Maybe it’s because I live in the famously child-friendly neighborhood of Park Slope, in Brooklyn, N.Y., where I’m forced to dodge 15 strollers every time I go to the grocery store. Or maybe it’s because I’m 32 and it seems every other woman I know is having a baby. Or maybe it’s because I grew up in rural Texas, surrounded by pregnant teenagers. No matter the reason, I was genuinely surprised to read the recent Pew Research Center study showing that the share of American women who are skipping out on motherhood has nearly doubled since 1976, rising from 10 percent of the population to 18 percent.
Personally, I was happy to see that more women feel free to forgo childbearing. But not everyone shares my enthusiasm. According to Pew, 38 percent of Americans now denounce childlessness as bad for society. That’s up from 29 percent just two years ago. So what’s behind the increase in women choosing the non-mom route? According to social conservatives, legal abortions are to blame for declining birth rates. Mike Huckabee told reporter Max Blumenthal that if it weren’t for abortion, there would be no need for immigrants to come work in the United States. Some anti-choicers are issuing dire warnings about a “demographic winter” bringing an end to Western civilization.
Conservative histrionics aside, women who have abortions aren’t the ones causing the uptick in childlessness. After all, 61 percent of women who have abortions already have one child. And according to a 2004 survey by the Guttmacher Institute, most childless women who have abortions say they are open to the possibility of having kids under different circumstances. However, that doesn’t mean that the passage of Roe v. Wade had no impact on the upturn in childless women. Defense of legal abortion led feminists to create a national discourse around the concept of “choice,” which helped legitimize the decision to remain childless. This created a space for women who never wanted children to embrace their true desires.
Part of this new self-awareness might mean that women are forsaking motherhood because we’re finally admitting that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As last week’s New York magazine cover story documented, parenthood is becoming increasingly miserable because of the exploding expectations placed on mothers—making the child-free lifestyle seem all the more attractive. In 1988, only 39 percent of Americans disagreed with the notion that the childless “lead empty lives.” Now a majority—59 percent—disagree that childlessness automatically means you’re unfulfilled.
Still, a woman who chooses to remain childless continues to face a series of negative stereotypes, from claims that she’s selfish to implications that she’s too career-minded and self-centered to remember to breed before it’s too late. But clearly there are upsides to childlessness. Just looking around my own apartment, I can see the value in furniture that’s gone unruined, cats that have gone unbothered, and a distinct lack of toys cluttering up my floor. But because there is very little research on deliberate childlessness, I thought I would poll childless-by-choice women online from all over the country to find out their reasons for the decision.
The women I spoke to confirmed my suspicion that the perception of choice had an impact. Natalie, age 29, joked, “Before I knew about sex and reproduction, I thought that pregnancy happened automatically when women got married, and my young self was terrified at the prospect!” Marie Claire captured Kylie Minogue expressing a similar sentiment to Natalie’s: “I never had the feeling I was made for a conventional marriage with a house in the suburbs,” the Australian singer said.
Most felt their desire not to have children is perfectly normal, and were frustrated by stereotypes about women’s biological clocks and the universal desirability of children. Gayle, age 30, drolly observed, “My ovaries do not stir when I see a baby.” Author and filmmaker Laura Scott, who is working on a larger project examining the lives of the childless by choice has found that “lack of maternal/paternal instinct” rated in the top six reasons that respondents gave for their decision, along with reasons such as we “love our life [or] our relationship, as it is” and we “do not want to take on the responsibility.”
Because the Pew research showed an increase in people denouncing childlessness as bad for society, I also asked these childless women how they felt about the social impact of their decision. Most believed that it wasn’t harmful to society and could, in fact, be beneficial. But few spoke about benefits to the environment or women’s pocketbooks. Instead, childless women argued that increasing childlessness is good … for the children.
Dana, age 34, made this case forcefully. “Many children are treated bad or abandoned. Some live their entire lives in foster care.” Tasha, age 27, concurred, noting how many people she’s known who had kids simply because they thought it was what you do, and now make their children suffer for it. “Not everyone will be a good parent,” she argued. “More people should be child-free.”
Not only did the childless not see their choice as inherently selfish, they argued that the choice to have children could be considered selfish in some cases. Natalie agreed that her attachment to her disposable income could be considered selfish but said, on the other hand, “When I ask friends of mine who have/want kids what their reasons are, the answers range from ‘I don’t know’ to ‘I want someone to love me’ to ‘I want someone to take care of me in my old age,’ which are not only also selfish but poorly reasoned.”
Could these childless women be harbingers of a new world, one in which parenthood is considered an active choice and not simply the default state of adulthood? As the Pew research shows, childlessness was once the domain of the highly educated, but now every other segment of society is catching up. Perhaps future generations will look at phenomena like the Jennifer Aniston tabloid womb obsession and wonder how it was possible that anyone could have once cared so much if some women chose not to have babies.