To Have... or Not to Have

Fewer of us have kids today, but debates about childlessness still touch a nerve.

| July/August 2002 Issue


On the threshold of 30 and divorce, the personable daughter of a Southern Baptist minister once informed me calmly that any child of hers would probably be a battered child. She was being neither neurotic nor overly self-centered, merely honest about her strong preference not to have children. The feminist movement was just starting to make such a choice respectable in places where it had influence, which included universities like the one in which we both held temporary jobs. Nonetheless, most of her friends had built their nests and were furnishing them with babies. Her parents, like most, were eager for grandchildren. Determined to be the hero of her own life, she wanted a Ph.D. and a career instead. Quite apart from professional ambitions, she was temperamentally one of those people for whom parenthood is an alien role. Her dramatic way of describing her feelings, to a man whose own marriage had recently ended because his wife wanted a child and he didn’t, may have been an expression of how inexpressible these feelings were in other circles of her life.

That was in the early 1970s. Since then, life and attitudes are assumed to have greatly changed. More than half of married and unmarried women alike now work outside the home. As many articles in the wake of the 2000 census pointed out, sometimes with alarm about an aging society, the number of temporarily or permanently childless adults has been rising significantly since the ’70s. One implication would seem to be that nobody today needs to feel defensive about being "childfree," a term used since the late 1980s by advocates for the rights of nonparents.

But the truth is a lot messier, or at least harder to decipher. As is usual in controversies about social trends, a variety of sometimes ambiguous statistics fly back and forth as ammunition. Perhaps the most helpful are a series issued by the National Center for Health Statistics that display by age the percentage of American women who have never had at least one live birth. In 1998, the percentage of women in the oldest cohort, ages 40 to 44, who had never given birth was 16.5. (Very few women give birth to a first child after their early 40s.) In 1970, the earliest year with fully comparable figures, the percentage was 10.6.

Promoters of a new trend toward childlessness, or observers frightened by its implications, can point out that the childless percentage among women who had reached their 40s increased by more than half in 28 years. The proportion of women who have never given birth grew even faster among women who were still in their 20s and 30s. But those who doubt that childlessness is the wave of the future can note with equal justice that the vast majority of women—more than 80 percent—continue to have children, and that the childless percentage in all age groups seemed to level off by the mid-1990s. While both sexes marry later and have fewer children on the average than they did during the baby boom (if not later or fewer than during the Depression), the question of whether to have children continues to be answered resoundingly in the affirmative. In its September 2000 report on the fertility of American women, the Census Bureau states that "childless levels are approximately the same now as they were a century ago."

Despite women’s enormously larger participation in careers, despite the almost universal availability of reliable birth control, despite a solid generation of feminists assuring women that reproduction is a matter of choice, despite more than three decades of warnings about overpopulation and environmental degradation, despite the huge contemporary emphasis on personal freedom and self-gratification, despite the manifest economic advantages of childlessness—despite all these influences, having children is still overwhelmingly the norm. Indeed, since the 1980s, children have become a justification for every kind of political proposal or government initiative, from regulating tobacco and HMOs to enacting campaign finance reform to saving Social Security. When a singles group demanded during the 2000 presidential campaign that government and other institutions pay more attention to the needs of childless grown-ups, they were ridiculed in the press and ignored by candidates.

One strong critic of the childfree position was the social theorist Amitai Etzioni, a leading figure in the moderate-to-liberal communitarian movement. Writing in USA Today, Etzioni declared: "One may be tempted to treat this attempt to imitate social movements that address serious social grievances as a poor joke. However, growing work pressures and the high costs of raising children already discourage many people from having children." Etzioni saw the declining birthrate as a threat to the whole society’s future economic well-being. Rather than cut back on what he described as "the meager benefits our society does provide parents," he recommended that we consider imitating France by offering bonuses to encourage Americans to have more children. Like most cheerleaders for childbearing, Etzioni emphasized that the benefits to society were not his primary motive. "As the childless by choice have doubtless heard before," this father of five declared, "the reason children are recommended—whether homemade or adopted—is that most of them turn out to be an unmatchable source of profound joy and deep pride. . . . Quite simply, I am sorry for those who swear off children."

Etzioni’s attitude is by no means unusual. People with children frequently, even in liberal settings like universities, still explain to any childless friend over the age of 25, with a varying mixture of envy, flattery, and reproach, that not having children is selfish; that someone as smart as you are should pass his genes along to the future; that such a wonderful person would make an especially wonderful parent; that a clinic could probably help. Female graduate students in the classes I teach at Penn State worry loudly and seriously about when the best time would be to "start a family." Before or after the Ph.D.? After or before tenure? But you might be 40 by then.

The biological clock seems immune to deconstruction. The willed-childlessness alternative may be easier in some ways than it was 30 years ago, but in most quarters it is more tolerated than fully accepted.

