6 Things We Know About the Childfree: Summarizing the Research

Last week I posted a call for more sociology of the childfree. Then it occurred to me: why not share what we already know from the good research that has been conducted? Decisions about whether to have or rear children, as well as perceptions of people who choose not to parent, are linked to a variety of social processes and identities. My 2012 review of research on voluntarily childless adults highlights the following six insights gained from research conducted thus far.

Research Findings Thus Far

Increasing access to reliable birth control is one explanation for decreasing childbearing rates. Image from http://www.someecards.com/

Increasing access to reliable birth control is one explanation for decreasing childbearing rates.
Image from http://www.someecards.com/

1. Increasingly, fewer of us are opting to have or rear children. U.S. Census Bureau data show that the percentage of women who remain childless has doubled, going from 10 percent in 1976 to 20 percent today. While these data do not distinguish the childfree from the childless, the vast increase in rates of those who don’t have kids at least suggests that more people are making the choice not to have them. Rates of childlessness among men are similar.

2. Scholarly explanations for why some adults choose to remain childfree range from the impact of macro-social forces such as women’s increasing labor force participation and access to reliable birth control to micro-level motivations such as autonomy and freedom. Sharon Houseknecht, in the 1987 Handbook of Marriage and the Family, found that the most commonly cited reason for not having children was “freedom from childcare responsibility and greater opportunity for self-fulfillment and spontaneous mobility.” More recently, Carmichael and Whittaker’s study participants reported an aversion to the lifestyle changes associated with becoming a parent while Gillespie found that a desire for personal freedom and the ability to develop relationships with other adults led childfree adults to opt out of parenthood.

3. For pronatalist cultures such as that in the U.S., the notion of womanhood is inextricably linked to the notion of motherhood. For this reason, Gillespie argues that childfree women are breaking new ground in establishing a “positive feminine identity separate from motherhood.”

4. Challenging the pronatalist culture does not come without consequences. In 1973, Jean Veevers found that, though unfounded, the childfree are perceived as emotionally unstable and maladjusted. Today, 40 years later, little has changed. In their study of university students’ perceptions of childless couples, Copur and Koropeckyj-Cox found that the childless are viewed as emotionally troubled and less warm than parents. Similarly, Park found that the childfree are viewed as selfish, cold, and materialistic.

Stereotypes of the childfree as materialistic and cold appear often in popular media. Image from https://www.facebook.com/ChildfreeHumor

Stereotypes of the childfree as materialistic and cold appear often in popular media.
Image from https://www.facebook.com/ChildfreeHumor

Childfree challenge the pronatalist assumption we should all have or want kids. Image from https://www.facebook.com/ChildfreeHumor

Childfree challenge the pronatalist assumption we should all have or want kids.
Image from https://www.facebook.com/ChildfreeHumor

5. The emerging childfree movement demonstrates that childfree adults recognize their status as stigmatized and challenge the characterization of their choice as a deviant one. The movement is primarily a virtual one, with an increasing number of blogs and social networking sites devoted to facilitating connections among the childfree. Basten’s research on the childfree movement indicates that these groups have the capacity to draw wide appeal yet Basten also notes that the heterogeneity of childfree organizations may make sustaining a larger movement challenging.

6. By and large, childfree adults fare well later in life. Albertini and Kohli found that the support networks of childless older people were more diverse than those of parents and included stronger links with a broader range of relatives as well as friends and other non-relatives. Older adults without children in Albertini and Kohli’s study also tended to be more actively engaged in charity work than their counterparts who had children. Similarly, Wenger found that the aging childless fill “voids” that might be presumed to exist in their lives by sharing strong relationships with family members and being engaged in community endeavors.

More to Know

While we’ve learned much about the lives of childfree adults from social scientific research on the topic, there is plenty more for us to learn.

Readers of w{n}hab!’s Facebook page weighed in recently and said they’d like to know more about childfree men, childfree seniors, the extent to which not wanting kids is environmental vs. genetic, the extent to which the increasing rate of childlessness really is linked to choice vs. infertility, how being an only child may play a role in the decision to remain childfree, the economic and medical advantages of not becoming pregnant, and the potential consequences of findings that “smarter women have fewer children.”

That’s a lot we researchers have yet to discover!

Childfree Feedback

What more would YOU like to know about the childfree? 

3 Responses to 6 Things We Know About the Childfree: Summarizing the Research

  1. Sheryl April 4, 2014 at 3:16 pm #

    My husband and I are choosing to be child free because we don’t see the world and the human race as being entities we want to expose a much loved child to. It is not all about freedom and time to ourselves. It goes so much deeper than that. We both didn’t have great family units growing up and we also are only children so our child would have no cousins or aunts or uncles – would be isolated unless we could find a friend family. We surely would do our best to do so for the child, but we fear it wouldn’t be the same. My husbands’ father was an absentee Dad – his parents were never married, and mine were divorced when I was 3. I was also an abuse victim. So, I just wish there was more out there on people like us – seems to all be this fluffy stuff like we want to be able to travel when we want to and have time to ourselves everyday, etc.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Chris Jeub - Master of Debate or Logical Fallacy? | childfreewe're {not} having a baby! - January 30, 2014

    […] than having children that put you in a nursing home and never visit, as so many do? In fact, we know through empirical research – see point 6 in the linked article – that the childfree fare very well in later life. This […]

Leave a Reply

UA-42521838-1
%d bloggers like this: