soon as you graduate college, start a career, and marry somebody, the next level of the video game called life is parenthood. Whether it’s your mom asking about would-be grandkids over the holidays or the endless parade of domestic sitcoms, there’s an agreed-upon assumption that “family” includes children, and that not having kids must be the result of infertility or just not getting around to it. But these expectations are at odds with changes in the way people are living: From the 1970s to the 2000s, the number of childless women in the U.S. nearly doubled, and the national data suggests that 15 percent of women and 24 percent of men hit 40 without having kids.

Helpfully, the language around these lifestyle choices is starting to get more refined. Social scientists, who once referred to everyone who didn’t procreate as childless, which speaks to trying and failing to make babies, now also use the term “child-free,” which gives more credit for choosing not to make them. In a new paper in The Family Journal, sociologists Amy Blackstone of the University of Maine and Mahala Dyer Stewart of UMass Amherst investigate the mechanics of that choice. While research has been done around why more and more people are child-free — with explanations including more reproductive choice for women, greater workforce participation for women, and the like — little has been done around how the choice is made, especially with men involved.

Blackstone and Stewart went with a qualitative approach, asking evocative, open-ended questions to 21 women and 10 men who have chosen not to have kids. The participants had an average age of 34, and were almost entirely heterosexual. The interviews, which took 60 to 90 minutes, had three main inquiries: the decision-making process in being child-free, how others respond to the decision, and reflections on all the above. The transcripts of those interviews were then fed into a computer program and coded for themes. The two biggest were “conscious decision” and “process.” Indeed, all but two respondents said it was a conscious decision, and those who didn’t were the exceptions that prove the rule: One woman said she ‘‘always kind of felt this way so I don’t think there was ever a time where I made a conscious decision,” while another said, ‘‘I’m not sure that it was conscious decision. I’ve never wanted to have children.’’

A couple chords were struck again and again in people’s reasoning. Many saw their siblings or close friends have kids and decided that it was not something they wanted to arrange their lives around. The men tended toward individualized decision-making, noting that they wouldn’t be able to travel or pursue other meaningful projects. (“It’s a rational response to what it means to have a kid and what impact [being a parent] has on the rest of your life,” was one primary example). Women were more outwardly focused in their decision-making, referencing how having kids would alter their adult relationships or contribute to overpopulation and other environmental impacts, or that the world as it is isn’t hospitable to new children. The authors reason that the outward-facing decision-making for women may be a result of the greater cultural pressure on them to reproduce. Most of all, it’s an ongoing decision. You don’t wake up one day and declare that you don’t want kids, it’s something you check in with yourself (and your partner, if you’re partnered) about over the years.

It should be noted that a study at this scale is limited: It’s homogeneous in terms of ethnicity and sexual orientation, and it would be super-useful to have more research done around how people of different identities decide whether to have kids, especially since birthrates, at a macro level, are so strongly correlated with education: The better educated people are, the fewer kids they have. But what’s great about this study is that it makes being child-free very human. Not having kids isn’t a pathology or an accident of fate, but a choice.