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Perceptions of the Childfreelocked

Perceptions of the Childfreelocked

  • Elizabeth A. HintzElizabeth A. HintzDepartment of Communication, University of Connecticut
  •  and Rachel TuckerRachel TuckerDepartment of Communication, University of Connecticut

Summary

Being voluntarily childless (i.e., “childfree”) is a growing trend in the United States and around the world. Although most childfree people know early in life that they do not wish to become parents, the decision to forgo having children is an ongoing process that requires childfree people to construct a life that deviates from the normative family life cycle. Increasing rates of voluntary childlessness is a trend spurred by a variety of shifting social, economic, and environmental factors. Yet despite the increasing normalcy of voluntary childlessness, childfree people (and especially childfree women) face social sanctions for deciding not to become parents, being broadly perceived more negatively than childless people (who do not have children but want them) and parents. Such sanctions include social confrontations in which others (e.g., family members) question or contest the legitimacy of their childfree identity. Media coverage of voluntary childlessness forwards the notion that motherhood and femininity are inseparable and that voluntary childlessness is an issue that primarily concerns and affects women. Furthermore, childfree people face discrimination in health care contexts when seeking voluntary sterilization and in workplace contexts when “family-friendly” policies create unequal distributions of labor for those without children. Members of the childfree community use the Internet to share resources and seek support to navigate challenging interactions with outsiders. Beyond this, although some studies have begun to interrogate the roles of geographic location, race, and sexual orientation in shaping the experience of voluntary childlessness, at present, a largely White, wealthy, able-bodied, cisgender, heteronormative, and Western view of this topic is still perpetuated in the literature.

Subjects

  • Gender (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies)
  • Health and Risk Communication
  • Interpersonal Communication
  • Mass Communication
  • Media and Communication Policy
  • Organizational Communication

Introduction

Unlike childless people (who do not have children but want them), childfree (i.e., voluntarily childless) people are those who “[do not] have children of any sort (biological, from another spouse’s, adopted, fostered, etc.) AND [do not] want them at any point in the future” (Reddit, 2022b, n.p.). The term childfree was coined in 1972 by activist group the National Organization for Non-Parents to distinguish themselves from the childless (Agrillo & Nelini, 2008). This encyclopedia article is a primer on perceptions of the childfree and first reviews demographic trends of voluntary childlessness in the United States and globally, followed by psychological traits and characteristics of the childfree, as well as perceptions of the childfree in interpersonal relationships, mass media, online communities, and health care and workplace settings. First, U.S. and global childfree demographic trends are reviewed.

Childfree Demographics in the United States and Globally

Before reviewing childfree demographic trends in the United States and around the world, issues regarding how rates of voluntary childlessness are measured, and who is excluded in the process, must first be discussed. The measurement of voluntary childlessness is difficult. Much demography, press reporting, and government census-taking in the United States and around the world fail to distinguish among the childless and childfree (i.e., record reasons why those without children do not have them), instead often reporting only overall fertility rates and the proportion of women, specifically, without prior births. Accordingly, such research often fails to record rates of childlessness among men and perpetuates a largely cisgender and heteronormative view of the phenomenon of voluntary childlessness (Hintz & Haywood, 2021).

In addition, (voluntary) childlessness is largely measured (and researched; Blackstone & Stewart, 2012; and covered in the news media; Hintz & Haywood, 2021) as primarily affecting and pertaining to heterosexual women, as femininity and motherhood are nearly inseparable (e.g., Gillespie, 2000, 2003; Gotlib, 2016; Harrington, 2019; Hird & Abshoff, 2000; Kelly, 2009; Letherby, 2002; Peterson, 2015; Peterson & Engwall, 2013; Ruegemer & Dziengel, 2021), and even men with children from a prior relationship can be considered “childfree” in a new relationship (Peterson, 2014). Where prevalence rates are reported to illustrate the prevalence of (voluntary) childlessness, it is specified whether the figure refers to the childless or childfree (if known), as well as who the comparison group is (if applicable and known). Although 142 countries do not report rates of childlessness (United Nations, 2012), and even fewer distinguish among the childless and childfree, these figures about childlessness (regardless of whether they distinguish among the childless and childfree) are retained to represent relevant data from a variety of regions typically excluded in the literature on childfreedom.

Reflecting the growing popularity and normality of voluntary childlessness in the United States and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, 44% of nonparents ages 18–49 years now report that it is unlikely they will have children someday (Brown, 2021). Although many of these individuals will eventually have children, much of the research measuring rates of voluntary childlessness is created in response to economic panic about falling birth rates and other social and economic sanctions associated with the childfree choice (Hintz & Haywood, 2021). In the United States, estimated rates of voluntary childlessness changed from 6.2% in 2002, to 6.0% in 2006–2010, to 7.4% in 2011–2015 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2019), to 7.6% in 2015–2017, and finally to 9.8% in 2017–2019 (CDC, 2022). This rate is similar to those in Iran, where 9% of childless couples are voluntarily childless (Nasrabad et al., 2013). More recent estimates of U.S. voluntary childlessness, drawn from nationally representative data, suggest that approximately one fifth (21.6%) of U.S. adults are childfree (Neal & Neal, 2022).

Regarding rates of childlessness globally, measured as the number of nulliparous women (i.e., women without prior births) aged 40–44 years between 2000 and 2011, high-fertility countries report an average of 4.3% childlessness (ranging from 0.3% in São Tomé and Príncipe to 15.9% in Jordan), intermediate-fertility countries report an average of 6.2% childlessness (ranging from 2.2% in Bangladesh to 19.8% in Bahrain), and low-fertility countries report an average of 7.2% childlessness (ranging from 3.8% in the Maldives to 23.1% in Singapore; United Nations, 2012). The three countries with the lowest rates of childlessness in 2012 were São Tomé and Príncipe (0.3%), Liberia (1.1%), and Congo (1.9%; United Nations, 2012).

Many studies have been conducted to examine rates of childlessness by country, with those data revealing, for instance, that 2.5% of Indian women (Ganguly & Unisa, 2010), less than 15% of French women (Köppen et al., 2017), 16% of Ethiopian women (Verkroost & Monden, 2022), 16%–33% of Namibian and Central African Republican men (Verkroost & Monden, 2022), 17.9% of South African women born 1967–1971 (Statistics South Africa, 2019), 23% of British people (Fiori et al., 2017), 31% of New Zealanders (Didham, 2016), and 21% of Hong Konger, 19% of Singaporean, and 17% of Japanese women born in 1960 (Sobotka, 2021) are childless. These figures reflect wide regional variability in rates of childlessness, suggesting the influence of social norms, stigma, cultural and religious practices (e.g., Richie, 2013a), and economic and social policies (e.g., Veevers, 1974). Now that rates of (voluntary) childlessness around the world have been overviewed, characteristics of childfree people are discussed next.

Characteristics of the Childfree

Voluntary childlessness is a topic that has been discussed across disciplines, including psychology, sociology, communication studies, biology, economics, and counseling. Yet research on childfreedom is a largely modern phenomenon, with only six research articles about voluntary childlessness published between 1920 and 1969 (Lynch et al., 2018). The 1970s marked a surge in research attention (Blackstone & Stewart, 2012; Lynch et al., 2018; Moore & Geist-Martin, 2013), spurred by publications like The Baby Trap (Peck, 1971) and national nonparent activism (Healey, 2016). However, much research fails to distinguish between the voluntarily and involuntarily childless (Blackstone & Stewart, 2012). Research on voluntary childlessness has changed over time, with a focus primarily on fertility rates in the 1970s, explaining voluntary childlessness in the 1980s and 1990s, and the social and economic consequences of voluntary childlessness since the 1990s (Blackstone & Stewart, 2012; Hintz & Haywood, 2021; Lynch et al., 2018).

There is a need for increasing the diversity of research on voluntary childlessness (Blackstone & Stewart, 2012). Most research since 1970 has been positivist and psychometric in orientation, primarily quantitative methodologically, and emanating from North America, Australia and New Zealand (e.g., Rich et al., 2011), the United Kingdom, and Continental Europe (Lynch et al., 2018). In addition to a lack of geographic diversity (for examples of exceptions, see Bulgaria, Dimitrova & Kotzeva, 2022; India, Bhambhani & Inbanathan, 2018; Italy, Tanturri & Mencarini, 2008; Mexico and Japan, Mandujano-Salazar, 2019; Russia, Bicharova et al., 2015; and South Africa, Attridge & Lesch, 2020; Bimha & Chadwick, 2016), only a handful of studies have examined the influence of race (for exceptions, see Koropeckyj-Cox et al., 2007; Umberson et al., 2010; Vinson et al., 2010), sexual orientation (for exceptions, see Attridge & Lesch, 2020; Clarke et al., 2018; Hayfield et al., 2019; Koepke et al., 1992; Rowlands & Lee, 2006; Simon et al., 2019), and the perspectives of childfree men (e.g., Lunneborg, 1999; Rauscher & Durham, 2015). Thus, most research also often neglects to include and examine the experiences of those diverse in familial composition, gender identity, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity (i.e., Black, Indigenous, and people of color), and those in the Global South. This largely White, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied depiction of voluntary childlessness is a limitation of this research broadly (and therefore of this review) and should be kept in mind when interpreting what follows.

What factors and experiences are associated with voluntary childlessness? It was historically believed that adults who suffered abuse and other adverse experiences as children would become voluntarily childless in adulthood. However, despite consensus in the prior literature, empirical investigations have failed to draw linkages between adverse childhood experiences (e.g., abuse, trauma) and increased rates of or desires for voluntary childlessness (Bailey, 2017). In fact, voluntary childlessness is associated with positive appraisals of life satisfaction (Stahnke et al., 2022). Researchers have also failed to find that factors related to one’s family of origin, such as birth order, family size, or perceived parental happiness, predispose individuals to elect into voluntary childlessness (Ramu, 1984). There are also personality characteristics associated with making the childfree choice. For instance, on the Big Five personality index, childfree individuals score significantly higher in independence and lower in agreeableness and extraversion than the childless or parents, in addition to being more politically liberal and less religious (Avison & Furnham, 2015). Among the childfree, greater independence and openness were noted in those who decided to be childfree early in life than those who decided later in life.

