Voluntary childlessness

Voluntary childlessness, also described by some as being childfree, is the voluntary choice to not have children.

In most societies and for most of human history, choosing not to have children was both difficult and undesirable. The availability of reliable contraception along with support provided in old age by one's government rather than one's family has made childlessness an option for people in some, though they may be looked down upon in certain communities.

The usage of the term "childfree" to describe people who choose not to have children was coined in the English language late in the 20th century.[1] The meaning of the term "childfree" extends to encompass the children of others (in addition to one's own children) and this distinguishes it further from the more usual term "childless", which is traditionally used to express the idea of having no children, whether by choice or by circumstance.[2] The term 'child free' has been cited in Australian literature to refer to parents who are without children at the current time. This may be due to them living elsewhere on a permanent basis or a short-term solution such as childcare (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2011).

Commonly shared beliefs

Supporters of living childfree (e.g. Corinne Maier, French author of "No Kids: 40 Reasons For Not Having Children") cite various reasons[3] for their view:

  • competing familial or social obligations, such as the role of primary caregiver for a disabled spouse, sibling(s) or parent(s)
  • concerns over the effects pregnancy has on the woman's body (weight gain, stretch marks, drooping breasts, hyperpigmentation on the face, looser pelvic muscles leading to reduced sexual pleasure for both the woman and her partner, haemorrhoids, urinary incontinence,[4] death,[5] etc.)
  • economic insufficiency
  • lack of access to support networks and resources
  • personal well-being[6]
  • existing or possible health problems, including genetic disorders[7]
  • reluctance to replicate the genes of one's own parents in cases of child abuse
  • fear that sexual activity may decline[8]
  • various fears (for example, of being trapped or disappointed) as well as fears for the child
  • damage to relationships or difficulties with them
  • fear and/or revulsion towards the physical condition of pregnancy, the childbirth experience,[9] and recovery (for example the erosion of physical desirability)
  • belief that one can make a greater contribution to humanity through one's work than through having children
  • perceived or actual incapacity to be a responsible and patient parent
  • the view that the wish to reproduce oneself is a form of narcissism
  • the absence of a partner with which one deems fit to sexually reproduce
  • belief that it is wrong to intentionally have a child when there are so many children available for adoption
  • concern regarding environmental impacts such as overpopulation, pollution, resource scarcity and the resulting effects on the global climate and the welfare of existing children
  • antinatalism: the belief that it is inherently immoral to bring people into the world. That is, one may generally wish to spare a potential child from the suffering of life. Moreover, the parent can never get the consent of the unborn child, therefore a decision to procreate would be an imposition of life
  • belief in a negative, declining condition of the world and culture and in the need to avoid subjecting a child to those negative conditions. This includes concerns that calamitous events (e.g., global warming effects, war, or famine) might be likely to occur within the lifetime of one's children and cause their suffering and/or death
  • belief that people tend to have children for the wrong reasons (e.g. fear, social pressures from cultural norms)
  • adherence to the principles of a religious organization which rejects having children[10] or the rejection of procreative religious beliefs imposed by one's family and/or community
  • dislike of children
  • uncertainty over the stability of the parenting relationship
  • lack of the so-called maternal or paternal instinct
  • belief that one is too old or too young to have children
  • career orientation
  • simply not wanting to have children

Statistics and research

According to economist David Foot of the University of Toronto, the level of a woman's education is the most important factor in determining whether she will reproduce: the higher her level of education, the less likely she is to bear children (or if she does, the fewer children she is likely to have). Overall, researchers have observed childless couples to be more educated, and it is perhaps because of this that they are more likely to be employed in professional and management occupations, more likely for both spouses to earn relatively high incomes, and to live in urban areas. They are also less likely to be religious, subscribe to traditional gender roles, or subscribe to conventional roles.[11]

Being a childfree, American adult was considered unusual in the 1950s.[12][13] However, the proportion of childless adults in the population has increased significantly since then. The proportion of childlessness among women aged 40–44 was 10% in 1976, reached a high of 20% in 2005, then declined to 15% in 2014.[14] In Europe, childlessness among women aged 40–44 is most common in Austria, Spain and the United Kingdom (in 2010-2011).[15] Among surveyed countries, childlessness was least common across Eastern European countries,[15] although one child families are very common there.

