Even as a child, I knew that parenthood wouldn’t ever be for me. At the time (the 1970s), this decision marked me as a completely transgressive weirdo. I got some serious flack for it from people who thought they were qualified to tell me what I wanted out of life. I even faced reproductive sabotage from my then-husband! But according to a recent Pew Research study, it seems like more and more young adults are choosing the childfree life these days. Let’s take a look at how much our culture has changed.
Childfree from childhood
I knew even in childhood that I didn’t ever want to be a parent. Even now, I couldn’t tell you why or what went into that decision. My mom loved me and my sister enormously, and we loved her back just as much. Though I grew up devastatingly poor, I didn’t suffer overmuch from the ravages of poverty. I’ve been told by every partner I ever had that I’m amazingly caring and nurturing. I even took care of my mother in her last years. But motherhood never pinged my radar of interest.
All I can tell you is that most people seem to have this yearning, this ache inside, for children. Whatever creates that desire, it has always been entirely absent in me. If you don’t want a pet llama, a stamp collection, or a monster truck with all the trimmings, then you understand what it’s like for me. The desire is alien to me. It’s just never risen in my heart.
I could perceive no reason in the world to test that limit. By my teens, I knew a lot more about what went into motherhood (though likely not the whole picture). With every new thing I learned about parenting, I wanted children less.
I eventually met a childfree substitute teacher in high school. When we found out he was married but neither had nor wanted to have children, however, that became our topic for the class. Fascinated, we peppered him with questions, all of which he answered with grace and wit.
By the end of that class, I had words for the feelings I’d always had. More than that, a specific life decision had crystallized in my heart.
All kinds of people felt qualified to veto my decision
I’ve never felt the need to state my motivations as anything but just not wanting to be a parent. To me, that was enough and more than enough of a reason never to go that route.
My mom was completely on board. “Parenting is hard,” she’d say. “Only do it if you really want to.” She’d really wanted to, and we knew that. That said, the difficulty of the job had made her adamantly pro-choice. She wanted every child to be wanted and every mother to be happy to be one.
However, back then this was a hugely counter-cultural decision. It became even more counter-cultural when I became a fundamentalist. I’d made no secret of my decision when Biff and I dated, but he began to chafe against my boundaries almost immediately after he converted.
Once I converted as well, he thought he’d found the magic means to change my mind. He enlisted Jesus to help him.
Then, since Jesus never does anything, Biff triangulated other people into the war.
All the people helping him
First, of course, Biff consulted our pastor. He was a genial old fellow who told Biff not to worry. All women change their minds after marriage, he told Biff. Just humor her. She’ll be asking for babies within a year. So Biff told me he’d put his desire for children on the altar, which is Christianese. It means he’d be ignoring that desire for Jesus reasons. I, foolishly, believed him. This noble sacrifice lasted until the honeymoon.
When I didn’t change my mind, he enlisted our mutual friends and church family to work on me.
One of those friends was an aspiring novelist who wrote a whole Christian romance novel using me and Biff as thinly-veiled leads. In her hands, “Casey” became pregnant with quadruplets. “Bill” tricked her into continuing the pregnancy until it couldn’t be legally aborted. But don’t worry! It all worked out for the best for those who believe! “Casey” discovered she’d loved motherhood all along, so the story ended with her tearfully thanking “Bill” for tricking her — and planning to have many more babies with him. The novelist then oh-so-innocently asked me to “critique” the book.
To say this story horrified me would be such an understatement!
Also thanks to Biff’s encouragement, church people who barely even knew me took it upon themselves to try to talk me into motherhood. Women who’d had or wanted children started utterly unprovoked fights with me (“How can you think motherhood is bad?” began one argument). They acted like my personal life decisions were some kind of statement about their own. And they’d hand me their babies “to watch for just a minute.” On these occasions, Biff would gaze super-meaningfully at me as if he could drill the desire for children into me with his eyes alone.
But none of that worked, so he eventually took an extra step to try to get the babies he wanted out of me.
Not even reproductive sabotage worked for Biff
By far the weirdest thing Biff did was try to sabotage our birth control by faking a vasectomy.
You heard me. In fact, this kind of coercion is surprisingly common in abusive relationships.
Thankfully, the attempt failed.
Though I believed he’d really had the procedure done, I refused to have unprotected sex till I saw evidence that he’d taken his final clearance test and was shooting blanks. Obviously, he couldn’t pony that up — because he’d never actually had the operation. So his subterfuge fizzled out there. As frustrated as he clearly was, he couldn’t budge me.
Years later, I finally realized why I’d never once seen any hospital bills or insurance statements from the procedure — and how a supposedly snipped man had managed to father children immediately after we broke up.
I’m still amazed that I got out of that relationship without children!
A strange new childfree world
After that breakup, I encountered even more people acting judgmental and weird about opting out of parenthood. One of my exes even got handed a classic and cringey line from a coworker in the tech field: “Who’s going to take care of you when you’re old?”
