Voluntary childlessness, also called being childfree, describes the voluntary choice not to have children.
In most societies and for most of human history, choosing not to have children was both difficult and undesirable. The availability of reliable contraception along with support provided in old age by one's government rather than one's family has made childlessness an option for some people, though they may be looked down upon in certain communities.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word "childfree" first appeared sometime before 1901, but being voluntarily childless or childfree as a trend and portrayal of parenthood with skepticism in the mass media are contemporary phenomena. The meaning of the term "childfree" extends to encompass the children of others (in addition to one's own children) and this distinguishes it further from the more usual term "childless", which is traditionally used to express the idea of having no children, whether by choice or by circumstance. The term "child free" has been cited in Australian literature to refer to parents who are without children at the current time. This may be due to them living elsewhere on a permanent basis or a short-term solution such as childcare.
Reasons cited for being voluntarily childless
- Simply not wanting to have children
- Uncertain or ambivalent feelings about having children
- Testimonies of parents who regret having children
- Positive attitudes and lack of regret of people who chose to not have children
- Other possibilities in life opening up due to the lack of children
- Lack of desire to perpetuate one's family line or pass on one's genes
- reluctance to replicate the genes of one's own parents in cases of child abuse
- Lack of a suitable partner or difficulty getting married
- These trends are important in countries where having children out of wedlock is highly unusual, such as China.
- Disapproval of societal treatment and expectations of women
- General existential angst
- Unwillingness to sacrifice freedom and independence to rearing children
- unwillingness to give up the current lifestyle
- Being godparents or helping relatives raise their children
- Possible deterioration of interpersonal relationships
- Preference of having a pet over a child
- Preference of pursuing personal development to raising children
- refusal to have one's needs and wants subjugated by those of someone else
- Unwillingness to disrupt one's current work and private home life
- Dislike of (young) children's behavior and/or language
- the view that children are egocentric and difficult to handle
- Situation where one's partner already has children from a previous relationship and one does not have a need or justification to bear or father additional children
- Uncertainty over the stability of the parenting relationship, and the damage to relationships or difficulties with them getting children may cause
- Possibility of sexual activity without the need, risk, or willingness to get pregnant by using birth control
- Concerns over the effects pregnancy has on the woman's body (weight gain, stretch marks, drooping breasts, hyperpigmentation on the face, looser pelvic muscles leading to reduced sexual pleasure for both the woman and her partner, haemorrhoids, urinary incontinence, death, among others)
- Disapproval of perfectionist attitudes towards child-rearing in modern societies
- As a society becomes better developed, it is generally true that expectations of parental investment per child goes up, depressing fertility rates.
- Dislike of dedicated parents
Psychological and medical
- Pregnancy and childbirth can bring about undesirable changes:
- substantial neurobiological changes leading to postpartum depression, and feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, among other things. Men can also suffer from postpartum depression.
- lasting effects on women's health. In particular, research suggests a causal link between gravidity and accelerated cellular aging, because energy is diverted from somatic maintenance to reproductive efforts.
- The health of one's partner does not allow for children
- Personal well-being, health and happiness
- Existing or possible health problems, including genetic disorders that one does not want potential children to inherit and mental health issues
- Not feeling the 'biological clock' ticking and having no maternal or paternal instincts or drives
- Fear and/or revulsion towards the physical condition of pregnancy (tokophobia), the childbirth experience, and recovery (for example the erosion of physical desirability)
- Celibacy or a fear and/or revulsion towards sexual activity and intimacy
- Various fears (for example, of being trapped or disappointed) as well as fears for the child
- fear of a long-term stressful responsibility and performance anxiety
- fear of not being able to love one's child
- fear that one will give birth to a disabled child and taking care of whom is challenging
- hard to arrange, or pay for, child care
- fear that one's child may grow up to become an immoral person
- fear and/or revulsion towards children
- Perceived or actual incapacity to be a responsible and patient parent
- belief that other people are better suited to have children than oneself
- Belief that one is too old or too young to have children
- Parents can become less empathetic towards non-family members.
Economic and cultural
- Rejection of the claim that the country's economy is at risk if some people do not procreate
- Belief that very few parents actually have children in order to support the country's economy
- Burden of taxes and debt
- Some use the term "wage slaves" when referring to having to pay taxes to support welfare programs such as pensions.
- Stagnant or falling wages at the same time as high cost of living
- Rising cost of raising a child as a society industrializes and urbanizes
- Being busy with work
- Unwillingness to pay the cost of raising a child. For example, according to Statistics Netherlands and the National Institute for Budgetary Information (Nibud), raising a child cost an average of €120,000 from birth to age 18, or about 17% of one's disposable income as of 2019.
- Living in a time of pestilence or economic recession
- Changing cultural attitude towards children (known as the second demographic transition)
- A result of women's liberation, education, and rising workforce participation
- Women no longer need to marry and bear children in order to be economically secure
- Transition from traditional and communal values towards expressive individualism
- In the West, adherents of the countercultural or feminist movements in the 1960s and 1970s typically had no children
- Growing awareness that childbearing is a choice
- Declining support for traditional gender roles, and that people need to have children in order to be complete or successful
- A result of women's liberation, education, and rising workforce participation
- Unwillingness to burden one's children with such care, or preventing a situation in which one's premature death will orphan one's children (at too young an age), or cause them too much sorrow at one's deathbed
- No need for care by one's own children when one is old or close to dying
- Ability to donate one's inheritance to a charity of one's own choice instead of having to divide it amongst one's children
- Greater interest in and affordability of pets compared to children
- Ability to invest some of the time and money saved by not raising children to other socially meaningful purposes
- Belief that one can make an even greater contribution to humanity through one's work than through having children (for example by working for or donating to charities)
- The view that the wish to reproduce oneself is a form of narcissism
- The opinion that not having children is no more selfish than having them
- Some even argue that not having children is an unselfish act
- Questioning of the need for the next generation and refusal to be 'slaves' to the genes
- Belief that one can better contribute to the welfare of existing people (including children) than to produce even more
- Belief in a negative, declining condition of the world and culture and in the need to avoid subjecting a child to those negative conditions
- This includes concerns that calamitous events—effects of global warming, war, or famine—might be likely to occur within the lifetime of one's children and cause their suffering and/or death
- Rejection of the common argument that a woman who does not having children is "missing out" or will be more motivated after some
- The view that one's friendships and relationships with adults are sufficient for one's own happiness
- The view that spending time with one's nephews, nieces or stepchildren is sufficient for one's own happiness
- Antinatalism, the philosophy asserting that it is inherently immoral to bring people into the world.
- Antinatalists argue in favor of the asymmetry of pleasure and pain. The absence of pleasure is neutral whereas the absence of pain is positive. Hence, one may generally wish to spare a potential child from the suffering of life.
- Moreover, the parent can never get the consent of the unborn child, therefore a decision to procreate would be an imposition of life. However, some childfree people explicitly reject antinatalism; they may even like the children of others, but just do not want any themselves.
- Belief that one is not 'missing out' on any of the alleged benefits of parenthood as long as one does not know what parenthood is like
- Belief that it is wrong to intentionally have a child when there are so many children available for adoption
- Belief that people tend to have children for the wrong reasons (e.g. fear, social pressures from cultural norms)
- Adherence to the principles of a religious organization which rejects having children or the rejection of procreative religious beliefs imposed by one's family and/or community
- Belief that it is irresponsible to 'just try' what parenthood is like when one is still in doubt, as it burdens one with a responsibility to raise a child to adulthood once it's born, with no turning back when one is disappointed and regrets the decision
- Belief that one can still contribute to 'the education of children to become happy and empathic beings' that a society needs (for example, by being a teacher or babysitter) without being a parent oneself
- Opposition to capitalism, believed to necessitate procreation
- Opinion that the traditional family is "a decadent, energy-absorbing, destructive, wasteful institution"
- This is held by radical feminists.
- General discontent with modern society
- Perception of the lack of mutual respect, human dignity, and privacy among individuals and institutions in modern societies; loss of faith in humanity
- Perception of the inescapable, invasive use of modern technology and global surveillance; anticipation of a technological dystopian future
- Social Darwinism and political polarization; general cynicism and existential nihilism
- Rejection of the claim that the survival of the entire human species is at risk if some people do not procreate, especially in times of human overpopulation
- Belief that very few parents actually have children in order to prevent human extinction
- View that human existence inflicts suffering upon other species just like the way they cause harm among themselves via predatory practices
- Countering human overpopulation and its effects by not reproducing
- Concern regarding environmental impacts of human activities including population growth such as climate change, global warming, pollution, resource scarcity and famines, humanitarian crises such as refugee crises and resulting ethnic conflicts, loss of biodiversity or mass extinction
- The belief that having one fewer child reduces one's carbon dioxide emissions significantly compared to, for instance, owning a car with improved fuel efficiency, replacing incandescent light bulbs with more energy efficient models, avoiding air travel, practicing comprehensive recycling, or adopting a vegetarian diet
- Worries over the breakdown of civilization
- Opposition to anthropocentrism and belief in deep ecology, or putting non-human lives first
- Support for the eventual extinction of Homo sapiens
Statistics and research
Psychologist Ellen Walker argued that the childfree lifestyle had become a trend in 2014. The Internet has enabled people who pursue this lifestyle to connect, thereby making it more visible. Worldwide, higher educated women are statistically more often choosing to remain childless. Research into both voluntary and involuntary childlessness and parenthood has long focused on women's experiences, and men's perspectives are often overlooked.
In China, the cost of living, especially the cost of housing in the big cities, is a serious obstacle to marriage. In the 1990s, the Chinese government reformed higher education in order to increase access, whereupon significantly more young people, a slight majority of whom being women, have received a university degree. Consequently, many young women are now gainfully employed and financially secure. Traditional views on gender roles dictate that women be responsible for housework and childcare, regardless of their employment status. Workplace discrimination against women (with families) is commonplace; for example, an employer might be more skeptical towards a married woman with one child, fearing she might have another (as the one-child policy was rescinded in 2016) and take more maternity leave. Altogether, there is less incentive for young women to marry. In addition, Chinese Millennials are less keen on tying the knots than their predecessors as a result of cultural change. Because this is a country where having children out of wedlock is quite rare, this means that many young people are foregoing children.
In Taiwan, it has become much more affordable for young couples to own pets instead of having children. In addition, those who want children face obstacles such as short maternity leaves and low wages. By 2020, Taiwan has become home to more pets than children.
As Vietnam continues to industrialize and urbanize, many couples have chosen to have fewer children, or not at all, especially in better developed and more densely populated places, such as Ho Chi Minh City, where the fertility rate fell to 1.45 in 2015, well below replacement. Rising cost of living and tiredness from work are among the reasons why.
In Europe, childlessness among women aged 40–44 is most common in Austria, Spain and the United Kingdom (in 2010-2011). Among surveyed countries, childlessness was least common across Eastern European countries, although one child families are very common there.
According to research by Statistics Netherlands from 2004, 6 in 10 childless women are voluntarily childless. It showed a correlation between higher levels of education of women and the choice to be childfree, and the fact that women had been receiving better education in the preceding decades was a factor why an increasing number of women chose childfreedom. The two most important reasons for choosing not to have children were that it would infringe on their freedom and that raising children takes too much time and energy; many women who gave the second reason also gave the first. A 2016 report from Statistics Netherlands confirmed those numbers: 20% of Dutch women were childless, of whom 60% voluntarily, so that 12% of all Dutch women could be considered childfree.
In March 2017, Trouw reported that a new Statistics Netherlands report showed that 22% of higher educated 45-year-old men were childless and 33% of lower educated 45-year-old men were childless. Childlessness amongst the latter was increasing, even though most of them were involuntarily childless. The number of voluntarily childless people amongst higher educated men had been increasing since the 1960s, whilst voluntary childlessness amongst lower educated men (who tended to have been raised more traditionally) did not become a rising trend until the 2010s.
In March 2020, Quest reported that research from Trouw and Statistics Netherlands had shown that 10% of 30-year-old Dutch women questioned had not gotten children out of her own choice, and did not expect to get any children anymore either; furthermore, 8.5% of 45-year-old women questioned and 5.5% of 60-year-old women questioned stated that they had consciously remained childless.
According to a 2019 study amongst 191 Swedish men aged 20 to 50, 39 were not fathers and did not want to have children in the future either (20.4%). Desire to have (more) children was not related to level of education, country of birth, sexual orientation or relationship status.
Some Swedish men 'passively' choose not to have children as they feel their life is already good as it is, adding children is not necessary, and they do not have to counter the same amount of social pressure to have children as childfree women do.
A YouGov poll released in January 2020 revealed that among Britons who were not already parents, 37% told pollsters they did not want any children ever. 19% said they did not want children but might change their minds in the future and 26% were interested in having children.Those who did not want to be parents included 13% of people aged 18 to 24, 20% of those aged 25 to 34, and 51% aged 35 to 44. Besides age (23%), the most popular reasons for not having children were the potential impact on lifestyles (10%), high costs of living and raising children (10%), human overpopulation (9%), dislike of children (8%), and lack of parental instincts (6%).
The BBC reported in 2010 that around half of Canadian women without children in their 40s had decided to not have any from an early age.
Being a childfree American adult was considered unusual in the 1950s. However, the proportion of childfree adults in the population has increased significantly since then. A 2006 study by Abma and Martinez found that American women aged 35 to 44 who were voluntarily childless constituted 5% of all U.S. women in 1982, 8% in 1988, 9% in 1995 and 7% in 2002. These women had the highest income, prior work experience and the lowest religiosity compared to other women. Research by sociologist Kristin Park revealed that childfree people tended to be better educated, to be professionals, to live in urban areas, to be less religious, and to have less conventional life choices.
From 2007 to 2011 the fertility rate in the U.S. declined 9%, the Pew Research Center reporting in 2010 that the birth rate was the lowest in U.S. history and that childlessness rose across all racial and ethnic groups to about 1 in 5 versus 1 in 10 in the 1970s; it did not say which percentage of childless Americans were so voluntarily, but Time claimed that, despite persisting discrimination against especially women who chose to remain childless, acceptance of being childfree was gradually increasing.
According to a cross-generational study comparing millennials to Generation X conducted at Wharton School of Business, more than half of Millennial undergraduates surveyed do not plan to have children. The researchers compared surveys of the Wharton graduating class of 1992 and 2012. In 1992, 78% of women planned to eventually have children dropping to 42% in 2012. The results were similar for male students. The research revealed among both genders the proportion of undergraduates who reported they eventually planned to have children had dropped in half over the course of a generation.
Psychologist Paul Dolan made the case that women who never married or have children are among the happiest subgroup in the United States by analyzing American Time Use Survey.
Waren and Pals (2013) found that voluntary childlessness in the United States was more common among higher educated women but not higher educated men.
Statistics New Zealand estimated that the share of childless women grew from under 10% in 1996 to around 15% in 2013. Professional women were the most likely to be without children, at 16%, compared 12% for manual workers. At least 5% of them were childless by choice rather than by chance.
Social attitudes to remaining childfree
Most societies place a high value on parenthood in adult life, so that people who remain childfree are sometimes stereotyped as being "individualistic" people who avoid social responsibility and are less prepared to commit themselves to helping others. However, certain groups believe that being childfree is beneficial. With the advent of environmentalism and concerns for stewardship, those choosing to not have children are also sometimes recognized as helping reduce our impact, such as members of the voluntary human extinction movement. Some childfree are sometimes lauded on moral grounds, such as members of philosophical or religious groups, like the Shakers.
