Women are constantly questioned about our reproductive choices: How many kids are you going to have, and when? Are you going to breastfeed? Do you use birth control or support reproductive rights? Are you, as a pregnant woman, really going to eat that food or lift that weight?
It’s impossible to answer these questions in a way that doesn’t provoke judgment from at least some people, but little provokes as much judgment as a woman who chooses not to be a mother at all.
Eva* knew from an early age that she did not want to have children. But people told her that she’d eventually change her mind, so she expected “baby fever” to hit against her will. “Almost like having your first period, as if it were something unavoidable that just happens and changes your body,” she said. So she waited.
But it never happened.
Eva, who describes herself as Puerto Rican and bisexual, is now 30 and in a long term relationship with a cisgender man. And she feels just as certain about not having children as she ever did. “I do not have the ‘baby fever’ that loved ones as well as strangers argued I would have by now,” she says.
Nearly half of women between the ages 15 and 44 are forgoing motherhood altogether — the highest rate ever tracked . The number of women who never have children is increasing, though most data doesn’t distinguish between the voluntarily childfree and those who wanted to but could not have children. In 1976, only 10 percent of women hadn’t had children by their 40s. By 2006, that figure had doubled .
Because language always matters, let’s define some terms. Childless means the condition of being without children, but it also implies that the person being described would like to have them. Many people who don’t want to have children prefer the term childfree, as it doesn’t imply a sense of longing, but rather contentment.
Being childfree comes with a social price, however: womanhood and motherhood are treated as synonymous in our culture, and women are often defined by our reproductive desires and potential.
Having children is society’s default plan, and not doing so is still viewed as deviant or a failure at being a woman by many.
“Society communicates to girls at an early age that being a mother and having children is a defining and mandatory role,” says Iris,* a Cuban American straight married woman in her early 40s. “We grow up believing that women who don’t want to take on that role are somehow wrong, broken, bad, selfish, rebellious, not woman enough, and not worthy of being considered seriously by a partner.”
Coming to the Decision
Despite those messages, Iris also knew from a young age that she didn’t want children. She describes feeling “absolutely no desire or instinctual drive to be a mother,” and “uncomfortable and awkward in situations where other people feel comfortable and natural around kids.”
Iris’ sentiments are shared by many childfree people. Cierra,* a black queer single woman in her 40s, “was never moved by the notion…even as a kid, I never played ‘mommy,’ and didn’t have names picked for future kids.” Sandra,* a 44-year-old mixed race (Vietnamese and white) straight married woman says “I don’t recall ever wanting children. According to my mom, I never played with dolls, or played house. I never saw myself as a mom in any way.”
This isn’t the experience of all childfree women. Amy Blackstone conducts extensive research on the childfree and has found that people come to identify as voluntarily childfree from different pathways . Some people wanted children, and then life circumstances did not allow or they waited so long that having biological children wasn’t an option .
Tina,* a 37-year-old white straight married woman, is one such person. “Through the majority of my 30s, I have been intentionally pregnant on more than six occasions,” she says. “Some of those pregnancies survived into the second trimester, but none were healthy enough to be carried to term.” After her last pregnancy ended in a miscarriage at 10 ½ weeks, she and her husband “took parenting off the table completely for both of our sakes.” Ultimately, she is content and certain they made the right decision.
Blackstone’s 2016 research says that childfree people do not enter lightly into the decision not to parent . Other researchers agree, finding that the childfree put a lot of thought into what it means to be a parent, and also into what it means to be childfree .
Leigh,* 41-year-old biracial (Asian and white) queer woman who is partnered with a cisgender man, said she came to the decision gradually. She works with children, loves them, and thinks she’d probably make a good mom. She thought often about what kind of parent she would be when she was younger, but changed her mind through the years based on many factors.
Reasons for Not Having Children
Research shows that women’s reasons for not having children vary widely and are well thought out . Other than a strong lack of desire for motherhood, other reasons include:
Environmental and social concerns
Eva worries about overpopulation and “all the children without homes already.”
Fear over the current state of the world
Iris says, “The world is so, so, so scary, and I am terrified of raising a child to be a good human in it, and keeping them safe.”
A level of responsibility and commitment they do not want
Blair,* a 27-year-old white straight woman in a long term partnership, says “ Children are a huge commitment. It’s not a commitment I want.” Many also mentioned the mounting expense of childrearing.
