Childfree by choice

by Tim Richards

I START THIS article with a disclaimer: my wife and I are childless by choice. I'd like to say we came to this decision through noble motives ... a deep concern about overpopulation and its impact on the environment, for example. But that wouldn't be true.

On the other hand, we didn't reach this conclusion through entirely selfish reasons. We don't possess a hunger for money and belongings that can only be sated through a lack of expensive offspring.

The truth, for my part, is that I'm a child of Generation X. I've always felt the world shifting beneath my feet and, more than anything else, have desired independence. Not for specific hedonistic goals, but for reasons that are abstract and hard to describe: a need, deep down, to retain the ability to get up and go, to travel and to make dramatic changes in my life when desired. And, ironically, the need to be free to create – stories, rather than babies.

Am I fooling myself? Or can the deliberate choice to not have children make sense, both personally and socially?

The most interesting thing about the intentional choice to be "childfree" (a term I'll use to distinguish chosen childlessness from the involuntary kind) is how little discussion there is about it. The default political and media view is that everyone wants to have children and people are only prevented from doing so by social and economic barriers.

This expectation of universal procreation has not always been in operation. It's been estimated that between 20 and 30 per cent of Australian women born in the early twentieth century never gave birth; many of them delayed marriage and parenthood due to the depressed economic climate they grew up in. The childless rate then shrank, dropping to a low of 11 per cent in the 1950s. Since then, childlessness has been on the increase, with predictions of between 20 and 28 per cent as a future high point of the trend. It's too soon to say if last year's slight increase in the birthrate will continue, and strongly enough to affect these figures.

Of course, only a minority of pre-World War II women was childless by preference. It's the introduction of advanced contraception and, arguably, the welfare state that has made the choice of not having children feasible in recent decades. However, being childfree is still a life choice that rarely speaks its name.

That's why my eye was caught by a throwaway comment in a newspaper interview with Mireille Guiliano earlier this year. Within the hectares of newsprint dedicated to her book French Women Don't Get Fat(Vintage, 2005), the Veuve Clicquot CEO mentioned that she decided early on in her career not to have children, sensing the conflict between kids and her career would be impossible to resolve. It's a challenge to the notion of "having it all", but also breathtaking in its matter-of-fact revelation.

Guiliano wasn't challenged on this point, as it wasn't the focus of the interview. However, when the childfree do clearly state their decision, they're usually dismissed – after a shocked pause – as selfish and hedonistic. It's an interesting judgment, seeing that many parents never consciously decide to have children in the first place. Recent research by Hugh Mackay has shown that this major life decision, like many others, just "sort of happens" for a large proportion of couples.

How does the childfree choice affect the lives of non-CEOs? A recent study from the Centre for Research and Education on Women and Work at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, produced findings that conflict with the widespread view of childless women as unhappy and unfulfilled.

The study compared the experiences of childfree women with those who had given birth. Interestingly, 31 per cent of the surveyed women without children had decided before they had turned eighteen not to have children; another 49 per cent had decided before the age of 29. Such early and enduring commitment suggests a firm inclination to being childless.

But were they happy as a result? Of those women reporting their childlessness as having an impact on their careers, 84 per cent said the impact was positive. The most common examples they gave were the flexibility to work non-standard hours, the ability to take up job opportunities and relocate if necessary, and having more concentration and energy for their work. The only major negative cited was the women's perception that they were expected to pick up the slack of colleagues with kids.

When asked about their personal lives, 96 per cent of the childfree women mentioned advantages they'd received from not having children. The most-mentioned were freedom over time and activities, greater disposable income and the ability to travel. Some 30 per cent said the decision had strengthened the relationship with their spouses or partners, possibly a surprising result for people who see the essential purpose of marriage as having children.

 

THESE WOMEN HAVE found the childfree option to be a positive in their lives. But will such contentment continue? A common caution delivered to the childfree is that they'll be miserable in later life without the comfort and support of their children. This may well have been true in the days before the welfare state and its widely conferred benefits to the elderly. But another study, from the University of Florida (UF) in 2003, suggests the stereotype of the depressed childless senior is a myth.

The survey of nearly 4,000 older people found that the likelihood of feeling lonely in old age was no more likely with the childfree than with parents. UF's Professor Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox concluded that having children didn't necessarily lead to greater happiness later in life. What mattered was the relationship parents had with their children. Also, she theorised that childless people may be better placed to maintain social ties that substitute for the benefits of family.

It seems that being childfree can make sense personally. But can it also benefit the community? I'd argue it can, though in this belief I depart from the world of statistics and rely more on gut instinct.

One of the major reasons for the success of Western civilisation since the Enlightenment is the ability of its citizens to deviate from the norm. An inbuilt flexibility in social arrangements, free speech and modes of thought, has left room for innovation in the arts, technology and ways of living.

Though it's possible childfree people may spend their free time on hedonism, it's just as likely they may spend it on creative or intellectual pursuits that keep diversity alive in our increasingly conservative times. The childfree are also more available than busy parents for volunteer work, to take on arduous work projects, even to babysit their friends' or family's kids. Their tax payments also benefit the nation's families in general via their contribution to child-related welfare.

 

IN THE BIGGER picture, deciding not to have children reduces population pressures and their effects on the environment. This advantage is disputed by those who see Australia's relatively low population as a threat to its future influence among the nations of the world and the continuation of its culture. But this is another received view that's seldom questioned, and it only makes sense from a specifically nationalistic standpoint.

Though I admire many aspects of Australian life, it's destined to change dramatically over time; to the Australians of a century hence, we're sure to appear quite foreign. With this in mind, I'd be happy for mass migration to take up the slack, maintaining our population while relieving pressure on overpopulated regions. At a planetary level, the human race doesn't need more kids; especially when you consider how much more a Westerner consumes than a child in a developing country. We may also be underestimating the capacity of future technology to allow our society to be as productive with fewer people.

Finally, there's the positive potential of the childfree choice as political protest. Though I'm sure few people actively choose not to have children as a statement on contemporary society, it's acknowledged as a major unconscious factor behind the low birthrate in countries such as ours. Professor of demography at the Australian National University, Peter McDonald, has argued that gender equity and a better work/life balance are essential for a higher birthrate in Western countries. In support, he connects the low rates in southern European countries with lingering social inequalities between men and women, in contrast with the higher rates in Scandinavia where child-rearing chores are more evenly shared.

The same could explain the low birthrate in Japan, where the phenomenon of young "office ladies" refusing to get married and losing their independence has been openly discussed. Given that surveys show that most people would like to have more children than they ultimately do, this resistance is a vote of no confidence in our current work and social arrangements. It's also likely to be an element of some people's decision not to have children at all.

It's no wonder there's such hysteria among the ruling classes about Australia's low birthrate. The decision to not have children challenges dominant economic and political beliefs, which emphasise continued growth and the centrality of work, along with the survival of our own nation and culture regardless of the world's wellbeing.

It's impossible to achieve an increasing birthrate by engineering a backward slide toward the idealised nuclear family of the '50s, with dad at work and mum at home. Instead, we need a serious shift of power from corporations to individuals, which is why the work/life balance debate has become an issue with such a striking contrast between talk and action.

Perhaps we should view those choosing not to have children as people protesting against the incompatibility of materialistic consumer culture with the proper raising of families, adding much-needed pressure for change.

One thing's for sure: a refusal to have children in light of the current work/life imbalance could become an enormous lever for change. This could make the childfree the most conscientious objectors of all. 

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 10: Family Politics © Copyright Griffith University & the author.