For a long time, people who chose not to have children were derided by society. Women were treated as outcasts, accused of shunning what was thought to be their “natural” maternal instinct. While today that choice is less stigmatized, society still tells women that they should eventually have kids and start a traditional family. Those who willingly choose not to are often met with raised eyebrows or the refrain of “Oh, just wait, you’ll want them eventually.”
University of Maine Professor Amy Blackstone understands this stigma all too well. She and her husband don’t have kids because, well, they don’t want kids. They’re childfree by choice and Blackstone is used to the awkward glances and record-skips that take place when they explain this. In her new book, Childfree by Choice: The Movement Redefining Family and Creating a New Age of Independence the sociologist explores the attitudes toward individuals and couples who choose not to have children, the growing childfree by choice movement, the myriad family structures that do not involve children, and how this might actually be helpful as the future unfolds. Fatherly spoke to Blackstone about what it means to be childfree — and why people need to stop passing judgement on those who choose to do so.
So why did you decide to write this book. And why now?
In 2008, I was in my mid-30s, and I had presumed that one day, I would wake up and suddenly feel that natural maternal instinct that we’re all told all women have. It wasn’t happening for me, but I was noticing that many of my friends were describing having maternal feelings and were making the transition to motherhood. I was at this place in my life where I didn’t understand — I thought something was wrong with me. I did not get why I was not feeling the same pull toward motherhood that many of my friends described.
This was happening at the very same time that I had just submitted my packet for consideration for tenure at my university. I felt confident that the response to that would be positive and that I would be tenured. So I was anticipating this job security, and I decided to go ahead and study parenthood.
What did your research lead you to?
The idea of maternal instinct is a myth. I grew up believing that it would kick in for me, but once I familiarized myself with research on the topic, I realized it’s an idea that we tell ourselves. There’s a really strong cultural lore around women’s natural drive to have children, but the reality is, there isn’t scientific evidence to show that there’s something unique and special about us that drives us to want to become parents.
There is in the sense that we socialize women to believe that to be true. We certainly rear girls to learn how to become mothers throughout their childhood and into their early adulthood. It’s not that that doesn’t exist, but it’s social, rather than innate. So it was a relief to realize that I was a normal person, even though I wasn’t feeling this pull.
At the same time, the public conversation about not having kids started to grow. One of the things that drove that was actually the Great Recession of 2008.
Did the Great Recession drive that conversation because people started having fewer kids during the economic downturn?
Demographers started noticing after the recession that fertility rates were going down. People were asking what was going on. Part of that conversation always is what can we do to [make women have babies.] Often, it’s, “Why aren’t women having more babies and what can we do to get them to have them?” I wanted to make the argument that: Maybe we don’t need to make people become parents if they don’t want to become parents. Maybe our focus should be on supporting people who opt in. Let’s focus on doing that, rather than getting people who are not interested in doing it to do it.
What will the modern family look like in a world where more and more people are choosing to go childfree?
It’s happening now — it’s not even just the future. Childfree people are helping us understand that family is something that people have in all kinds of different ways. We’ve already, as a society, come to understand that family doesn’t necessarily require two parents. It doesn’t require parents that are of a different sex. It doesn’t have to include people all of the same race. The childfree choice is one more opportunity to expand our notion of what counts as family.
I understand it raises the question: If a childfree household can count as a family, where do we draw the line? What does it mean, if it doesn’t include children? We know that families provide economic support for their members. They provide a household for their members. They also provide emotional support. The family, for many of us, is a place where we can go to recharge, be nurtured, receive love, and to also nurture others. I think that the sticking point for people is that we often think of family as the place for reproduction as well. But, as a sociologist, I think of reproduction as two processes: the biological type, which is what everyone assumes when they hear the word “reproduction.” But reproduction is also a social process.
We engage in social reproduction when we teach children our values. We help them become contributing members of society, and certainly, parents are crucial to that process as well. There are so many adults in children’s lives that also teach them and help them become adults and often those people are childfree people.
Yeah, that reminds me of many LGBTQ+ people, who have “chosen” families rather than biological ones. They’re families of love and support because, whoever birthed them refuses to be their parent any longer.
Absolutely. That’s the literature I draw from in the book, both in this discussion about family, because many LGBTQ+ people have been engaged in chosen families for many, many years. This is not a new concept that the childfree have made up. But also, LGBTQ+ communities have done a lot of really great work getting us to think differently about issues of aging and caring for people in old age. So I also draw from some of that literature in the discussion of aging and the childfree.
Tell me about that.
Well, that is one of the most common questions that people who have opted out of having kids receive: “Who will take care of you when you’re older?” I think that there are a few different points to be made here. One is the obvious, that is never explicitly stated: having children is not a guarantee that you’re going to have someone to care for you when you’re old.
That still doesn’t answer the question of who will care for you. One of the things I explore in the book are the ways that emerging boomers are thinking about aging differently. The Golden Girls model is becoming more common than it has been in the past. People are purchasing homes with friends of theirs, or maybe relatives who are not parent-child, but cousins or nieces and nephews with their aunts and uncles.
Co-housing is another that people are engaged in. People of multiple generations are either sharing a home or apartments that are zoned specifically to include people of all ages. There’s an apartment building in my hometown in Maine where there are folks of all ages living there, and the idea is that the younger generation have mentors and friends and have access to that generation, and that the younger generation will help out their older neighbors by carrying groceries or taking them to the store.
That mixed-housing unit in Maine is definitely not the traditional model of housing for older people. Most go to retirement communities, where employees help care for them.
It’s sad for everybody. I think that’s the other thing — multigenerational housing units don’t just benefit the elderly.
I feel like, often, when women say they don’t want kids, people say, “You’ll regret it” or “You’ll change your mind.” Have you encountered that a lot?
I do think it’s changed, with the caveat that I’m an eternal optimist. I always look for the silver lining, the bright side of the picture. There’s a woman by the name of Marcia Davis who is childfree and is in her 70s. In the 1960s, she and her husband found themselves on 60 Minutes, revealing to her in-laws that they were planning not to have kids. After that episode aired nationally, she wasn’t getting jobs anymore. She started getting threatening letters in the mail. She actually got death threats. She did some public speaking and had people protest outside of her locations where she was speaking, simply because she had shared that she had opted out of parenthood.
I don’t think we would see that happening today. Still, it’s not uncommon to hear that the choice is selfish, or that you’ll regret your choice, or that your family is not real, or that you’re not a real woman until you’ve had kids.
We still have these really entrenched notions about family, about parenthood, and particularly, about motherhood.
A woman can choose when she wants to get pregnant. Why can’t she choose to never get pregnant? And why do people cast doubt on women who decide not to have kids?
I do think it goes back to this idea of maternal instinct as “natural.” We’ve intertwined the notion of womanhood with motherhood [so much that] we almost think of those things as one in the same. When someone is newly acquainted with the idea that parenthood is a choice, and that there are women in particular who opt out of that choice, I think it’s so jarring to them.
I think we also do children a disservice by not recognizing the role that childfree people play in their lives. There is plenty of research that shows that children are better off when they have adults in their lives who are not their parents. They need their parents, too, but it matters in kids lives to have mentors who are not their parents.
I also think that there’s the point about the environmental impact of too many humans on this planet. We all can leave a legacy in a variety of ways. One of the ways that childfree people leave a legacy is to leave less behind, rather than more. We’re in no danger right now, and I’m not advocating that everyone should not have kids, but we’re currently not anywhere near not repopulating ourselves. Maybe that means there will be more of a world for other people’s children in the future.