Historian Rachel Chrastil is standing up for people who never have children. “How to Be Childless: A History and Philosophy of Life without Children” is her wide-ranging and thoughtful consideration of the phenomenon in western Europe and the U.S. over the past 500 years. In her book, she is “claiming the language of values and the good life for lives that fall outside of traditional norms.”
Here are 21 insights from her book.
Who qualifies as “childless” and should we use a different term?
1. “In general,” Professor Chrastil says, “I define someone as childless if they never had a biological child and have never been deeply involved in raising a child, whether through legal adoption or otherwise.”
2. The technically accurate term for people who do not have children is “nulliparous.” Professor Chrastil finds the term unappealing. As for “childfree,” she thinks it can be “too aggressive.” “Childless can seem to suggest a lack.” She uses that term anyway, “but with the caveat that I don’t view the absence of children as a deficit to be overcome.” (She has no children, by choice.)
How common has it been for people to have no children?
3. A high rate of childlessness is nothing new. As Professor Chrastil noted, “widespread childlessness has been a long-standing reality in northwestern European towns and cities from around 1500 onward.” There was one exception: “The baby boom was an anomaly, an interlude that lasted about twenty years. Then, childlessness returned, more controversial and openly debated than ever before.”
4. Childlessness is not just a Western phenomenon. “Childlessness is a feature of all cultures, with different expectations of it at different times and places.”
5. Some of the highest rates of childlessness ever recorded (including current rates) were for women born around 1900. In the U.S., for example, 24% of women born in 1900 never had children. Among those born a half-century later, between 1950-1954, a smaller number, 17%, reached the age of 45 without ever having children.
6. In 1900, the women who did have children had only about half as many as the women a century before them. “In the United States, white women in 1800 had seven children; by 1900, they had three or four.”
The psychology of adults who do not have children and the people who judge them
7. During the Reformation (1517-1648), “religious, legal, familiar, and cultural pressures [were] designed…to ensure that women would reproduce and do so within acceptable parameters.” But the fact that all these pressures were deemed necessary testifies “to the fear that women might somehow opt out.”
8. In the 1600s, single women without children “could be suspected of witchcraft and hanged for the offense.”
9. The stereotype of childless women as “having too much fun for their own good” has been around for centuries. Chrastil found an example in Adam Smith’s 1776 book, “The Wealth of Nations.”
10. Between 1500 and 1800, women more often expressed skepticism about marriage than children. Chrastil mentions a pamphlet from 1707 that got circulated, titled, “The Fifteen Comforts of Living a Single Life.” Another publication, “Good Advice to the Ladies to Keep Single,” made the rounds in 1739.
11. Popular explanations for the high rates of childlessness in the second half of the twentieth century include the newly available pill (for birth control) as well as the relatively large number of single people. Professor Chrastil thinks something else was more important: the growing acceptability of “choosing something other than the traditional family,” including getting married but not having children.
12. The concept of choice, by the 1960s, became “firmly attached to ideas about democracy and liberty…Singleness and childlessness, which in earlier societies were deemed to be social conditions worthy of shunning, shame, pity, and economic dependency, now often became associated with greater liberty.” People have continued to be judgmental toward those who did not have children, though, especially if they chose not to have kids.
13. In the 1970s, “people were willing to change their minds about childlessness, in a way that didn’t happen in the decades before or after.”
Challenges to the reverence for motherhood
14. Thomas Robert Malthus, who railed against population growth in a famous 1798 essay, included a section in praise of single women in the 1803 version: “…the conduct of the old maid had contributed more to the happiness of society than that of the matron.” Then he got married and deleted the section commending single women in future editions.
15. Political leaders in the U.S., even conservative ones, did not always encourage women to have lots of children. For example, in 1972, Nixon appointed a Committee on Population Growth and the American Future, which “denounced the outmoded tradition of American pronatalism and encouraged all Americans to embrace fertility control.”
16. The romanticizing of motherhood was dealt a blow with the publication, in 1980, of “Childless by Choice,” by sociologist Jean Veevers. From her interviews, Veevers found that many women who had no children saw motherhood as “neither a significant achievement nor an especially creative act….it is equally plausible that for some women a baby may compensate for the book they never wrote, the picture they never painted, or the degree they never finished.”
17. In 2017, Orna Donath tossed more fuel on the flames of controversy when she published “Regretting Motherhood,” based on her interviews with women who regretted having children.
Characteristics of women who do not have children
18. Today, it is important to distinguish between marital status and parental status; many single people do have kids and many married people do not. Historically, though, the statuses were more likely to overlap. Single women typically had no children. “In the early modern period, one did not choose childlessness so much as decline (or fail to acquire) the entire package of marriage and childbearing. Husband and child came almost in the same breath.”
19. “Childless older adults are now more likely to live on their own or in institutions, as compared with parents who are more likely to live with spouses or children.” But even for people who did have children, “there was no golden age of care for the elderly, at least not in late-marriage societies…Children emigrate or migrate; they cope with their own economic stress, marital strife, addictions, and problems. They may have nothing to give.”
20. “Just like 150 years ago…childless women in the twenty-first century are more highly educated, less religious, more committed to their careers, less traditional in gender roles, and more urban than mothers.”
21. Today, “childless women earn more money than mothers at almost all income levels, with the exception of partnered mothers earning in the top 10 percent of women’s incomes.” They “control far more wealth than mothers do,” too.