“I never wanted to have kids since as early as I can remember. I remember when I was twelve I read something about the likelihood of breast cancer being higher for women who don’t have kids. And I was just really annoyed and sad about it so I talked to my mom about it, like ‘Well what if I don’t want to have kids? This totally isn’t fair!’ My mom just laughed and said ‘You don’t need to worry about that now. You’re twelve. You’ll change your mind.’ I’m thirty-six. I still haven’t changed my mind but my mom is still waiting for my clock to kick in.” -Allison
Allison, one of the 70 childfree adults I’ve interviewed in the course of my sociological research on the childfree, is one of many childfree people who have been told that they’ll change their minds about not wanting kids. The biological clock argument posits that women’s “maternal instincts” will one day get the best of their will and ultimately drive them to want children.
Childfree people are confronted with this claim all the time. And when people once thought to be childfree do change their minds it doesn’t help. A recent post by a previously self-described childfree activist brought this to light. The most recent discussion echoes themes from a reddit thread of several years ago, posted shortly after Leah and Paul, a couple featured in Lauren Sandler’s 2013 article in TIME magazine on The Childfree Life, announced that they were expecting.
Despite the attention these couple of cases has garnered, we’re not all fated to change our minds. And while the question remains under-studied empirically, an anecdote here or there – such as the examples cited above – does not a pattern make. Nevertheless, it’s worth our time to consider what the scientific evidence tells us about our “biological clocks” and whether they will one day take over the brains of every childfree person out there.
The Biological Clock – A Ticking Time Bomb?
Biological clocks are not ticking time bombs waiting to take over our abilities to control our own desires and plans. Sure, the biological clock is real in the sense that it’s really true that as they age, women’s – and men’s! – fertility declines. But this “clock” does not cause us to change our minds about wanting to become parents (or not).
Instead, something just as powerful as biology – how we’re socialized – may drive some previously childfree people to decide they want to become parents after all. That’s right. The mystical force driving some people to want to parent is social, not genetic.
The socialization we receive from the time we’re born tells us that being a parent is one of the most important – and expected! – things we can become when we grow up. That’s what drives us to want kids. The ideology of pronatalism is the powerful force at work here.
While scientists may have discovered a “nurturing instinct” that kicks in for females after they give birth (at least in female mice), there is little evidence that humans have an instinctual drive to actually have kids. Sure, the urge to have sex may be innate. But probably any parent can attest that there’s a significant difference between having sex and rearing a child. A drive to do one does not equal a drive to do the other.
The social pressure we all face to become parents – fueled by pronatalist ideology – may increase as people near the age where having a biological child becomes less and less possible. It is possible that this pressure is enough to drive some people to change their minds. It is also possible that people’s interests and circumstances change. What might at one time have seemed like the right fit may feel less right later on, for any number of reasons.
The fact that the “biological clock” gets conjured up with such regularity – and that some claim it will eventually drive us all to change our minds – makes sense. Many people do feel compelled, for reasons that they can’t always articulate, to have children. It’s easy to think that if we can’t easily point to a cause for feeling compelled to have children, perhaps the cause is instinct. But believing something to be true doesn’t make it so.
OK, OK, we admit it. We too have changed our minds in the past. I used to insist that chocolate peanut butter Haagen-Dazs was the only decent frozen dessert on the planet. Then I tried salted caramel gelato. OMG. Mind changed! Lance and I both used to think we’d never adapt to small town life in Maine but now we can’t imagine living in the big city ever again. Mind changed!
But parenthood? That is not something we’ve changed our minds about. We’re not saying no one ever changes their minds about parenthood. Some people who say they don’t want kids do change their minds. And that’s ok. We’ll even be so bold as to assert that some parents change their minds about having kids after they’ve had them (a far greater travesty, wouldn’t you agree?).
No one ever turns to the happily expectant couple and says, “Oh don’t worry about that bump there, honey. You’ll change your mind once it’s out!” It’s only the childfree who are expected to change their minds. And yes, some do.
Not All Childfree
The point is this: The fact one self-described childfree activist or a couple of people featured in TIME’s childfree article have decided that parenthood may be for them after all has nothing to do with whether all childfree people will eventually change their minds.
The idea that we are biologically driven to want to rear children is a made-up notion that supports an old timey pronatalist ideology designed to keep women “in their place.” For this reason, I think we’d be well-served to worry less about the folks who change their minds and more about the myths perpetuated by pronatalism. And let’s worry less about the mind-changers and more about the fact that those who don’t want kids – and who don’t change their minds – are too-often misunderstood and sometimes even vilified for their choice. That, it seems to me, is a problem worth stewing over.
This post has been revised from a version published previously.