Choosing to be Childfree
Choosing to be Childfree: Broadening the Definition of Family
Before Sarah* and John married, they didn't talk much about having children.
"Then after a few years he kept bringing it up and bringing it up, first as a joke," Sarah recalls. "He'd say things like, 'Wouldn't you like the patter of tiny feet around the house?' and I'd say, 'Great, let's get a kitten.'"
John had decided he wanted kids, but Sarah was leaning the other way. He persuaded Sarah to volunteer one afternoon at a daycare center; he hoped that being around children would make her want one of her own.
"This backfired," Sarah says. "There were too many children; it was very noisy. I didn't think they were being cute at all. I couldn't wait to leave.
"Eventually he said, 'If you don't want children, we'll have to split up.' By that point I said fine, because I had had enough."
Having a baby never used to be much of a decision--it was what you did after you married.
But those old assumptions are changing.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, in 1975 about one in eleven women was childless by the age of 44. By 1993, that number had risen to about one in six.
One reason is that birth control is more reliable. But there are other factors. People are marrying later.
Women are sometimes reluctant to give up careers. Marriages seem less stable. The environment in which kids are raised seems scarier.
"This is the first generation really that could ask a very simple question: Why did a person have a child? Because in all prior times, the effectiveness of contraceptives was so poor that to be married, unless you were infertile, meant you were going to have children," says Steven Nock, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. "People who have children increasingly view it as a matter of choice."
Couples who have either decided against children or are weighing the choice do not take the decision lightly. In some ways, the fact that there is now a choice makes it harder.
To Have or Have Not
Some people know early on in life that they don't want kids and never look back. "Early articulators," as they're called, are frequently the first-born in their family, and got an early taste of child rearing because they had to care for younger siblings. First-born and only children, who also have a higher-than-average rate of childlessness, tend to be more independent and ambitious--another reason they choose not to have children.
But other people agonize over the choice of whether to have or have not, weighing all the pros and cons.
Sally, a 38 year old Maryland woman who's undecided about having a baby, is searching everywhere for answers--reading books, talking to friends, and even appealing to higher authorities. "As a religious person, I pray for a clue--'Please give me a sign as to whether I should have them," she says.
Meanwhile, Ohio State University professor Sharon Houseknecht and other researchers have found that parents don't think through the decision as much.
"There was one study that asked parents what was their primary reason for having children. The number one answer was, 'I don't know,'" says Sharon N. Covington, a clinical social worker at the Shady Grove Fertility Center in Maryland.
Reproduction is the most basic of human instincts--no doubt one of the main reasons people have children. But there's also tremendous societal pressure to procreate.
Announce to friends and family that you're having a baby, and you'll get smiling congratulations all around. Announce that you've decided to never bear a child, and you'll probably be dismissed with lines like "You'll change your mind," or "You'll regret it." Nonparents occasionally hear ruder comments, too.