Published on April 12th, 2017 | by Sarah Mirk2
I’D PREFER NOT TO—on Debating the Choice to Stay Childless
I’ll be honest: I don’t really like babies. I don’t have that “mothering instinct.” The smaller, the scarier, I say. I’m the younger sister in my four-person family, so I didn’t grow up with babies as a part of my daily life. Now, I live in a city where my days are full of work and movies and bars and bike rides. Babies are a rare and distant part of other peoples’ lives, not mine. They seem like foreign, squishy, fragile objects.
So it’s hard to wrap my brain around the idea that I’m likely capable of making a real, live infant—much less that I would desire to raise one so badly that I would give my life over to it. Every movie ever made tells me that my biological clock will kick in someday soon; a mothering instinct will ambush my apathy. But so far, no dice.
Having a baby (or not) will be my choice, but not one I’ll make alone. It will be something I’ll talk over with friends and family. Right now, I feel no desire to have a kid of my own and since I’m very single, it’s not a discussion I’m currently having with any partners. But someday—likely soon—this issue will be a major part of my relationships. And being undecided on the baby question leaves me vulnerable to being talked into a life that I don’t want. I don’t want to compromise to appease a partner. Worst case scenario would be one day looking down into my baby’s tiny, beady eyes for the first time and finally realizing: Whoops! I was never meant to be a mother. I need to figure out what I actually want, stat.
Sure, having a baby is advertised as normal, but is it necessary? I have a lot I want to get done in my life and a lot of adventures I have yet to go on. My mom took five years off from her career to see my brother and I through toddler-hood, working nights at Macy’s while she and my dad occasionally pawned possessions to buy diapers. Hearing of sacrifices like these makes me say a secret prayer to the birth control coursing through my veins. On the other hand, every childbearing adult I know (my loving parents included) speaks sincerely about their kids being one of the most important parts of their lives. Clearly, children bring profound joy to many people.
What deep, basic human experiences will I miss if I opt-out of utilizing my uterus?
One of the most important choices we make in our life, it seems to me, is whether or not to bring children into it. But, in our media and pop culture, we have few role models for what happy families look like without kids. Speaking out against bearing children is impolite. Expressing regret over having kids is entirely taboo. I think the only way to make an honest, informed decision about whether to have kids, is to balance out our culture’s constant pro-baby propaganda and talk to people who’ve decided to never have children.
Modern technology has overcome ancient biology, so now sexually active people are in a luxurious situation: they are able to decide for themselves whether or not to have kids. One of the biggest reasons why it’s so important for birth control and abortion to be legal and accessible is because they allow people the ability to consciously plan for having biological kids, or not. Many families, especially LGBTQ families, are making conscious efforts to define “family” in their own, personal way—a family may include biological kids, adopted kids, a partner’s kids, friends’ kids, or no kids at all. People who spend their lives childless by choice aren’t just expressing practical concerns around overpopulation and the costs of childbearing. Aiming to never have kids challenges the concept of what makes a family. Dating and marriage are traditionally viewed as merely a path to the ultimate expression of “true love”: having a child together. People who are childless by choice redefine their romantic and sexual relationships as being about the partnership itself, not being any sort of vehicle for procreation.
So how much of an oddball would I be, really, if I decide to never have kids? Well, the 2010 Census revealed that having a child is less and less a requirement for being a mainstream American family: There are now more American homes with dogs than children. Across the country, women are having fewer kids and having them later. It’s no longer that weird to be a mom in your forties, and it’s also becoming increasingly less weird to not be a mom at all. In 2010, a little more than eight percent of middle-aged Americans said they expected to have no children, a significant jump from the 1970s.
So every childless person chooses to not have kids for their own reasons, but researchers over the past few decades have found some things in common among the group. People who are childfree are more likely to live in cities, less likely to be religious, more likely to have graduated from college, and more likely to be financially stable than their child-bearing peers. Childfree people don’t have to deal with years of diapers and angsty teens, but choosing not to have kids is laden with its own challenges: Childfree people will likely face stigma from their peers and flack from their family.
However, don’t let neighbors’ whispers or your grandma’s sighs goad you into having children if you think being a parent might not be the right choice for you. A child should be a conscious choice. I reached out to get the advice of folks who’d chosen childfree, to learn what they had to teach me. The people interviewed for this piece all made the tough choice to be sterilized or use long-term birth control and they’re all happy with the relationships they’ve built for themselves without kids in the picture.
Twelve Lessons From People Who Are Childless By Choice
- Accept that, for some people, “mothering instinct” is a myth.
