New research suggests that not having children is seen not only as atypical, or surprising, but also as "morally wrong."
Juan Moyano / Stocksy
One might like to imagine society is becoming more accepting of families that deviate from expected social norms, buuuut...we're really not there yet. Despite the fact that US adults are increasingly delaying the decision to have children or forgoing parenthood entirely, new evidence suggests that voluntarily child-free people are still stigmatized. In a March 2017 study, Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, an associate professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, investigated the bias against those who choose to not have children.
"What's remarkable about our findings is the moral outrage participants reported feeling toward a stranger who decided to not have children," she said in an article about the research. "Our data suggests that not having children is seen not only as atypical, or surprising, but also as morally wrong."
Yep. Morally wrong. So now it's not only okay to try and control what a woman does with her body, but also to judge what a married couple does with their fuckparts.
In her study, Ashburn-Nardo asked 197 college undergraduates to read an excerpt about a married graduate who was described as male or female with either zero or two children, and then asked to assess their feelings toward the graduate. "Consistent with many personal anecdotes, participants rated voluntarily child-free men and women as significantly less fulfilled than men and women with children," she said. "This effect was driven by feelings of moral outrage—anger, disapproval and disgust—toward the voluntarily child-free people."
Tonic talked to five partnered individuals about their choice to remain childfree, the stigmas they face, and what they are doing, if anything, to push back against the "moral outrage."
Sezín Koehler, 37, Lighthouse Point, Florida
I have no interest in raising a child in the current horror show state of the world. Having my own grand foundation of identity issues as a "third culture kid," and being a brown person in America during this terrifying time, I cannot imagine how I would ever explain to my child why people tell mommy she should "go home" when America is home, or why she might have fellow students say racist things to her.
I've been told that I will change my mind one day, or the more sinister, "You'll regret it when you're old." As if children are some kind of security blanket for old age; so twisted. I've been told that I will never understand or experience real love, how sad I am and don't even know it. Worst, I've been told that I am not a real woman without having kids, as if my sex and gender identity requires incubating a fetus and expunging it from my vagina.
Often, my husband—who has made the exact same choice—is sitting right next to me and nobody questions his decision. Not even once. And my husband even made his choice proper official by getting a vasectomy. Still, I'm the one who gets shamed.
Shanna Katz Kattari, 31 Denver, Colorado
I never visualized myself as a parent, all my favorite names I had were used on pets, and I like being able to change my schedule as needed without being concerned about what that means for a smaller being. I see myself more as the "village" part of the idea that it takes a village to raise a child: The child does not have to be familially connected to me for me to provide support and care.
A family member who didn't really validate our relationship when we were read as lesbians suddenly treated us differently now that we presented as (what she read as) a heterosexual couple after [my partner] transitioned, because that meant babies. When asked about our timeline to get pregnant, after explaining we had cats, not kids, we joked, "we are trying so hard...it just doesn't seem to be working!" Awkward joke because [he] doesn't have sperm and I no longer have a uterus.
That surgery [my hysterectomy] was my best medical decision yet, but people still make jokes about my biological clock ticking, and have now made suggestions we should adopt since I cannot carry—which I find a little offensive, because I think adoption a totally viable option even if one or both partners could biologically carry. Others have insinuated that [my partner] could carry. While we are so loving and supportive of seahorse dads (trans men as gestational parents), [he] has NEVER wanted to carry, and being pregnant would trigger so much dysphoria for him. Being queer wasn't/isn't a phase to grow out of, and neither is being child-free. It is just who we are.
We push back by being the best village we can be. We know we are making the right choice for us, and for our community, and no one's judgment or shaming of us can take that away.
Cher Tan, 30, Adelaide, Australia
I do not find the prospect of caring for something (or someone) that will be dependent on me emotionally, physically, financially and intellectually for at least 18 years of my life appealing in the least bit.
Often I get told condescendingly that I will "change my mind" one day. I have also been called "selfish" for not wanting to pursue motherhood—which I now wholeheartedly agree with as one of the reasons why I don't want kids is that I'm very self-contained and insular. I have tried seeking pathways towards sterilization (Essure or tubal ligation) but have been told by doctors that I am "too young" to make that decision, which feels patronizing to me because this is something I'm very sure of. The worst comment I've had was from a previous co-worker who said that I shouldn't have been born a woman, as to want children is a natural female instinct, which was very triggering and upsetting as I am femme-presenting and identify as genderqueer, despite being assigned female at birth.
Maureece Levin, 35, Redwood City, California
I just don't have a particularly strong desire to raise children. I've never been against the idea, and if I was with a partner who really wanted kids, I could imagine becoming a parent, but I don't feel like I'm missing out on something I want by not having children.
Testing positive for a BRCA1 mutation at age 26 also played a role in this decision. Women with BRCA1 mutations are strongly encouraged to have their ovaries removed either between the ages of 35-40 or on completion of childbirth. Since I knew I didn't want children by my late 20s, I spent a lot of time asking medical professionals if I should get my ovaries removed right away and being told "no," but I also met BRCA+ women under 35 who had their ovaries removed because they had a few children and knew they were done. The assumption that every ovary-having person wants children is written right into the recommendations, and there's not a clear recommendation for people who don't want children in the first place.
Over the years, in talking with people about the ovarian surgery, a weirdly large number of people have tried to convince me to freeze my eggs "just in case," even though my concerns about removing my ovaries have 100 percent to do with the personal health consequences and zero percent to do with having kids. That seems like a pretty big "just in case" expense for something I've thought deeply about and decided not to do over the course of most of my adult life.
I just don't feel like I have the time or energy to deal with people who are morally outraged about the decisions I make for myself or the decisions my husband and I make for us and our relationship, and I'm lucky enough that the morally outraged are on the periphery of my life, not at the center.
Yuriana Sobrino, 36, Boston, Massachusetts
I grew up in a very traditional family. As a young person, one of my "goals" in life was to become a mother. I was so sure about it. That changed after I realized all the energy and work it takes to raise and be responsible for a child.
My mom had been the most vocal about wanting us to have a baby. She stopped [pushing] just some months ago, when she noticed I was more confident about not having a baby. However, in her last attempt, she said having a kid was "your legacy in this world." As if your existence as an individual is not enough to pay the price for being alive. I imagine that is how some people feel about motherhood, and I'm sure motherhood is more complex and beautiful than just that.
What worries me most it is how all these social stigmas and rules of when, why, how to have children erase others' situations and reasons to have or to not have children.