When Katharine Hepburn chose childlessness in the 1940s, she claimed that “I was ambitious and knew I would not have children. I wanted total freedom.” Her views were thought to be scandalous. But when Oprah Winfrey admitted in 1994 to People magazine that “what it takes one on one [to parent], I don’t have,” she was not pilloried but praised for understanding her own needs.
For a variety of reasons–including greater education for women, effective birth control, and later marriage–there has been a dramatic increase in the number of childless women over the past 30 years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1993 there were 34.9 million American families that were childless and only 33.3 million families with a child under the age of 18. Childlessness is about to come bursting out of the closet.
In interviewing more than a hundred childless women for my book The Childless Revolution, my goal was simply to put a face on childless women, not to make a major discovery about them. What I was not prepared for was uncovering a revolution in the making.
Childless women today are on the precipice of redefining womanhood in the most fundamental way ever. Entering the workforce was merely the initial step toward redefining women–and possibly the first toward childlessness. The advent of the pill, the legalization of abortion, and advanced education for women were essential adjuncts to this change. The move toward remaining childless, however, is more profound. For a society based on “family values,” this shift is historic. At its most fundamental level, the emergence of childlessness means that women are seizing the opportunity to be fully realized, self-determined individuals–regardless of what society at large thinks of them.
Not all women without children actively choose the childless life, of course, but among those who have chosen it, I found three distinct groups: those who are positively childfree, those who are religiously childfree, and those who are environmentally childfree.
Women who are positively childfree rarely express even a flicker of doubt about their decision. They range from those who love other people’s children to those who admit to actively disliking kids. The religiously childfree are those who have made a decision to follow a spiritual path that requires them to remain childless. Women who are environmentally childfree have made a conscious decision to forgo having children for the good of the planet.
Although 43 percent of the adult female population is childless, these women–and the option–are still treated as though they do not exist. Childless women permeate our world. They are our neighbors, our co-workers, our sisters, and our best friends. But because these women do not conform to traditional roles, their existence is denied. What little knowledge we do have of childless women is based on negative stereotypes, such as the child-hating workaholic.
We maintain this negative view of childlessness, I believe, because we know nothing about the positive side. It has never been extolled. It is considered “unwomanly” to admit to feeling happy and whole without children. Yet the childless women I interviewed spoke of many benefits: the latitude to develop their careers fully; the intimacy they share with their mates; the lack of financial, emotional, and time pressures; the freedom from fear of being a bad mother or having a difficult child; the spiritual growth that takes place thanks to the availability of unfettered time; the relief of not having to raise a loved one in a world some view as too violent or selfish.
Childless women are often told they are selfish and destined for a dire future. Even perfect strangers may feel free to warn them about a lonely old age. It takes gargantuan strength to defend against this kind of pessimism, particularly since few of us are ever 100 percent certain about any decision we make in life. I was happy to pass along some good news to the women I interviewed. The inevitability of a lonely old age for the childless is refuted by every study ever done. In other words, as noted in a study published in the Journal of Gerontology (1998), there are “no significant differences in loneliness and depression between parents and childless adults.”
There appears to be a generational gap with regard to women’s feelings about their childlessness. Women in their 50s acknowledged a strong societal imperative toward having children, which in turn left them feeling inadequate because they had not. Women in their 40s had mixed reactions: Some felt that a societal expectation was placed on them, whereas others did not. Women under 35 did not feel this sense of obligation, having grown up in a society more open to allowing individuals to make their own choices. That has allowed younger, more liberated women to be comfortable with childlessness. The next generation could well be childless without reservations.
Childlessness is not just an American phenomenon. According to the United Nations, fertility rates in the following countries are currently below replacement level: the United States, Ireland, Norway, China, Australia, Denmark, the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Belgium, Canada, Switzerland, Japan, Germany, Italy, and Spain.
While some commentators worry about the impact of childlessness on societies where a higher percentage of the population will be older, David Pearce Snyder, a renowned futurist and a contributing editor of The Futurist magazine, sees a positive side to the movement. Our reasons for having children have changed over time, he notes. Whereas in earlier days children were needed to support a family, social safety nets (such as Medicare and Social Security) have taken care of those needs. Therefore, we now have children out of desire, not necessity. Conversely, he says that those who do not want children should not have them: “People who do not have children because they are wise enough to say they will not be good parents are an indication of the maturing of our society.” He feels certain that the entire society will benefit from this fundamental change. Snyder claims that the family is the most adaptive institution in society. He goes on to say that this new development toward childlessness gives us the opportunity to expand the extended family.
I too see the move toward thoughtful parenting and conscientious childlessness as positive. For years, couples who enjoyed parenthood were on the defensive if they produced more than the approved two children. Conversely, women who were childless were derided for not producing. How much healthier society would be if only those who really wanted children had them.
Our reluctance to approve of childlessness stems from ignorance, a case of not trusting, even fearing, what we’ve never experienced.
Doomsayers predicted terrible consequences when women entered the workforce, when divorce became more acceptable, when birth control became available. But for the most part, the consequences of liberation have been positive. More women than ever are choosing a life that does not conform to the old standard. The time has come to absorb into our consciousness a new version of femaleness, one that is predicated on the measure of a woman’s character, not on the issue of her body.
Madelyn Cain, mother of a 15-year-old daughter, teaches English at Mission College in Southern California. Excerpted from The Childless Revolution: What It Means to Be Childless Today. Copyright 2001. Reprinted by arrangement with Perseus Publishing. All rights reserved.