As part of the feature, “Up for Discussion,” at Zócalo Public Square, a panel of experts (myself included) was asked to provide a brief answer to the question below. Our discussion was published in Time magazine.
“Americans have come to accept a range of non-traditional family structures–so why does a woman’s choice not to have children still elicit skepticism and judgment?”
The panelists were a terrific group, including, for example, the acclaimed historian Elaine Tyler May, author of Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness; Melanie Notkin, who in Otherhood has written about women who do not have kids, including those who have and have not made that choice; and Bill McKibben, someone you may know from his signature work on environmentalism. Contributors were asked to keep their answers brief, so you if you want to read all of their insights, it won’t take you long.
Below is the answer I sent them. (The published version was edited a bit.)
“As long as women bounce around kidding themselves that life is full when alone, they are putting their hedonistic, selfish desires ahead of what’s best for children and society.” That was one reader’s response to a 2002 cover story in Time about women who were choosing to stay single and not have kids. At the time, I was just starting to research my first book on single people and I was perplexed. The reader had no relationship to the women in the story – they were strangers. Plus, they weren’t complaining – some explicitly said they liked the lives they chose. So why was this guy so angry?
I hadn’t yet recognized the power of people’s views of the world. With regard to marriage and family, one of the most fundamental beliefs is that women are supposed to get married and have kids. If they follow the prescribed path, this worldview holds, then they will be happier and healthier than everyone else – and morally superior, too.
Worldviews help us make sense of the world. They can boost our self-esteem, enhance our good feelings, and keep our bad ones at bay. We want other people to share the worldviews we care about the most. The “problem”, then, with women who do not follow the culturally valued life course of marrying and having children, is that they are threatening beliefs that people hold dear.
What’s more, it is even worse if they choose not to marry or have kids. For example, research has shown that single people who want to be single are judged more harshly than those who want to find a partner. They are seen as lonelier, colder, less sociable, and more miserable. Even more tellingly, other people express more anger toward them. That irate reader of the Time story was not angry at the women despite the fact that they were happy, he was angry because of that. How dare they claim that life without marriage or kids is a good and happy life – a life that someone would actually choose!
In a subsequent post, I’ll share some great quips and quotes from lots of other people, including some celebrities, about why they do not want kids.