In addition to better understanding what factors predispose individuals to being childfree, one might wonder why and how people decide to be childfree. Unlike the childless, the decision to be childfree is intentional and an ongoing process (rather than a one-time decision; Bhambhani & Inbanathan, 2020; Blackstone & Stewart, 2016; Settle & Brumley, 2014; Shaw, 2011). However, some childless people (who had originally desired to have children) resign themselves to never having children due to a variety of factors, including reaching the end of one’s fertile window and substantial obstacles to having children (Buhr & Huinink, 2017). Of those who desire voluntary childlessness from a young age, many reasons are reported, including the (lack of) parenting desires, conflict stemming from career and lifestyle goals (e.g., desires for autonomy and freedom and women’s increased labor force participation; Blackstone & Stewart, 2012), lacking a “maternal instinct” or “parenting drive” (e.g., Aarssen & Altman, 2012), a disinterest in children, personality traits (e.g., a quick temper) they view as being incongruent with children, financial expenses (Carmichael & Whittaker, 2007; Gillespie, 2003; McQuillan et al., 2012; Park, 2005), not being cisgender, a fear of pregnancy or childbirth, a fear of long-acting reproductive contraceptives (e.g., Höglund & Hildingsson, 2022; Reddit, 2022a), and environmental concerns, called “birthstriking” (e.g., Hobson & Oláh, 2006; McMullen & Dow, 2022; Nakkerud, 2021). Despite the notion that young childfree individuals will come to regret this decision with age, decades of research have failed to demonstrate few, if any, negative consequences of making the childfree choice in older adulthood (e.g., Blackstone & Stewart, 2012; Stegen et al., 2021). In fact, voluntarily childless women report greater overall well-being and autonomy than involuntarily childless women (Jeffries & Konnert, 2002).

However, the voluntary childless do face challenges after their decision has been made. Childfree couples deviate from the life stages that normatively define heterosexual middle-class adulthood, which include marrying before age 30, having children early in the marriage and spaced several years apart, and having a lifelong relationship (Monte, 1989). Two specific life transitions, leaving one’s parents’ house and getting married, play a large role in determining whether a person becomes a parent (Hagestad & Call, 2007). Pelton and Hertlein (2011) have proposed an alternative life cycle that includes making the decision to be childfree, managing the stigma and pressure associated with not having children, defining an identity without children, and building a support system and leaving a legacy (e.g., charitable and philanthropic contributions). As a part of this life cycle process, to find meaning in a life without children, the childfree cultivate alternative sources of meaning, including having relationships with friends, colleagues, and family (e.g., Corbett, 2016) or assuming a parental role for a companion animal (e.g., Laurent-Simpson, 2017; Peterson & Engwall, 2019; Volsche, 2018). Now that characteristics of the childfree have been articulated, research concerning perceptions of the childfree broadly is reviewed next, followed by perceptions of the childfree in various contexts.

Perceptions of the Childfree

Broadly, childfree individuals face a culture of pronatalism and social sanctions for choosing not to have children (Park, 2002; Veevers, 1975). Most studies assessing perceptions of the childfree use vignettes, pointing to methodological and theoretical limitations (McCutcheon, 2018). Offering evidence for the “moral imperative” of having children, studies have demonstrated that women without children are perceived as being significantly less psychologically fulfilled, elicit greater moral outrage (Ashburn-Nardo, 2017; Ekelund & Ask, 2021), and are rated as being less likeable, loving, devoted, and emotionally mature (Callan, 1985) than women with two children. Childfree women are also perceived as being less competent and warm (e.g., Çopur & Koropeckyj-Cox 2010; Neal & Neal, 2022); elicit greater feelings of envy, disgust, and harm (Bays, 2017; Koropeckyj-Cox et al., 2018); and are viewed as less deserving of acceptance (Peterson & Engwall, 2013) when compared to mothers and childless women (e.g., Iverson et al., 2020). Childfree individuals are broadly perceived as being nonconformist, selfish, cold, and materialistic (Callan, 1983a, 1983b; Kelly, 2009; Park, 2002).

Those who have children or still desire to have children are often viewed more positively than the childfree (Calhoun & Selby, 1980; Koropeckyj-Cox et al., 2007). Countries with higher rates of gender equality generally report more favorable attitudes toward childfree women (Rijken & Merz, 2014), and women themselves tend to hold more positive attitudes about voluntary childlessness than men (Koropeckyj-Cox & Pendell, 2007a, 2007b). Such findings are also race dependent. For instance, childfree African American mothers are viewed more favorably than their peers without children, and this difference is larger than that found when comparing White mothers and White childfree women (Vinson et al., 2010). Childfree couples have long been perceived as more emotionally troubled and maladjusted (e.g., Jamison et al., 1979; Koropeckyj-Cox et al., 2018; Veevers, 1973), as well as less caring and driven than childless (infertile) or parent couples (Lampman & Dowling-Guyer, 1995), but also as having more positive marital relationships than couples with children (Koropeckyj-Cox et al., 2018). To further explore perceptions of the childfree, salient research is next reviewed in interpersonal relationships, the media, online communities, and health care and workplace contexts.

