Who Are the Adults without Children and What’s the Right Word for Them?

Childless or childfree or neither? And what does income have to do with it?

Posted Sep 11, 2010

Even though I have never had children, I've never thought through the relevant issues the way I have for the matter of living single. As I described in a personal post over at my All Things Single (and More) blog, I never wanted kids, and have never regretted not having kids, and that's not because I'm a child hater. (That post really is personal, so don't read it if you're not into that. Creating some space for more personal stuff is one of the reasons I started that blog.)

Every time I broach the subject of adults who don't have children, I learn something new - something I think I should have already realized. For example, in that personal post, I wrote "I like kids." In the comments section, Lauri said:

"I've always found the phrase ‘I like kids' a bit odd. Not having them and not having any prospect of having them and not really caring if I have them, people always say, ‘Don't you like kids?' The response I've given recently is ‘Not all of them!' No one ever says, ‘don't you like adults?' because that's a stupid question. Obviously not all adults are likable. It's the same with kids."

In my most recent post here at Living Single, I quoted a journal editor who used the word "childless" and "Singal in Sydney" objected. I appreciate the problem. "Childless" makes you sound as though you are "less than" for not having children - that something is lacking. I'm aware of the "child free" term and I understand that it fits just right for some people. I'm not sure it is right for me. "Child free" sounds happy, maybe even celebratory. To me, not having kids is just something I wanted. I'm grateful that I live in a time and place where that's doable, even though some stereotypes linger. But I feel neither boastful nor apologetic about it.

I worry about using "child free" as a general word because it must seem inappropriate and insensitive to those who so deeply wished for children and could not have them. Yet I still don't like the deficiency aura around "childless." That's why I try to use phrases such as "adults without children," clunky though they are. I'd love to hear what others think.

The two special issues of the journal I mentioned in my last post do use the term "childless" throughout, as does the article I'm going to describe next. I don't change the author's words when I put something in quotes.

The good news is that research and thinking about people without children is getting beyond the usual binaries (with vs. without children) and standard ways of proceeding. Although the article I will discuss next does focus solely on women, the articles in the special issues include studies of men without children. They also look much more closely at the different meanings of having or not having children for different people and at different historical times and in different nations.

One important step forward is to consider separately people who have different reasons for not having children. An article in the Journal of Marriage and Family took a look at American women between the ages of 35 and 44, asking whether the women were (in the authors' words) "voluntarily childless," "involuntarily childless," or "temporarily childless." The voluntaries are, as you might expect, those who do not have children because they do not want children. The involuntaries can't have children. The temporaries do not have children yet, but they still plan to. The authors are studying biological children. (In the special issues, authors discuss the point that in the big picture, the study of adults with or without children should include adopted children, step-children, foster children, and so forth.)

Below are the percentages of American women, ages 35 to 44, who had no children - summing across all categories - for the 4 years the authors studied. The data are from nationally representative samples.

1982: 12%
1988: 16%
1995: 19%
2002: 16%

Setting aside the temporaries (3, 4, 6, and 5 percent for the 4 years, respectively), the authors found that every year, there were more voluntaries than involuntaries. Specifically:

1982: 5% voluntary, 4% involuntary
1988: 8% voluntary, 4% involuntary
1995: 9% voluntary, 4% involuntary
2002: 7% voluntary, 4% involuntary

Only for the year 1995 did the authors provide data on marital status (in Table 3). I had to do some calculations to get the figures below. (It drives me crazy that the percentages do not add up to 100 for each group, but I think that's because the authors used whole numbers -- e.g., 12% rather than something like 12.46% -- so the rounding errors accumulate).

In 1995, 12% of women between the ages of 35 and 44 had always been single; the other 88% either were married or had been at some point. (The authors call that group the "ever married.")

Women with children: 91% of the ever married; 35% of the singles
Without children, voluntarily: 5% of the married; 29% of the singles
Without children, involuntarily: 3% of the married, 6% of the singles
Without children, temporarily: 3% of the married, 19% of the singles

The authors found that the women who chose to have no children (the voluntaries) had the greatest number of years in the workplace and the highest income. They step into the minefields of the debate over whether some of these women had "sacrificed" childrearing for the sake of their careers. It is worth repeating a few sentences from their closing paragraph:

"Not all women's decisions to remain childless, however, are a result of weighing the costs of combining work and childrearing. There may be no work-childrearing decision making relevant for them, if they are envisioning their adult lives to be complete and preferable without the addition of children."

[Preview: September 19-25 is Singles Week and to mark the occasion, I hope to blog every day that week. One of my posts will be on the high points and low points for singles since the 2009 Singles Week. A high point, for example, would include having two Justices of the Supreme Court who are single. Your nominations for Bests and Worsts are welcome. If you send them to me by e-mail, let me know what name to use (if any) in thanking you; if you have a blog, I'm happy to link to that as well.]