More Women Are Saying No To Motherhood. Will Society Ever Listen?

The child-free by choice movement is growing online, but women say they're still feeling pressured in their day-to-day lives.
As the pandemic's "baby bust" shows, the desire to have kids just isn’t there like it was before.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty
As the pandemic's "baby bust" shows, the desire to have kids just isn’t there like it was before.

Child-free women are having a bit of a moment in the media.

“Why many women are intentionally opting out of parenthood,” one recent Today Show headline said. “Choosing ‘child-free’ does not equate to a dislike for children,” the subhed added — lest we think these women are baby-disinterested jerks.

Last month, The New York Times ran a photo series by Zoë Noble, a photographer in Berlin who’s capturing the lives and stories of the “consciously child-free.”

“People ask me ‘Why not?’” one woman featured in the story said. “Why don’t we ask the other question: ‘Why are you choosing to have a child?’ That’s the bigger question. Do you have the resources and emotional ability? Or is it just a shot in the dark because you feel you’re supposed to? With our friends, we see that a lot of women have children because it’s next in their checklist. The world is overpopulated. We have a climate crisis. If someone says they don’t want kids, it should be like, ‘Cool’ move on.”

Add sky-high rent and home prices, lingering college debt for many, and the total cost of raising a child ($233,610, in the U.S., and that’s excluding the cost of college) to that list and it’s all too easy to see why a person might eschew parenthood.

Other long-form articles and celebrity interviews have tapped into matters of quality of life. For instance, in a recent appearance on Howard Stern’s show, Seth Rogan detailed all the things he and his wife have been able to pursue as a direct result of not having kids: writing books, taking up pottery, getting high in bed and watching movies all day.

“We have so much fun,” Rogen said. “I don’t know anyone who gets as much happiness out of their kids as we get out of our non-kids.” (Even parents commenting on the interview admitted that, as much as they loved their kids, they could see where he was coming from.)

These “why aren’t millennials popping out more kids?” articles aren’t coming out of nowhere, obviously: People are have been opting into the childfree by choice lifestyle with gusto. According to a report from Pew Research Center, 37% of childless adults don’t want kids and aren’t planning on having any in the future. In 2018, the number of babies born in the U.S. fell to the lowest level in 32 years, and that rate has been declining steadily ever since.

“Even women who do want children end up having fewer. On average, women report wanting 2.6 children but having only 1.73.”

Indeed, instead of the pandemic leading to a “baby bump,” as many predicted would happen (“couples are quarantining at home, what else do they have to do?”), demographers and sociologists think we’re in the early stages of a baby bust. The inclination to have kids just isn’t there like it was before.

Hearing how friends with kids are “teetering on the edge” and “wished they had the energy to scream” during remote schooling certainly didn’t make parenting sound any more appealing.

“I think there is more recognition today of the challenges of parenting,” Caroline Sten Hartnett, an associate professor of demography and sociology at the University of South Carolina, told HuffPost.

“People talk a lot about the fact that parenting is difficult, and in friend groups, women in particular talk about the challenges of managing the majority of child care responsibilities in addition to work responsibilities,” she said. “I think that type of discourse creates a context in which it seems very reasonable to say, ‘I don’t think that lifestyle is for me.’”

Even women who do want children end up having fewer. Women report wanting 2.6 children but having only 1.73, on average. The same survey found that financial concerns factored heavily into people having fewer kids: 64% said child care was too expensive, 43% said financial precarity forced them to wait to have kids, and about 40% cited a lack of paid family leave as a reason they had fewer children.

Education levels factor into this decision, too. According to Pew Research Center’s social research on childlessness, 7% of women who lack a high school diploma are childless. This figure just about doubles to 13% for those who graduated from high school or have some college experience. Among women with a bachelor’s degree or more, about 20% are childless.

“With higher education comes fewer births,” said Beverly Yuen Thompson, an associate professor of sociology at Siena College. “The peak for rates of being childfree was in 2006 but we see that the numbers also vary greatly by race, with white women having the highest rates of being childfree.”

But has the internet’s robust conversation about the choice to be child-free had any impact offline? Do women feel less pressured to have kids when they visit with overly invested family and friends? Would Rogen’s wife, Lauren Miller, receive the same “good for you!” reaction if she said the same thing as her husband?

Child-free women we spoke to remain skeptical.

When it comes to perception of child-free women, we’ve got a long way to go. The expectation to bring kids into the world is still so strong that a 2016 study found that voluntarily child-free people inspired “significantly greater moral outrage” than those with two children.

