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The Growing Cost of Having Kids Is Tipping More Women Towards Ambivalence about Motherhood

Our family-unfriendly society exacts psychic and financial tolls that many women won't accept.

Samantha could not be more sure that she does not want to have kids. “Because it just looks awful,” is how she put it. I asked her to elaborate: “Because it looks exhausting. It looks like so much work. It just makes me tired. It makes me tired just looking at it.”  

Samantha, a 34-year-old professional I interviewed for a research project about choices around childrearing, was a No Way. She was absolutely sure she didn’t want kids. Her certainty came from a combination of two things: a distaste for the daily life of parenting – “the little baby voices, and the screaming, and the tantrums, and the constant questioning. Not for me” – and a different kind of life that she was excited to pursue. She wanted to continue to excel in her career, travel, have delicious meals, and bask in quiet afternoons. 

I‘ve interviewed plenty of No Ways and many are quick to articulate the time, energy and money it takes to raise children. They see parenting as a choice between further investment in their own “human capital” (their knowledge, skills and talents) and investing in someone else’s. The answer for them is obvious. 

No Ways are contributing to the growing trend of childlessness. Many women today have not or will not become mothers by choice. One out of five American women over 40 is  currently childless. Generation X is  even more likely to decide against parenting; as many as one-in-three may skip parenting. While some of these women will face infertility, at least half will have very purposively chosen a childfree life, often alongside supportive partners. And, while traditionally it has been women with higher levels of education who have chosen childlessness, women with less education are looking  more and more like their more educated sisters on this variable.

Happy (or Unhappy) Either Way

Interestingly, however, among those choosing childlessness, No Ways are the minority. Instead, I suspect that the majority of women who grow to old age without having children will do so not out of resolve, but out of a deep sense of ambivalence. Most women who are considering childlessness are Either Ways. 

Callie, like Samantha, is a 34-year-old professional, but she’s an Either Way. This is how she describes her life: 

I'm married and in a long-term stable very happy relationship and the question is, is it the intention that we go on together, [have a child] and see what happens… or is my life so full and happy the way it is that I don't want to do anything that could jeopardize that? I really do think that it’s gotten to a point where I'm going to be happy either way.  

Knowing that she would be happy either way, however, didn’t alleviate what Callie experienced as a rather crushing pressure to decide.  But she just couldn’t; so she decided not to decide. She is leaving it up to fate. She and her husband are going to let nature take its course (that is, use no birth control) for exactly three years. If she gets pregnant and has a baby, they’ll be parents; if she doesn’t, they’ll settle in to enjoy the pleasures of a childfree life.

Sometimes Either Ways, like Callie, feel ambivalent because their lives carry so much potential… with or without kids. Others are unsure not because they see a wide array of options for themselves, but because they don’t. They add up the costs of a child and subtract the lost wages that balancing work and a family might entail and came up with a “this may not be possible.”

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