HEALTHY LIVING

5 Things 'Childfree' People Want You To Know

A recent study shows the decision is a conscious, ongoing conversation.

18/08/2016 6:56 AM AEST | Updated August 20, 2016 02:01
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As more Americans choose not to have children and celebrities speak honestly about their own decisions, researchers have begun to examine this choice: Who is more likely to be childfree? Why do people decide to be childfree? How do others perceive the childfree

Survey data rarely distinguishes between the involuntarily childless and the consciously childfree, but 2014 census figures reveal that 47.6 percent of women between age 15 and 44 have never had children ― the highest rate ever tracked. By age 40 to 44, 19 percent of women remain childless, according to a 2014 Pew report.

Now, a new study looks into how people come to this decision. It reveals the decision is rarely a one-time conversation, as past research has suggested, but instead an ongoing discussion a person has internally and with a partner.

Amy Blackstone, a gender sociologist at the University of Maine who specializes in childfree research, hopes that her study helps question the assumption that little boys and girls will grow up to become parents. Breaking down this assumption would give them space as they grow up to decide whether or not parenting is the right choice for them. 

“Right now, girls in particular, but girls and boys both, are raised to imagine themselves as parents of children,” she explained. “But if we more critically thought about the question of whether or not to parent, then everyone would have the opportunity to make the choice that’s right for them.”

“Of course, the childfree would benefit… if we made it a choice rather than an assumption,” Blackstone continued. “But I think parents would benefit, too.”

Blackstone conducted a small, qualitative study to explore how 31 people ― 21 women and 10 men, all but two of them straight ― made their decision to stay childfree. She conducted 60- to 90-minute interviews on their decision-making process, the response they got from others and their reflections on their choice.

Blackstone’s finding that the choice is not a snap judgement but rather a complex and ongoing conversation pushes back on criticism that childfree people are selfish or flippant about their decision not to parent. It also sheds light on how different genders approach the choice and provides some insight into how friends and family help shape a person’s decision.

Read on for five observations from Blackstone’s study, in the words of participants, that get to the root of how people decide to be childfree. All the names from the study are pseudonyms.

1. Childfree people do not make their decisions lightly. 

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“I think everybody could say that to get where we are [and maintain our childfree status] has been a constant decision-making process because every relationship you enter into, especially romantically, that’s the expected thing. You’re constantly making a decision about remaining childfree.” — Janet

‘It’s not a decision where you’re like, ‘Okay, today’s the day that I don’t want kids.’ ...It’s a working decision.’’ — April

“My partner and I have discussions about ‘Do you think you want to [have children] or not.’ ... Time has gone by ... and we see the things that are important to us and how we want to live our life. And we see a child as a completely changing point.” — Sarah

‘‘I think I’ve always been deciding that I don’t really want kids.’’ — Annie

“I think this was kind of a decision that we’ve made more than once. You know, at the different times of your life. We’ve been together now eighteen years so, I’d say once every five to six years the topic has come up and I think it’ll probably stop coming up now, given our ages. One of us will say, ‘So, you want ‘em now?’ and the other will say ‘No, no, not really.’ ‘Is anything going on that would make us want them?’ ‘No. No.’” — Robin

2. They’ve observed parenting up close ― and they don’t like what they see.

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“At first I grew up assuming that you have kids. You got married and it would happen. But I have older sisters and while growing up, I noticed that [my two much older sisters] put off having kids for a long time. So it became obvious to me that having kids was kind of a choice as opposed to inevitability. Then my two younger sisters got pregnant accidentally and I saw what that did to their lives, where they didn’t have good jobs and [their partners] didn’t have good jobs. They had to make [do] and even now ... twenty years later, they’re finally just actually starting to be able to live their life ... And so it just kind of gradually to me became like, I’m not gonna have kids. Gradually for me it became, ‘Yeah, I don’t think I need kids.’” — Steve

“I think part of it is as my friends started to have kids, that made me go, ‘Oh I don’t think this is for me.’ Because even if I had wanted kids before that, once they started having kids and losing their freedom and their individuality, that really was a big point for me. It was like, that does not look like the fun, happy family stuff that you think about when you’re young. I think that was a big part, when my friends started having kids, that was when I started thinking, ‘I’m checkin’ out of this.’” — Janet