As women get into their late twenties, thirties, and forties, some keep thinking that some switch will flip and suddenly they’ll want kids. But for whatever reason, it’s clear that many women never find themselves desiring kids. Figuring that out has meant sitting themselves down and considering how kids have affected the lives of friends and family.
Vivian is a Portlander in her late twenties, a graphic designer and bike racer. While it seems like all her friends are getting married and popping out children, her fiancé just got a vasectomy. “Seeing my friends having kids has forced me to really think, ‘This is just not for me.’ I just knew that having kids was not something I was interested in.” But while Vivian was confident, I’m not alone in having no clear instinct about babies. Many people expressed that they have never been 100 percent sure if having kids is the right choice or not. Feelings change, lives change; there’s no fertility lightning bolt that shoots down from the sky one day and strikes you, filling you with the Heaven-sent knowledge that you must be a parent. Instead, coming to terms with never having kids is more gradual and involves a lot of talking things out honestly with friends or partners.
- Talk about babies—they’re a deal breaker.
Everyone agrees: Children are not the kind of relationship issue on which you and a partner can meet halfway, other than, perhaps, fostering a child for a limited number of years. There are many women in the world who’ve decided they want to have kids on their own, without the parenting participation of a partner. But if you want to try to raise a child—adopted or biological—with a partner or partners, it’s not one of those issues you all can compromise on. You can’t make half a baby. That means you have to have actual, honest conversations with partners about whether you want kids. But seeing as how half of pregnancies are unintentional, it seems like a lot of people are skipping or evading this crucial conversation. “If you’re dating, you need to figure out whether or not you want children so you can be open about it from the first time you meet someone. It’s a deal breaker,” says Ellen, who often talks about child-rearing issues in her therapy practice. “If you’re already in a relationship, you do have to sit down together and figure it out and not just let fate decide.”
That doesn’t mean jumping to the baby conversation with new or casual partners (baby talk is not super effective first-date pillow talk). But figuring out whether you want kids and then discussing the issue in-depth should definitely happen before big commitments, like moving in together or getting married.
Some people rehash the idea of kids over and over with partners, some people do a lot of soul-searching on their own and find themselves on the same page as their partners. Art teacher Ally, 32, was a waffler. So was her partner Bruce. “I feel like we talked about it every day for a year,” says Ally. “We go back and forth a bit, sometimes liking the idea. But at the end of the day, the answer is no.”
Vivian, the twenty-something Portlander, was nervous to bring up her desire to never have kids with her partners. She was glad when her now-fiancé brought up the issue of kids after they’d been dating for about six months and were talking about where their relationship was going. “We were formulating whether we’d be compatible long term,” says Vivian. “He was really explicit about it: He thought kids were expensive and a burden. I felt so relieved.” Not talking honestly with partners about whether you want kids is only going to end badly.
- We really don’t need more humans in the world.
On top of work and instinct, many people believe that not having kids is an ethical choice, given overpopulation and our penchant for monstrous consumption of resources. Environmental concerns are rarely the number one reason people have for not having kids, but it certainly backs up the choice and makes people feel like their against-the-norm decision is a just one.
The fact of the matter is that we’re not going to be running out of humans any time soon. And we’re a messy bunch: The average American creates over four pounds of garbage a day (even after they’re out of diapers). Many people believe that not reproducing fits within their ethics of trying to reduce their environmental impact and not contribute to the overpopulation crisis. These issues weigh more heavily on people who came of age in the past twenty years, more so than they’ve weighed on any previous generation. After being taught all our lives to reduce, reuse, and recycle, the desire to be moral citizens of the earth tip the baby scales to “no” for some people who are deeply uncertain about whether having kids is the right thing to do with their lives.
“I don’t care how many cloth diapers you use or how many Priuses you buy, having a kid is still a huge carbon footprint,” says Lint, 33 years old and dedicated to his childfree lifestyle as an avid long-distance backpacker.
- Children are extremely expensive.
