Childlessness: Reasoning & Societal Perception

Childlessness: Reasoning & Societal Perception

The decision to have children is an incredibly significant life choice; however, sometimes it seems as though society forgets or ignores that having children is, in fact, a choice. As a result, childless individuals can be perceived as being different despite the fact that having children (or not) should not be compulsory, but rather respected as an individualized choice that can vary from person to person. This paper will explore the various reasons why some people are childless and the various ways in which society perceives childless individuals and conclude by noting potential ways in which society could change so as to be more accommodating for those who are deciding whether or not they want children.

One reason why some people are childless is actually not by their own choice. Between 9-15% of people have experienced issues with infertility (Zurlo, Volta, & Vallone, 2018). Of those who struggle to conceive, many participate in some sort of treatment for their fertility issues; however, success is in no way guaranteed and the process is expensive. The mental health effects of struggling with infertility can be significant. Depression, anxiety, identity issues, and feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and being out of control are all associated with infertility (Zurlo et al., 2018). These feelings may be further intensified as a result of societal expectations regarding having children. One study showed that a majority of participants when not specifically told that a couple was childless due to fertility struggles, assumed that the couple had made the decision to not have children of their own accord and not as a result of situational factors (LaMastro, 2001). This can be problematic because society perceives childless people differently, viewing childless men and women as colder and less satisfied in their marriages than their child-bearing counterparts (LaMastro, 2001).

While some people physically unable to have children, others forgo kids due to other reasons. The development of widely available, effective contraception has played a huge part not only in those who decide not to have children, but also in terms of how people have more agency to plan their families without having to give up their sex lives or risk pregnancy by using less effective birth control methods (Ragsdale, 2013)Despite this, society and the media still view lower rates of motherhood and increases in the age at which women have their first child as indicators that women are choosing careers and money over having children (Ragsdale, 2013).

Research from Australia delved into the idea of working and being childless more deeply. Ultimately, it found that the reason women decided not to have kids varied significantly and attitudes about being childless depended on the age and generation of the person (Wood & Newton, 2006). Additionally, the research emphasized how corporate policies that are unfriendly/ unaccommodating to family life also played a role in some people’s decisions on whether or not they wanted to start a family, especially when it came to the women of the office (Wood et al., 2006). The study also emphasized how while egalitarian marriages may be on the rise, traditional ideas about motherhood and the implied difficulty of maintaining a work/family balance could be playing a role in women’s decisions on either postponing children or not having them altogether (Wood et al., 2006).

Another factor that is tied with children (or the lack thereof) is income. Research from Europe shows that there may be a gendered difference that impacts income depending on whether or not the person has children. The study found that there is a negative association between the number of kids a woman has and how much money she makes, meaning the more kids a woman has, the less she money she makes (Barthold, Myrskylä, & Jones, 2012). In contrast, the study found a minimal to weakly positive correlation between the number of children men have and how much income they make (Barthold et al., 2012). Thus, from an economic standpoint men do not risk as much by choosing to have children. Women, on the other hand, do— a matter that could factor into why some women do not have children. This also ties back to the Australian research that emphasized a lack of family friendly work policies potentially influencing women’s decisions to not have children.

In conclusion, men and women forgo having children for a variety of reasons. Sometimes people have physical issues with fertility, some people simply do not desire parenthood, while others, particularly women, face gendered obstacles that make them more carefully consider whether or not they want children. Unsurprisingly, women face consequences in either choice they make. Research shows that the more children women have, the less money they make (Barthold et al., 2012). Also, women with children were viewed as less competent in another study (Bays, 2017). Other research shows that women who do not have kids may be seen as more competent, but are also perceived as being cold, harmful to society, and causes of disgust (La Mastro 2001; Bays; 2017). These effects are harmful to all childless people, but are of particular interest when applied to those who are childless by reproductive circumstance rather than choice. Thus, in order to ensure a greater respect for all people regardless of their parental status or lack thereof it could potentially be beneficial to work towards the implementation of more child/parent friendly corporate customs, a definition of femininity that is less tied to being a maternal presence, and a deeper understanding for our fellow human beings and recognizing that parenthood is not always a simple decision or condition.


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