“I was sort of observing families around me and wondering if I wanted to be a part of that dynamic in our world. ... A lot of people with children didn’t look happy. ... The majority were definitely stressed out. There was something there that was not inviting me to participate in this lifestyle process.” — Kate

“My brother was in a very bad marriage ...The marriage was going downhill and they tried saying ‘Well let’s have kids ‘cause that’s what we do’ or ‘This will make things better,’ and so they had a kid. Two years after that they got a divorce. And my brother loves his daughter but he also says at the same time that, as bad as this is, that he wishes that he never had her. ... And once, talking to my sister, she said that when she comes home at night, she picks her daughter up from daycare and her daughter says ‘I want to go back to daycare because I have more fun there.’ I guess I don’t want to do it. That’s [what my sister goes through] a pretty crappy feeling. And [what my brother went through] reaffirmed it.”  — Cory

3. For women, environmental and social responsibility often play a part...

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“[Not having children] is responsible. Instead of this kind of blindly following the societal expectation, of this is what you are suppose to do, [not having children] means really taking a lot of factors into consideration. I think about all kinds of stuff. Like I camped over the weekend and I saw the trash factor that people with kids had left and let build up from so much over use of a campsite. I think about stuff like acceptable population levels.” — April

“I’m really just concerned about our world. ... Diving more deeply in the social issues, I really think that the world is against the child right now. At this time in our social structure right now it’s not going to be a good thing to have children. We can’t bring them up healthfully.” — Kate

‘‘I was a very environmentally conscious child and my big thing at the time was population control, so that was kind of a forming quality of [my decision not to have children].’’ — Kim

4. ...While men’s decisions tended to be internally motivated.

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“Not having kids is an obvious outcome of our choices. I want to be able to travel, I want to be able to do things that I would not be able to do if I had kids. ... It’s just one of the many choices that you make in the balancing act of your life. ... And, you know, 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.” — Steve

5. They put a lot of thought into what it means to be a parent.

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‘‘People who have decided not to have kids arguably have been more thoughtful than those who decided to have kids. It’s deliberate, it’s respectful, ethical, and it’s a real honest, good, fair, and, for many people, right decision.’’ — Bob

‘‘I would like it to be considered a decision just like any other.’’ — Barb

“I wish more people thought about thinking about it. ... I mean I wish it were normal to decide whether or not you were going to have children.’’ — Tony

What to keep in mind about this small study 

Nancy Molitor, a practicing clinical psychologist and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral science at Northwestern University Feinburg School of Medicine, commended Blackstone for diving into the little-researched and little-understood subject of deciding to become childfree. She was also intrigued by the way gender appeared to affect a person’s decision-making. 

However, she noted that given the small, homogenous sample and the fact that participants weren’t selected at random, it’s next to impossible to draw any general conclusions about the larger childfree population in the U.S. or around the world. The gendered patterns Blackstone observed, for example, need to be validated and confirmed in a much larger population. Some of this is inherent in qualitative research, which lacks the randomized samples and control group that underpins quantitative research. But qualitative research still has its place in the sciences, especially for emerging topics, because of its ability to raise the profile of new ideas, ask questions and generate new hypotheses for future research.

“This is a small, self-selected group,” Molitor said. “That doesn’t mean it’s not interesting, but it’s hard to speculate whether this would have results that would stand up in a larger sample taken from folks in rural Mississippi or the Midwest.”

Molitor called for long-term studies to see if and how childfree people in their 40s (the upper limit of the ages in Blackstone’s study) change their minds as they enter their 50s. Molitor also said that it would be interesting to continue research on the childfree community by examining regional and generational differences across a wider, randomized population.

“A lot of [childfree] research goes back to the 90s,” she explained. “I can say from my own experience and research that studies that were done in the 90s and their decisions about childfree might be very different from a young woman who is a millennial who is making that decision now in 2016.”

Since publishing her research in The Family Journal, Blackstone has interviewed 44 more people, expanding the diversity of her participant pool beyond the mostly white, straight and middle or upper class respondents in her original cohort. She hopes to continue debunking myths and assumptions about childfree people with future research, which will hopefully create a world where childfree people don’t have to defend their choice to others or suffer socially for it. Blackstone herself is childfree, and manages a blog she founded with her husband called “We’re {not} having a baby!

“People don’t really know what to do with us,” Blackstone said. “Sometimes we get left out of, for example, events at friends’ houses if there are children involved, because people assume that we don’t want to be involved. It can be a kind of lonely existence.”

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