The U.S. Census Bureau has been tracking the number of women who don’t have children since 1876.
In 2014 (the last year for which we have data), 47.6 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 44 remained child-free. That’s the highest rate of childlessness the Bureau has ever reported. And there’s every indication that by the next census, that number will only grow.
So what gives? Isn’t having a child supposed to be our great evolutionary raison d’etre? Aren’t women hard-wired with a ticking clock that spurs them to procreate before it’s too late?
Pffft. As if.
In fact, as society continues to change (and not always for the better), many of the forces that drove women into motherhood are disappearing. At the same time, reasons to forego the brood seem to compound weekly, like an existential payday loan. To find out why, let’s ask the experts: child-free women themselves.
Childless or Child-free?
The decision to have children is fundamentally personal, but it often masquerades as a public debate. In any social battle, language is a battlefield.
That might explain why women who write about the decision not to have children have a bone to pick with the term “childless.” Kamalamani is a therapist, writer, and practicing Buddhist who unpacks the language debate in a 2009 article in the journal Therapy Today. (Note that “mother” is not on her list of descriptors.)
“The definition ‘childless’ itself points to what a woman lacks, rather than to her breadth and depth of qualities as a human being,” Kamalamani wrote. “The use of the word ‘child-free’ implies a positive choice not to have children, which again, many consider a selfish option.”
Kamalamani suggests that the term child-free has “associations with ‘carefree,’ which implies a childlike state.” So there’s our first reason why women are increasingly choosing not to have kids. Who doesn’t want to be a little more carefree?
Three’s a Crowd
The main reason that more women are choosing to remain child-free may be because they can. That wasn’t always the case. In many cultures, including the Western culture of not so long ago, there was never a question. Women would have children and that was that.
Now that women have wrested control of this all-important choice out of the hands of the patriarchy, they’re finding that they don’t need to have a kid to live a happy, fulfilled life.
Many women report that their romantic partnerships are quite enough, thank you. Sara Tenenbein, a blogger and consultant, told the Los Angeles Times that she’s happy limiting her household to her and her husband.
“Just the two of us is awesome,” she said. “Maybe we don’t need to add more humans to the equation.”
Essentially, these women are saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.” They’re happy with their domestic lives and don’t want to stir the pot by adding a squalling infant.
Babies are Gross
Being around babies can actually diminish a woman’s desire to have one. To be fair, it can also increase that desire. It just depends on whether you’re cuddling with a happy baby or changing a diaper.
Kansas State University researchers Gary and Sandra Brase (yep, they’re married) study the phenomenon of “baby fever.” They found that people who have nice experiences with babies “such as holding and cuddling babies, looking after babies, and looking at baby clothes and toys” tended to come down with a more serious case of baby fever.
Those who experienced “babies crying, children having tantrums, and diapers, spit-up, or other ‘disgusting’ aspects of babies” quickly developed an immunity to the condition.
Essentially, science says that women who see the gross side of parenting don’t want to get involved in that. Well, we could have told you that. This hypothesis makes total sense, and it’s borne out by the data.
Women Have Jobs
Lots more women seem to get their creative satisfaction from work these days. That could be a channel for the procreative impulse that short-circuits the desire to have kids.
It’s not like employers are bending over backwards to make the workplace. Letitia Camire, a Boston office manager, told Bloomberg what happened to her job when she got pregnant.
She told her boss about the blessed event when her morning sickness kicked in. Things didn’t go so well after that.
“His face immediately changed,” Camire said. “The first words out of his mouth were, ‘You know you’re still on your 90-day probation period.’ So I pretty much knew what that meant.” Camire lost the job.
Sure, there’s the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but that only applies to full-time workers at businesses that have more than 49 employees. Besides, the 12 weeks of leave that law promises are unpaid.
Until the U.S. gets its act together on paid time off for new moms and dads, women are going to choose the boardroom over the nursery.
“Selfish” Isn’t All Bad
When Jennifer Aniston came out as purposefully child-free, mainstream culture reached straight for their firehose of judgement. The actress described the experience in Allure.
“I don’t like [the pressure] that people put on me, on women–that you’ve failed yourself as a female because you haven’t procreated,” she said. “This continually is said about me: that I was so career-driven and focused on myself; that I don’t want to be a mother and how selfish that is.”
Child-free journalist Catherine Mayer suggests that women should stop flinching when the word “selfish” is flung at them and start wearing it as a badge of honor.
[The child-free] point out that we have nurturing relationships with many people, including children, Mayer wrote in Time. “We talk about the ecological burden of overpopulating the planet. What we rarely do is accept and embrace our selfishness. Perhaps we should start. Because here’s the thing: Being without children does mean we have fewer pressures on our schedules and on our wallets.”
If “freedom” equals “selfishness,” Mayer suggests, bring it on.
“We enjoy the freedom to make more varied–and interesting–use of our time…For women, who continue to lag behind men in earning power and professional attainment, this is a freedom to relish.”
Children Cost Too Much
Say you get pregnant tomorrow (if you are a man, this is a real workout for the imagination, but bear with us).
By the time your kid is 18, sending your kid to a good college could cost more than $130,000 a year. Imagine your pride when your kid comes to live in your basement with a half-million-dollar art degree.
So forget college. Even if you cut your kid off after high school, though, you’ll probably still struggle to afford parenthood. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that the average middle-class family will pay around $300,000 just to raise a kid born in 2013 to age 18. And here we thought all the USDA did was stamp beef all day.
Anyway, add the thousands of dollars it can cost to actually give birth and parenthood can start to look like a pretty bad investment. In this age of income inequality, it’s no wonder more women are choosing not to trade financial security for genetic replication.
Stay-at-Home Dads Are Still the Exception
A lot has been made of the rise of the house-husband. But the fact remains that women still spend twice as much time on child care than men. Pew last released data in 2011, but these numbers are slow to shift. Back then, men with kids spent an average of 7 hours a week on child-rearing. Women averaged 14 hours.
That doesn’t make motherhood attractive, especially as women take advantage of hard-won freedom to pursue other interests. Just ask writer Sezin Koehler. She wrote a piece for the Huffington Post that laid out her objections to having children in no uncertain terms.
In spite of social and cultural advancements, women are still default caregivers, especially in a child’s formative years, Koehler wrote. “Raising a kid before s/he begins school is more than a full-time job. It’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no time off for good behavior. I’m not fit to be around adult human beings when sleep-deprived, let alone a child dependent on me for Every. Little. Thing.”
Makes sense to us.