Despite the fact the childfree lifestyle is not socially sanctioned, and choosing a childfree life can sometimes feel like an uphill battle, the truth about the childfree lifestyle is far from the pitiful life of lack it is portrayed to be. Childfree women choose their lifestyle for the numerous benefits and advantages which are perceived by the childfree to far outweigh any disadvantages. The childfree women that I interviewed (as well as the childfree participants in the studies of other researchers) revel in their lifestyle and long to dispel the false ideas about life without children. They are eager to relay the truth about what it’s like to have a life free of children in which benefits, experiences and advantages are gained as a result of choosing childfreedom, and all the burdens and sacrifice that are avoided by selecting a life that does not revolve around children and parenting.
From the perspective of the childfree women I interviewed and the studies of other researchers, the childfree life has few disadvantages and many advantages. While the advantages listed are numerous, they can be grouped into seven general categories: freedom, personal growth, happiness and well-being; financial advantages; career advantages; ease in life/quality of life; and relational advantages.
One of the most commonly cited reasons for choosing the childfree life and one of the greatest benefits of the childfree lifestyle is freedom. Unlike their childed friends and family, the childfree move freely through the world, setting their own agendas and enjoying spontaneity and flexibility in their daily activities. Their lives are self-determined and are not tethered to the demands of children and the responsibilities of childcare.
Research conducted on the childfree lifestyle and on the comparison of the childfree lifestyle to the parenting lifestyle frequently points to freedom as a great benefit of the childfree lifestyle. Callan interviewed 60 mothers, 36 voluntarily childless wives and 53 infertile women. His findings revealed that while levels of personal well-being for all three groups were similar, childless and childfree wives were more happy than mothers about the amount of flexibility and freedom in their lives; their levels of personal privacy, relaxation and independence. Gillespie (2003) who interviewed 25 childfree subjects found her subjects were pulled toward the perceived freedoms and opportunities associated with the childfree life and reported being very pleased with having greater opportunities and wider choices, enhanced freedom and increased autonomy. Lang, who interviewed 63 childless and childfree women between the ages of 36 to 100, reported that four out of five of her subjects cited freedom as the primary reason for not having children. Mollen, who interviewed nine voluntarily childfree women to “capture the broad range of experiences and reasons for the women’s decision not to have children”, found that freedom was one of the primary reasons her subjects reported for being childfree – “freedom to travel and the unimpeded ability to move through the world, freedom in their lifestyle to be unencumbered, freedom to devote ample time to career, freedom to devote more time, energy and emotional resources to their intimate relationships.” Morell (2000), who conducted interviews with 34 married, intentionally childfree women between the ages of 40 and 78 years, and who reviewed research conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, found that childfree women want freedom from responsibilities and worries that motherhood involves and the freedom to use their emotional energy and time to pursue what is meaningful for them, whether that be career, creative endeavors, civic commitments or leisure activities. One participant in her study described this as “the freedom of male experience and possibility” and “having a male kind of time”. (p. 320)
Similarly, in my interviews with childfree women, nearly half of my respondents mentioned freedom as a specific reason for choosing to be childfree, or as a benefit of the lifestyle. Several commented on the importance of freedom in their lives.
