The Intelligent Divorce

And further unorthodox advice on relationships, marriage and parenting

Does a Meaningful Life Require Children?

Why are couples choosing not to have kids?

Increasing numbers of adults are choosing not to have children these days. It’s a growing trend that’s worth examining. In the end, it’s a personal decision. Let’s ask: What is right for you?

Children Not Required:

Looking at today's Western world, the institution of marriage and having kids is waning. The fertility rate in much of the European Union has decreased significantly; in Italy, the fertility rate is 1.33 children per women, which means there will be about 14 million fewer Italians by 2050. Here’s an overview.

Fertility Rates:

In Europe 2.1 children per woman is considered to be the population replacement level.

These are national averages:

  • Ireland: 1.99
  • France: 1.90
  • Norway: 1.81
  • Sweden 1.75
  • UK: 1.74
  • Netherlands: 1.73
  • Germany: 1.37
  • Italy: 1.33
  • Spain: 1.32
  • Greece: 1.29

In France, marriage is becoming an institution that many couples choose to opt out of, the marriage rate having dropped over 30% in the last generation. In Japan, although the fertility rate is at a 16-year high, the number of births has fallen to a record low of 1,037,101. 

In 2010, one in five American women were childless in her early 40s, a change attributed to social and cultural shifts, decreased pressure to bear children, advancements in contraceptive methods, and greater job opportunities for women. Interestingly enough, however, the number of professional women without children decreased from 31% to 24% from 1994 to 2008. Many think that this decrease is a result of the growing belief that women can have a career as well as a family, and that professional women often have more resources for infertility treatments.

Plus, many couples start later. The age of marriage for both men and women in the US is rising, and now stands at 27 for women and 29 for men. Robin Marantz Hening does tell us good news. It now appears that older women are able to conceive more successfully than many had thought.

Yet, as a society, we are producing less children.

The Religious Approach to Procreation:

The Bible tells humanity to “Be fruitful and multiply.” Marriage and numerous children has been the ideal, at least until recently. It appears that religiously faithful communities still hold this credo.

  • The birthrate for Ultra Orthodox Jews is 3 times the national average according to one report
  • The Evangelical Christian birthrate is significantly higher than the national average.
  • And Utah, the home of Mormon culture, has the highest birthrate in the nation. 

Yet, even among some of these religious communities, birthrates are trending down. There is a shift in behavior among average folks regarding marriage and children. What is going on? And, what is right for you?

Individual Freedom:

We live in a culture that celebrates individual freedom. The freedom to choose where to live, what religion we want to embrace or reject, our choice of career or lifestyle, our sexual orientation – our values. This is the great modern ethos. Our culture encourages each of us to feel special, and to enjoy our unique life journey.

Christopher Lasch, in his important work, The Culture of Narcissism (1979), saw it coming...

  • Why should I make commitments beyond my needs?
  • Doesn’t my personal happiness trump a commitment to a community?
  • I have one life so let ME decide how I want to spend this precious time.

I really have no critique of this notion. I believe in the sanctity of the individual. Having children out of obligation to your parents or some vague future has value (I believe in a concept called duty), but a profound decision like having kids requires the mom or dad to truly believe that’s what they really want.

Consider These Thoughts:

“Not having to care for children of our own makes my husband and me nimble with our assistance when it's needed. We're quick with a listening ear and a chilled cocktail for friends in need of company, share cash and volunteer time we might not have otherwise had…” 

Single is who I really am, it really suits me. I’m not against coupling. I’m single because it’s the kind of life that’s most meaningful and productive for me.” –Bella DePaulo

From the Couch:

We, in the Western world, live in democracies that give us freedom of choice in all spectrums of life. With the choice not to have kids comes freedom from many constraints. As seen in the quotes above, they include time, financial independence and staying single, if desired.

I get it, even if I am crazy about children and parenting. We have new choices.

The Uncertainties of Choice:

But, here's the rub. We get to live this life, but time quickly ticks away. Women have until forty or forty five to have children, and even when waiting, it becomes tough to raise rambunctious adolescents when approaching sixty! We can’t stop time. So, what feels right now, may not feel right twenty years from now.

Kids do deprive us of time. And, children can (and do) interfere with career and relationships. I think this is all true. There is a growing literature among professional women about work and mothering. It is not easy. You can’t have it both ways--more time at work or more time at home? Or should your husband stay at home? That’s satisfying for some, but, time away from children is not replaceable.

Welcome to the uncertainties of modern life. We have a culture of the individual, but you can’t dance at two weddings at the same time. Choice is inevitable. And, having (or not having) kids is a defining choice.

So, what is the worth of our lives?

This is where children, parents, self and family become a factor, even in the modern era of individual choice. While children can give us great joy, so can living a fulfilling life of love and work without children. When we look at our lives, what of us is left in the world when we are gone? This is an ancient question, an important question, and it remains urgent, even among the staunchest individualist.

The Biological Imperative:

The Bible did not have to work hard to ask ancient man to have children. Sex is a powerful biological imperative. And, having children to support you was your insurance policy. Ask any woman who has had a baby, and you will hear all about the maternal instinct. Many fall so in love with their newborns, that their marriage takes a back seat. It’s clear that we are wired to have--and enjoy children.

Yet, just because childrearing is an ancient or biological imperative does not mean that a particular person might not opt out. That’s what many are doing. Countries like Italy may need more children, and biology may push for babies, but our culture makes a claim for choice.

What’s Right For You:

Modern life is truly about choice. Now we have choice about whether or not to have children, and if so, how many. Demographics show a trend towards less children and more personal freedom. There are some big problems with these trends. How will many countries support their aging populations without a younger generation available to carry the burden?

Yet, in the end, it’s about what is right for you.

  • We live one life and time is not a friendly companion. Having a child is a permanent decision. He or she is in your life for years to come; for good and for bad. Yet, putting it off, means missing out on your most vibrant years with your young child; and being young enough to deal with the drama of teenage life. Everything is a trade-off.
  • When we look back on our lives, we may ask ourselves about what our life was about. Children are nature’s answer to life’s basic question. Did my life count for something? Your kids may be the clearest testimony to a meaningful existence.
  • Without children we can contribute enormously. You can enjoy great relationships. You can heal others as a medical or psychological practitioner. You can elevate youngsters through teaching or the clergy. Or, you can simply plant a garden that carries the best of you forward.

You may have little choice, or all the choice in the world. Just know that each choice opens an unanticipated door. Consider this excercise:

  • Invite your future self into the room for a moment.
  • What would be important to him or her?

What counts most? And, in the end, be prepared to give it your all, whatever you choose.

Your good efforts may be the best path to joy.

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Mark Banschick, M.D., is a psychiatrist and author of The Intelligent Divorce book series.

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