In the midst of rapidly changing family structures, why does childlessness still carry a stigma for women?
It used to be that the Cleavers — dad working an office job, mom raising two boys full-time — were the model American family. But the past several decades have seen dramatic changes — recent studies find that only about half of American adults are married today, compared to around 70 percent in 1960. The share of interracial marriages has doubled since 1980. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia now recognize same-sex marriage. More men than ever are becoming single fathers. More mothers are becoming family breadwinners. More children are being born outside of marriage.
A Pew Research Center study from 2010 found that 20 percent of American women now end their childbearing years without having borne a child, compared to 10 percent in the 1970s. During that time, the public has become more accepting of these women, but 38 percent of Americans surveyed for that study felt this trend was bad for society. When it comes to some other changes to the American family — such as marrying someone of a different race or women working outside the home — the public has said in greater numbers that those trends were good for or at least didn’t harm society.
In advance of the Zócalo event, “Why Have Kids?”, we asked a panel of experts: If Americans have come to accept a range of non-traditional family structures, why does a woman’s choice not to have children still elicit skepticism and judgment?
Bella DePaulo — We want other people to share the worldviews we care about most
“As long as women bounce around kidding themselves that life is full when alone, they are putting their hedonistic, selfish desires ahead of what’s best for children and society.” That was one reader’s response to a 2002 cover story in Time about women who were choosing to stay single and not have kids. At the time, I was just starting to research my first book on single people and I was perplexed. The reader had no relationship to the women in the story — they were strangers. If these women didn’t have qualms about their life choices, why should this guy get so angry about them?
I hadn’t yet recognized the power of people’s views of the world. Worldviews help us make sense of the world. They can boost our self-esteem, enhance our good feelings, and keep our bad ones at bay. We want other people to share the worldviews we care about the most. When it comes to marriage and family, one of the strongest worldviews is that women are supposed to get married and have kids. And if they do, they will be happier and healthier than everyone else — and morally superior, too.
The “problem,” then, with women who do not follow the culturally valued life course of marrying and having children, is that they are threatening beliefs that people hold dear.
What’s more, it is even worse if they choose not to marry or have kids. For example, research has shown that single people who want to be single are judged more harshly than those who want to find a partner. They are seen as lonelier, colder, less sociable, and more miserable. Even more tellingly, other people express more anger toward them. That irate reader of the Time story was not only irked because he thought the women were stupid, but also because they were happy. How dare they claim that life without marriage or kids is a good and happy life — a life that someone would actually choose!
Bella DePaulo, who has a doctorate in psychology from Harvard University, is the author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and the forthcoming How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.
Elaine Tyler May — Women have opted out of motherhood throughout history
Womanhood equals motherhood has long been accepted as the norm for women’s lives. But in fact, throughout history, women have often opted out of motherhood. In the 19th century, for example, the average number of births per woman declined by half—from eight in 1800 to four in 1900. Many women chose not to marry, and even some of those who married chose not to have children. The rate of childlessness was at an all-time high at the dawn of the 20th century, and then dropped to an all-time low after World War II in the midst of the Baby Boom.
Today, more and more women are choosing not to have children for a wide variety of reasons. Women without children are not scorned or pitied to the extent they once were, but a stigma still attaches to women who choose not to procreate. It is way past time for that stigma to lift. American women today lead rich and varied lives, with or without partners, with or without children. It is time to celebrate all the choices women have, and protect their ability to make the choice to have children—or not. Besides, there are many ways to have children in one’s life without giving birth to them or raising them. Just ask any devoted aunt, teacher, doctor, childcare worker, or anyone with children in their lives. As one teacher said proudly, “I’m not childless! I have 400 children!”
Elaine Tyler May is Regents professor of American studies and history at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of several books on women and the American family, including Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Laura S. Scott — People are ignoring studies that point to happy, regret-free seniors who didn’t have children
Behind all the media attention around baby bumps, intentional single moms, egg freezing parties, and celebrity surrogacy is a belief that the only path to a purposeful and fulfilling life is parenthood, particularly motherhood. If you value the experience of motherhood over all other experiences, you will tend to judge someone who values a different experience.