From 2007 to 2011 the fertility rate in the U.S. declined 9%, the Pew Research Center reporting in 2010 that the birth rate was the lowest in U.S. history and that childfreeness rose across all racial and ethnic groups to about 1 in 5 versus 1 in 10 in the 1970s.[16] The CDC released statistics in the first quarter of 2016 confirming that the U.S. fertility rate had fallen to its lowest point since record keeping started in 1909: 59.8 births per 1,000 women, half its high of 122.9 in 1957.[17] Even taking the falling fertility rate into account, the U.S. Census Bureau still projected that the U.S. population would increase from 319 million (2014) to 400 million by 2051.[17]

The National Center of Health Statistics confirms that the percentage of American women of childbearing age who define themselves as childfree (or voluntarily childless) rose sharply in the 1990s—from 2.4 percent in 1982 to 4.3 percent in 1990 to 6.6 percent in 1995.

Factors involved in voluntary childlessness

In 2010, updated information on childlessness, based on a 2008 US Census Population Survey, was analyzed by Pew Research.[18]


While younger women are more likely to be childless, older women are more likely to state that they intend to remain childless in the future.

Marriage and relationships

Being unmarried is one of the strongest predictors of childlessness. It has also been suggested through research that married individuals who were concerned about the stability of their marriages were more likely to remain childless.

Socioeconomic status/labor force participation

Most studies on this subject find that higher income predicted childlessness. However, some women report that lack of financial resources was a reason why they decided to remain childless. Childless women in the developed world often express the view that women ultimately have to make a choice between motherhood and having a career. The 2004 Census Bureau data showed nearly half of women with annual incomes over $100,000 are childless.


Among women aged 35–44, the chance of being childless was far greater for never-married (82.5%) than for married women (12.9%). When the same group is analyzed by education level, increasing education correlates with increasing childlessness: non-H.S. graduate (13.5%), H.S. graduate (14.3%), Some College no degree (24.7%), Associate Degree (11.4%), Bachelor's degree (18.2%) and Graduate or Professional degree (27.6%).[20][21]

No high school diploma
High school diploma
Some college
Bachelor or higher
Educational differences in childlessness among women 40-44 yrs old in the U.S, 2004

Social attitudes to remaining childfree

Most societies place a high value on parenthood in adult life, so that people who remain childfree are sometimes stereotyped as being "individualistic" people who avoid social responsibility and are less prepared to commit themselves to helping others.[22] However, certain groups believe that being childfree is beneficial. With the advent of environmentalism and concerns for stewardship, those choosing to not have children are also sometimes recognized as helping reduce our impact, such as members of the voluntary human extinction movement. Some childfree are sometimes lauded on moral grounds, such as members of philosophical or religious groups, like the Shakers.

There are three broad areas of criticism regarding childfreeness, based upon socio-political, feminist or religious reasons. There are also considerations relating to personal philosophy and social roles.


Feminist author Daphne DeMarneffe links larger feminist issues to both the devaluation of motherhood in contemporary society, as well as the delegitimization of "maternal desire" and pleasure in motherhood.[23] In third-wave handbook Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, authors Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards explore the concept of third-wave feminists reclaiming "girlie" culture, along with reasons why women of Baby Boomer and Generation X ages may reject motherhood because, at a young and impressionable age, they witnessed their own mothers being devalued by society and family.[24]

On the other hand, in "The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order"[25] and in Utne Reader magazine, third-wave feminist writer Tiffany Lee Brown described the joys and freedoms of childfree living, freedoms such as travel previously associated with males in Western culture. In "Motherhood Lite," she celebrates being an aunt, co-parent, or family friend over the idea of being a mother.[26]


Some believe that overpopulation is a serious problem and some question the fairness of what they feel amount to subsidies for having children, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (US), free K–12 education paid for by all taxpayers, family medical leave, and other such programs.[27] Others, however, do not believe overpopulation to be a problem in itself; regarding such problems as overcrowding, global warming, and straining food supplies to be problems of public policy and/or technology.[28]

Some have argued that this sort of conscientiousness is self-eliminating (assuming it is heritable), so by avoiding reproduction for ethical reasons the childfree will only aid deterioration of concern for the environment and future generations.[29]

