I have to admit it, this book surprised me. I didn’t feel like I needed affirmation of the choice I made not to have children. I figured a book that gave me a lot of reasons why it’s okay not to have kids would just be “preaching to the choir.” I was wrong.
A couple of weeks ago, in my preview of this book, I said I was hoping for it to live up to its title, which is “A Couple’s Guide to Living Childless by Choice.” I don’t want the why of living without children, I want the HOW.
This book is definitely more about the why. The author surveyed and interviewed 171 respondents who identified themselves as “childless by choice.” The survey focused on each respondent’s motivation for making the choice, with additional questions like “What particular events or defining moments in your life influenced your decision to remain childless?”. The author then interviewed people to follow up with further detail about their lives. Finally, she synthesizes existing research (and there isn’t much) on people choosing not to have children.
Scott’s research categorizes the childless by choice into four categories:
1) early articulators — these are the people who absolutely know at a pretty early age that they don’t want children.
2) acquiescers — these are the people who choose not to have children in part due to their partner’s wish not to have children.
3) postponers — these are the people who delay having a family and ultimately decide not to have children.
4) undecided — these are people still in the decision-making process.
When I first read these categories, I thought ugh, I don’t relate to any of these, because I hate the idea of being called an “acquiescer”. It sounds like I put no thought into the decision when in fact I put years of thought into it. It also sounds like I must be desperately unhappy and resentful when that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
As I got further into the book, and Scott interviews many of the “acquiescers” I was thrilled to find that these people felt almost exactly as I do. And yes, that makes me feel validated.
Scott selects 18 typical motivations for not having children, and based on the surveys, calculates the ones people identified with most. The top three are:
1) I love our life, our relationship, as it is, and having a child won’t enhance it;
2) I value freedom and independence; and
3) I do not want to take on the responsibility of raising a child.
Seems obvious, right? But there are other reasons that scored lower, like concerns about the state of the world and not wanting to bring a child into the world right now; or wanting to pursue other goals or focus on personal needs; or concerns about passing down emotional problems experienced with their own parents; or simply not enjoying being around children. There are also a lot of reasons that overlap, so respondents weren’t asked to choose one, but to rate each on a scale of 0-5 to indicate how applicable that motivation was to the responder in deciding not to have children.
The top three motivations were the same across the categories I described above, and fairly equal across gender. Scott expresses surprise that in fact, men and women’s motivations for remaining childfree hardly differ at all.
Research shows that many of the childfree share similar characteristics. We are more educated and less religious. We aren’t necessarily more affluent, maybe because many people remain childfree to stay in artistic or nonprofit jobs. We tend to have pets but don’t think our pets are “substitutes for children.”
Scott also theorizes, based on her interviews, that the childfree are more likely to be introverts (e.g., we need time to ourselves to “recharge”), and more likely to be perfectionist, Type A types. We tend to be people who are more likely to feel better with organization and structure. We are planner-types (although many people also prefer the spontaneity that not having children allows). None of that is surprising, but it surprised me that it sounds so much like my husband and me.
Finally, Scott talks a lot about the misconceptions people have of the childfree. For example, that we all hate children. Or that we’re materialistic or selfish. Or that most of us will change our minds later.
This book was not only interesting, but it made me realize how much it helps to hear that other people feel exactly the way you do. So many times reading this book I felt, “that’s it exactly” and realized how rarely I’ve had those conversations with people. This book is like having a conversation with a lot of other people who have the same experiences and concerns, the same feelings of isolation, the same worries about how to talk about things, how to explain yourself without sounding defensive, the same feelings of being almost universally misunderstood.
Strangely, it also made me realize an opposite fact: that there are lots of us childfree people, and we aren’t all the same. I have a total of three friends who are decidedly childfree, and they have different motivations and lifestyles, which sometimes makes me feel like I don’t fit with the childfree any more than I do with friends who are parents. For example, my three friends without children absolutely knew a long time ago that they didn’t want children. I didn’t think I wanted kids but sort of expected to marry and have them. When my husband and I became serious, and he said that he didn’t want children, I was relieved but also realized that this was a huge decision to make. People act like giving up children for your spouse is the world’s most horrible decision, and I must be absolutely spineless. But it’s not like that for us.
Also, my husband and I aren’t jetsetters, or artists, and we aren’t out saving the world. In fact we enjoy a lifestyle very similar to those with children. We live in the ‘burbs, we have stable jobs, we eat in most nights. I’m sometimes insecure that we’re wasting all this time and freedom we’ve been given by not having children.
But why do I need to justify how I live my life? People who don’t want children aren’t Mother Teresa or Picasso any more than we are selfish child-haters. We are just people who don’t feel the need to have children, and who recognize that maybe, if we don’t really want them, it’s not a good idea to have them.
So, that’s the book. It has its flaws — Scott has a tendency to spin her data to come to her own conclusions about how great it is not to have children. I think as a writer, Scott is much too invested in her topic. I wish this study could be enlarged and written by someone more neutral — although as Scott points out, no one can be neutral on this topic, so at least this book is written by someone who understands what it’s like to decide not to have children.
If you’re going through the decision process, I think this book would be helpful in allaying a lot of the fears you might have or misconceptions you might hear. This book isn’t aiming for balance; there are better books I could recommend for that. But I can tell you that most of what you’ll hear is the other side, so this book actually does help to balance the discussion.
If you’re like us, and you’ve made the decision, I think this book is helpful in terms of sharing resources and just letting you know there are lots of people like you out there.
Finally, if you’re struggling to understand someone who’s made this decision, I think this book would be really informative. It’s the best inside look I’ve read about how and why people make the decision not to have children.