Voluntary childlessness, also described by some as being childfree, is 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 portrayals of parenthood with skepticism in the mass media is a contemporary phenomenon. 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. The burden of proof is not on childfree people to justify why they do not want to have children, but rather on the others to justify why anyone should
- 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
- Unwillingness to sacrifice one's own spare time and freedom of movement to raising and looking after children
- Competing familial or social obligations, such as the role of primary caregiver for a disabled spouse, sibling(s) or parent(s)
- Possible deterioration of friendships.
- Preference of having a pet over a child
- The view that having children threatens one's personal development by consuming time and energy that one wishes to devote on other ambitions in life
- the view that having a child means one's own needs are subjected to those of someone else
- Unwillingness to disrupt one's current work and private home life
- 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)
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
- Existing or possible health problems, including genetic disorders that one doesn't want to pass on to potential children
- Lack of the so-called maternal or paternal instinct
- Fear and/or revulsion towards the physical condition of pregnancy, 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 that one will not be able to love one's child
- fear that one will be unable to care for a child that is born or becomes disabled, and therefore one doesn't want to take the risk
- hard to arrange, or pay for, child care
- testimonies of parents who expressed regret of having gotten children
- fear that one's child may grow up to become an immoral person
- fear and/or revulsion towards children
- Dislike of (the behaviour of) (little) children
- the view that children are egocentric and difficult to handle
- 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.
- Rejection of the claim that the country's economy is at risk if some people don't procreate
- Belief that very few parents actually have children in order to support the country's economy
- Unwillingness to pay the cost of raising a child. 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.
- No need for care by one's own children when one is old or close to dying because of the modern welfare state (including the establishment of retirement homes), or 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
- Ability to donate one's inheritance to a charity of one's own choice instead of having to divide it amongst one's 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
- 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 (e.g., global warming effects, 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 claim that the survival of the entire human species is at risk if some people don't procreate, especially in times of human overpopulation
- belief that very few parents actually have children in order to prevent human extinction
- Rejection of the popular belief in some cultures that a man needs to father children in order to be considered "successful"
- 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 belief that it is inherently immoral to bring people into the world. That is, 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 (note that some childfree people explicitly reject antinatalism; they may even like the children of others, but just don't 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
- Countering human overpopulation and its effects by not reproducing
- concern regarding environmental impacts such as climate change, global warming, pollution, resource scarcity, humanitarian crises such as refugee crises and resulting ethnic conflicts, loss of biodiversity
- 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.
Statistics and research
According to economist David Foot of the University of Toronto, the level of a woman's education is the most important factor in determining whether she will reproduce: the higher her level of education, the less likely she is to bear children (or if she does, the fewer children she is likely to have). Overall, researchers have observed childless couples to be more educated, and it is perhaps because of this that they are more likely to be employed in professional and management occupations, more likely for both spouses to earn relatively high incomes, and to live in urban areas. They are also less likely to be religious, subscribe to traditional gender roles, or subscribe to conventional roles.
Worldwide, higher educated women are statistically more often choosing voluntary childlessness. Waren and Pals (2013) found that voluntary childlessness in the United States was more common among higher educated women but not higher educated men. 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.
Research into both voluntary and involuntary childlessness and parenthood has long focused on women's experiences, and men's perspectives are often overlooked.
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 was 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.
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. The National Center of Health Statistics confirms that the percentage of American women of childbearing age who define themselves as childfree (or voluntarily childless) rose sharply in the 1990s—from 2.4 percent in 1982 to 4.3 percent in 1990 to 6.6 percent in 1995.
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.
Among women aged 35–44, the chance of being childless was far greater for never-married (82.5%) than for married women (12.9%). When the same group is analyzed by education level, increasing education correlates with increasing childlessness: non-H.S. graduate (13.5%), H.S. graduate (14.3%), Some College no degree (24.7%), Associate Degree (11.4%), Bachelor's degree (18.2%) and Graduate or Professional degree (27.6%).
While younger women are more likely to be childfree, older women are more likely to state that they intend to remain childfree in the future. It has also been suggested through research that married individuals who were concerned about the stability of their marriages were more likely to remain childless. However, some women report that lack of financial resources was a reason why they decided to remain childless. Childless women in the developed world often express the view that women ultimately have to make a choice between motherhood and having a career.
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 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 in the non-married state of life and so approves of nominally childfree ways of life for the single.
There are, however, some debates within religious groups about whether a childfree lifestyle is acceptable. Another view, for example, is that the biblical text Gen. 1:28 "Be fruitful and multiply", is really not a command but a blessing formula and that while there are many factors to consider as far as people's motives for remaining childless, there are many valid reasons, including dedicating one's time to demanding but good causes, why Christians may choose to remain childless for a short time or a lifetime. Matthew 19:12 describes Jesus as listing three types of eunuchs including one type who chooses it intentionally, noting that whoever is willing to become one, should.
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 don't. 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) is an environmental movement that calls for all people to abstain from reproduction to cause the gradual voluntary extinction of humankind. 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.
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