Our culture values children and sees them as essential to the good life as a big screen TV or a ski vacation. Society bombards us with the idea that children are a given. The message is everywhere—almost every commercial is targeted to families with children. It's so ingrained in our psyches that it's difficult to imagine other equally fulfilling alternatives. The notion of remaining childless makes people uneasy. In part, that's because our sense of community is based on our sense of family.
In our society it is accepted and celebrated when a woman decides to have a child. It is considered normal and obvious, even expected, that women want to marry and raise children. But what if a woman decides that motherhood is not a role she wants to pursue? It often then becomes an issue of social concern when a woman makes public her decision to remain childfree. Women who are voluntarily childless are often faced with disbelief and disapproval from friends, family, and society in general. The terms "woman" and "mother" have become much related in our society, so that it would seem to most people that you couldn't be the former without being the latter.
There is a big difference between being "childless" and being "childfree." To be called "childless" would imply that something is missing from their life, that something is wrong. Women who are infertile are pitied and receive sympathy. They are then medically treated, as if diseased, to try to bring about a pregnancy and birth. Women, who are voluntarily childless, often prefer the more positive term "childfree" because the lack of children is their choice. This term does have its problems though. It can be associated with being "carefree" and that in turn implies a childlike state. In effect, no children equal any responsibilities equals being childlike...a stereotype many childfree people are placed with (Leatherby 721).
In recent decades the rates of voluntary childlessness among women has risen. This could be due to a number of factors. One of these includes recent reproductive technologies now available to women, such as birth control and safe abortion procedures, which allow them to more efficiently determine whether, when, and in what context they have children (Gillespie 225). There are also a number of reasons people choose to be childfree that are often rational or ideational in nature.
Current Trends in Voluntary Childlessness
The World Health Organization has estimated that 88% of the world's women will have at least one child by the age of 45. Only a small percentage of the remaining 12% are voluntarily childless (Campbell 156-157). In the United States the rates of childlessness have increased substantially since the 1970's from 10% in 1976 to almost 20% in 1995 for women aged 35-39 (Hird 351). In a similar study by the US Census Bureau, they showed that childlessness among all women aged 40-44 increased from 10% in 1980 to 19% in 1998 (Bachu). There is one study that states that the rates of childlessness tend to respond to economic and social conditions by fluctuating accordingly. For example, childlessness was at 15% for women born in the mid-1880's, and up to 25% for those who reached childbearing age during the Depression (born in 1910). It dropped again to 10% for those women born in 1935, reaching childbearing age during the baby boom, but is now rising again in recent years (Holland 531). Education may influence attitudes and behaviors regarding childlessness for non-economic reasons. Women may delay or forego parenthood to...