Here you are, your kids are grown, having fled the nest several years ago, and you have been patiently waiting for grandchildren to arrive. But then your son or daughter informs you that no, they are not going to be having children, you will not be having grandchildren. If you are a parent of a teenager, you may be among the first of a generation of adults to not be a grandparent. We’ve noticed that more and more, young couples are choosing to be childless, even going as far as to have tubal ligations or vasectomies in their 20’s, to ensure they will never have children. What’s going on in the younger generation that leads people to decide they don’t want children?
A quarter of US women, in a nationally representative Michigan sample, reported that they did not want to have children. This same survey found no significant personality differences between parents and non-parents and found that non-parents were just as happy as parents. As of 2018, a little less than half of all American women older than age 15 did not have children. 54.2% of women between the ages of 25-29 years old did not have children by 2018, and the percentage of women in the 30–34-year-old age cohort who were childless was 33.6%.
Why do Young People Choose to not have Children?
Teenagers today are being raised by the first generation of women who truly had a voice and a choice about their reproductive choices. Having a baby is no longer the “default” choice for couples. Research shows that single women without children are happier than married men and women who have children. But beyond this widely-cited fact, what are some reasons young women and men choose to not have children?
“It’s just not for me.”
Mika, a 35-year old advertising executive says that parenting is “just not her style.” The “maternal instinct” is a myth – a social construction. Women are not naturally nurturing – at least, not any more than men- but we have been socialized to want children and be nurturing. The maternal instinct myth can be used to pathologize childless women, as well as to demonize women who don’t seem to take to parenting “naturally.” The “maternal instinct” simply, plainly does not exist. Just ask Dr. Gillian Ragsdale, a biological anthropologist who teaches psychology at the Open University in the United Kingdom. She says that the word “instinct” is being misused time and again in the context of parenting because it’s often confused with a “drive.”
She writes, “The maternal drive can be hormonally influenced, for example by pregnancy. This is the same in other mammals. Once the offspring is there in front of them — that’s when the maternal drive generally kicks in — but not always even then.”
“How could I bring a child into this world?”
Lindsey, a 26-year-old waitress, says that global warming and other environmental threats mean it is irresponsible to have children, and that the world is already over-populated as it is. The younger generation is concerned about the health of the planet and believes that making a choice to not have children is a good choice for the planet. In the USA, 59% of Americans cited global climate change as a major threat to the nation. Global warming brings with it famine, floods, droughts, wildfires, not to mention rising acidified oceans, and some women express that they would never want to bring a child into the world with these kinds of problems. One line of thought actually says that “being born is the worst thing that can happen to a person.”
“I cherish my freedom”
Denise, a 29-year-old doctoral student, made the choice to get a tubal ligation when she was 27 because she knew the “parental lifestyle” was not for her. “I don’t want to be at anyone’s beck and call- ‘feed me,’ ‘change my diaper,’ ‘pay attention to me,’ she said. Freedom in all aspects, in terms of personal freedom, financial freedom, as well as the freedom to move around or travel all support the notion that childless women have more freedom than women with children. Just as an example, raising a child costs $233,610. We’re seeing people become more honest about the pitfalls of family and choosing a childless lifestyle that prioritizes individual choice and independence from familial responsibilities.
“I have too many plans that kids just don’t fit into”
Julie, a 24-year-old medical student, explained that her career and education plans were more important to her than having a family. In the new Covid-19 economy, it may seem as though you can have children or work, but not both, and as a result, many women are choosing a career over having children. Choosing a career over having children means that, especially in today’s America, there is no reason to adhere to social norms to have children- accept the fact that some people just don’t have a tick-tocking “biological clock” driving them to get pregnant. Also, for many women, their career is their child, and they funnel all their energies into their career, and that’s totally fine. It’s important to not let the stigma of being childless stop you from pursuing your educational and career goals.
