The Psychology of Feeling Badly about Not Having Children
I never had children and that has never been an issue for me. I enjoy seeing my friends’ kids and adore my niece and nephews, but never wanted children of my own. But others I know feel pained about not having children. So what’s the difference? Is it just that some people want kids and others don’t? Or are social pressures – say, from parents or a partner – important, too?
A recent study offers some answers. Reading it made me realize I’m being too simplistic. It’s not enough to separate women without children into those who want kids and those who don’t; it is also important to ask why they don’t have kids.
The study was based on a representative sample of 1,180 women in the U.S., ages 25 to 45, who do not have children. Women of all marital statuses were included (I wish the research had included men, too, even though not all of the considerations would have been relevant). The degree to which the women felt badly about not having children was measured by their answers to these questions:
- “When people I know are pregnant, I feel sad.”
- “When I see families with children, I feel left out.”
- “I can’t help comparing myself with friends who have children.”
- “The holidays are especially difficult for me because I don’t have children.”
- “Family gatherings are especially difficult for me because I don’t have children.”
Answers to other questions allowed the researchers to classify the women into four categories of reasons for not having children:
- It is their choice
- They have biomedical barriers (i.e., they meet the medical definition of infertility)
- They face situational barriers (for example, they are not financially ready or they think their partner wouldn’t be a good parent)
- They want to have kids and have no barriers; the authors believe that these women plan to have children later
So overall, who was saddest and most self-conscious about not having kids? The women with biomedical barriers felt the most pain about not having children, and the women who chose not to have kids felt the least. The other two groups were in between (the four marital status groups – married, cohabiting, divorced or separated, and always-single – did not differ in how badly they felt about not having kids).
Let’s go a step further and explore the reasons for the pain. The authors examined two possibilities – the importance of motherhood to the women and the social pressures they faced.
The importance of motherhood was measured by questions such as the following:
- “I always thought I would be a parent.”
- “Having children is important to my feeling complete as a woman.”
- “I think my life will be more fulfilling with children.”
Only two questions were asked about social pressure. I think it would have been useful to include questions about perceived pressures from friends, from media messaging, from dynamics in the workplace, and so forth. Here are the items that were included:
- “It is important to my parents that I have children.”
- “It is important to my partner that we have children.”
The women who had always been single said that motherhood was a bit less important to them than did the women who were married, but the difference was not big. The single women got a lot less pressure from their parents or their partner (among those who had a partner or living parents) than did the women who were married or cohabiting. The divorced or separated women were also less pressured by the wishes of parents or partners than were the married or cohabiting women.
Looking separately at the different reasons for not having children, the women who said that they chose not to have kids experienced the most pressure from other people to have kids.
Surprisingly, though (to me and to the authors), the pressure just did not matter. The pain that some women felt about not having children had little to do with other people’s wishes. What really mattered were their own wishes. If being a mother is what they wanted, what they expected, and what mattered to their identity as a woman, then not having children really hurt.
McQuillan, J., Greil, A. L., Shreffler, K. M., Wonch-Hill, P. A., Gentzler, K. C., & Hathcoat, J. D. (2012). Does the reason matter? Variations in childlessness concerns among U. S. women. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 1166-1181.
[Note: The stereotyping and stigmatizing of adults who do not have children is similar to the stereotyping and stigmatizing of singles that I call singlism. In the book, Singlism, there is a section on “Singlism’s Cousin: Stereotyping and Stigmatizing of Adults with No Children.”]
DePaulo, B. (2012). The Psychology of Feeling Badly about Not Having Children. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 30, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/single-at-heart/2012/10/the-psychology-of-feeling-badly-about-not-having-children/