Why we do or don’t have children, now that most of us have a choice, is one of the most fascinating questions anyone can ask about human nature. In 59 years of life I’ve changed my mind about a great many things, but becoming a father was not one of them. Maybe it was the result of being the oldest of four sons and having my fill of babies early in life. I can recall shyly confiding to my father long before puberty that I thought I would probably not choose to be a parent. No single issue led me at an early age to such a decision, certainly not a dislike of children, but I already felt sure that having them was for other people.

Among my parents’ closest friends were a brilliant and entertaining couple. The man, a sociologist, had been my father’s student at Cornell a decade earlier. When I asked my mother—even more shyly this time—some years after this couple’s marriage when they were going to have children, she shook her head and answered that she was afraid they never would. They liked their freedom too much. Although the man was subordinate to my father at the National Institutes of Health, the couple inhabited a cavernous 18th-century house in Washington’s tony Georgetown neighborhood instead of, like us, a suburban three-bedroom in Bethesda. They had no need to worry about local schools or playgrounds. They took trips to New York and Europe. They frequently ate in restaurants. This couple, whose way of life seemed so self-indulgent and immature to my parents, quickly became my marital ideal.

In college I was a naively romantic youth who believed in commitment, devotion, marriage—in other words, with one exception, I was utterly conventional when it came to personal life. The exception, which seemed a small thing at the time, was merely the conviction that love and marriage were separable from parenthood. Virtually all my friends of both sexes looked forward to parenthood as a matter of course. I never doubted that children could be a joy and satisfaction to others, but my tastes were different. There was certainly no public reason or duty to replace oneself. In 1964 it was already plain that the world was never likely to suffer from underpopulation. Getting married prematurely to a bright, lovable fellow student on the assumption that one of us would change our mind about children was an almost inevitable mistake.

I was sadder, wiser, and luckier a decade later when I met the fourth daughter of a Latin teacher and a retired navy officer. Although we found ourselves in instant accord on the question of parenthood, our own parents could never quite believe it. Each of them had reared four apparently sound, healthy offspring and ended up with only three grandchildren. Half their children never reproduced at all. When my mother, by now an urbane feminist living in Berkeley, California, got together with my conservative Southern mother-in-law, the one issue on which they were in perfect accord was the unfairness of having gone to so much trouble for such a meager return.

One of my brothers died of cancer in his mid-40s, leaving a widow and an 8-year-old son. In the long aftermath, my wife and I happily assumed responsibility for our nephew two or three times a year to give his mother a break. We did most of the predictable things—took him to museums, played baseball, indulged his tastes in food and television, assembled a fiendishly-complicated model of Fenway Park, explained the defects of the two-party system, talked to him about his father, made sure he went to bed on time. For days or weeks at a stretch it was a delight to become the quasi-parents of a lively, brainy, well-mannered kid, but we were always ready to return him to his mother. As he approached college age, the routine evolved into something even more substantial—less a matter of substituting for someone who has been lost than a solid bond among people who share indelible memories, interests, and affections.

A lesson the childfree learn is that when a friend or sibling asks accusingly why you haven’t had children yet, there is only one effective answer. "If I could be sure of getting one just like yours, I’d do it in a minute" is sure to deflect the attack and change the subject. Alas, it seldom works with your own parents. My father, always an outspoken man, once took my wife aside and blurted, "Chris should have given you a child." To which she responded, "I would have given it right back." My parents never raised the question again, but after Nancy and I had been married 20 years, my mother-in-law was still asking when she planned to start having a family.

While some men hear biological clocks, too, the overwhelming majority of those who write about childlessness are women. But even those who are liberals and feminists don’t necessarily support the "childfree" position, or for that matter understand it. They may instead, like Stephanie Mencimer, an editor of Washington Monthly, complain that women are having fewer children because of the limited family benefits in the United States that Etzioni mentions. In "The Baby Boycott," Mencimer writes,"The idea that mass childlessness is the product of a ‘lifestyle choice’ or a political movement defies common sense. We are, after all, highly evolved primates. Reproductive instincts are hardwired in our brains, and historically, only events of serious magnitude—wars, depressions, famine, and seismic shifts in the economic system, such as the industrial revolution—have caused large numbers of women to forgo having children."

While conceding that a lower birthrate may be good for the environment, she announces: "America’s disappearing children are the canaries in our coal mines, a warning that our social and economic system is seriously out of whack." What women typically want, says Mencimer, echoing many other feminists, is both careers and children. Any situation that denies them either is oppressive. Her solution is to imitate Sweden, which experienced declining fertility rates and the prospect of a labor shortage in the early 1980s. "Rather than try coercive measures to increase birthrates (like banning abortion or restricting women’s educational options) or massive immigration, Sweden chose to make the workplace more accommodating for parents. Swedish women are now guaranteed a year of paid leave after having a baby, the right to work six-hour days with full benefits until their child is in grade school, and subsidized child care." The result is that the birthrate in Sweden rose, though ironically only to the current American level. American women, Mencimer thinks, should put their foot down, so to speak, and refuse to have any babies at all until similar policies are enacted here.

