I was sitting with my friends at a bar earlier this week, discussing the socially imposed pressure of maintaining a familial legacy. Our opinions all differ. Some of us want kids, some of us don’t. I’m on the latter end, sipping on my hot toddy and thinking about my childfree future. I try and comprehend “baby fever” — or the biological urge to reproduce — but am uncertain that my genetic contribution to a planet of 7 billion+ people will result in a more fulfilled and more meaningful existence for me.
This goal of carrying on your traits, your skills, and your DNA has been indoctrinated into our livelihoods. The 1990s were thought to be the most pronatalistic (or pro-childbearing) era in the world — which contributed to the glorification of parenthood and babies. In 2017, this ideology is still prevalent but more women are choosing not to have children.
Even as a child, I never dreamed of being pregnant, having a baby, or watching that baby grow into an adult. I’ve never fantasized about parenthood, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve never envied my peers when they announce new additions to their families. Proud of them? Definitely. Overjoyed? Of course.
But let’s look at my situation: I’m young (in my twenties) and I’m a journalist. A child just doesn’t fit into my life at this moment, it would be financially irresponsible, yadda, yadda, yadda. But let’s also consider the fact that I’ve never wanted children. The “mom gene” seemed to have skipped me when I was created 27 years ago. I’ve never had the maternal urges that many of my friends passionately express to me. To be honest, the thought of carrying a child mostly terrifies me — it doesn’t excite me. This isn’t to say I’m holier-than-thou or “right” about childbearing; I’m just curious as to where my “maternal instincts” are.
Will I always feel this way? Will I always be content with my childfree life?
I began wondering what causes this urge to bear children.
For starters, some people just genuinely want to have kids and experience parenthood.
But “baby fever” is a learned desire to leave our mark on society through biological contributions, aka children. We have been so socially conditioned to become mothers and parents that it appears as an innate feeling that a woman is “supposed” to have, an indescribable urge to become pregnant and begin motherhood. However, research has found that there is no concrete evidence of biological processes that contribute to this deep yearning.
After generations of society telling us that having children is a requirement to feel fulfilled — whether through popular media or family expectations — we begin to consider this urge to bear children as normal and mandatory. The societal influence is so pervasive that we don’t even realize how present it is in our thoughts about our own futures.
I talked to Laura S. Scott, author and researcher, who explained that common misconceptions about childfree women are that they are “selfish, damaged, or…will change their minds or regret their decision to remain childfree.”
Scott’s own research for her book, Two is Enough: A Couple’s Guide to Living Childless by Choice, and for the Childless by Choice Project found that there is no evidence of regret in women who remained childfree by choice, “only occasional curiosity, as in, ‘I wonder how our life would have been different if we would have had kids.’” The survey looked at 121 childfree women and 74 percent said that they “had no desire to have a child, no maternal/paternal instinct.” Plus, in 2012, the CDC reported that of the 19% of 40-44-year-old women who remain childfree, half of them are childfree by choice.
If that’s the case, then why are childfree couples — and women especially — painted in such a hostile light? Women who remain unmarried or remain childless with a partner seem to confuse the public. Danish journalist Iben Thranholm has said that “childlessness is a symptom of a feeble and terminally ill culture.” Thranholm, another conservative policing women’s bodies, believes that by removing the raising of children from the list of steps we’re “supposed” to follow, we dangerously lose touch with the patriarchal stronghold on tradition and society.
But women who choose to be childfree should be visible. Their choice to stray away from the traditional family framework shouldn’t be questioned or audited.
As a woman living in a society where reproductive rights are threatened, I still have a choice to conceive or not to conceive. Since parenthood is so fraught with difficulties and sacrifices, an individual’s right to choose whether to have a child is particularly important. Scott says that she feels “joy” because, as a woman, she is allowed to give herself “permission to be in alignment” with her “dreams and values.”
Gillian Ragsdale, Ph.D wrote in her article, “The Maternal Myth,” that opinions on motherhood vary, fluctuate, and change throughout the course of a woman’s life. She writes that, “Some [women] recall wanting a baby when they themselves were still children. Others felt it from puberty. For many, the desire is not very strong as a young adult but increases into their 30s and 40s. And some are just not interested.” No woman is born with the same intentions of becoming a mother.
The number of childfree women in America is on the rise.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that childlessness is up among women who have advanced degrees. In the 1970s, one-in-ten American women ended their childbearing years without having a child. In comparison, one-in-five of today’s women are not having children. Moreover, rates of childlessness are highest among white women, but have also risen in Black, Hispanic, and Asian women.
In terms of public perception, a 1990 study by Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of adults found children to be “very important for a successful marriage.” Compare that to 2007, when only 41 percent of adults considered children to be an important component of a marriage. A few things are likely facilitating and contributing to this gradual shift in the American public’s view on bearing children: Societal pressure is diminishing, there are improved job opportunities, and there is more access to contraceptive methods.
Yet, even if we know there are more childfree women, our choices still lead to us being labeled as too career-driven and selfish. But it’s just fact that not all women are mothers. Being born a woman doesn’t come with a check list of biological duties enforced by a largely patriarchal society. The biological drive to have children isn’t encoded into our DNA — it’s influenced by a culture that tells us to follow a specific path in order to achieve happiness: go to college, get a stable career, find a life partner, and ultimately raise a family.
Dutifully marching to motherhood will not automatically give me — or anyone else — access to the illusive vault of successful adulthood. My voluntary decision to remain childless should be fundamentally accepted simply because I’m a human being with ownership over my own body and my own selfhood. If my mind changes in 10 or 20 years, then my mind changes and I’ll act accordingly. But for now, my childfree future is bright and glowing.