Government and taxes

Some regard governmental or employer-based incentives offered only to parents—such as a per-child income tax credit, preferential absence planning, employment legislation, or special facilities—as intrinsically discriminatory, arguing for their removal, reduction, or the formation of a corresponding system of matching incentives for other categories of social relationships. Childfree advocates argue that other forms of caregiving have historically not been considered equal—that "only babies count"—and that this is an outdated idea that is in need of revision. Caring for sick, disabled, or elderly dependents entails significant financial and emotional costs but is not currently subsidized in the same manner. This commitment has traditionally and increasingly fallen largely on women, contributing to the feminization of poverty in the U.S.[30]

The focus on personal acceptance is mirrored in much of the literature surrounding choosing not to reproduce. Many early books were grounded in feminist theory and largely sought to dispel the idea that womanhood and motherhood were necessarily the same thing, arguing, for example, that childfree people face not only social discrimination but political discrimination as well.[27]


Abrahamic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as Hinduism place a high value on children and their central place in marriage. In numerous works, including an Apostolic letter written in 1988,[31] Pope John Paul II has set forth the Roman Catholic emphasis on the role of children in family life. However, the Catholic Church also stresses the value of chastity in the non-married state of life and so approves of nominally childfree ways of life for the single.

There are, however, some debates within religious groups about whether a childfree lifestyle is acceptable. Another view, for example, is that the biblical text Gen. 1:28 "Be fruitful and multiply", is really not a command but a blessing formula and that while there are many factors to consider as far as people's motives for remaining childless, there are many valid reasons, including dedicating one's time to demanding but good causes, why Christians may choose to remain childless for a short time or a lifetime.[32] Matthew 19:12 describes Jesus as listing three types of eunuchs including one type who chooses it intentionally, noting that whoever is willing to become one, should.

Ethical reasons

Brian Tomasik cites ethical reasons for people to remain childfree. Also, they will have more time to focus on themselves, which will allow for greater creativity and the exploration of personal ambitions. In this way, they may benefit themselves and society more than if they had a child.[33]

The "selfish" issue

Some opponents of the childfree choice consider such a choice to be selfish. The rationale of this position is the assertion that raising children is a very important activity and so not engaging in this activity must therefore mean living one's life in service to one's self. The value judgment behind this idea is that individuals should endeavor to make some kind of meaningful contribution to the world, but also that the best way to make such a contribution is to have children. For some people, one or both of these assumptions may be true, but others prefer to direct their time, energy, and talents elsewhere, in many cases toward improving the world that today's children occupy (and that future generations will inherit).[34]

Proponents of childfreedom posit that choosing not to have children is no more or less selfish than choosing to have children. Choosing to have children may be the more selfish choice, especially when poor parenting risks creating many long term problems for both the children themselves and society at large.[35] As philosopher David Benatar[36] explains, at the heart of the decision to bring a child into the world often lies the parents' own desires (to enjoy child-rearing or perpetuate one's legacy/genes), rather than the potential person's interests. At the very least, Benatar believes this illustrates why a childfree person may be just as altruistic as any parent.

There is also the question as to whether having children really is such a positive contribution to the world in an age when there are many concerns about overpopulation, pollution and depletion of non-renewable resources. Some critics counter that such analyses of having children may understate its potential benefits to society (e.g. a greater labor force, which may provide greater opportunity to solve social problems) and overstate the costs. That is, there is often a need for a non-zero birth rate.[37]

Organizations and political activism

Childfree individuals do not necessarily share a unified political or economic philosophy, and most prominent childfree organizations tend to be social in nature. Childfree social groups first emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, most notable among them the National Alliance for Optional Parenthood and No Kidding! in North America where numerous books have been written about childfree people and where a range of social positions related to childfree interests have developed along with political and social activism in support of these interests. The term "childfree" was used in a July 3, 1972 Time article on the creation of the National Organization for Non-Parents.[38] It was revived in the 1990s when Leslie Lafayette formed a later childfree group, the Childfree Network.[39]