Those who are child-free may be stigmatized but overall, they’re happier; a 2018 study that looked at 40 years of data on children and happiness in America found that married mothers were less happy than married women without kids.

Research also suggests that parents in the U.S. face the largest “happiness gap” compared to people without children, a disparity that is largely attributed to the country’s lack of family-friendly social policies like subsidized child care, paid vacation and sick leave.

The abysmal state of child care and paid leave is one of many reasons Helen Hsu, a 47-year-old psychologist who works at Stanford University, chose not to have kids with her husband.

Financially, raising kids almost felt like an impossibility, Hsu told HuffPost.

“Who the heck has housing and money for three kids!?” she said. “I think Americans need to get it through their heads how awful the safety net is here: bad health care, unsafe schools and streets, no child care, minimal parental leaves or sick leaves, nor job security.”

Everyone in Hsu’s family told her she’d have a burning desire to procreate once she hit her 30s. “That never happened,” she said.

That might be at least in part due to her perspective on the subject as a working therapist: A big part of her job is helping to repair hurtful parenting and family dynamics.

She spends all day nurturing people at work; she’s not eager to nurture even more in her downtime. On a societal level, she’s starting to sense a growing acceptance of her child-free lifestyle.

“It’s happening at a snail’s pace, and with fits and starts,” Hsu said. “I think media coverage is slightly better because you have more women telling stories, but I still feel there is still a powerful baseline assumption that the pinnacle of most women’s goals and fulfillment ought to be kids. It’s a strong cultural value narrative in all patriarchies.”

“I am almost 30 and I am still being told, 'When you meet the right man, you will have children,'” one child-free woman said.
Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images
“I am almost 30 and I am still being told, 'When you meet the right man, you will have children,'” one child-free woman said.

Jameelah Woodard, 28, who lives just outside of Los Angeles, is childless by choice, too. As the oldest daughter in her family, growing up she helped out with everything around the house: the cooking, cleaning, diaper changes and general care of her younger siblings.

“That kind of life would not make me happy,” she said. “Top that with having a traumatic childhood, and I did not want to unintentionally pass that trauma onto my children.”

Even as a little kid, Woodard would talk openly about not wanting to be a mom, much to the chagrin of the women in her family. (Even now, Woodard said her mom regularly asks God to give her daughter children.)

“I am almost 30 and I am still being told, ‘When you meet the right man, you will have children,’” she said. “I have been told more than once, from men that I have attempted to date, that if a man hasn’t tried to get me pregnant, there has to be something wrong with me.”

For Black women, the pressure to have kids is even greater.

After three decades of trying to avoid being railroaded into having kids, Woodard admits she was taken aback by all the recent articles about women happily declaring their child-free status. Maybe for white women, she thought when she read the accounts, but it’s a different story if you’re Black.

“I was actually shocked to see people agreeing with me, that they didn’t want children,” Woodard said. ”As a Black woman in America, it’s expected to have children. It seems like all elders are concerned about our womb room.”

While it may be freeing and validating for a white women to talk about her choice to forgo parenting, Black women often struggle to do the same because of cultural expectations, said Kimya Nuru Dennis, a sociologist who has studied perceptions of African and Black people who choose not to become parents.

“Most of these permanently child-free-by-choice news stories, research and social media platforms are based on European-white people,” she said.

“My research highlights how many African-Black people come from traditional and conservative cultures and family backgrounds that are not accepting of gendered freedom, including sexual freedom and reproductive freedom,” Nuru Dennis explained. “It’s very pro-natalist.”

Julia McQuillan, the Willa Cather professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, also isn’t surprised that experiences of women of color are rarely factored into these “why isn’t anyone having kids?” stories.

“There is little public outcry when Hispanic or Black women decide not to have children,” she said.

“In fact I recall the outcry about Black women having children in the 1990s when they were not married,” she said. “Meanwhile, there was little consciousness of the dramatic increase in mass incarceration of Black men that made it very hard for Black women to marry the fathers of their children even if they really wanted to.”

Say goodbye to childless spinster, say hello to the cool auntie.

The way we talk about child-free women is changing, albeit slowly. Even the semantic embrace of “child-free” over the far more diminishing “child less” counts as a win.

Social media has also created a larger community for women who are opting out of parenthood. For example, author and activist Rachel Cargle, who established the Loveland Foundation in 2018 to help give Black women and girls access to therapy and other mental health support, runs an Instagram account where child-free women can gather and validate each other’s decision.

The account, which has more than 75,000 followers, is named for Cargle’s preferred title for the child-free by choice.

