Are You Childless By Choice? Pew Report on Childless Women Doesn't Answer Some Questions

Last week, the Pew Research Center released a new report indicating that childlessness among women in the U.S. has risen notably over the last 30 years or so.

Here's the money data:

Nearly one in five American women ends her childbearing years without having borne a child, compared with one in ten in the 1970s. While childlessness has risen for all racial and ethnic groups and most education levels, it has fallen over the past decade for women with advanced degrees.

So, bottom line, the childlessness rate has doubled over the last 30 years. And there are more than three times as many women who have never borne children now as there were in 1976 (1.9MM vs. 580K).

A few things leapt out to me, from the wonky research side of my brain:

  • The study considers the end of childbearing years to be 40-44, yet acknowledges that more women are delaying birth.
  • While it is still true that the more educated the woman, the more likely she is childless, the most highly educated are the only educational level of women where their childlessness rate is actually declining! Women at all education levels below having completed college are remaining childless more frequently.
  • This particular study didn't survey voluntary vs. involuntary childlessness, but the National Survey of Family Growth does. It reports that as many women are deemed "involuntarily" childless as are "voluntarily" childless at that point, and yes, some additional women are still trying at that age.

But then, there are the things that leapt out to me as one of those "voluntarily" childless women:

  • It's nice to know that the majority no longer feels that I lead an "empty life" without children. Fifty-nine percent of people now disagree with that statement.
  • A full 46 percent may now believe that it doesn't impact society if more women remain childless, but an almost as significant 38 percent think it's "bad for society."
  • And quite interesting: Only 41 percent believe children are very important for a happy marriage, down from 65 percent only 20 years ago.

Unfortunately, the study seems to be purely quantitative, in that it doesn't report asking women themselves to report on the reasons for their childlessness, whether voluntary or not. Of course they theorize ... about reduced societal pressure (38 percent thinking such childlessness is bad for society notwithstanding), about better contraception options, about more job opportunities (yes, the data was collected in 2008, probably pre-economic implosion!).

And that is some data I'd really like to see. How many women are "voluntarily" childless because they feel they can't afford children versus feeling that either they're not stable enough, or that they're not in a stable enough relationship, or think there are genetic reasons, or have that eco-driven "why bring more children into an over-populated (and pretty screwed up) world?"

And I'd really like to know how many women are out there like me: Who never wanted kids; who never felt that tug or that clock; who never regretted it, as many assumed (and told us) we would. Because my personal experience is that there are plenty of people who don't buy it (and certainly don't understand it even if they buy it).

I'd like to know exactly how odd I really am! Although I appear to be getting less odd.

Here's what some other bloggers are noting about the report:

Elizabeth Gregory from the Huffington Post: Childlessness and Late Fertility: Parsing the New Pew Report

What's odd is that the graph the authors provide (though not the discussion) indicates that the rate of childlessness in this age group in 2000 was 19 percent. So, it would have been just as correct for the headline to read "Childlessness Down Among All Women." Or "Childlessness Fairly Steady For Past 15 Years," since, as the graph also shows, the big rate jump occurred between 1984 and 1992, when the rate went from 11 percent to 16 percent. So that change is not exactly news.

Hello, Ladies: Should We Worry Women Aren't Having Babies?

I am reminded of a conversation I once had with my hairdresser. I was at her salon the Monday after Mother’s Day and she asked me how I had celebrated the day.

I told her my cousin, who is single and childfree, has a group of us over to for brunch. She lives in the city and after our meal we usually walk around Beacon Hill and enjoy the dogwood trees and the daffodils blooming. “Don’t you feel sorry for your cousin?” my hairdresser asked. “Why?” I responded. “Don’t you just want everyone to be married and have children?” she said. “I want everyone to have what I have.”

Laura Carroll from Families of Two: New Data on Childlessness, Part 1

From what you see out there, do you think society is more accepting of the childfree choice?

I tend to say yes, but only from afar ... people still find it hard when it gets close to home, e.g., one’s daughter and son-in-law decide to be childfree and the parents don’t get to become grandparents.


Elisa Camahort Page 

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Photo Credit: Doug Clow, by the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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