Here’s what’s going on — and why that old “selfish” stereotype is way off the mark.
If you have kids, you know making the decision to do so is like getting on the wildest ride of your life. But despite the emotional rollercoaster, anxiety, financial worries, and fears for the future that are practically inevitable when you have children, it’s unlikely anyone will ever question your decision to do so. Breaking from tradition, and choosing to remain child-free, though? That’s a different story. But it’s becoming more common as of late, and you might be wondering why.
Historically, the choice not to become a parent has invited a different kind of stigma. The childless, who are unable to have children, but want them, tend to be met with pity — and sometimes, shamefully, a sense that they are somehow “less than.” Those who choose to remain child-free invite an even less sympathetic response, and are often characterized as self-centered and individualistic. Though it’s still seen as an eccentric departure from the norm, more and more couples are opting out of parenthood. Here’s what’s going on — and why that old “selfish” stereotype is way off the mark.
A falling birth rate
The United States’ “replacement rate” — that is, the birthrate believed to be optimal for maintaining the population, is 2.1 babies per couple. Over the last few decades, however, the population appears to have become less and less dedicated to its regeneration.
In 1992, a study of students showed that 78 percent of young women planned to eventually have children. By 2012, that number had dropped to 42 percent — with young men’s attitudes echoing the women’s. That mental shift appears to have been reflected in the delivery room. In 1960, the U.S. birth rate was 3.65 kids for every person with a womb. By 2007 it was 2.12, and by 2019, that’d dropped again to 1.71.
The reasons for this drop in the birthrate are multifold. As the cost of rent, housing, medical care, and practically everything else we need to live soars, many millennials and Gen Z-ers worry that they simply won’t be able to afford the life they feel their kids deserve.
“Today, the child-bearing years have been extended due to technology and medicine,” says Jean Cirillo, Ph.D., JD. “But many millennials and Gen-Z people can’t afford to have children. They feel that even if they earned good salaries, they couldn’t provide the lifestyle that they believe that they should provide for their children and that their parents provided for them.”
Even delivering a baby is totally out of reach for many couples financially. A study published in 2020 found that the average new mother with insurance will pay more than $4,500 for her labor and delivery in the U.S. — and that’s assuming there aren’t complications. The median annual wage in the U.S. in 2019 was $34,248.45, meaning that birth alone could cost many people a huge proportion of their income. Then of course there’s living somewhere with enough space for the kid to grow, future medical bills, food, travel, school…the list goes on.
No place to raise a family
For many potential parents, even putting their own financial situation aside, the world just doesn’t feel like a nurturing place to bring a baby into.
“With so much going wrong in the world, a patient who opts not to have children is considering the current news and future outcomes for the world,” says behavioral health specialist Larry Ford, DBH, LBHP, BC. “People in general, and particularly individuals who suffer from behavioral health issues may feel a lack of control over what is happening in their community, country, and world — and not having children is an intentional decision in which control is achieved.”
These fears are only amplified when the news headlines are constantly laden with doom. People don’t want to gamble on their potential child’s future when factors like the Covid pandemic, climate change, political instability, and global warfare — to name a few — make the outlook seem so bleak.
“I do love kids, and I absolutely love spending time with them, but having my own never felt like something that I wanted to do,” says Nadine Chahine, 43. “It always bothered me when people told me, ‘you’ll change your mind,’ because that just assumed that I do not know my own mind, and that until I have kids I won’t have fulfilled a purpose in life. In recent years, given the compounded crises of Covid, climate change, and the political turbulence of the rising far-right and a changing world order, it’s almost a relief that I’ve not brought more people into this world.”
The buck stops here
This discomfort about bringing kids into a potentially fraught environment hinges on another drawback. Many young people who’ve experienced trauma or mental illness would rather avoid having children at all than risk passing on any of their own pain.
“Enduring and overcoming childhood trauma is a huge reason why people choose not to have children,” explains Dr. Ford. “Individuals who’ve suffered from childhood trauma such as neglect, abuse, abandonment, and living with the reality of an incarcerated parent (among others) don’t feel equipped to raise a child of their own. Patients are still working out their own emotional and physical pain, and they don’t want to pass that on to a child.”
A happy, child-free life
With so many well-publicized deterrents to having kids, it’s easy to forget the positive benefits of staying child-free. While having kids can of course be an endlessly rewarding experience, not having them may also offer enticing opportunities for those weighing the decision of whether or not to become parents.
“I’m a psychologist and an attorney who has chosen not to have children,” says Dr. Crillo. “I’ve managed to live a full life with my career and an extended family that includes many children, as well as going back to law school after midlife. I’ve not missed out on motherhood: I simply made a choice.”
“I’ve found the early years of my 40s liberating,” adds Chahine. “The less biologically likely it is for me to have kids, the happier and lighter I feel because that weight of expectation is diminished.”
There’s certainly data to back the possibility of a more fulfilling life without children. In 2019, behavioral scientist and happiness expert Paul Dolan said that the most recent evidence shows young women are happiest without children or a spouse. This isn’t out of nowhere: A 1977 U.S. study claimed that couples who intend never to have children tended to be happier and more successful in their careers.
Nearly 50 years on, prospects for women at work have improved, though they remain consistently underpaid, and less likely to be promoted compared to men. Interestingly, however, evidence suggests that the best-paid, most professionally successful women are still most likely to opt out of childbearing. The upshot? For a lot of people, the financial burden of children isn’t the only sticking point.
Living a child-free life to the fullest
“In any relationship, there comes a point when people must ask themselves difficult questions,” says Daryl Appleton, psychotherapist, and Fortune 500 Executive Coach. “Things like, am I willing to give up or change my career to have children? If I continue to work, how does this impact my ability to dedicate time to family? Many people that I work with have spent decades in school, then cultivating their careers, and playing the political games to get to a place of success. The reality of having children means that things cannot be as they once were.”
One obvious means to improve this in the U.S. would be federally-mandated paternity pay — plus of course the normalization of male partners in heterosexual relationships bearing the daily burdens of parenting. But even assuming both parents are equally committed and able to dedicate time and money to caring for children, parenthood inevitably affects people’s energy levels, priorities, and future decisions — as it should. For the child-free, the possibilities for that time and energy are endless.
“My wife and I came into our marriage on the same page that we weren’t sure if we wanted kids but were open to whatever felt right,” says Seth Barnhill, 42. “We realized neither of us had a desire for biological children, but we were open to adoption. After we’d been married about five years, we became licensed foster parents with the potential goal of adopting. The experience helped teach us that while we love kids, and being part of the village that cares for them, parenting was not the role we wanted.”
They’ve expanded their family and filled their lives with people in different ways. “We’ve babysat, hosted an exchange student, we have our nephew (a former foster boy) over for a weekend every month, and we’re even godparents — all roles we very much enjoy!” says Barnhill. “For us, deciding not to be parents took discussion, exploration, and soul searching. But never once have we doubted the decision. We’re dog parents to three amazing rescue dogs, and we love our lives and the ways in which we can be of service to our friends and our community!”
He adds, “Ultimately, it’s not about the freedom of not having kids, but rather living the life that feels right to us. We’re happy and fulfilled in our relationship and life together because we’re living authentically and making the choices that align with our purpose and our happiness. For some people, that means having kids. For us, it meant having the awareness and courage to say: We don’t want kids, and that’s OK.”