Perceptions of the Childfree in Interpersonal Relationships

The childfree face many challenges within their interpersonal relationships. Given the pervasiveness of pronatalism, people often exhibit a default acceptance of pronatalist beliefs (Gotlib, 2016) and thus assume the childfree want children but have not had them because they are waiting to conceive, having difficulty conceiving, or experiencing issues in their relationship (Lee & Zvonkovic, 2014). Due to these assumptions, the childfree are often faced with questions about whether and when they plan to have children and experience pressure from others to have children (Hintz & Brown, 2020; Lee & Zvonkovic, 2014; Park, 2002). These conditions foster an environment where the childfree must consider whether and, if so, how to disclose their childfree status to others. To make these decisions, the childfree consider four interrelated criteria: (a) cultural (e.g., societal expectations related to childbearing, such as the expectation that married, heterosexual couples should reproduce), (b) gender (e.g., norms associated with parenthood, such as the belief that motherhood is more central to women than fatherhood is to men), (c) motivational/contextual (e.g., anticipated reaction of the recipient, perceived degree of similarity to the confidant), and (d) risk (e.g., risk of creating relational tension or receiving a negative reaction, such as pity, disappointment, or anger; Durham, 2008). Although considering these criteria may result in various disclosure decisions, the childfree tend to minimize risks associated with revealing their status by choosing confidants who they perceive to hold similar views about remaining childfree and thus view as less likely to respond negatively (Durham, 2008).

Since voluntary childlessness defies traditional family norms and pronatalism, revealing the decision to be childfree often results in negative evaluations and treatment from others. For example, many childfree individuals, especially childfree women (Gotlib, 2016), are viewed as selfish, self-centered, materialistic, cold, strange, abnormal, careless, and unfulfilled by others following disclosure (Park, 2002). Moreover, they are met with a variety of negative reactions. For example, the childfree must contend with a discourse of reproductive normativity, which reflects and reinforces dominant beliefs about parenthood, including that (a) having children is normal and natural (e.g., biologically inevitable), (b) young couples should desire parenthood for personal (e.g., self-fulfillment) and social (e.g., to pass on desirable genetic characteristics, to sustain humankind) reasons, and (c) the benefits of having children outweigh the potential costs, in response to their childfree status (Hintz & Brown, 2020). Additionally, the childfree contend with pronatalist face threats that disregard the authenticity of their childbearing intentions by insisting they will and/or should change their mind (Moore, 2017b, 2018a) and/or challenge their childfree status by discrediting, denying, insulting, and/or ignoring their desires to never have children (Moore, 2018b). These reactions are especially prominent among family members and close friends, who often react more negatively than other social network members due to their close relationship to the childfree (Durham, 2008).

The childfree respond to pressures to conceive and negative reactions regarding their childfree status in a variety of ways. Park (2002) identified five strategies used by the childfree to reduce stigma and legitimize their identities: (a) passing (e.g., presenting as a postponer by stating or implying they have not had children yet but intend to), (b) identity substitution (e.g., presenting as involuntarily childless by stating or implying they are infertile), (c) justifications (e.g., defending the decision to be childfree by denying the negative qualities associated with being childfree and emphasizing its advantages), (d) excuses (e.g., minimizing responsibility for the decision to be childfree by blaming it on a lack of maternal instinct, disinterest in children, etc.), and (e) redefinition (e.g., challenging pronatalism by calling into question the belief that all people should have children and that having children is fulfilling). Similar strategies have been identified and elaborated upon in more recent work. For example, Moore (2018a) found that women negotiated their childfree status by engaging in corrective (e.g., de-emphasizing the importance of having children, emphasizing the fulfillment of other life experiences) and preventative (e.g., announcing childfree status to prevent others from automatically assuming they desire children) facework. More broadly, Hintz and Brown (2020) found the childfree enact a discourse of reproductive autonomy (DRA), which emphasizes the right to (a) choose whether to have children, (b) make reproductive preparations accordingly, (c) build a fulfilling life without children, and (d) temporarily silence negative reactions to their childfree status. Although the childfree respond to these pressures in many ways, their responses may vary depending on the preferences of the childfree individual and/or their partner(s), as well as the cultural context in which the interaction occurs (Pelton & Hertlein, 2011).

Within interpersonal contexts, prior research has also explored how childfree couples negotiate family-planning decisions. The choice to be childfree is a dynamic, interactive, dyadic process that childfree couples must navigate within their relationships (Durham & Braithwaite, 2009; Lee & Zvonkovic, 2014). With regard to mate selection, childfree women are more likely than mothers to value the pragmatic (vs. romantic) aspects of love such as financial stability (Volsche, 2017). Among childfree couples, the decision-making process of being and remaining childfree consists of three phases: (a) agreement (the couple reaches a tentative understanding of their desire to remain childfree but may revisit and reconsider their choice), (b) acceptance (the couple accepts their choice to be childfree and does not revisit or reconsider it), and (c) closing of the door (the couple eliminates the possibility of future revisitation by getting sterilized, reaching a point where they can no longer conceive, etc.). However, the way couples navigate this process varies depending on the strength of their conviction to remain childfree, such that mutual early articulators (i.e., both partners have a strong childfree conviction) reach agreement quickly, while mutual postponers (i.e., both partners are uncertain about their childbearing preference) and nonmutual couples (i.e., one partner has a strong childfree conviction and the other has varying degrees of conviction) reach agreement over a longer period of time (Lee & Zvonkovic, 2014). Most childfree U.S. adults were early articulators (Neal & Neal, 2022).