Fears they would replicate harmful behaviors from their own parents
Melanie,* a 30-year-old white straight woman says she is too afraid to pass on her “genes and mental illness” or be an “abusive, harmful, neglectful parent like my mother was.”
Their own health issues
Andrea,* a 38-year-old white queer woman married to a transgender partner, says that her “chronic health and mental health issues” make the idea of having children feel “absolutely daunting” both “from a physical and emotional standpoint.” Leigh feels motherhood isn’t right for her because she is facing the same health condition that caused her to lose her own mother at a young age.
Having already done significant caretaking
As the oldest of five children, Andrea has already spent a lot of her life caretaking others. Aduwa,* a black woman in her early 40s in a long term queer relationship, says “One of the biggest hindrances to my desire to bear children in my 30s was the amount of elder care that I did. It was extremely emotionally demanding as well as demanding of my time.”
Some women unapologetically make their careers a large focus of their time and energy. Several women mentioned that their careers were hard fought, or they are self-employed and would have a difficult time balancing that with parenthood.
A path to motherhood that feels too complicated
Women in queer relationships may have to rely on reproductive technology or adoption. Several mentioned that for them, the extra leg work to produce children was a hindrance that tipped their decision to no. Aduwa says, “I am in a relationship with a person who does not produce sperm…none of the choices I have in front of me for conceiving my own child are appealing.” Andrea adds, “The cost and complications of conceiving with a partner who does not produce sperm added a lot of headaches that we both felt really didn’t fit with our lives.”
Stigma Against the Childfree
Many people consider the decision not to parent as not only abnormal and surprising, but also morally wrong. A recent study found that people report anger, disgust, and disapproval toward the voluntarily childfree. “Through parents and peers, people learn that parenthood is both typical and expected” wrote study author Dr. Leslie Ashburn-Nardo. “People who violate social role expectations based on widely shared cultural stereotypes are subject to perceivers’ backlash.” 
Blair is keenly aware of this. “I think people often take my personal choice as a judgement on or challenge to their choice to have children.” She says that parenting “is so deeply connected to lots of people’s identities… and it’s so often linked to morality that it can feel like a tangled mess to talk about.”
Race also plays a role in perceptions of childfree women. Whereas perceptions of white women vary less based on parental status, African American women are viewed less favorably when they’re childfree .
Feedback From Others
“You’ll change your mind.”
“You’re missing out on the best part of life.”
“It’s selfish not to have children.”
“Don’t you want to give me grandchildren?”
“Who will take care of you when you’re old?”
Because childfree women are still disconcerting to many, most have heard a few, if not more, of these sentiments. Sandra has received “mostly ugly feedback.” She shares, “Random strangers have many, many opinions about the occupancy status of my uterus, especially at cocktail and dinner parties…The worst is at work. Because I work in a school… I’ve had parents tell me that they don’t trust me working with kids as a non-parent. The funny thing is, I’ve probably logged more hours with kids than many parents.”
Feedback for those who are childfree because they could not have children is different, though often still quite painful and tone deaf. After Tina’s fertility troubles, folks were eager to offer obvious or financially unattainable suggestions, such as surrogacy and adoption — suggestions she did not ask for.
“I think I could write a novella at least on how not to act towards the childless,” Tina says. “Especially because you do not know what their path to that choice was.”
How Can You Respond?
If you’re childfree, you might be used to handling unkind and inappropriate comments. Here are some ideas for responding to the aforementioned feedback.
“You’ll change your mind.” Well, I haven’t so far.
“You’re missing out on the best part of life.” I think we should all decide what makes our own lives feel fulfilling!
“It’s selfish not to have children.” It would be very selfish and unkind of me to have children that I didn’t really want.
“Don’t you want to give me grandchildren?” With all due respect, you got to make your own life decisions, and now I get to make mine.
“Who will take care of you when you’re old?” I have other people in my life who care about me, and I think this is a selfish and inappropriate reason to have children.
The Childfree Future
Since society views having children as the default future for most women, what do we do if that’s not the future for us?
Anything and everything else.
The women I spoke to are excited about the many life plans they have. Some of these include pursuing and continuing their rewarding careers, caring for multiple rescue animals, volunteering for causes that they believe in, traveling, and loving the people in their lives. And while they’re aware that these things can be done while parenting, they are choosing these things instead of parenting.
Blair, Aduwa, and Andrea all say that they’ve had significant role models in their own lives who were fulfilled, childfree women, and that contributes to their confidence that this is the path for them.