“I often use the phrase ‘Rich Auntie Supreme’ to describe those of us who are indulgent in the lives of the children around us even though we choose not to have our own,” she told the Today Show recently.

Through memes, quote cards and short essays by Cargle, the account offers a portrayal of a child-free existence that’s joyous, Oprah-esque. (Oprah, the patron saint of child-free women at this point, makes appearances on the page.) The message is “living my best life and buying whatever the hell I want but still very much active and invested in my community.” It’s a far cry from the tragic, depressing stereotype of child-free women from earlier generations: unfulfilled, selfish, sad spinsters.

To center the voice of Black child-free women in particular, Angela L. Harris created a podcast and private Facebook group where women can encourage one another, regardless of how their families feel about their choice. Harris, the assistant dean of students at Davidson College in North Carolina, calls her movement and group #NoBibsBurpsBottles.

“We’re trying to empower Black women to unapologetically live their best child-free life,” she said. “In general, we’re bombarded with images every day with what it means to be a woman. Nine times out of 10 the message is clear that womanhood equals motherhood. Womanhood is so much more than that.”

“Just because you don’t want to have kids doesn’t mean you don’t want to have a family. I have a lovely family with my life partner and two dogs. We are happy and fulfilled with one another.”

- Ashley Gomes, a 32-year-old, child-free bartender

Women we spoke to appreciate smartly branded takes on the lifestyle like “Rich Auntie Supreme,” but a few wondered if some people will see it as further proof of child-free women’s selfishness.

“They’re committed to that understanding,” Hsu said. “I have always found it kind of funny and confusing that people accuse child-free women of being selfish. Like, it’s somehow in a social contract that our very lives are owed to child bearing? Why aren’t child-free and single bachelors vilified as selfish?”

For what it’s worth, she’s having a great time as an actual “cool auntie,” as she put it.

“Personally I have never been besotted with infants or toddlers and I hate Disney, so the early childhood stuff was not interesting to me,” Hsu said. “Now that my nieces and nephews are older, cool auntie is who can take them to music concerts, afternoon tea at the Palace, and to weight lift.”

When they’re together, Hsu and her teen nieces and nephews talk about everything: sexual orientation, first loves and first jobs, Asian American identity, college decisions. They’ll chat, she’ll help them with their college essays, then she sends them back to their parents’ houses and goes on her merry, child-free way.

Mengzhu Wang, a 32-year-old dentist who lives in Queensland, Australia, also takes issue with the lingering belief that child-free women are selfish.

Before the pandemic, Wang traveled to developing countries like Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste as part of volunteer programs to provide dental treatment. If she had children, she thinks she would be 100% focused on parenting, with little room for much else.

“I couldn’t have worked in such a remote setting providing medical care for people in pain,” she said. “What is more selfless: devoting myself to one person exclusively, or helping relieve the pain and suffering of hundreds of people (many of them vulnerable children who already exist) who would otherwise not be able to see anyone else?”

More and more, there seems to be a budding understanding that self-fulfillment isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition: Careers that have a strong impact on the community and future generations are fulfilling. Unconventional looking families are fulfilling.

“I can’t stress this enough: Just because you don’t want to have kids doesn’t mean you don’t want to have a family,” said Ashley Gomes, a 32-year-old bartender who’s child-free. “I have a lovely family with my life partner and two dogs. We are happy and fulfilled with one another.”

Gomes can’t ever imagine giving birth to a baby, she could see herself fostering a teen some day in the future.

“I would help a child if and when I’m able to,” she said. “But right now, I want to take care of myself, my life partner and my dogs and the planet.”

Ali Ha, a 43-year-old artist, spent her reproductive years trying to make her art career happen and stay afloat financially. It hasn’t been easier to endure judgement from others, she said. She’s hopeful these conversations today will make it easier for younger women to make the right decisions for themselves rather than following any expected track.

“They seem to prioritize individuality as a generation, I see them as bold and unapologetic,” she said. “I look forward to seeing them show us how child-free is done.”

Of course, even in her 40s, Ha is still getting pushback on her choice. She jokes that she has a million stories of cousins still thinking she might have some time left. A well-meaning friend once told her, “Janet Jackson just had a kid, there’s still hope!”

The older you get, the easier it is to brush those comments off.

“Currently I’m the only woman in my age group in my family who is child-free,” she said. “Luckily my parents told me they are OK with me knowing who I am. And I am OK with it too and that’s what matters the most in the end. Whether you’re child-free or have kids, ultimately you’re the only one that has to live with your choices.”

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