Similarly, Durham and Braithwaite (2009) identified four family-planning trajectories couples enact as they arrive at the decision to be childfree: (a) accelerated negotiation (both partners have similar childfree preferences and thus arrive at the decision to be childfree quickly), (b) mutual negotiation (both partners are unsure about their family-planning preferences and thus arrive at the decision to be childfree through extended, thorough family-planning conversations), (c) unilateral persuasion (partner who prefers to be childfree persuades their undecided partner that they should remain childfree), and (d) bilateral persuasion (partners, one wanting children and one not, engage in infrequent yet extremely heated conversations regarding their family-planning preferences). Taken together, these studies emphasize how childbearing agency (the choice to have children or not) is complex and may fluctuate over time due to many factors (Moore, 2017a) and thus must be negotiated within interpersonal relationships. Next, perceptions of the childfree in the mass media are discussed.

Perceptions of the Childfree in the Mass Media

The mass media play an important role in determining how voluntary childlessness is framed and understood within the public sphere. While there are many forms of media (e.g., books, newspapers, magazines, television, film), and some studies have investigated other forms of media such as family textbooks (Chancey & Dumais, 2009), most research on voluntary childlessness in the media focuses on representations of childfree women (Dever & Saugeres, 2004; Graham & Rich, 2014; Hadfield et al., 2007; Moore & Geist-Martin, 2013) and the childfree lifestyle (Fjell, 2009; Giles et al., 2009; Hintz & Haywood, 2021; Peterson, 2014; Rapoliene & Sumskaite, 2019) in the popular press (i.e., newspapers, magazines, etc.).

Within the popular press, childfree women are generally depicted unfavorably. In their analysis of British news coverage, Hadfield et al. (2007) found that childless women are depicted as White, middle-class professional women who do not have children due to their career aspirations and economic pressures (e.g., childcare cost, lack of financial incentives for having children). Similarly, in their analysis of Australian news coverage of voluntarily childless women, Dever and Saugeres (2004) found that childfree women are depicted as well-educated, middle-class women who are career driven and thus regarded as cold, uncaring, selfish, irresponsible, and unfulfilled. These findings are echoed in later a study by Graham and Rich (2014), who identified four frames for depicting childless women in the Australian print media from 2007 to 2011: (a) sympathy-worthy women (women who are worthy of sympathy because they want children but cannot have them), (b) career women (women who selfishly reject or delay motherhood due to career ambitions), (c) artifact of feminism (women who naively reject or delay motherhood due to their belief in feminist ideals, such as pursuing life outside of the home), and (d) reprimanded women (women who are worthy of reproach because they reject motherhood to pursue hedonistic lifestyles that do not contribute to society). Similar themes were also identified in a prior study by Moore and Geist-Martin (2013), which analyzed popular media discourse about voluntarily childless women from 1900 to 2010 in the United States and found that, although media discourse is shifting toward the possibility of leading a fulfilling life without children, pronatalism has and continues to permeate popular media representations of voluntarily childless women. In these ways, the popular press often depicts childfree women in highly negative, stereotypical ways that also perpetuate pronatalist beliefs, as well as classist, racist, and ableist assumptions about who ought (not) to have children.

Prior research has also examined representations of the childfree lifestyle in the popular press. In their analysis of U.S. news media coverage of childfree individuals and families from 1989 to 2018, Hintz and Haywood (2021) identified five frames (e.g., conflict, human interest, consequence, morality, and responsibility), five characters (e.g., the childfree, involuntarily childless, parents, outside experts, and public figures), and three generalizations made about voluntary childlessness in U.S. news coverage, such as population shifts, policy-related issues (see Veevers, 1974), and cultural and social issues. Importantly, these findings reveal sex-based disparities in U.S. news coverage of childfreedom, including that (a) childfree men are about half as likely as childfree women and (b) childless men are four times less likely than childless women to appear in news stories discussing (voluntary) childlessness. Such disparities reflect the misconception that voluntary childlessness and infertility are issues primarily pertaining to and affecting heterosexual cisgender women (Hintz & Haywood, 2021). Over time, voluntary childlessness has also been attached to various religious and political issues for nefarious purposes, such as politicians’ racist fearmongering about the increasing demographic presence of minorities in the United States (Hintz & Haywood, 2021). Their findings highlight the many individuals, policies, and structures that shape how childfreedom is framed in U.S. news media and how specific events and topics in the public sphere (e.g., the publication of new demographic reports, celebrities discussing being childfree) spur and shift conversations about voluntary childlessness over time (Hintz & Haywood, 2021). A study of 116 articles about voluntary childlessness in the British national news by Giles et al. (2009) identified similar themes, emphasizing how dominant frames of the childfree in the popular press act as scripts through which the public understands childfreedom and makes their own family-planning decisions.

These studies also demonstrate that while voluntary childlessness is often depicted negatively (e.g., as a selfish, irresponsible decision), more favorable representations that challenge these stereotypes are emerging (Giles et al., 2009; Hintz & Haywood, 2021). This is particularly evident in the Swedish (Peterson, 2014), Norwegian (Fjell, 2009), and Romanian (Rapoliene & Sumskaite, 2019) news media, which challenge stereotypes associated with the childfree (e.g., that they are career driven, hate children, and are selfish), as well as pronatalist beliefs (e.g., all people want children, having children is fulfilling) more commonly seen in the United States and Western European countries. Moreover, the popular press in these countries tends to emphasize the advantages of being childfree, such as increased marital satisfaction, leisure time, financial stability, and the ability to pursue hobbies, among others (Fjell, 2009; Peterson, 2014; Rapoliene & Sumskaite, 2019). In these ways, representations of voluntary childlessness share some commonalities but vary across countries, emphasizing the need to account for differences in the social, cultural, and political factors that shape perceptions of the childfree in the media.

