Families that don’t include children are largely overlooked by family scholars and in popular discourse.
In an effort to rectify this oversight, I recently published an article in the peer-reviewed journal Sociology Compass that analyzes what we know from previous research on how childfree families “do” family. What do childfree families look like? And how do they differ from families that include kids, if at all?
Family scholars recognize four major functions that families fulfill in our society. They include:
1) Fulfilling the sexual and emotional companionship needs of members.
2) Providing economically for members.
3) Providing a home to members.
4) Engaging in reproduction, which can biological and/or social.
Childfree families fulfill all four recognized functions of families.
Sexual and Emotional Companionship
Members of childfree families form lasting relationships with others that help fulfill their emotional and sexual needs. In fact, providing for the emotional wellbeing of members is a particular strength of childfree families. Studies show that marital satisfaction among nonparents is higher than that of parents. Some also indicate that parents experience less emotional wellbeing than nonparents.
Janet, a childfree woman in her mid 30’s and one of forty-five childfree people I have interviewed during the course of my research on the subject, told me: “One my favorite things [about my childfree life] is my healthy sex life. One thing I’ve seen with people who have kids is how horrible their sex life is. I don’t want to lose that [with my partner].”
Nurturing others is one way of attaining the emotional intimacy humans need and childfree families engage in nurturing just as those with kids do. In the case of the childfree, such nurturing is often directed at pets. In fact, recent research shows that pets bond with their owners in ways similar to children with their parents (I discussed this work in an earlier post).
Families also serve to provide economically for their members and childfree families are no different from others in this regard. While most childfree families don’t provide for children (though some do contribute to the financial well-being of nieces, nephews, and other children in their lives), their members do provide economically for partners and pets.
There are some interesting gender patterns when it comes to this function of families. In families that include kids, women are less likely to work in professional or managerial positions than women in families where kids aren’t present. Also, women without kids out earn their counterparts who have kids while nonparent men have lower average incomes than working fathers.
The reasons for these differences are varied but one thing they suggest is that families that don’t include kids appear to challenge what we view as “traditional” household arrangements when it comes to deciding who provides economically for the household. Whether this is intentional, the result of discrimination against mothers and non-fathers, something else, or, most likely, some combination of factors deserves further examination.
Two Remaining Functions
Two functions of families remain: providing a home to members and reproduction. You read that correctly. I said reproduction. Follow this link for a discussion of the research on how childfree families fulfill these two remaining functions. You might be surprised.