The National Organization for Non-Parents (N.O.N.) was begun in Palo Alto, CA by Ellen Peck and Shirley Radl in 1972. N.O.N. was formed to advance the notion that men and women could choose not to have children—to be childfree. Changing its name to the National Alliance for Optional Parenthood, it continued into the early 1980s both as a support group for those making the decision to be childfree and an advocacy group fighting pronatalism (attitudes/advertising/etc. promoting or glorifying parenthood). According to its bylaws, the purpose of the National Alliance for Optional Parenthood was to educate the public on non-parenthood as a valid lifestyle option, support those who choose not to have children, promote awareness of the overpopulation problem, and assist other groups that advanced the goals of the organization. N.O.N.'s offices were located in Reisterstown, MD; then Baltimore, MD; and, ultimately, in Washington, D.C. N.O.N. designated August 1 as Non-Parents' Day. Just as people with children come from all shades of the political spectrum and temper their beliefs accordingly, so do the childfree. For example, while some childfree people think of government welfare to parents as "lifestyle subsidies," others accept the need to assist such individuals but think that their lifestyle should be equally compensated. Still others accept the need to help out such individuals and also do not ask for subsidies of their own.

There are suggestions of an emergence of political cohesion, for example an Australian Childfree Party (ACFP) proposed in Australia as a childfree political party, promoting the childfree lifestyle as opposed to the family lifestyle. Increasing politicization and media interest has led to the emergence of a second wave of childfree organizations that are openly political in their raisons d'être, with a number of attempts to mobilize political pressure groups in the U.S. The first organization to emerge was British, known as Kidding Aside. The childfree movement has not had significant political impact.