How much is a life worth? Not to be crass, but it’s about $12,500 a year—that’s the average cost of raising a child in America, working out to a quarter million dollars by the time the little miracle turns 18. This amount will vary and is significantly higher in urban centers like New York or San Francisco; and we’re not even getting into whether you help your kids pay for college (or pay for healthcare into their late twenties). People without kids often have significantly more disposable income at hand, which can mean more opportunities to pursue dreams. Hanna is a twenty-something freelance writer living in Seattle with her long-term boyfriend. She is acutely aware that she wouldn’t be able to live in her “ridiculous single-person apartment,” working for freelance wages if she had kids. There are freelancers in all fields who manage to raise kids on their uncertain incomes, but Hanna says that if she decided to have kids, she feels she would first need to build up a stockpile of money, then take a long time off from work, and then make her children a priority over the erratic lifestyle of a marginally paid writer. Just coming up with the money to create a stable, supportive home for a child would mean switching careers, since her paycheck varies wildly from month to month. As is, she can write around the clock for meager pay and still have the energy to volunteer around Seattle and babysit for her siblings.
“It’s always seemed to me like there’s only two paths: You can have a career, or you can have children,” says Hanna. “I’m the first person in my family to graduate from college, and no one else did because they had children. I decided pretty early on that I’d rather have a very fulfilling and aggressive career rather than children.”
- People without kids can be more mobile and adventurous.
Being childless allows people to more easily live lives that aren’t rooted in one place. While some parents strap on babies and take them along, the demands of schools and desires of children for stability can make it very tricky to hold certain jobs or make sudden life changes. Lots of people who don’t have kids are the type of people who often go on long trips and adventures, whether it’s taking six months to hike the Pacific Crest Trail or deciding all of a sudden to move to Argentina. Rick, a middle-aged programmer, has spent his adult life moving between cities and spending lots of time traveling to big festivals; essentially traveling wherever the wind and his relationships take him. “So much of what I’ve done with my life is about not being in one place for a long time,” says Rick.
Ellen is a 51-year-old therapist in Washington who revels in her ability to travel whenever she wants. “I think a lot of moms my age look at my life and think it’s strange. They see all of the freedom that I have, the freedom of my time,” she says.
- Raising kids forces career compromise.
In addition to instinct, a major factor in peoples’ decision to not have children is their career. Raising kids is a full-time job and a passion. If you or your partner don’t take the time out of work, then someone else needs to do it—a family member, or someone who is paid for the labor. Many people have weighed the commitment and decided against the compromise.
For women especially, the time frame for having kids can conflict with professional goals like going to grad school. Since becoming, say, a neurosurgeon can take ten years, women either have to schedule their pregnancies around their graduations, do double-duty as mothers and students, or cross their fingers that they’ll remain fertile into their late thirties. For some people, the thought of people who opt for work over children conjures up the image of an icy, manhating CEO woman and her male counterpart: a ruthless executive with a giant, lonely mansion. I’m sure those people exist somewhere outside of Ayn Rand novels, but the reality among work-minded people I interviewed is very different.
For Ellen, getting a PhD was number one on her life to-do list. “I got really busy with my life. I realized when I was 45 that if I really wanted a child, I better get with it immediately. I did some soul searching and finalized my decision.”
For everyone I talked to, for whom work was a big factor in their decision not to have kids, they were extremely busy, but not wealthy. Instead, the childless people I reached out to were people who throw themselves into volunteering with social causes and community projects as well as working hard at ambitious paying gigs. I relate to the sentiment. There are plenty of worthy causes in the world that could use my time and energy—in some ways, I wondered if it’s selfish to devote myself to raising kids instead of channeling more of my life toward social justice work.
In a similar way, Ally and her husband Bruce—who waffled over having kids—know that if they have kids, it will mean giving up money, time, and energy that they would rather use to work on their art.
“I know there are people who have kids and still find time to create, but I also see people who have kids and stop creating, or stop creating for a decade. There’s nothing in my life that’s as important to me as my creative life,” says Ally, who logs countless unpaid hours as an educator with an arts and media nonprofit.
- Not having kids doesn’t mean you hate kids.
Just because you don’t birth your own (or go through the trials of adoption) doesn’t mean you’ll have a life devoid of kids. Many people without children find joy from working with kids, helping friends and family with their own children, or investing more energy into their adult relationships and living on their own terms.
“I work with kids. I think I’m helping future generations by being a teacher,” says Ally. “We basically decided that our art would be our children and that our relationship would be our primary relationship.”
One assumption made about people—especially women—who don’t want kids is that they had a terrible childhood. While almost every childless-by-choice person I talked to said they had a happy childhood and they came to a point of clarity about not having children by evaluating the positive aspects of their lives without kids, a few people did point to their own rocky upbringings as a major factor in their eventual decision. A couple people remember family resources being spread too thin between too many kids.
Others have a strained relationship in their family and would rather build a “chosen family” than continue their own genetic line. For some people, sadly, blood relatives have created deep frustration and anger. Their gut instinct leads them to make a clean break and not have a baby who would someday be owed the chance to meet their family.