Given this sort of commentary from quarters that might be expected to show sympathy, it is hardly astonishing that the tone of "childfree" publications and Internet sites tends toward extreme defensiveness. Susan Jeffers’ evocatively named book I’m Okay, You’re a Brat describes the burdens of being a parent in terms calculated to discourage all but the most determined. Childlessness seems an even more embattled cause on the Web. The 66 sites currently listed on the Web’s ChildFree Ring constitute an electronic support group with titles such as "No Kidding," "Free at Last," and "Childfree—It’s a Choice." Some of these people clearly loathe children. Others take pleasure in nieces, nephews, and the children of friends. But they all feel estranged from what they perceive as a child-centered society. Under its "mission" statement, Childfree Families makes the point forcefully: "There’s a Web site for the childfree because there’s a need to get the word out: You do not have to have children. You do not have to want children. You don’t. And it’s perfectly OK."

Choosing not to become a parent means refusing to do something that each of one’s ancestors has done all the way back to the invention of sexual reproduction. One is both violating unanimous family tradition and resisting a clear if mostly unvoiced consensus in society, however liberated the immediate environment may be. Why does American society continue to place such emphasis on reproduction? The British sociobiologist Richard Dawkins maintains that human beings, like other organisms, are simply mechanisms contrived by genes to replicate themselves. For this "selfish gene," success in life means producing as many surviving offspring as possible. According to this theory, we are indeed hardwired to have children. Few social scientists accept this kind of all-or-nothing evolutionary explanation for human behavior. At the same time, few have studied in much depth parents’ reasons for having children.

A 1997 article by Robert Schoen and his colleagues titled "Why Do Americans Want Children?" examined the professional literature on the subject and noted gloomily that "there is no explanation for why Americans still want children." Looked at from the purely economic standpoint, the benefits that children provided in an agricultural society "virtually disappear" in an industrial and postindustrial world. After pointing out that "intended childlessness is still uncommon," however, the study’s authors conclude: "Childbearing is purposeful behavior that creates and reinforces the most important and most enduring social bonds. We find that children are not seen as consumer durables; they are seen as the threads from which the tapestry of life is woven."

What really needs explaining, according to most researchers, is why a minority deviates from the norm by choosing not to become parents. One familiar theory holds that the higher a woman’s educational attainment and potential earnings, the greater the "opportunity cost" of having children. By the same token, however, affluent families can afford children more easily than poorer ones, so that the two effects mostly cancel each other out. Although the more education a woman has, the later she is likely to start bearing children and the fewer she is likely to have.

Probably to no one’s surprise, "Why Do Americans Want Children?" concludes that "childbearing is most likely to occur among traditional homemakers and happily married couples." Black Americans are more likely to have children than whites, and to have them earlier. Most significantly, a 1999 study by Tim Heaton and others found that "the decision about childbearing appears to be less firm than in previous generations. "

In a few months I plan to attend the wedding of one of my favorite graduate students and his girlfriend, who is finishing her own Ph.D. in industrial engineering. He is 30, she is 26. Without quite being sure why, they decided long ago not to have children. As the wedding approaches, they feel pressure to change their minds, not only from their Catholic parents but also from some of their closest contemporaries. They were the main inspiration for this essay, and they would like to see it end with an impassioned statement of the arguments for their position—overpopulation, the environment, and, above all, the right of adults to choose their destinies free from the prejudices of the tribe. The motivations on both sides are too deep and obscure. What I would prefer to say to them instead, therefore, goes something like this:

Having or not having children is one of the momentous, irrevocable choices of human life, and those who know from an early age which alternative will make them happier are extremely fortunate. No doubt economic and demographic explanations for fluctuations in the birthrate have a certain statistical validity. They neatly account for its fall during the Depression and, to a lesser extent, during recent decades, when so many women have been pursuing careers. But on the basic question of whether to reproduce, these statistics seem hopelessly shallow. Most people fundamentally want to have children and do, almost regardless of circumstances, while a significant minority prefers not to and sees no good reason why it should. Though they may share the same house, each finds the other a mystery. Not everyone is wired the same way.

But why should we be? In ethical terms, neither alternative is inherently less or more selfish than the other; the one altruistic course would be to adopt a child who has no home. The only adults who deserve special sympathy in this intimate civil war are the undecided, the wavering, the conflicted, who depressingly often either jump too soon into parenthood or leave it until too late, regretting in the end whichever choice they finally made.

Christopher Clausen is Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. Condensed from The American Scholar (Winter 2002). Subscriptions: $25/yr. (4 issues) from 1785 Massachusetts Ave. NW, 4th Floor, Washington, DC 20036.