When other people judge married couples who choose not to have children – and they do judge them – they do not just see what they are doing as unusual. They see it as wrong. They are morally outraged at those couples. Those are the results of a new study published by psychology professor Leslie Ashburn-Nardo in the March 2017 issue of the journal Sex Roles.
In the study, college studies read brief biographies of a married man or a married woman who, with their spouse, had decided either to have two kids or no kids. Asked again two years later, the married persons said they stood by their decision.
Asked how the married person made them feel, the participants evaluating people who chose not to have kids responded very differently than those evaluating people who did want to have kids. They felt more outrage, anger, disapproval, annoyance, and even disgust.
The derogation did not stop there. The participants were also asked a series of questions about their perceptions of the married person’s psychological fulfillment and adjustment. For example, they were asked if the married person and their partner were satisfied with their decision about having children, whether they were satisfied with their marital relationship, whether they are likely to divorce, whether they would make good parents, and whether they were satisfied with their life overall. On these questions, too (averaged together), the people who decided not to have children were denigrated more than the people who wanted to have children. They were seen as less psychologically fulfilled and less well-adjusted.
The analyses the author did seemed to suggest that the feelings of moral outrage were driving the skeptical views of the psychological health of the people who chose not to have kids. When participants learned that the person they were reading about had decided not to have kids, and stood by that decision years later, they were morally outraged. That outrage seemed to fuel their harsh judgments that the people who chose not to have kids were probably not all that fulfilled or well-adjusted.
The participants in the study read profiles of a married man or a married woman (and not a couple) so the researchers could see if the women were judged more harshly than the men were for choosing not to have kids. According to prevailing cultural narratives, women are presumed to care more about children than men do. Professor Ashburn-Nardo, though, found no differences in the judgments meted out to married women who chose not to have children, relative to married men. They were both evaluated equally harshly.
Not having children – either by choice or by circumstance – is no longer as unusual as it once was. In 1976, only one in 10 women between the ages of 40 and 44 had never had a child. By 2005, that number had doubled: One out of 5 women in their early forties had never had a child. Although those numbers slipped after 2005, they have never gotten close to what they were in the 70s.
The decision not to have kids is now part of our cultural conversation. That is evident in the proliferation of articles, essays, analyses, memoirs, and anthologies on the topic. The intensity of the discussion, though, also suggests that the decision is a fraught one. Having children is still, statistically, the normative thing to do.
Dr. Ashburn-Nardo believes that the married people who chose not to have children were viewed harshly because they were violating an expectation that is so strong, it is almost a cultural imperative: You must have children! Couples who violate that norm suffer backlash for doing so.
The Life Path that We Are Expected to Follow
Other scholars have proposed a “developmental life tasks model.” In Singled Out, the model was described this way:
“There are…particular life tasks that people in a given society are expected to accomplish, and a corresponding timetable for achieving them. For example, by a certain age, you ‘should’ be married. Then, before too long, a married couple ‘should’ start having children. Violate those cultural mandates…and you get stigmatized.”
Research consistent with the model has shown that people who are single are judged more harshly than people who are married, and that the harshness disparity becomes even greater when the single and married people are 40 years old instead of 25 years old. People think that single people are less psychologically fulfilled and less well-adjusted than married people, and they think they are especially less psychologically healthy as they get older. (Although the most definitive research has yet to be conducted, indications are that the reverse is more likely true: Single people become more psychologically fulfilled when they get past their young adult years.)
As with the married people in Ashburn-Nardo’s study who chose not to have children, single people who choose to be single also elicit more severe reactions than single people who want to be coupled. People express more anger toward them. Also similar are perceptions of psychological fulfillment and adjustment. The single people who said they wanted to be single were judged as less happy, lonelier, more self-centered, and more insecure than the single people who said they were unhappily single and wanted to be coupled. The people making the judgments are, in a way, denying that people who are single by choice are truly happy; they seem to think those people are just saying that they are happy.
The same thing seemed to happen in the study of people who chose not to have children. Those married people were judged as less likely to be satisfied with their decision than the married people who said they did want to have kids.
When people express a desire that goes against the grain, they are disbelieved and punished. Violating cultural norms, popular stereotypes, and internalized views about the life paths that people should follow comes with a cost. Beliefs about marriage and children are not just any old beliefs; they are worldviews, in which people are deeply invested. They proclaim that some people are living the good and moral life, and others are not. Those worldviews will not be relinquished without a fight.
What If the People Choosing Not to Have Children Were Single?
In the study of people who decided either to have children or not have children, all the deciders were married. But what if some had been single? The developmental life tasks model predicts that single people who choose not to have children will not be put down the way married people are. The model describes the path that people are expected to follow, the path that is respected and celebrated. It is a path that says that people should get married first, and then they should have kids. Single people haven’t married, so they are under no obligation to have kids, and are more likely to be judged harshly if they do have kids. It is only the married who are punished by moral outrage when they decide not to continue down that life path that is supposed to have children as its next stop.
That’s the prediction. Now someone needs to do the study to see if it is true.
Ashburn-Nardo, L. (2017). Parenthood as moral imperative? Moral outrage and the stigmatization of voluntarily childfree women and men. Sex Roles, 76, 393-401.