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My wife and I got married much younger than most people should—I was 21, she was 20. We were still in college. By the time we were in our late twenties and still childless, we started to run into some of the assumptions that are common about people without kids. Some people seemed to suggest that our lives were incomplete without children, while others openly expressed their envy of our freedom.
Implicit in some of these attitudes was the belief that we would always be selfish and self-focused unless and until we had kids. I’ve made my own assumptions about parents and non-parents alike, based on scant evidence.
I recently had a discussion on the Think Act Be podcast with Dr. Rachel Chrastil, an expert on the history of childless women in Western culture and author of How to Be Childless: A History and Philosophy of Life Without Children. We examined many of the assumptions about the childless, which in general are not terribly flattering. Here are some negative stereotypes that aren’t supported by evidence.
(Full disclosure: My wife and I are now parents to three kids. Chrastil herself has chosen to be childless.)
1. They’re unusual.
Being childless is often seen as rare and abnormal. While it’s true that the majority of people will have kids in their lifetime, childlessness “is more common than many people realize,” said Chrastil. “About 15 percent of women in the US reach the age of 45 without having had children,” either by choice or because they’re unable to. That’s about one out of seven—more common than being left-handed.
In some countries, like Germany and Switzerland, rates of childlessness are even higher, closer to one in four. So far from being a rarity, being childless is relatively common and widespread.
2. They’re selfish.
When I was growing up I was told that “parenthood is the antidote to selfishness.” While being a decent parent does require thinking about another person’s well-being all the time, I’m still waiting to be cured of my own selfishness. I don’t think I’m unique in that way.
I’m sure you know plenty of selfish parents, and those without kids who are kind and generous. A self-focused adult is likely to become a self-focused parent, or will enact their selfishness through their kids, like hogging the sidewalk with their stroller.
So where does this accusation come from? “Parenting is really hard work,” said Chrastil, “and for many people it’s not easy to become a parent.” Parents who are acutely aware of their own sacrifices may assume that the childless know nothing of what it means to give themselves in the service of others. But being a parent is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition in blunting selfishness; thankfully there are many ways to get there, such as through meaningful service.
“Selfish” is an accusation that actually gets tossed in both directions, as when a mother is labeled “selfish” for bringing her crying child on a plane. It’s easy to ignore or forget that the child’s crying is way more taxing on the parents than on other passengers, and that the parents may be traveling for very selfless reasons. So whether directed at parents or the childless, accusations of selfishness are often unwarranted.
3. They’re a product of modern feminist movements.
A common narrative holds that “everyone” used to have kids, until the advent of highly effective birth control (i.e., the Pill) and women’s greater involvement in the paid work force. But Chrastil notes that women throughout history have chosen not to have kids.
“The Pill did change things quite a lot,” she said, “but not as much as we think it did.” She noted that as far back as the 1500s in countries like Britain, France, and the Netherlands, people started delaying marriage until their mid- to late-twenties. Around 15 to 20 percent wound up not getting married at all, especially in urban areas, and unmarried women generally did not have children.
During the Victorian era, Chrastil said, even those who got married didn’t necessarily have offspring. They relied on methods of birth control that were available at the time, “things like sponges and early condoms. They weren’t great contraceptives but they were effective to a certain degree.”
4. Their lives are unfulfilling.
Many people assume that having children is the pinnacle of one’s existence, perhaps especially among those who find tremendous fulfillment through parenthood. Accordingly, they might assume that the childless are missing out on the full experience of life. Chrastil herself has had friends or well-intentioned strangers imply that she is misdirecting her time and resources by foregoing children.
However, there is no strong evidence that parents are more satisfied with their lives than are non-parents. In fact, as Chrastil notes, “Life satisfaction, and the ability to exert one’s will on one’s life, are higher for people who’ve never had children.”
So while it may be hard for parents to imagine feeling fulfilled without their children, it’s not safe to assume that everyone finds fulfillment in the same way.
5. They face more loneliness and financial hardship later in life.
Is having kids a guarantee that someone will take care of us when we’re old, and that being childless means we’ll grow old alone? Certainly not, says Chrastil. “Research findings suggest that old age is a challenge for most people,” including financial, health, and social challenges. “But childless people are not more susceptible to those kinds of problems.”
One major factor is that women who are childless tend to be better off financially than mothers of the same age since they’ve generally worked more years and had fewer expenses. And everyone, regardless of parenthood status, needs to find ways to stay socially connected in their later years.
“We have documents even from the 1700s in France in which the parents stipulated in a legal document that their children would take care of them.” In the twenty-first century there are many reasons why kids may not care for their elderly parents, such as geographical constraints or not having the financial wherewithal.
6. They don’t contribute to the perpetuation of our species.
Parents and non-parents often find themselves caught in a tension over their life choices. And yet as Chrastil points out, we can witness a mutual dependence between parents and non-parents.
“I believe in humanity and the continuation of civilization,” she laughed. “For my life to have meaning, I need to know that there will be humans a hundred years from now and five hundred years from now. So I appreciate you raising children.”
Continuing our species takes a lot more than having babies. It requires solving the biggest problems facing our time, creating the art that brings beauty to our existence, the philosophy that guides our actions—including how we raise our children. “I hope the capacity, energy, love, and passion I bring to my work might contribute to your life and the lives of other parents,” said Chrastil.
Needless to say, there are countless people throughout history who have done remarkable things and were not parents: Julia Child, Jesus Christ, Francis Bacon, Beethoven, Mother Theresa, Copernicus, Queen Elizabeth, Oprah Winfrey—the list goes on.
For Chrastil, writing How to Be Childless “was a journey from feeling snarky and defensive myself about childlessness, to realizing that we do have this symbiotic relationship. We both need each other.”
The full conversation with Dr. Rachel Chrastil is available here.
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