In its strictest definition, childlessness occurs when people do not biologically bear children. However, this definition is limited and fails to address the complex psychosocial factors that contribute to its causes and consequences. Most people are childless for large segments of their life and actively pursue not getting pregnant or having children.
In this context, childlessness is a normal human experience. Childlessness is a dynamic process that evokes different emotions and social reactions at different points in time, as well as an outcome. As such, the meaning of childlessness may change throughout the life course of the individual.
The social, psychological, economic, hormonal, and family pressures to reproduce are strong forces that result in childbearing being considered the norm. People who deviate from the norm may not only feel “different,” but “stigmatized” because they do not have children. Childlessness implies not just the physical absence of children, but also strong emotional reactions that may include regret, loss, sadness, failure, grief, depression, embarrassment, or feelings of incompleteness as people do not have desired or expected offspring. From a life course perspective, childless people may feel awkward at times when their friends are pregnant or consumed with childbearing responsibilities, and they may be left out of conversations or events because they do not belong to the social group of “parents.” People without children do not have automatic recipients for their material legacies (including possessions and property) or emotional and historic histories, as do parents, which creates a challenge at the latter stages of life.
This view varies dramatically from people who define themselves as “child-free,” who see the absence of children as a liberating, positive experience. National organizations such as the National Childfree Association or Childless by Choice provide information and support to people who wish to pursue a nonchild lifestyle. People who are childless by choice are not antichild; they may simply not want one of their own. Couples who do not have children have more time to be together and more discretionary money with which to do interesting things, and they report higher levels of relationship satisfaction since they are not burdened with the financial, emotional, and time constraints of parenthood.
Two major forces contribute to people not having children. One is a push force, in which there are obstacles and challenges that prevent people from having children. Push forces are usually negative forces that get in the way of childbearing. These include lack of a mate or having a mate who does not want children, infertility, miscarriage, infant death, feeling that one cannot afford to have children, allowing jobs or education to take precedence, feeling that one’s partner is not suitable parent material, a history of alcoholism, genetic problems, abuse that adults fear may get passed on to the child, or assumptions that they would not be a good parents. Pull factors are positive forces that encourage the adult into pursuing meaningful activities that are deemed more important and satisfying than parenthood. Pull factors are lifestyle choices that include wanting to go to school or pursue a career path, choosing a partner or relationship over parenthood, travel, recreation, and the active pursuit of goals that people want to accomplish. If people are childless, they may feel pushed into that outcome and have more of a negative feeling about not having children compared with people who were pulled to wanting something other than children. The choice involved with having children or not influences emotional well-being.
- Bachu, (1999, May). Is childlessness among American women on the rise? (Population Division Working Paper No. 37). Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, Fertility and Family Statistics Branch. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/ twps0037/twps0037.html
- The Childfree-by-Choice Pages, http://www.childfree.net/Letherby, (1999). Nonmotherhood: Ambivalent autobiographies. Feminist Studies, 25(3), 719–729.
- May, T. (1995). Barren in the promised land: Childless Americans and the pursuit of happiness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Paux, (1984). Childless by choice: Choosing childlessness. New York: Doubleday.
- Vissing, Y. (2002). Women without children: Nurturing Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.