Not all of the women I spoke to are against the idea of parenting all together. Eva is very excited about the possibility of adoption, and several mentioned that fostering is not out of the question.
Aduwa says, “I will still be caring for and about the other people in my family, biological and chosen. I will continue to work full time in a caring profession, with children.”
Many of the women are in caring professions with young people as the focus. Many have nieces and nephews that are an important part of their lives. Tina already feels fulfilled by the children in her life, including a niece, nephew and friends’ children. These alternatives to parenting still allow for the nurturing of young people, though it’s OK if women don’t feel inclined to do that at all.
The women I spoke to are also unapologetic about the benefits to being childfree and enjoying their leisure time.
Sandra shares, “I’ve had such a flexible and interesting life! My husband and I have lived in five different cities. I’ve been able to make unusual career choices. We travel, shop, and eat out with reckless abandon. I’ve been able to devote tons of time to activism and politics. And I get to nap whenever I want!”
Aduwa adds, “So many of my adult years have been consumed with a level of responsibility for other people in my family that I didn’t anticipate. I would like for my middle age life to be less responsible for others. And to be able to use that energy to please myself and invest in myself and my own interests.”
The childfree women I spoke to are incredibly thoughtful about their conversations with women who may not be childfree by choice, or who consider themselves childless.
Leigh says, “It’s harder with friends who…are struggling with infertility or multiple miscarriages, some of whom know that I have actively chosen not to be pregnant and not to have children. Some conversations just feel too emotionally fraught to have, and it seems kinder to just not talk about it.”
“I find myself sometimes holding back talking about this subject because I am aware, especially when meeting other childfree women around my age these days (40s), that some are not childfree by choice,” says Iris. “They’ve had difficulty getting or staying pregnant, or they don’t want to do it alone and are waiting and hoping to meet someone they want to have a child with. I don’t want to be insensitive or inconsiderate, so I don’t tend to talk about it unless asked.”
She points out that one of the most popular “ice breaker” question she gets from women of any age is “And do you have kids?”, “How many kids do you have?” or “How old are your kids?” She notes that she has the privilege of glossing over these questions easily, but they may be “gut wrenching” for some women.
What We Should Remember
Even if we truly can’t understand someone’s decision to parent or not, that doesn’t mean it’s invalid. Childfree folks and parents aren’t in competition for who made the better, more moral choice.
It’s a perfectly valid and healthy choice not to have children, and whether another woman has or wants children or not is not anyone else’s business. Parenting is an option, not an obligation.
There are many different ways to be a woman, and we don’t get to decide another’s path to true happiness. We don’t need to criticize or punish women who don’t conform to gender stereotypes, including the stereotype that a woman must always be a mother.
Sandra stresses the connection between a childfree life and being her truest self. “To have children would, to me, feel like the least authentic thing I could do.”
Iris says, “It is really hard to navigate these very deeply ingrained messages that are part of everyday life from such an early age, and be able to hear your own voice and honor what you truly want for yourself and the way you want to live your life.”
“For every woman who feels that a childfree life is for her, but is second guessing what her own voice and her own body are telling her, I hope our stories help her stay true to what she wants for herself.”
* Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Resources for Childfree People
- 2014 US Census Population data; https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2014/demo/p20-575.html
- Blackstone A, Stewart MD. Choosing to be Childfree: Research on the Decision Not to Parent. Sociology Compass. 2012;6(9):718-727. http://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=soc_facpub.
- Blackstone A, Stewart MD. “There’s More Thinking to Decide”. The Family Journal. 2016;24(3):296-303. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1066480716648676
- Settle B. “It’s the Choices You Make That Get You There”: Decision-Making Pathways of Childfree Women. Michigan Family Review. 2014;18(1):1. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/mfr/4919087.0018.102?view=text;rgn=main
- Ashburn-Nardo L. Parenthood as a Moral Imperative? Moral Outrage and the Stigmatization of Voluntarily Childfree Women and Men. Sex Roles. 2016;76(5-6):393-401. https://www.scribd.com/document/345818719/ASHBURN-NANDO-Parenthood-as-Moral-Imperative
- Vinson C, Mollen D, Grant Smith N. Perceptions of childfree women: The role of perceivers’ and targets’ ethnicity. Journal of Community and Applied Social Pyschology. 2010;20(5):426-432. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/casp.1049/abstract
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