Caroline N., 32, comments:
I value my freedom. It seems that freedom is one of the major things that parents lack and one of the things they’d most like to have again. By not having children, I’ll hopefully enjoy at least 20 extra years of freedom and the opportunity to evolve as a woman, not just a mother. I can spend (or not spend) my money as I choose. I can be a social butterfly, or I can be a homebody. I can live where I want and move when I want, because I don’t have to worry about school districts or what’s best for the kid. I can take the time to really know and love my husband as a life partner and not a necessary evil. I can travel where I want, read a lot, take risks, indulge my interests, support charitable causes, have a neat and beautiful house; the list goes on and on.Carol H., 37, appreciates the freedom she and her husband enjoy together, relaxing and having spontaneous fun together:
I remember one Monday morning where a co-worker came up and asked me what I did over the weekend. I just told her “oh, this and that.” She said, “no, really…give some details. I’d love to know.” So I told her: “we slept in on Saturday, then got up and made Belgium waffles, bacon and fresh-squeezed OJ. Then we took a long bike ride in the nearby national park. At the halfway point, we ate at one of our favorite restaurants, then browsed in nearby art galleries. After we biked home, we were tired so we laid out on the deck to listen to some music and read. Then we called up another [childfree] couple and went to dinner at a pricy restaurant. Then my husband and I came home and we lounged in the whirlpool and listened to a symphony. Sunday was similar.” So then I asked the co-worker to please tell me what she did, and this was it: “I would have loved to sleep in, but haven’t been able to do that for years.” The kids got her up no later than 6:30 a.m. They need breakfast right away. Then the driving around starts. They have soccer, track, baseball, dance, singing lessons, etc. This all lasts until about 4:00 p.m. They couldn’t afford to go out to eat for supper, so it’s Kraft Mac and Cheese and chicken fingers. Then she has to get the kids bathed and put to bed. Etc. Etc. Etc. I’m sorry, but I just do not want to live my life that way.Brown, Lumley, Small and Astbury, who interviewed 880 new mothers to ascertain how happy they were with pregnancy care, prenatal classes and other services, also examined the wide range of changes and experiences related to motherhood. They found that 59% of the women reported not having time to pursue their own interests, 57% did not have an active social life and 55% needed a break from the demands of the child. Having children made it difficult for new mothers to enjoy things they previously took for granted as unremarkable parts of everyday life – for example, having uninterrupted time, space and privacy. Genevie and Margolies, authors of The Motherhood Report: How Women Feel About Being Mothers looked at 1,100 mothers of all ages to separate the myth from the reality regarding the experience of motherhood. They found that about one in four women reported having very positive feelings about motherhood, and about one in five viewed motherhood in predominantly negative terms. While the majority described the good as outweighing the bad in the final tally, “their positive feelings about motherhood did not negate the tremendous difficulty, pain and heartache of the role”. (xxvi). Mothers were frazzled, frustrated and furious by the day-to-day grind of raising children.
In many ways, having children determines a way of life that not only includes more housework and childcare, but is compromised of, to a large extent, any child-centered activities that fill the day, from school sports and plays to lessons, homework, and driving the children to and fro. Life without children is much more undetermined and left open. How it’s filled is up to the women involved. (p. 210)Personal Growth
Although our pronatalist culture defines a lifestyle without children as one of lack, childfree women define the absence of children as creative “space” (Ireland) and room for personal growth. Childfree women are free to pursue education, creative endeavors, career enhancement opportunities, personal hobbies and interests, community involvement, self-improvement courses, volunteer activities, political activities, alone time for reflection and meditation and other activities to enhance self-growth freely without being hindered by the time and financial constraints of parenthood. Childfree women unlink the necessity of motherhood from a viable female identity. “Because society has long associated the feminine with the maternal, it is sometimes difficult to view other developmental paths as anything other than substitutes for that which is ‘missing’. The redefinition of ‘absence’ as ‘potential space’ permits a nonmaternal interpretation of female identity development in which nonmaternal identities are equivalent alternatives to, and not substitutes for, maternal identities.” (Ireland, p.127)
Poet, Molly Peacock illuminates the redefinition of absence as creative space for personal growth beautifully:
When I said No to having children, I felt as if I went to some viscerally interior place, the place of recognition. I’d always thought that the positive, the embracing, the Yes that is so characteristic of women’s assumed responses, would let me affirm who I am. But it was a refusal that led me to understand my own nature. It was the saying no. The saying no seemed to emerge from the ready emptiness that is required for all creativity, not just for the making of art. That No can’t be confused with loss, or painful emptiness of not having what you need. Like a well-proportioned, unfurnished room with open windows, the affirming refusal invites life. It’s a room, not a womb. Like a womb, it harbors life, but unlike a womb, it leaves room to create the rest of life. (p. 314)Happiness and Well-Being
Although our pronatalist culture promotes the parenthood lifestyle as the “have-it-all” road to ultimate fulfillment and happiness for women, research has concluded that parenthood is not associated with higher levels of well-being, and in fact, the childfree life offers a higher likelihood of happiness and well-being, especially for women.