There are three broad areas of criticism regarding childfreeness, based upon socio-political, feminist or religious reasons. There are also considerations relating to personal philosophy and social roles.
Feminist author Daphne DeMarneffe links larger feminist issues to both the devaluation of motherhood in contemporary society, as well as the delegitimization of "maternal desire" and pleasure in motherhood. In third-wave handbook Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, authors Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards explore the concept of third-wave feminists reclaiming "girlie" culture, along with reasons why women of Baby Boomer and Generation X ages may reject motherhood because, at a young and impressionable age, they witnessed their own mothers being devalued by society and family.
On the other hand, in "The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order" and in Utne Reader magazine, third-wave feminist writer Tiffany Lee Brown described the joys and freedoms of childfree living, freedoms such as travel previously associated with males in Western culture. In "Motherhood Lite", she celebrates being an aunt, co-parent, or family friend over the idea of being a mother.
Some believe that overpopulation is a serious problem and some question the fairness of what they feel amount to subsidies for having children, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (US), free K–12 education paid for by all taxpayers, family medical leave, and other such programs. Others, however, do not believe overpopulation to be a problem in itself; regarding such problems as overcrowding, global warming, and straining food supplies to be problems of public policy and/or technology.
Some have argued that this sort of conscientiousness is self-eliminating (assuming it is heritable), so by avoiding reproduction for ethical reasons the childfree will only aid in the deterioration of concern for the environment and future generations.
Government and taxes
Some regard governmental or employer-based incentives offered only to parents—such as a per-child income tax credit, preferential absence planning, employment legislation, or special facilities—as intrinsically discriminatory, arguing for their removal, reduction, or the formation of a corresponding system of matching incentives for other categories of social relationships. Childfree advocates argue that other forms of caregiving have historically not been considered equal—that "only babies count"—and that this is an outdated idea that is in need of revision. Caring for sick, disabled, or elderly dependents entails significant financial and emotional costs but is not currently subsidized in the same manner. This commitment has traditionally and increasingly fallen largely on women, contributing to the feminization of poverty in the U.S.
The focus on personal acceptance is mirrored in much of the literature surrounding choosing not to reproduce. Many early books were grounded in feminist theory and largely sought to dispel the idea that womanhood and motherhood were necessarily the same thing, arguing, for example, that childfree people face not only social discrimination but political discrimination as well.
Abrahamic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as Hinduism place a high value on children and their central place in marriage. In numerous works, including an Apostolic letter written in 1988, Pope John Paul II has set forth the Roman Catholic emphasis on the role of children in family life. However, the Catholic Church also stresses the value of chastity.
There are, however, some debates within religious groups about whether a childfree lifestyle is acceptable. Another view, for example, is that the biblical verse "Be fruitful and multiply" in Genesis 1:28, is really not a command but a blessing formula. Alternatively, some Christians affirm the belief that Genesis 1:28 is a moral command but nonetheless believe that voluntary childlessness is ethical if a higher ethical principle intervenes to make child bearing imprudent in comparison. Health concerns, a calling to serve orphans, serving as missionaries in a dangerous location etc. are all examples that would make childbearing imprudent for a Christian. A small activist group, the Cyber-Church of Jesus Christ Childfree, defends this view, "Jesus loved children but chose to never have any, so that he could devote his life to telling the Good News."
Essayist Brian Tomasik cites ethical reasons for people to remain childfree. Also, they will have more time to focus on themselves, which will allow for greater creativity and the exploration of personal ambitions. In this way, they may benefit themselves and society more than if they had a child.
The "selfish" issue
Some opponents of the childfree choice consider such a choice to be selfish. The rationale of this position is the assertion that raising children is a very important activity and so not engaging in this activity must therefore mean living one's life in service to one's self. The value judgment behind this idea is that individuals should endeavor to make some kind of meaningful contribution to the world, but also that the best way to make such a contribution is to have children. For some people, one or both of these assumptions may be true, but others prefer to direct their time, energy, and talents elsewhere, in many cases toward improving the world that today's children occupy (and that future generations will inherit).