See also



  1. . The term does not appear, for example, in the 1971 edition of the Oxford English DictionaryOxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1971. p. 343. LCCN 76-188038.
  2. The obsolete term "childerless", meaning "without children" is given, for example in Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1971. p. 343. LCCN 76-188038.
  3. Saunders, Doug (2007-09-29). "I really regret it. I really regret having children". The Globe and Mail. Toronto.
  4. Altman, Daniel; Ekström, Åsa; Gustafsson, Catharina; López, Annika; Falconer, Christian; Zetterström, Jan (2006). "Risk of Urinary Incontinence After Childbirth". Obstetrics & Gynecology. 108 (4): 873–878. doi:10.1097/01.AOG.0000233172.96153.ad. PMID 17012448.
  5. Christian, Parul; Katz, Joanne; Wu, Lee; Kimbrough-Pradhan, Elizabeth; Khatry, Subarna K.; Leclerq, Steven C.; West, Keith P. (2008). "Risk factors for pregnancy-related mortality: A prospective study in rural Nepal". Public Health. 122 (2): 161–172. doi:10.1016/j.puhe.2007.06.003. PMC 2367232. PMID 17826810.
  6. "Having children is not the formula for a happy life — Quartz". qz.com. Retrieved 4 April 2018.
  7. "The curse wiping out all my family: Killer disease hits last of widow's five children". dailymail.co.uk. 2010-07-16. Retrieved 4 April 2018.
  8. na. ISBN 9780549512509. Retrieved 4 April 2018 via Google Books.
  9. Hofberg; Brockington (2000). "Tokophobia: an unreasoning dread of childbirth". British Journal of Psychiatry. 176: 83–85. doi:10.1192/bjp.176.1.83. PMID 10789333.
  10. Kent, S.A. "Scientology -- Is this a Religion?". Marburg Journal of Religion. 4 (1): 1999.
  11. Park, Kristin (August 2005). "Choosing Childlessness: Weber's Typology of Action and Motives of the Voluntarily Childless". Sociological Inquiry. Blackwell Synergy. 75 (3): 372–402. doi:10.1111/j.1475-682X.2005.00127.x.
  12. Cohen, Patricia (12 June 2010). "Long Road to Adulthood Is Growing Even Longer". The New York Times.
  13. "Childless By Choice – childless couples an emerging demographic – Statistical Data Included". American Demographics. 2001-11-01. Archived from the original on 2005-07-02. Retrieved 2006-12-12.
  14. Livingston, Gretchen (2015-05-07). "Childlessness". Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. Retrieved 2017-04-30.
  15. https://www.oecd.org/els/family/SF_2-5-Childlessness.pdf
  16. Sandler, Lauren (August 12, 2013). "Having It All Without Having Children". TIME. Archived from the original on August 4, 2013.
  17. Park, Madison (August 11, 2016). "US fertility rate falls to lowest on record". CNN. Archived from the original on August 11, 2016.
  18. Livingston, Gretchen; Cohn, D’Vera (25 June 2010). "Childlessness Up Among All Women; Down Among Women with Advanced Degrees". Pew Research Center. Retrieved 23 June 2013.
  19. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2010/06/25/childlessness-up-among-all-women-down-among-women-with-advanced-degrees/
  20. "Children Ever Born per 1,000 Women, Percent Childless, and Women Who Had a Child in the Last Year by Race, Hispanic Origin, Nativity". 2004. Archived from the original on 2006-10-15. Retrieved 2017-12-07.
  21. Basten, Stuart (June 2009). "Voluntary childlessness and being Childfree". The Future of Human Reproduction. CiteSeerX
  22. Keizer, Renske; Dykstra, Pearl A.; Poortman, Anne-Rigt (2011). "Childlessness and Norms of Familial Responsibility in the Netherlands". Journal of Comparative Family Studies. 42 (4): 421–438. doi:10.3138/jcfs.42.4.421. hdl:1765/101421.
  23. DeMarneffe, Daphne (2005). "Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life". Back Bay Books/Little, Brown, and Company.
  24. Baumgardner, Jennifer; Richards, Amy (2000). Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
  25. Stoller, Karp, Debbie, Marcelle (1999). "The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order". Penguin.
  26. Brown, Tiffany Lee (2001). "Motherhood Lite". Utne Reader. Retrieved 2016-07-25.
  27. Burkett, Elinor (c. 2000). "The baby boon: how family-friendly America cheats the childless". New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-684-86303-0.
  28. "Overpopulation Myths". Daily Policy Digest, International Issues. National Center for Policy Analysis. 1995-10-05. Retrieved 12 December 2006.
  29. Hardin, Garrett (December 13, 1968). "The Tragedy of the Commons". Science. 162 (3859): 1243–8. Bibcode:1968Sci...162.1243H. doi:10.1126/science.162.3859.1243. PMID 5699198. Retrieved 2008-01-25.
  30. Levine, Carol. Panel Presentation: Long Term Care and Caregiving. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, D.C.
  31. Pope John Paul II (1988-08-15). "Apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem". Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Retrieved 12 December 2006. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  32. Van Leeuwen, Raymond C. (September–October 2003). "Is It All Right for a Married Couple to Choose to Remain Childless?". Today's Christian Woman. Christianity Today International. 25 (5): 24. Retrieved 12 December 2006.
  33. Tomasik, Brian. "The Cost of Kids".
  34. English, Jane (December 1986). "Childlessness Transformed: Stories of Alternative Parenting". Earth Heart. Archived from the original on 2006-10-18.
  35. Leone, Catherine (1986). Fairness, Freedom and Responsibility: The Dilemma of Fertility Choice in America (PhD Thesis). Washington State University. OCLC 29721613.
  36. Benatar, David (2006-10-19). "Better Never to Have Been". Oxford University Press.
  37. Landsburg, Steven E. (1997-04-13). "Be Fruitful and Multiply". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved 2016-07-25.
  38. "Behavior: Down with Kids". Time. 1972-07-03.
  39. Cain, Madelyn (2001). The Childless Revolution. Purseus Publishing. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-7382-0460-4.

Further reading

  • Gillespie, Rosemary (2003). "Childfree and Feminine: Understanding the Gender Identity of Voluntarily Childless Women". Gender and Society. 17 (1): 122–35. doi:10.1177/0891243202238982. JSTOR 3081818.
  • Hird, Myra J. (2003). "Vacant Wombs: Feminist Challenges to Psychoanalytic Theories of Childless Women". Feminist Review. 75 (1): 5–19. doi:10.1057/palgrave.fr.9400115. JSTOR 1395859.
  • Waisberg, Tatiana (2017). "The Last Front Line of Human Rights: The Childfree Choice and Women Empowerment". In Leal, César Barros; Muños, Soledad Garcia (eds.). Genero, Meio Ambiente e Direitos Humanos. Fortaleza. pp. 181–217. SSRN 3050988.
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