Evenson and Simon conducted a study in which they analyzed data from the first wave of the National Survey of Families and Households on a national probability sample of 13,017 adults. They found that parenthood is not associated with enhanced emotional well-being and no type of parent reports less depression than non-parents. As a group, parents report higher levels of depression when residing with minor children and report significantly more depression than childless peers. They also found that empty-nest parents do not significantly differ from persons who never had children, suggesting that even parents whose children have left the home are not at an emotional advantage over the childfree. Langlois (2004), who studied the impact of having offspring in the household during the retirement process, concluded that childless retirees had higher life satisfaction than those with children (regardless of whether they resided in the home). Keith (1983), who interviewed 103 childless persons and 438 parents, aged 72 years or older, concluded that children did not assure older parents less loneliness, more positive appraisals of life or greater acceptance of death and the presence or absence of children did not seem to appreciably alter the lives of the very aged.
Glenn, Norval and Weaver conducted a study in which they reviewed data from the General Social Surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center during 1972 – 1975 to examine psychological well-being and global happiness as it relates to family situation. They concluded that the effects of having children have a negative impact on psychological well-being and that “many people in the United States could augment their happiness (at last during young adulthood and into middle age) as well as help overpopulation, by remaining childless.”
McLanahan and Adams, who conducted a review of research done over the past few decades on the impact of children on the psychological well-being of adults, found that parenthood may have negative consequences for the psychological well-being of adults. The presence of children is found to be associated with lower levels of happiness and satisfaction and with higher levels of psychological distress for both women and men (with the negative impact of children being more pronounced for women). The differences between parents and nonparents are small, but have been growing. These researchers attribute these differences “economic and time constraints, which in turn arise from general social trends such as the increase in women’s labor force participation and the increase in marital disruption and single parenthood.” (p. 237)
Brown and Lumley, who interviewed 880 new mothers, found that more than 25% of their respondents reported lack of satisfaction with several areas of their lives. 44% said they felt “run down”, 39% found that the trouble involved in arranging babysitters took away the pleasure of going out; 28% reported they had not enjoyed sex since the baby was born and 26% reported they did not like their lives.
Gove and Geerken, whose study examined the effect of children and employment on the mental health of married men and women by examining measures of psychiatric symptoms, concluded that in Western cultures, married women tend to be in poorer mental health than married men and attribute this to demands found in the home associated with the incessant demands of children.
A respondent to my survey, Jasmin S., 42 explains her view of the happiness and the childfree life:
As for how I came to consciously make the choice [to be childfree]…I think I just looked around me and never saw any parents who were happier than me and so I asked myself why anyone would want to take on all that extra burden and responsibility if they could live a happy life without it? In fact, it seemed to me that people with kids were usually less happy than me – tired, stressed and broke – most of the time struggling to keep it all together.Mel H., 42, has a similar assessment:
I know of no one with children who seems to be a very happy person, individually. I know of families where the family seems somewhat happy, but the individual parents are always complaining about the kids and how much they cost and how they keep them awake and how they have no time to spend doing what they want because of the kids, and on and on and on…My childfree friends are happier overall, better handle their finances, and seem more at peace with themselves and the world.
In Motherhood: What it Does to your Mind, Price discusses how for many women, motherhood represents a great loss:
For many, the good side of mothering makes up for the losses, at least some of the time, and for mothers who have never had emotional or financial independence, nor gained any sort of self-knowledge prior to the birth, the losses may be insignificant when compared to the gains. However, an increasing number of women have begun to make adult lives for themselves, independent and enjoying it, prior to their first child and for this group motherhood represents a great loss, both of external parameters such as income and adult company, but also of inner space, time to do what you want, and ways of valuing self. One woman described her experience to me, ‘I felt as if I was falling into a hole much like Alice in Wonderland. Nothing made sense any more. I was not the boss, had no control, could make no decisions, and every second seemed full of something or somebody else apart from me. Within two weeks I had lost any sense of who or what I had ever been and I began to feel as if I had died. My tears were a form of grief at losing the me that I was familiar with.’” (130-31)Financial Advantages
It goes without saying that the childfree lifestyle offers distinct financial advantages over the lifestyle of parenthood. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2006 Annual Report, “Expenditures on Children by Families”, a child born in 2007 to a two-parent family earning $38,000 - $64,000 a year, living in the northeastern United States and attending a public college, will cost $266,698 to raise. Since most married couples have at least two children, the decision by a couple meeting the demographic categories above to have two children requires a financial commitment of over a half million dollars.
