Arts, Culture & Media

The many misunderstood reasons people don't have kids

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A portrait of a Vietnamese couple.

Falling in love, getting married, and not starting a family — that’s exactly what many people across the country want, and they want their choice to be respected.

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Parenting is just not for everyone, says writer Meghan Daum, and the stats back her up: According to the Pew Research Center, about one in five American women ends her childbearing years without having borne a child, compared with one in ten during the 1970s.

Yet Daum says society rarely understands that choice. In her view, the nuclear family has become not just the cultural norm, but an expression of morality. Choosing to be childless is something many people just don’t understand, or worse, that they demonize. But Daum, who's childless herself, says it’s just not that simple.

“One of the problems with this discussion is it gets boiled down to 'Eww, babies, gross,' or 'Babies are the best thing in the world,'" she says. The actual reasons are far more complex.

In a new collection of essays called "Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed," which Daum edited, 16 writers explore those reasons. Daum says some people make that choice because they don’t want to add to what they see as unsustainable population growth, while others may not want to go through the trauma or health risks of pregnancy and childbirth. Others may simply believe that they are not cut out to be good parents.

“It’s not parents vs. non-parents,” Daum says. “We’re all wanting a peaceful, productive society.”

Daum is childless herself, but she’s quick to point out that this doesn’t mean she’s anti-parent or anti-child. Instead, she supports the freedom of people to make the decisions that are best for them.

“Having kids is really hard,” Daum says. “Being a parent is really hard. ... One of the problems with this discussion is it gets boiled down to ‘Eww, babies, gross,’ or ‘Babies are the best thing in the world.'"

The writers in Daum’s book also highlight the many different experiences of childlessness — and the variation of those experiences over time.

“There are also a lot of scenarios where we need to give more credit to the way people make life decisions,” Daum says. “And there is no bigger life decision than choosing whether or not to have a child.

Listeners of The Takeaway provided their own reasons as well. Many were afraid of passing on illnesses like depression and epilepsy to their kids. Others simply worried about their ability to provide. "I work two jobs and barely can afford to keep myself fed," one listener said, while Matt from Portland, Oregon admitted that, "[M]y wife and I would like to have kids, but as Millennials in this job market I fear we won't be able to afford to any time soon."

And some women, like Kate Leigh, said the conversation was an indication of society's pervasive sexism. "This isn't a story unless you're female," she wrote on Facebook. "Nobody expects every man on earth to procreate. But women? Please, women exist solely for that purpose in our society and if you don't fulfill your role you're a pariah."

(You can hear more listener responses below.)

People also experience childlessness in different ways.

“There are writers in this book who say, ‘I never wanted to be pregnant, I have no interest in it.’ But there are also writers that say, ‘Yeah, there are moments where this feels like a loss,'" Daum says. But that doesn’t translate into 'I wish I had done this.' It’s not an either-or sort of thing.”

Ultimately, a little understanding can go a long way, Daum thinks.

This story is based on an interview from PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.