Proponents of childfreedom posit that choosing not to have children is no more or less selfish than choosing to have children. Choosing to have children may be the more selfish choice, especially when poor parenting risks creating many long term problems for both the children themselves and society at large. As philosopher David Benatar explains, at the heart of the decision to bring a child into the world often lies the parents' own desires (to enjoy child-rearing or perpetuate one's legacy/genes), rather than the potential person's interests. At the very least, Benatar believes this illustrates why a childfree person may be just as altruistic as any parent.
There is also the question as to whether having children really is such a positive contribution to the world in an age when there are many concerns about overpopulation, pollution and depletion of non-renewable resources. This is especially true for the wealthy 1% of global population who consume disproportionate amounts of resources and who are responsible for 15% of global carbon emissions. Some critics counter that such analyses of having children may understate its potential benefits to society (e.g. a greater labor force, which may provide greater opportunity to solve social problems) and overstate the costs. That is, there is often a need for a non-zero birth rate.
People, especially women, who express the fact that they have voluntarily chosen to remain childless, are frequently subjected to several different forms of discrimination. The decision not to have children has been variously attributed to insanity or derided as "unnatural", and frequently childfree people are subjected to unsolicited questioning by friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances and even strangers who attempt to force them to justify and change their decision. Some conscientiously childless women have been told that their purpose in life was to get children based on the fact that they were born with a womb (created by God). Some British childfree women have compared their experiences of coming out as childfree to coming out as gay in the mid-20th century. Some Canadian women preferred not to express their decision to remain childless for fear of encountering social pressure to change their decision. Some women are told to first have a child before being able to properly decide that they do not want one. Some parents try to pressure their children into producing grandchildren and threaten to or actually disown them if they do not. Some childfree women are told they would make good mothers, or just "haven't met the right man yet", are assumed to be infertile rather than having made a conscious decision not to make use of their fertility (whether applicable or not). Some childfree people are accused of hating all children instead of just not wanting any themselves and still being able to help people who do have children with things like babysitting.
It has also been claimed that there is a taboo on discussing the negative aspects of pregnancy, and a taboo on parents to express regret that they chose to have children, which makes it harder for childfree people to defend their decision not to have them.
Organizations and political activism
Childfree individuals do not necessarily share a unified political or economic philosophy, and most prominent childfree organizations tend to be social in nature. Childfree social groups first emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, most notable among them the National Alliance for Optional Parenthood and No Kidding! in North America where numerous books have been written about childfree people and where a range of social positions related to childfree interests have developed along with political and social activism in support of these interests. The term "childfree" was used in a July 3, 1972 Time article on the creation of the National Organization for Non-Parents. It was revived in the 1990s when Leslie Lafayette formed a later childfree group, the Childfree Network.
The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT, pronounced 'vehement') is an environmental movement that calls for all people to abstain from reproduction to cause the gradual voluntary extinction of humankind. Despite its name, the movement also includes those who do not necessarily desire human extinction but do want to curb or reverse human population growth in the name of environmentalism. VHEMT was founded in 1991 by Les U. Knight, an American activist who became involved in the American environmental movement in the 1970s and thereafter concluded that human extinction was the best solution to the problems facing the Earth's biosphere and humanity. VHEMT supports human extinction primarily because, in the movement's view, it would prevent environmental degradation. The movement states that a decrease in the human population would prevent a significant amount of human-caused suffering. The extinctions of non-human species and the scarcity of resources required by humans are frequently cited by the movement as evidence of the harm caused by human overpopulation.
In popular culture
- The novel Olive (2020) by Emma Gannon includes several voluntarily childless characters.
- One character from the television series True Detective (2014–19) upholds the anti-natalist philosophy.
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