Not surprisingly, the financial benefits of childfreedom were frequently mentioned by the respondents to my survey, and by the participants in the studies of other researchers as a significant benefit to the childfree lifestyle. Not only are childfree individuals and couples able to utilize more of their income for travel, dining out and other enjoyable recreational activities, not having children also results in fewer bills to pay, more available money to invest for retirement or in other savings and investments and fewer marital conflicts over money. Additionally, the childfree suffer fewer financial constraints generally and have more financial freedom allowing them to pursue education and other interests and activities that require the expenditure of significant sums of money.
Childfree women have the distinct advantage of being available to invest themselves fully in their careers and education without interruption, thereby increasing their earning capacity and opportunities for upward mobility and advancement. Because they are not pulled in multiple directions like mothers, childfree workers are able to work overtime, evenings and weekends and take on special projects when needed. They are not pulled away from their jobs by pregnancy, maternity leave or competing child care demands.
Ease in Life
Choosing the childfree life affords women many advantages, one of the most important being the enjoyment of ease in life. This ease of life is described by the participants in my survey, as well as in studies by other researchers, as a host of life advantages which make life more enjoyable and easy, including: less housework, more solitude and alone time, more flexibility and being able to come and go at will, more personal privacy, more sleep, relaxation and energy and more personal space. Other areas of ease in life include fewer worries, a less harried life (not having to “do it all”), fewer responsibilities, burdens, pressures and demands, less stress, not having to disrupt an already fulfilling and active life, more freedom to escape a bad marriage, ability to enjoy an adult-centered lifestyle and not having to limit activities to those suitable for children. Childfree respondents also report enjoying being able to live where they want and being able to move easily, having fewer sacrifices, less monotony in life, more of a sense of ownership and control over their lives, a stronger sense of personal identity, greater ability to invest in personal care (food, exercise, appearance) and more peace and quiet. A number commented on enjoying being able to live in a neat and beautiful home free of “kiddie clutter” and childproofing, and appointing their homes with furnishings of their choice.
This ease of life also expresses itself in freedom from dealing with the difficulties in raising children, particularly difficult or handicapped children, the difficulties in raising a child in a world that is growing more dangerous and complex by the day, freedom from having to be a good example to someone or be responsible for another life, not having to live (as one respondent put it) “the life of a hand servant” and generally, freedom from an occupation which is often painful and thankless.
Cain summarizes this ease of life as:
“the latitude to develop their careers fully; the intimacy they share with their mates; the lack of financial, emotional and time pressures; the freedom from fear of being a bad mother or having a difficult child; the spiritual growth that takes place thanks to the availability of unfettered time; the relief of not having to raise a loved one in a world some view as too violent and too selfish. How ironic that we support the notion that retired people should travel and enjoy themselves, yet we reject the idea of a younger couple doing so.” (p. 141)Relational Advantages
Because childfree women are free from the time constraints, demands and emotional drain of motherhood, they are able to invest themselves more fully and intimately in their personal relationships. Childfree women are able to enjoy more active adult social lives than mothers and their social activities are not required to revolve around children. They are able to devote emotional energy and time to their friendships and have the flexibility to be truly available and present for their friends. The childfree are also able to devote themselves more attentively and enthusiastically to their relationships with the children in their lives, for example nieces and nephews, since they do not have to deal with the competing demands of their own children and are not jaded by the 365-days-a-year child-centered life of a parent.
The relational advantages of childfreedom are most pronounced in the area of marital satisfaction. Several studies have concluded that childfree marriages are happier than the marriages of parents. Crohan explored how styles of conflict resolution change for spouses after they become parents using data from the first and third waves of the First Years of Marriage Study conducted at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Results showed that spouses who became parents report lower marital happiness and more frequent conflicts after the transition than before having children. White parents also reported higher marital tension.