But more often, people were intrigued by the idea.
Often, it was obvious to me that many people had simply never thought about wanting children. They had always simply assumed that everybody always had them, so they would too. Now, here I was saying they didn’t have to. Men, in particular, heard that message loud and clear, but women, too, asked me to tell them more about this choice. People asked me about it in curious ways, not condemning ones. My answers seemed to reveal doors to them that they’d never suspected existed.
(It seems to me that I made way more converts to the childfree life than I ever made to Christianity. Something about that idea tickles me pink.)
By the mid-90s, people who’d opted out of parenthood were beginning to call themselves childfree, to differentiate themselves from those who were childless. Childfree people had chosen to opt out of parenthood. Childless people had found themselves there involuntarily.
Internet forums began opening on the topic — and they found audiences eager to discuss this life choice.
Gradually, I realized lots of people were childfree. We just had trouble finding each other.
My body, my choice: childfree edition
Of course, I couldn’t actually get sterilized for years, not till my early 30s. No doctor would sign off on the procedure. The fact that I had never, ever, ever wanted children, not even in a gauzy soft-focus maybe one day way, didn’t matter to them.
I knew I wouldn’t change my mind. But Doctors condescended constantly to me. They were all convinced I’d totally change my mind because all women did in their universe. This treatment annoyed me to no end.
Finally, an extremely-pregnant OBGYN gave me the go-ahead and operated on me. She was extremely pro-choice, in the same way and for the same reasons my mother had been.
Finally, I was done worrying.
It felt like I’d been fighting for decades to achieve safety from pregnancy. Finally, it was done. I was safe, and I was free. I left that hospital feeling like I’d lost a hundred pounds.
I’ve never regretted that surgery, either. Not once, not even a little.
The childfree life is becoming more popular
For a while, I wondered if I was hearing way less flack over being childfree in recent years because I was simply getting too old to become pregnant. Misogynists feel a sense of ownership over younger women that they don’t seem to feel over older ones. Older women are just more invisible to misogynists.
But now it seems like there’s simply less flack on offer. Being childfree is just more common now than it once was. That does seem to be the message from Pew Research. A recent study of theirs found that more and more people are opting out of parenthood:
[A] rising share of U.S. adults who are not already parents say they are unlikely to ever have children, and their reasons range from just not wanting to have kids to concerns about climate change and the environment.
Some 44% of non-parents ages 18 to 49 say it is not too or not at all likely that they will have children someday, an increase of 7 percentage points from the 37% who said the same in a 2018 survey.“Growing share of childless adults in U.S. don’t expect to ever have children,” Pew Research, November 19, 2021.
The number of existing parents who say they don’t want to have more kids hasn’t changed much in the past few years. However, more non-parents are saying they don’t want kids.
The reasons are surprising too
Moreover, the majority of non-parents in this study (56%) said “they just don’t want to have kids.” But it’s how age groups broke out on this response that interested me. Younger non-parents were more likely to give this reason than older ones (60% vs 46%). Older ones were more likely to give medical or financial reasons, even environmental ones. Way more younger ones were right out in front saying they just didn’t wanna.
To me, this speaks to how much safer it has become nowadays to say one simply doesn’t want to have children.
When I was a young adult, if a woman in particular said she didn’t want to have children, people assumed there was something very wrong with her. She might be deviant, even criminal somehow; she wasn’t nurturing or empathetic or something. Clearly, she was missing some essential spark of womanhood.
So I saw women constantly trying to purchase their childfree status by reassuring anyone who asked that yes, oh yes, they were absolutely wonderful, loving, empathetic, nurturing people; they just didn’t want to be mothers. It rarely worked, though, so childfree people learned to offer up other reasons that might be better accepted by judgmental audiences. (Is this sounding familiar, ex-Christians? It should.)
Maybe fewer people feel they must justify their decisions than they once did.
“I just don’t wanna” is more than enough of a reason. It always was.
We get one life: make it count
Humans get one shot at life. Just one. There are no do-overs after death, no mulligans, no take-backsies. This is the one life we know for sure that we get. So we need to make it count.
At the same time, we can’t help getting hooked into doing some stuff we don’t want to do. Social obligations are part of the human experience, and they always will be. But when it comes to a big huge life choice like parenting, something that can reverberate down the line for our entire life, something that will really fall mostly on us to do, it’s very important to be sure we’re doing it — or rejecting it — for reasons we’ll be okay with for our whole lives. And especially if that life choice involves children who didn’t ask to be born, be extra-sure that it’s something you really want and that the children created will be happy as well.
In the journey of our lives, various doors will open and close along the way. That’s normal. Sometimes opening one door means that the one beside it locks forever. That, too, is normal.
Get as much information as you can about the doors you want to open or pass by, and then do the best you can with what you’ve learned. You may still make mistakes, sure. But you’ll be positioned to get to the end of the journey with way fewer regrets.