Twenty-two years ago today, on a balmy 0 degree day in Minnesota, Lance and I opted in to enjoying the legal right to file joint tax returns forever and ever – or until one of us dies or until we can no longer stand each other – which ever comes first. Having conquered love and then marriage in the requisite order, we assumed that babies would eventually follow. I imagined they’d be adorable, smart, and witty, just like Lance.
We assumed we’d have babies because that’s simply what people did after they got married. Or at least what we thought they were supposed to do. Or at least what they were supposed to want to do.
Of course <<SPOILER ALERT>>, we veered off that path pretty quickly and decided to keep ours a family of two (plus, for a good long while, one insane cat but that’s a story for another time).
What we didn’t know at the time we decided not to have kids was that there were a whole bunch of people out there making the same choice. It seems we’re not the special snowflakes we once thought we were. Between 2006 and 2010, around 15 percent of women and 24 percent of men were ending their 30’s without ever having had a child.
One of the reasons Lance and I don’t have kids is that we enjoy having the time and energy to nurture our connection with one another (and no, that doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and roses all the time over here at Chez Blackstone but most of the time it’s pretty darn good). Turns out we’re not that different from other folks without kids.
Of the 70 childfree women and men I’ve formally interviewed over the course of my years of research on the childfree, among the hundreds Lance and I have gotten to know through the power of social media and blogging, and among the thousands of others who have been studied by social scientists over the years, we know that one of the top reasons childfree folks choose not to have kids is that they prefer to prioritize their connections with their partners.
While collecting data for my study of childfree adults, I interviewed Michael, a childfree married man in his late 30’s. Michael told me that “there wasn’t a need” for him to have kids with his wife. As he put it,
We were happy the way our marriage was and we didn’t feel like having a kid would improve our marriage. We were happy the way things were, so there wasn’t a push to make that decision.
Sarah, a childfree partnered woman in her mid 30’s, shared that she preferred to remain childfree because,
…most couples I’ve seen with children, they don’t treat each other anymore as man or woman. It’s more, they’re just partners in taking care of this child and negotiating what’s right for the kid. Every now and then you see exceptions but I think having kids leads to arguments and brings differences that can make a relationship unsustainable.
Sarah’s observations aren’t wrong. Research shows that many new parents grow apart after having kids. Another study found a negative correlation between marital quality and the presence of children. This same study found that having a child does deter divorce and separation but staying together is not the same thing as staying happy.
Does this mean that all parents lead miserable lives and their relationships are doomed? Of course not (though it appears that entering parenthood with eyes wide open about the challenges that come with it is much better for your relationship than doing so naively). Research findings do suggest, however, that the ties that hold couples happily together have nothing to do with having children.
Speaking for myself, those ties have much more to do with appreciating the small moments, actually enjoying one another’s company, figuring out how to go to your own corner when you are decidedly not enjoying each other’s company, being deliberate about making time for one another, being able to laugh with (and sometimes at) each other, understanding that couple-hood doesn’t make a person whole but it can make a person better (along with a host of other experiences and choices), and taking the long view when things get tough.
Both parents and the childfree can do these things though children might shift parents’ focus away from each other, in some cases only briefly and in others forever. It is the intense, deeply personal connections they share with their partner that many childfree adults describe as their priority.
Stephanie, a childfree married woman in her early 30’s, shared this:
I am hopelessly in love with my husband and I like spending time with him. If we had kids, I wouldn’t get to do that anymore because I’d be spending time with my kids. I fall back in love with my husband every single day. Sometimes I’ll look at him and my heart will explode with love.
Stephanie’s description of her connection with her partner resembles those of other childfree adults I’ve interviewed. It also stands in stark contrast to what we’re told to believe about people and marriages that don’t produce children. Oddly, such claims often come from people who have no experience with marriage themselves (I’m looking at you, Pope Francis).
I’m not as eloquent as Stephanie, and I’ve been married much longer, but I still feel a flutter in my heart when I think of Lance and what our marriage means to me. It’s a partnership like no other. It’s a team I’m proud to be a part of. And though I would be curious to see what a mini us might look like, the path I’ve very happily chosen means we’ll just have to use our imaginations on that front.