Feldman studied intentional parents and childfree couples and found that while levels of marital satisfaction were similar, childfree couples have significantly more positive marital interactions for example, “having fun away from home”, “having a stimulating exchange of ideas”, “working together on a project” and “having sexual relations” more often. He found that childfree marriages are more interactive, with more conversations in the areas of “work”, “health”, “feelings”, “cultural” topics, “mutual friends”, “politics” and “sexual relations”. As would be expected, parents talked more frequently than nonparents about rearing children. Similarly, Somers, who conducted a study comparing childfree and parents, found the childfree groups scored higher on marital satisfaction and showed significantly higher levels of cohesion (working together, discussing and exchanging ideas) than parents. Additionally, the childfree showed higher levels of dyadic satisfaction (measured by the frequency of quarrels, threats of divorce) and scored higher on the life satisfaction scale than parents. Callan, who interviewed 60 mothers, 36 voluntarily childless wives and 53 infertile women noted that the childfree women reported more time with their husbands including higher levels of consensus and more exchanges of ideas.
Twenge, Campbell and Foster, who conducted a meta-analytic review on 97 articles containing 148 data points on parenthood and marital satisfaction, concluded that parents report lower marital satisfaction than non-parents and that there is a significant negative correlation between marital satisfaction and the number of children. The effect of parenthood on marital satisfaction is more negative among high socioeconomic groups, younger birth cohorts and in more recent years. The data suggest that role conflicts and restriction of freedom are responsible for this decrease in marital satisfaction.
Renne, who conducted a study on 4,452 married couples (including childless couples, couples rearing children, and couples with children no longer living at home), found that parenthood detracts from the morale and health of married persons, particularly among younger couples. Childless marriages were found to be happier, even among older couples and while childless marriages appeared to improve with time, the marriages of parent couples tended to deteriorate. Renne concluded that childless marriages are happier, regardless of the length of marriage or age of the couple.
Cowan and Cowan, authors of When Partners Become Parents: The Big Life Change for Couples, describe what happens to parents when they become parents. Upon having a child, the household tasks become more specialized and the division of labor with respect to child care falls more to the mother than the father. Their study, as well as a study by Pleck, indicate that husbands whose wives are employed do little more housework and caring for the children than husbands whose wives do not work outside the home.
The most problematic issue for men and women in the early family years is who cares for the children. Neither the traditional male/female division nor the new egalitarian sharing arrangements stand out as ideal: Modern couples get penalized either way. When one parent brings home the bacon while the other stays home to look after the child, both can feel underappreciated and strapped economically, which burdens the marriage and the children. When both parents work outside the family, they tend to feel better about themselves and about their contributions to the family economy, but parents and children are breathless, often missing the opportunity for intimate moments.” (Cowan and Cowan, p. 203)In addition to having higher levels of marital satisfaction, childfree marriages tend to be more egalitarian with more freedom to modify conventional sex roles. Veevers explains that in ordinary families, “the coming of children tends to accentuate biological sex differences and to buttress conventional sex role expectations. The birth of a baby signals the beginning of a traditional division of labor with the woman taking on more of the childbearing chores, regardless of her employment status outside the home.” (p. 104). By comparison, childfree couples maintain roles which are interchangeable and more equal. Without the constraints of child care, childfree couples are better able to negotiate an equal partnership, especially since both partners are likely to work outside the home and are therefore likely to see themselves as equal contributors to the marriage.
Disadvantages of the Childfree Life
While the childfree view the advantages of their lifestyle as far outweighing the disadvantages, no lifestyle is perfect, and the childfree lifestyle certainly has its share of disadvantages. This discussion has already touched on many of them – the social marginalization a childfree woman must endure in a child-centered world, being a member of a virtually invisible and misunderstood minority, being held to account for the decision to be childfree, being subject to a host of negative judgments, attitudes and assumptions, having few visible role models, receiving unfair treatment and discrimination in a society that encourages and rewards parenthood.
There are other disadvantages to the childfree lifestyle. Many childfree individuals face isolation or disjuncture with their families who don’t understand their decision and/or are not supportive of it. Some feel guilty about disappointing their families. Childfree women, especially those living in rural or suburban areas, can find it difficult to maintain meaningful friendships with other women, since most women’s lives revolve around (and are often consumed by) childrearing. Some childfree women worry about regret in later life or worry about elder care if they become infirm in old age, although many of my survey respondents noted their awareness that having children is no guarantee of being cared for in old age.
The most common disadvantage listed by the respondents to my survey was having to endure the negative judgments of others. Interestingly, a significant number of respondents responded that there are no disadvantages to the childfree lifestyle at all.