Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The stigma of a childless/free life

Amanda Marcotte at Salon recently posted an interesting article, flagging a new study that examines attitudes towards childfree people. Despite the fact that an increasing number of people remain childless/childfree, the social stigma attached to a life without children remains strong.

Marcotte was citing new research done by Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, an associate professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. (You can read the entire study here, and a press release about it here. Childfree by choice blogger & author Laura Carroll also posted about the same study, here, as did Karen at The NotMom, here.)

"Our data suggests that not having children is seen not only as atypical, or surprising, but also morally wrong, "Ashburn-Nardo said (emphasis mine).  Not only are people expected to HAVE children, they are expected to WANT to have children -- and those who don't conform with these expectations are viewed not just with disapproval but with "moral outrage" (!).

The press release continues:
The findings are consistent with other studies of backlash against people who violate social roles and other stereotypic expectations. When people violate their expected roles, they suffer social sanctions. Given that more and more people in the U.S. are choosing to not have children, this work has far-reaching implications.
(Ummm, yes, I'd say so...!)

In the study, Ashburn-Nardo notes the perception that children are a necessary ingredient for a fulfilling life -- despite the existence of several studies showing that parents are significantly less satisfied with their marriages than non-parents.

Apparently those of us who are childless/free not by choice get a pass and are viewed somewhat more favourably than those who dare to buck social norms by deliberately rejecting parenthood altogether. (Yay?)  (Interestingly, there appears to be no significant difference in the level of scorn heaped upon childfree men versus childfree women.) 

But even if people recognize that it is or may not be our "fault" that we don't have kids, I would venture to say there's still an element of judgment (and perhaps even superiority) involved when they compare our life to that of parents (including, presumably, themselves).  They "feel sorry" for us because they perceive our lives to be lacking/lesser-than in some important ways.

I don't think Ashburn-Nardo's conclusions are news to those of us without children (for any reason). But her study does provide some concrete evidence to back up our perceptions of stigma.

There were some interesting and thoughtful points made in the Facebook comments on Marcotte's page (so far, anyway...!) (versus the Salon FB page (don't even go there), or the comments made on the article itself).  Some remarked that perhaps it's not surprising that 18-year-olds would be so idealistic about having kids in the future "before having to really think about what sacrifices that might entail."

One commenter noted the "dearth of articles from people past childbearing age about their childfree lives. A lot of stuff I see is from people in the 20's and 30's who may just be delaying childbearing (not saying all, very aware there are people who know from a young age they don't want have kids.) Just think more narratives from those on the other side of it (past childbearing age) would be meaningful."  One more reason for those of us in the childless/free world to keep writing and speaking out about our experiences (particularly as we age)! 

Ashburn-Nardo plans to continue her research about the growing childfree demographic. I look forward to hearing more!


  1. About 3 years into our fertility battle, I went through a very depressing time while I tried to determine what kind of life I could possibly have without children. Everything in me insisted there was NO kind of life that would be good or worthwhile without kids. Then, I stumbled across your blog and others like you and realized - wait a minute, there is a life after infertility. There is actually a normal life (contrary to what society and my family had ingrained in me) and there is NOTHING wrong with being childless/ was a complete game changer (thank you!!).

    There are many people who shouldn't have kids (for hundreds of reasons) but do because the stigma tells them they have to. In the end, its the parents and the kids who suffer. I know, because I was born to a woman who didn't want kids but had them because she was told she should...because society had convinced her there was no other way for a woman to live. And it was hard, and it still is so hard. While I am thankful to be alive, I wonder what would have happened if she had been free to choose child-free living...

    1. Thank you, Raven, for the huge compliment!! :) I agree that too many people have kids without thinking WHY they want to be parents (other than "that's what you do...") and whether they're actually cut out for the job.

  2. I know you keep your blog kind of on the down low, but I think you should be publishing articles! (And I'm not just saying that.) I grew up in a family with an aunt and great aunt who didn't have children (by choice and by happenstance) so it never felt abnormal to me. It always seemed to be framed as a legit choice I could make. (Once I asked my mom why my aunt lived in a house on a golf course with s swimming pool and we didn't. My mom replied without missing a beat, "We had kids instead.") It wasn't really even snarky--just like "different people make different choices and both ways are happy and ok."

    This might sound harsher than I want it to, but I wonder sometimes if we overstate the joys of parenting as a way to justify our own mediocrity... like I could have been an awesome whatever but I decided to focus on my kids instead... (is that terrible of me to suggest?).

    My cousin who is closest to me in age is now approaching 40, has been married 13 years, and does not have children. We haven't discussed it directly in years, but I am quite certain this was not her choice. I'm sad for her if she has missed out on something she wanted, but I also admire the happy (pet-full) life she has created.

    And I still wish parenting were a meritocracy.

  3. Fascinating stuff. I definitely get the judgement part, and the "oh man your life just isn't so full" part, even with still slogging uphill to keep trying to add that one child. I have a smattering of friends who chose not to have children, some more adamant than others, and I'm always amazed at the things people say to them. I believe that piece about parents being less satisfied with their marriages. Not as a generalization, but that I can see that being true for many who put so much energy into their kids and the kids become the focus, and then you sort of lose sight of the two of you. I always look to couples who put their marriage first as inspiration in that manner (even though they get crap from people, too). Thanks for sharing these perspectives!

  4. I remember reading this, but obviously didn't get back to comment. Better late than never?

    I certainly agree with the stigma and judgement, and your comment on superiority.

    And yes, it is good reason for us to continue blogging.