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The Psychology of Feeling Sad About Not Having Children

Why do some people, but not others, find it painful not to have kids?

I never had children and that has never been an issue for me. I know, however, that other people feel pained about not having kids. So what’s the difference? Is it just that some people want kids and others don’t, and the pain follows the desire? Or are social pressures – say, from parents or a partner – important, too? What about the reasons for not having kids – how much do they matter?

A study addressing all of those questions was published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. Participants were a representative sample of 1,180 women in the U.S., ages 25 to 45, who did not have children. Women of all marital statuses were included. (I wish the research had included men, too, even though not all of the considerations would have been relevant to them.) The degree to which the women felt badly about not having children was measured by their responses to these items:

  • “When people I know are pregnant, I feel sad.”
  • “When I see families with children, I feel left out.”
  • “I can’t help comparing myself with friends who have children.”
  • “The holidays are especially difficult for me because I don’t have children.”
  • “Family gatherings are especially difficult for me because I don’t have children.”

Reasons for Not Having Kids

Answers to other questions allowed the researchers to classify the women into four categories of reasons for not having children:

  • It is their choice.
  • They have biomedical barriers (i.e., they meet the medical definition of infertility).
  • They face situational barriers (for example, they are not financially ready or they think their partner would not be a good parent).
  • They want to have kids and have no barriers; the authors believe that these women plan to have children later.

So overall, who was saddest and most self-conscious about not having kids? The women with biomedical barriers felt the most pain about not having children, and the women who chose not to have kids felt the least. The other two groups were in between. (The four marital status groups – married, cohabiting, divorced or separated, and always-single – did not differ in how badly they felt about not having kids.)

The Importance of Being a Parent and Social Pressures

Let’s go a step further and explore the reasons for the pain. The authors examined two possibilities – the importance of motherhood to the women and the social pressures they faced.

The importance of motherhood was measured by agreement with statements such as:

  • “I always thought I would be a parent.”
  • “Having children is important to my feeling complete as a woman.”
  • “I think my life will be more fulfilling with children.”

Two statements referred to social pressure:

  • “It is important to my parents that I have children.”
  • “It is important to my partner that we have children.”

(It would have been useful to include questions about perceived pressures from friends, from media messaging, from dynamics in the workplace, and so forth.)

The women who had always been single said that motherhood was a bit less important to them than did the women who were married, but the difference was not large. The single women got a lot less pressure from their parents or their partner (among those who had a partner or living parents) than did the women who were married or cohabiting. The divorced or separated women were also less pressured by the wishes or parents or partners than were the married or cohabiting women.

Looking separately at the different reasons for not having children, the women who said that they chose not to have kids experienced the most pressure from other people to have kids. Bucking norms and expectations can be costly. That’s true, too, for people who choose to be single. Single people who choose to be single get judged a lot more harshly than single people who wish they were coupled.

With regard to having kids, though, the pressure just did not matter. The pain that some women felt about not having children had little to do with other people’s wishes. What really mattered were their own wishes. If being a mother is what they wanted, what they expected, and what mattered to their identity as a woman, then not getting that – not having children – really hurt.

References

McQuillan, J., Greil, A. L., Shreffler, K. M., Wonch-Hill, P. A., Gentzler, K. C., & Hathcoat, J. D. (2012). Does the reason matter? Variations in childlessness concerns among U. S. women. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 1166-1181.

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