“Delayed motherhood is declined motherhood”
Joyce, a 41-year-old legal assistant, said that she chose childlessness in her 20’s and early 30’s because she wanted to work on her career when she was younger and have children later in life. However, she is finding that having children later in life is not always possible or desirable, so the childfree choices she made in her 20’s and 30’s impacted her ability to have children as she aged. Trends in childlessness among women in their early thirties are highly predictive of later-occurring trends in childlessness among older women. The Institute for Family Studies writes, “Lost first births at younger years are not being made up in later years. The argument that childless women are going to “catch up” and that the share of women who are childless will not rise in the future is almost certainly wrong.”
“The pandemic has made me think twice about having children”
Michele, a 30-year-old food service worker, said she was planning on having children before the pandemic hit, but is now having second thoughts about it. In the UK, couples are being advised to put off childbearing during the pandemic, partially because of a shortage of medical services, as medical resources normally used for pregnant women are now being funneled into Covid care. A June 2020 report from the Brookings Institution estimated that the U.S. would see as many as 500,000 fewer births in 2021, a 13% drop from the 3.8 million babies born in 2019. A survey from the Guttmacher Institute found that 34% of sexually active women in the U.S. have decided to either delay getting pregnant or have fewer children because of concerns arising from COVID-19.
More childfree role models and less stigma
According to Laura S. Scott, author of “Two is Enough” and director of the Childless By Choice Project American, for many women, stigma has dissipated with celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston and Helen Mirren explaining their choice not to become mothers. When our mothers were contemplating motherhood in the 70’s and early 80’s, there were very few role models of successful women without children, and although women were starting to go into the workplace in droves, there was still a social norm to have children. Today, that social pressure, while it still exists, has given way to more freedom for couples to choose, or not choose, to have children. Women are having children later in life, which pulls down the birth statistics for women in their teens, 20’s, and 30’s.
Who’s being selfish?
As we’ve seen already, people have a myriad of reasons to not have children- and concern for any future child’s welfare (e.g., being born into an ever-heating planet with devastating effects, being born to parents who would prefer to focus on career and education), are some of the top reasons to not have children. It is clear that not wanting to have children, for many people, is a decision based out of concern for the unborn child. Likewise, wanting to have children is usually born out of reasons of child welfare: wanting to raise healthy and happy children and share undying love with another human being. Neither choice- to have or not to have- is inherently selfish. Both choices can be altruistic and child-centered. Both choices can be made with the best interest of the child at heart.
Judgment is not an option. So, what is?
We can’t judge our adult children for the choices they make around whether or not to have children. Having, or not having, a child is a deeply personal choice to the person or people having them, and pressure from others just strains relationships and can be alienating. Young women have enough pressure on them to have kids from society. Vogue Magazine UK writes, “You’re judged if you don’t want children. If you have a baby, you’re judged for having had it too late in life, or for having had one too young. You’re judged for getting pregnant by someone you haven’t known very long; judged for not getting pregnant quickly enough after getting married. You’re judged for considering the “different options” available to you, such as abortion or adoption. You’re judged for going to a sperm donor, as though you’re incapable of finding someone to do it naturally. You’re judged for hiring a nanny if you want (or have!) to go to work, and condemned or lauded in equal measure for going back to work too soon.”
If you are the parent of a teenager or young adult, try to be aware of all the societal judgment and pressure that young women face to both have a high-pressure career and happy children. You don’t want to add to the pressure they feel already to either have kids or not have kids. Your role is to support them as they make these deeply personal decisions, not judge them. We need to learn to accept the changing economic, cultural, and social landscape and show respect and support for our children’s choices.
Your dream of being a role model and mentor to a young person or child doesn’t have to die with your children’s choice to not have children. You can be a surrogate grandparent, or be a “Big Brother/Big Sister” for at-risk youth. There are lots of volunteer opportunities that involve relationships with children.
The Bottom Line
Nowadays, it’s becoming more and more common to choose not to have children, either because you don’t think parenting is right for you, or you worry about the environmental impact of having even more people on this planet, or you simply want to focus on career and education. Young women today have so many more choices than their own mothers had, even just a generation ago. While the choice of not having children is creating a generation of people who will never become grandparents, it’s crucial that you support your child’s decision about whether or not to have children of their own and seek out opportunities to connect with other children in your community who desperately need a grandparent.