- You will be judged for not being a parent.
Some words used to describe perceptions of childless parents in studies of stigma: selfish, materialistic, less nurturing, less desirable.
It’s disappointing that our society often views people without kids as abnormal outsiders. This is changing—studies show that people in the United States are increasingly accepting of childless adults and have fewer negative stereotypes about childlessness than we did a generation ago. But, for now, there’s still a persistent bias: Americans equate parenthood with selflessness, normalcy, and safety. Many people with children see them as the best part of their lives and can look askance at folks who decide not to raise kids.
For signs of stigma against non-parents, just close your eyes and imagine getting a political candidate ad in the mail. What’s on that glossy postcard? Likely, the image of an aspiring politician posing in a power suit with his wife and children (and a dog would be good, too). People—especially women—who don’t have kids often get the message: “You have failed as a human being because you failed to procreate.” Or, at the very least, there’s something wrong with you.
When you think about it logically, the idea that someone is selfish for not wanting to have kids is absurd—it’s not like the species appears to be dying off any time soon. Not creating an unwanted child is really rather thoughtful. But the stigma persists, as people without kids face frequent barbs about not being willing to put a kid’s life before their own. You’ll be called to account for your decision over and over, while it feels like people with kids are congratulated. It can feel deeply unfair.
Bearing children is the only part of your personal sex life that people feel free to interrogate you about on a regular basis. Grandparents and grocery clerks won’t ask you questions like: “Do you like having sex with your boyfriend? How often do you do it?” but it’s perfectly normal for them to inquire about whether you intend to get pregnant and then express their opinion on the matter. Children are a very present part of our lives; it is somewhat obvious who has them and who doesn’t.
For this reason, choosing not to have children is both a deeply personal choice and a very public one. Many people assume that everyone desires to someday have kids—going against the grain requires childless folks to often explain themselves and their reasoning.
- Parents often take the “no baby, ever” news hard.
It can seem like everyone has an opinion on your fertility—especially your parents. People who are childless by choice have found that the best way to talk with their family about their plans is to be direct, firm, and to clearly explain the rationale behind their decision. In their experience, some parents feel like their kids’ decision not to have children is a harsh judgment of their own parenting. Even then, it’s smart to recognize, appreciate, and be sensitive toward the genuine pain that some friends and relatives will feel as they come to terms with a future that is not full of your kids.
“I told her straight, ‘Mom, I’m never going to give you a grandchild,’” says Ally. As a part of the queer community, Ally found most of her friends were supportive of her choice not to have kids—except for her best friend from growing up. “She says it’s my duty to have a child, because she thinks I’m such an awesome person. But I tell her there are tons of awesome people who have not-so-great children. There’s no guarantee who your kid is going to be.”
The issue has created more family strain for Vivian, who is Chinese-American and an only child. “There’s this really deep thinking in Chinese culture that you owe your life to your parents. It was understood that I would grow up and meet a nice guy, get married, and have a kid or two,” says Vivian. When her fiancé got a vasectomy, Vivian waited to tell her parents, but then mentioned it to her mother one day on the phone, bringing up the issue suddenly like she does with all big news. But, says Vivian, her parents did not seem to really believe that she will never have kids. “Even now, when I talk casually with my mom, she doesn’t seem to acknowledge that it’s a reality.”
- But don’t assume your family won’t ever support your choice.
Surprise! Some parents who seem hostile to the idea of childlessness come around to their kids’ choices eventually. Many people have been surprised to find their parents or grandparents are allies in their decision—older people sometimes feel like they had too many kids too soon, and understand their kids’ desire to make different choices. Give ’em some time. Rick, the software developer who’s now in his 40s, got a vasectomy when he was 28. At the time, his family was upset and thought he’d made a big mistake. But, over time, they became more open to the idea of him not having kids because it fits with his “counterculture freewheeling” lifestyle—he met his current partner while literally stark naked at Burning Man. As his parents came to accept him as the member of the family who will never settle in one place or have mainstream politics; they have become more open minded about his decision to not have kids. “There’s been a little bit of the older relatives wagging their fingers at me and saying, ‘One day, you’ll want to settle down, too’ but, so far, that hasn’t happened,” says Rick.
- Some people do regret not having kids.
The biggest question young, baby-free people get is: “But won’t you regret it?” And they’re right! One out of five women who get their tubes tied when they’re under 30 express some sadness over the decision. It looks like turning 30 really is some sort of tipping point, because a much lower number (six percent) of women over 30 who get their tubes tied express regret.
