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Is There a Psychology To Choosing Child-Free?

The percentage of childless women [1] in the United States aged 40 to 44 doubled from 1976 to 2006, at which point over one-fifth of women had no children.  Although the numbers have abated some, still, they are substantial enough that the first “Not Mom Summit [2]” (subtitled “Redefining Feminine Legacy”) will take place in Cleveland this October.  While childlessness is not a new phenomenon, there is some sense that the reasons for not having children may have a different emphasis now than in the past.

While it is dangerous – actually impossible – to diagnose a person clinically from a few comments in a book or article, it is interesting to reflect on the motivations and perspectives presented in recent essays by those men and women who intentionally eschew the possibility of children.  In her anthology Selfish, Shallow, and Self-absorbed, author Meghan Daum [3] cleverly usurps the likely caricatures of these childless adults, before later putting forth the notion that “everyone is selfish.”  Although her view is in many ways consistent with the Judeo-Christian notion of man’s fallen nature, additional reading of the essays unveils some interesting variants of just how selfishness can play out … and be remedied.

Why Stay “Child-free”

In a recent New York Times review [4] of the anthology, Teddy Wayne features several quotes which put forth the rationale for celebrating intentional childlessness, and summarizes:  “People’s reasons for not reproducing remain as varied as ever, encompassing the personal, political, financial, environmental or the anti-narcissistic: ‘I’m not convinced my genes are anything to wish on anyone.’”  Another commentator [5] worries that the focus of several essays was more on the “’stuff’ associated with parenting rather than the children themselves.”  This can be seen in the comments below, which also reflect the specific way in which this phenomenon is particularly evident among the social elite.

What This Shouldn’t be About

Mr. Wayne reflects on the research showing mixed results with respect to whether having children is fulfilling [6] or not and whether parents are unhappier than their childless counterparts.   He points to popular novels and TV shows to demonstrate that seeing children as “bratty, tyrannical rulers of their enslaved progenitors” is no longer heretical.  But he also poses a deeper, more fundamental hypothesis, wondering if

the generation that came of age as divorce rates spiked in the 1970s and ’80s (and which have since settled down some) … may be less optimistic about the classic nuclear family. For those who aren’t part of a cohesive familial unit that can provide different means of support, it’s far more daunting — emotionally and monetarily — to start a new clan.

To the extent that there is some truth in this, and I think there is, the point is made only more strongly that the “choice” of childlessness is therefore not always a conscious one.  For many who are emotionally jaded by observing, or having lived through, the harm people inflict on each other, childlessness may be more of a coerced decision based on painful emotions rather than on right reason.

Longitudinal research shows that difficulty with commitment and forming healthy attachments are not uncommon sequelae for children of divorce.  In Wallerstein’s classic study [7] on such children, only 60% of the girls and 40% of the boys were able to establish reasonably-gratifying and enduring relationships as adults.  Furthermore, only 40% of children later opted for parenthood.  The rest were not interested in having children.

Getting From “No” To “Yes”

Thus, while many people may claim their choice to avoid parenthood is based upon their political ideologies, financial concerns, environmental positions, etc., given the country’s high divorce rate it seems that a good number of these people may also be suffering emotionally, consciously or unconsciously fearful to embrace the fruitfulness, giving and sacrifice to which we are all called.

While sacrificial gift of self surely occurs in many marriages where children are not gifted to the family, the intentional turning away from the gift of children places the adults at some increased risk of becoming, sadly, actually selfish, shallow, or self-absorbed.  Many people in this position would not automatically identify themselves as candidates for therapy because they may not be experiencing classic troubling symptoms of depression or anxiety.  Yet, exploring their ambivalence with a professional could help change the “no” to “yes.”  Alternatively, a positive witness from family and friends of the joy that comes with parenting is an important reminder of how begetting children is in the natural order of things, something sorely needed in our increasingly disordered world.