The XX Factor

The Stresses of Motherhood Affect Non-Mothers, Too

I agree with Kerry Howley that no one can definitively pinpoint the cause of the happiness trends at this point (if indeed there’s just one cause). But I think there’s more to her incontrovertible point that not all women are mothers. The knowledge that becoming a parent will likely mean being overworked and stressed not only affects women’s lives after they have children; it also influences their very decision about whether to do so. Women who are not mothers could be thus be affected by the same policy lapses as mothers.

The growing numbers of childless women are likely related to the policies (or lack thereof) that make it difficult to parent and work at the same time. Roughly one in five American women between 40 and 44 was childless in 2007, according to census figures-twice the rate recorded 30 years before that. It’s hard to know what exactly is behind that decision. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics divides women into the “voluntarily childless” (or childfree, as some prefer) and the nonvoluntarily childless. A woman who wants to have children but is physically incapable would be counted as nonvoluntarily childless. But there’s no distinction between a woman who makes the clear choice not to have kids and one who ends up without children less by design than because she can’t find a way to fit them into her life. With good reason, many professional women fear that having a child will mean sacrificing all they’ve achieved in the workplace. Note that the top two reasons women gave for putting off pregnancy, according to a 2005 study published in Fertility and Sterility , were that they were “not financially ready” and “wanted to establish career.” Women who wanted children but couldn’t afford to have them, however many of them there are, should not be overlooked.

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