From talking with women’s health doctors, the issue seems to be that people under 30 have more time for their lives to change drastically. They could go through a break-up or divorce or surprise themselves by finding a great partner that makes them realize they want children, or they can become economically stable enough to afford kids.
We can’t talk about regret over not having kids without noting that there’s a real double standard around baby regret. Though several mothers have recently challenged the taboo around admitting doubt having a child, publishing honest essays about their complicated feelings, they also speak about the heavy burden of shame that comes with admitting these feelings to themselves and the public. A British study of 5,000 couples that Open University published in 2014 showed that childless couples reported they were generally happier than couples with kids, but that mothers were the happiest individuals of all. Meanwhile, a Princeton and Stony Brook University study of 1.8 million Americans found very little difference in the happiness levels of people with kids and people without kids, though parents reported experiencing bigger highs and lows. In 2016, Israeli sociologist Orna Donath spoke with the Chicago Tribune about her extensive research into the issue of mothers’ regret and noted that societal pressure to be an overjoyed mom can often make women feel like failures. While most of the women Donath interviewed in her research said they loved their children very much, they felt cultural pressure to think motherhood was also the best thing that had ever happened to them. When these moms felt deep pangs of sad or loss or doubt, they felt regret at their decision. “This is also not a question of loving or hating children,” Donath told the Tribune. “What is at the center of the discussion is motherhood, not the children themselves.”
- People without kids have to seek out friends and community.
Every childless person I spoke with felt like the odd one out in some way or another because they don’t ever want to have kids. It can be hard to make or keep friends as people around you start to have children. Kids tie their parents into communities—schools, summer camps, community plays—in a way that requires active work to make the same results happen if you’re childless and seeking out places to get involved. Other people spoke about feeling left out of their office culture. “If I go out for drinks, I feel like I have to talk about my family,” says Tyler, a 31-year-old import specialist in Portland. “I do feel a real big self-consciousness. I do wonder, am I the only person who wants this?” Tyler mostly tries to avoid family conversations with co-workers and clients, but one thing that’s helped, he says, is getting a dog. When people ask about children, he often winds up whipping out photos of his puppy, to ooo’s and aww’s. While they’re not as obvious as, say, the Parent Teacher’s Association, there are childless meet-up groups in most big cities. As with any subculture larger than two people, there are also a lot of childless communities online that swap advice and philosophies.
Talking to numerous people about their decision not to have kids inspired me to try and spend more time with little kids to calibrate how I actually feel about hanging out with them. Luckily, my friends are surrounded by babies. When I was 29, I moved in with two friends and their six-month-old daughter. I was a bit nervous about this plan, I’ll admit, but I was also excited about the idea of forcing myself to be around a baby and new parents, to see what the experience of parenting is actually like. For the year we lived together, I found myself constantly in awe of my friends’ level-headed parenting skills and also delighted to be around a little human who would learn and discover new things every day. Before living with these friends, I didn’t realize how incredible it is to witness someone exploring the sounds, tastes, smells, and feelings of the world for the first time. I still don’t have any personal internal urge to have my own kids, but seeing my friends manage well as parents makes me more able to imagine myself as a parent someday. I love the idea of being an actively involved aunt, pitching in to help my friends and family members raise their kids. For now, I want to be involved in kids’ lives, but not have kids of my own—I get excited about the idea of being that friend who helps clean your toddlers’ spilled breakfast off the floor so you don’t have to, an aunt by blood or friendship who’d always be happy to take a kid to the science museum for a few hours. Talking with all these people about their decision not to have kids made me feel less alone and was a great affirmation that if I decide to not have children, there are strong communities of people who I can look to for friendship and support.
Adapted from Sex from Scratch by Sarah Mirk (Microcosm).
From the publisher:
“Sex From Scratch: Making Your Own Relationship Rules is a love and dating guidebook that gleans real-life knowledge from smart people in a variety of nontraditional relationships. This book sums up what dozens of diverse folks have learned the hard way over time, and is full of life advice from people making open relationships work to people who’ve decided they’re never going to have kids.
With contributions from Bitch Media cofounder Andi Zeisler, Betty Dodson, Tracy Clark-Flory, Aya de Leon, Michelle Tea, Wendy-O Matik, Tristan Taormino, Tomas Moniz, Stu Rasmussen, and Erika Moen, this is an essential, fun, insightful resource for anyone in any type of relationship.”