Although several studies have examined representations of voluntary childlessness in the popular press, more work is needed to understand how voluntary childlessness is framed in other forms of popular media, especially fictional books, television, and film (Moore & Geist-Martin, 2013). One study that contributes to this line of work is Kaklamanidou’s (2018) analysis of voluntarily childless heroines in U.S. network television from 2010 to 2015, which found that most female characters are or become mothers during these series, while voluntary childlessness is largely unaddressed. Moreover, when childlessness is depicted, it is often presented problematically (e.g., female characters who express a desire to be childfree end up having children anyway or regretting their decision; Kaklamanidou, 2018).

In these ways, mainstream U.S. television promotes pronatalism by emphasizing motherhood and upending decisions to be childfree. These depictions are important, as prolonged exposure to stereotypical images of women in the media can affect the fertility desires of women, such that women exposed to stereotypical images of motherhood and beauty ideals were more likely to desire a greater number of children than those exposed to progressive images (e.g., women in the workplace; Knobloch-Westerwick et al., 2016). Given the prominence of media portrayals of motherhood (and few portrayals of childfreedom; Kaklamanidou, 2018) and their role in shaping fertility desires (Knobloch-Westerwick et al., 2016), future research must continue to examine how voluntary childlessness is represented in the media, particularly those that have received less attention within current scholarship, and its effects on public perceptions of and attitudes toward the childfree and family-planning decisions more broadly. Next, research regarding perceptions of the childfree in online communities is discussed.

Perceptions of the Childfree in Online Communities

The Internet is important for members of the childfree community. Childfree communities use the Internet to find support (Rahbari, 2021; Yeshua-Katz, 2016, 2019), construct their identities (Moore, 2014), cope with stigma (Yeshua-Katz, 2016), discuss voluntary sterilization (Hintz, 2022; Hintz & Brown, 2019; Moore, 2021), and discuss interactions with outsiders (Hintz & Brown, 2020). Online childfree communities are often closed to outsiders (e.g., parents) and hence are often unencumbered by normative perceptions about their beliefs and lifestyle (Hintz & Brown, 2020). Analyzing LiveJournal, Moore (2014) offered three ways in which childfree individuals construct their identities online: (a) naming childfreedom (e.g., identifying as “childfree” or an “intentional non-parent,” p. 167), (b) negotiating childfreedom (e.g., defining oneself and the other within pronatalism and childfree discourses, as well as revealing one’s motivations for being childfree), and (c) enacting childfreedom (e.g., how people behave to realize their childfree identity both online and offline). These three strategies are ways that individuals come to identify as childfree and become socialized online.

Childfree communities online also serve numerous other functions for users, including compiling resources on the r/Childfree subreddit (of the website Reddit) to help patients seeking sterilizations find care and prepare for appointments (Hintz, 2022; Moore, 2021) and assisting the childfree in dealing with the stigma and challenges of interacting with outgroup members (Hintz & Brown, 2020; Yeshua-Katz, 2016, 2018, 2019). One recent study examined how Iranian childfree women use a Persian-language website for mothers to solicit and provide support (Rahbari, 2021). In addition, Hintz and Brown (2020) explored how childfree Reddit users recounted “bingos” from outgroup members in which others questioned or challenged their childfree identities by calling upon culturally endorsed pronatalist explanations for their childfree desires (e.g., being too young to know for sure, not meeting the “right” person yet, being selfish) and enumerated a variety of responses to bingos that ranged from considering both perspectives to outright mockery. Yeshua-Katz (2016, 2018, 2019) similarly explored how Israeli women use Facebook groups to understand their own blame and shame, manage privacy, and challenge dominant expectations for their lives. In all, childfree communities use the Internet for a variety of purposes centering primarily on the formation of group identity, cultural norms, and respite from the outside world. Next, research on perceptions of the childfree in the health care system is discussed.

Perceptions of the Childfree in the Health Care System

Within the health care system, most research on childfree patients concerns interactions with their medical providers in which they request voluntary sterilization (e.g., DeVellis et al., 1984). In this context, childfree patients are often perceived by medical providers as unreliable narrators of their own health wishes and concerns (Hintz, 2022; McQueen, 2020; Moore, 2021). To the childfree, voluntary sterilization (e.g., a tubal ligation or vasectomy) represents a means of confirming their childfree and (sometimes) LGBTQ+ identities for patients not wishing to become pregnant (Hintz, 2022). Access to sterilization and abortion services is viewed as necessary for potentially sustaining voluntary childlessness (Höglund & Hildingsson, 2022). Anyone of sound mind over the age of 21 in the United States is eligible to be sterilized legally (Richie, 2013b). Yet, childfree patients routinely face the denial of requests for voluntary sterilization on the basis of their age (being too young), number of children (not having any children), or presumed likelihood of regretting the procedure (Hintz, 2022; Richie, 2013b). Although providers should discuss these factors with patients as a part of the counseling process (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists [ACOG], 2020), patients’ reports of these factors being mentioned in the interaction were negatively predictive of their sterilization request being approved (Hintz & Brown, 2019). Furthermore, childfree patients are trapped in communicative paradoxes (Hintz, 2022). They must convey the urgency of being sterilized while they are young and fertile and before an unwanted pregnancy occurs but, in doing so, emphasize their youth and nulliparity, which are utilized as reasons to deny their requests (Hintz, 2022).