There is also the persistent belief that, if you don’t have kids, you will regret it and die alone or in a home with 30 starving cats. Everyone chooses to ignore the multitude of studies that point to happy, socially connected, regret-free childfree seniors who are living their dreams and contributing in many creative ways. The lingering stigma is puzzling unless you factor in the judgment, unspoken regrets, and dare I say, envy, from parents who say, “I didn’t think I had the choice!”
We now have the means and opportunity to remain childfree, but we have to have the intent and will to resist the prenatal messaging, peer and family pressure, and be true to ourselves. We also have to have reliable birth control and doctors who believe us when we say, “I don’t want kids, ever! And I will not change my mind and sue you if you perform this tubal!”
We also need to be able to wrap our brains around this question: “If everyone is invited to decide for themselves if they want to be a parent, how does our thinking and our world have to change to allow for that?”
Laura S. Scott is an executive and reproductive decision-making coach, author of Two is Enough: A Couples Guide to Living Childless by Choice, and director of the Childless by Choice Project.
Bill McKibben — There’s also prejudice towards people who chose to have just one kid
There’s another choice that yields almost as much skepticism: the decision just to have one child. Surveys show that the biggest reason for having a second kid is so the first won’t be an only child. There may be plenty of good reasons for having a big family, but it turns out that isn’t one of them: all the data show that only kids grow up to be indistinguishable from their peers with siblings. Not spoiled, not crazy. Just fine.
In fact, it’s a perfect example of how easily we’re led astray by prejudice. The “study” that convinced everyone that only children were odd was conducted in the late 1800s, and the definition of “odd” included “very pretty,” “very ugly,” and “very strong.” (It also found that immigrant children were odd; go figure.) The subjects in the study included not just actual only children, but only children in works of fiction.
Happily science has marched on, and so should the rest of us. It’s time that we learned to accept that people, and families, come in many different shapes and sizes; that they face different circumstances and want different things. It’s time, that is, to stop with the judging.
Bill McKibben is a Vermont-based writer whose books include Maybe One: An Argument for Smaller Families.
Melanie Notkin — Choose happiness
We have “Mom-opia” in America—the myopic view of motherhood as womanhood.,. And yet, the latest U.S. Census Report on Fertility shows that 46 percent of women of childbearing years are childless.
This all-women-as-mother view generates “black and white” assumptions for why women make their choices, ignoring nuances and shades of gray. I worked closely with DeVries Global PR on a 2014 national demographic study entitled: “Shades of Otherhood,” inspired by my book: Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness, to better understand this cohort of modern women. Of the 19 million childless American women ages 20 to 44, over one-third (36 percent) are childless by choice. Some never felt motherhood was for them. Some don’t feel financially secure enough for parenthood. Some enjoy the freedom to live life to what they envision as its potential. And 18 percent of all childless women are on the fence, having not yet made a choice on motherhood either way.
And then nearly half (46 percent) are involuntarily childless, some by biology, and more often, among the cohort I explore more widely in Otherhood, by circumstance.
The women of the Otherhood are often single, often not by choice, and they choose to wait for love before motherhood.
Still, whatever the reason for childlessness, 80 percent of women in our study said they can live a happy life without children of their own. Moreover, even among those who are childfree by choice, 80 percent are “childfull” — they play an active role the lives of other people’s children.
Whatever the choices or circumstances of childlessness, the only way to live a meaningful and happy life is to live an authentic life—making the right choice for oneself, not by the measure of what society believes is the “right” choice. And the only one who can make that authentic choice is the women who chooses. She chooses happiness.
Melanie Notkin is the founder and author of Savvy Auntie and author of Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness. Connect with her at Otherhood.co and @SavvyAuntie.
This article was written for Zocalo Public Square.
TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email email@example.com.