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Child-free Women–The Research

Increased Popularity
The academic world has taken note of the increased popularity of childfree choice. A wide variety of disciplines, including sociology, gender studies, feminist theory, political science, communication, and biology, have researched aspects of this phenomenon. Existing studies have examined reasons for remaining childfree (Agrillo and Nelini, 2008; Coffey, 2007); perceptions of people who are variously childfree, childless, or parents (Hird and Abshoff, 2000; Lampman and Dowling-Guyer, 1995; Rowlands and Lee, 2006); and characteristics, gender differences, representations, myths, and realities of people leading childfree lives (Boyd, 1989; Giles, Shaw, and Morgan, 2009; Kenkel, 1985; Seccombe, 1991; Somers, 1993). Although some of these studies address counseling for this population (Gold and Wilson, 2002; Mollen, 2006), psychology overall has been more invested in exploring motherhood than in studying those who choose not to parent.

Making the Decision
In a recent article published in Sweden, Peterson and Engwall (2013) interviewed 27 women exploring their childfree identity formation. Much like me in the anecdote that opens this chapter, their participants referred to their choice not to mother as “natural.” The women struggled to provide a reason for their choice, even stating that this was not “a decision” but an inner knowledge they had about themselves for a long time, with one of their subjects stating, “I simply have no desire to have children” (Peterson and Engwall, 2013, p. 380-381).

Society’s Resistance
With that said, it makes sense that a culture that expects childrearing would seek to question the decision not to conform to that expectation. Studying the decision-making process, Scott (2009) identified 18 reasons her participants chose to remain childfree. The most common reason for couples was simply that they enjoyed life and their romantic relationships as is. Additional reasons included valuing freedom and independence, not wanting the responsibility of children, having no wish to have children, lacking parental instinct, concerns about the world being overpopulated, and having goals that conflict with the project of raising children. Mollen (2006) found that childfree women experienced resistance to complying with their expected gender role and gender identity; they received discouraging messages from their families through early interactions; and some experienced the responsibilities of childcare at an early age. In addition, Mollen’s interviewees mentioned needs for personal freedom, fear for their body’s safety, concern for their child’s genetic heritage, and a view of the world as an unsafe place to raise children.

Common Misperceptions
Contrary to a common misconception that childfree women make this choice as a single person, Safer (1996) made her decision not to have children within the realm of a happy marriage, with a partner who would have supported her decision either way. Safer also researched the process of deciding to remain childfree. She claims that most women experience conflicted feelings and uncertainty during the decision-making process. According to her research, some find the decision painful because of conflicted feelings, while some are uncomfortable with others’ expectations and demands. Although a few women decide effortlessly, Safer suggests they are in the minority. Bartlett’s (1995) interviewees found it hard to identify a specific moment in time or an experience that led to the decision. Like Safer, Bartlett found that some women made the choice again and again, vacillating, reassessing their commitment to child freedom, sometimes having to choose it “on a daily, weekly, or yearly basis” (p. 97).

Cultural Differences
These finding are somewhat different than those of Peterson and Engwall (2013). It stands to reason that there are cultural differences between European and American women in terms of making the choice not to reproduce. The time gap between the studies might also be of significance.

Three Subgroups
Ireland (1993) suggested the presence of three subgroups among women who do not have children. The first group is “Traditional.” These are women who did not mother due to poor health or infertility, rather than by choice. Another group is the “Transformative,” referring to those who actively chose to be childfree, and by that, transforming womanhood for themselves and others. Finally, women who delay the decision until they cannot have children make up the “Transitional” group. Callan (1984) categorized childfree women as “early articulators,” referring to women who made a decision not to have children before marriage, or “postponers” who remain childless due to circumstance. The most distinct difference between the two groups was in their experience of discussing their decisions with relatives and friends. Early deciders were more likely to be perceived as nonconformists, confronted about their decision, and accused of selfishness, disliking children, or infertility (p. 267). Postponers were less likely to be treated in this manner; their child freedom was perceived by others as transitory.

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Child-free Women–The Research

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2019). Child-free Women–The Research. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 3 Jan 2019
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