Denials are, due to pronatalism (e.g., Harris et al., 1979), particularly common for childfree patients assigned the sex of female at birth (ACOG, 2020; Hintz & Brown, 2019). The ACOG (2020) recommends providers use a “reproductive justice” framework, advocating they avoid paternalism and uphold patient autonomy as being paramount in the decision-making process and provide patients with an alternative to sterilization that is as desirable to the patient should a provider deny sterilization requests (ACOG, 2020). Patients report dissatisfaction with other suggested long-acting but reversible forms of contraception, such as intrauterine devices, given their lack of permanency (Hintz, 2022). However, to the best of the authors’ knowledge, the United States does not track rates of sterilization requests or rates of procedural approvals or denials.

Medical providers overseeing the provision of sterilization services must navigate a treacherous patchwork of inconsistent legal oversight left in the wake of antieugenics legislation intended to halt the Medicare-funded involuntary sterilization of those deemed “unfit” to reproduce for a variety of reasons (see Tazkargy, 2014). Providers must also balance ethical guidance (ACOG, 2020) with their desires to “do no harm” (e.g., severing fallopian tubes), beginning with less invasive measures of contraception (e.g., birth control) first and their own fears of backlash from fellow providers and in the form of litigation stemming from the perceived future precipitation of patient regret (Hintz, 2022). Regret is a negative emotion marked by counterfactual thinking, realizing that our current situation could be better if other decisions (which were within our control) had been made differently in the past (Camille et al., 2004). These fears may be unfounded, as the largest study ever conducted examining rates of regret following a voluntary sterilization discovered that women without prior births were the least likely among all patient groups to express regret 14 years later (Hillis et al., 1999). More highly educated women (Eeckhaut et al., 2018) as well as women who are married or do not experience relationship changes are less likely to experience regret (Eeckhaut & Sweeney, 2018).

The risk of regretting having a child is a taboo circumstance not often factored into discussions of reproductive autonomy and justice for nulliparous patients. For instance, an estimated 7% of U.S. parents age 45 or older (Newport, 2021), 8% of German parents age 18 or older (Thurm & Venohr, 2016), and 13.6% of Polish parents ages 18–40 (Piotrowski, 2021) report that they would not have children if they had to do it over again. These findings reflect a cultural taboo, regret about the decision to have children (Donath, 2015a, 2015b, 2017; Matley, 2020; Moore & Abetz, 2019), a phenomenon that is the subject of increasing media attention (e.g., Kingston, 2017; LaConte, 2021). Research has elucidated factors motivating feelings of parental regret (Moore & Abetz, 2019), including the circumstances associated with having children (e.g., timing, sacrifices) as well as having children (e.g., difficult children, a desire to be childfree). Hence, while the risk of sterilization regret may be less common, the risk of a parent regretting having a child (given a desire to be childfree) may be more common than thought.

Given the overturning of U.S. nationwide abortion rights in 2022, it also merits note that the risk of being denied a requested sterilization procedure in patient–provider interactions is not equal across all patient populations. For instance, Hispanic and Indigenous female patient populations are more than twice as likely to be approved for sterilization in contraceptive counseling conversations than White women (ACOG, 2020), perpetuating a largely White, upper- and middle-class, able-bodied, cisgender view of who “ought” to have children (Thornton & Young-DeMarco, 2001). The consequences of these contraceptive counseling disparities are particularly severe when U.S. childfree patients may be both denied sterilization and unable to access abortion services should an unwanted pregnancy result (Hintz, 2022). Although research on health care provider perspectives, attitudes, and opinions concerning nulliparous patients is scant, one U.K. study found that psychotherapists reported empathizing less with female childfree patients from higher socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds as well as older patients (when compared to younger patients and those from lower SES backgrounds; Ngoubene-Atioky et al., 2017). Similar research has been conducted to examine perceptions of the childfree in the contexts of therapy and counseling (e.g., Gold, 2013; Gold & Wilson, 2002; Mollen, 2006; Palmer, 2019). This finding supports the extant literature painting patient–provider interactions as highly contentious and inherently political decision-making arenas in which patients battle to demonstrate the legitimacy of their requests and providers enact extreme caution in the provision of sterilization services fearing medical community backlash and legal culpability (Hintz, 2022).

In sum, the childfree face discrimination in health care contexts and are met with doubt when expressing their childfree views and health-related wishes to others. These perceptions affect their ability to access desired reproductive health procedures (e.g., sterilization) and be viewed as reliable and trustworthy knowers of their own bodies, identities, and health concerns. Next, research concerning perceptions of the childfree in the workplace is discussed.

Perceptions of the Childfree in the Workplace

Although young childless women face hiring discrimination when employers perceive that they are likely to have children (e.g., Peterson Gloor et al., 2021), the childfree also contend with many stereotypes and organizational policies that affect their work–life experiences. Within the workplace, the childfree are stereotyped as being career driven and thus as eager to take on additional roles, duties, and responsibilities to advance their careers and succeed in the workplace (Dever & Saugeres, 2004; Peterson & Engwall, 2016). Moreover, since they do not have children, the childfree are assumed to lack family obligations and thus are believed to have an abundance of time to dedicate to their job(s) (Dixon & Dougherty, 2014). As a result, the childfree are perceived to have the ability and willingness to work extra hours, work less convenient shifts (e.g., early morning, late night, weekend, or holiday shifts), and do extra work (Dixon & Dougherty, 2014; Peterson & Engwall, 2016), and their nonwork obligations are viewed as less legitimate (Blight et al., 2022). Contrary to these stereotypes, however, the childfree have many nonwork-related reasons for not having children (Peterson & Engwall, 2016), including freedom, independence, flexibility, self-discovery, and fulfillment (Dever & Saugeres, 2004), as well as various familial (e.g., parents, siblings), relational (e.g., spouses, partners, friends), and personal (e.g., pets, hobbies and interests, community involvement) obligations that conflict with their workplace demands (Casper et al., 2016).

In addition to these stereotypes, traditional understandings of family (e.g., as heterosexual, monogamous, married relationships with children) are upheld in the workplace (Lucas & Buzzanell, 2006). As a result, nontraditional families (e.g., childfree, childless, LGBTQ+, single-parent, unmarried, polyamorous) are othered and stigmatized (Dougherty & Dixon, 2014; Rick & Meisenbach, 2017). For example, the childfree are rendered invisible in the workplace through organizational norms, practices, and policies as well as daily interactions with colleagues who fail to acknowledge and value their lifestyle and experiences (Dougherty & Dixon, 2014). Furthermore, when the childfree become visible, they are treated like an anomaly and become the focus of intense scrutiny by colleagues who often question and/or criticize their lifestyle (Dougherty & Dixon, 2014). In these ways, the childfree contend with challenging workplace dynamics as they struggle to have their lifestyle recognized and normalized.

Last, the childfree face challenges in the workplace due to work–life policies created for employees with children (e.g., Blight et al., 2022; Casper & DePaulo, 2012; Filippi et al., 2022). While the childfree acknowledge the need for policies that enable employees with children to balance work and family obligations, they also recognize how these policies create conditions of inequity and preferential treatment that inadvertently exclude them (Blight et al., 2022; Casper & DePaulo, 2012; Dougherty & Dixon, 2014; Kirby & Krone, 2002). For example, due to work–family policies, employees with children receive increased sick leave, personal leave, and daily schedule flexibility compared to those without children (Rick & Meisenbach, 2017; Verniers, 2020). Although there are no perceived differences in priority for male employees with or without children, female employees with children are prioritized over female employees without children for work–life balance arrangements in the workplace (Filippi et al., 2022). Additionally, family requests for time off (e.g., to care for sick children, to pick up children from school or childcare, to attend school or family events) are perceived as more appropriate than nonfamily requests (Hoffman & Cowan, 2010). Thus, employees without children typically work more and receive less time off than those with children (Kirby & Krone, 2002). Moreover, the childfree often experience an unfair division of labor, as they are expected to work extra and/or less convenient hours and to perform more and/or less convenient tasks and responsibilities to compensate for the time taken off by employees with children (Kirby & Krone, 2002; Rick & Meisenbach, 2017).

In addition to impeding the work–life balance of the childfree, work–family policies can also damage the childfree’s perception of and performance within the workplace. For example, due to the consequences of work–family policies, the childfree are less likely to perceive equal access to benefits, equal respect for nonwork life, equal work expectations (Blight et al., 2022), and equal work opportunities (Casper et al., 2007) than those with children. This is important, as childfree/less employees with decreased perceptions of equal work opportunities report higher turnover intentions, and those with decreased perceptions of social inclusion report lower levels of organizational commitment (Casper et al., 2007). Additionally, the childfree experience frustration and resentment due to work–family policies, particularly if they perceive that their coworkers are misusing their benefits (Peterson & Engwall, 2016), which can lead to tension and conflict (Kirby & Krone, 2002). These work–family policies fail to recognize the experiences of the childfree, resulting in adverse consequences. Overall, childfree employees must navigate workplace policies favoring parents and, accordingly, conflict and tension with parents. Childfree employees experience adverse consequences and negative perceptions when their unique needs and experiences are not addressed in the workplace.

Conclusion

Voluntary childlessness is a growing trend and an important social issue around the world. To better understand perceptions of the childfree, childfree demographics both in the United States and around the world have been explored, as well as psychological characteristics of the childfree that predispose them to make the choice, reasons and strategies for making the childfree choice, and how the childfree are perceived generally and in close relationships, the mass media, online communities, the health care system, and the workplace. Childfree people face numerous social sanctions and challenges as they redefine their lives without children. In a variety of contexts, childfree people face discrimination and confrontations from parents and others who disagree with their choice. Future research on voluntary childlessness must diversify beyond largely White, heterosexual, middle-class, Western depictions of voluntary childlessness in order to better reflect the increasing global diversification of familial composition.

Further Reading

References