A Good Time to not Have Children
Although a growing share of Americans say they do not intend to have children in the future, childlessness is still a relatively uncommon family status. I was a few weeks away from defending my dissertation proposal about the experiences of women without children when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020. As the world transitioned into lockdown, I realized the pandemic would pose challenges to my data collection. For one thing, I’d have to pivot to using online interviews. At the same time, though, I also saw an opportunity: interviewing childless women in this context of heightened social unrest could offer unique insight into how the experience of such a large-scale crisis might affect women’s family decision-making.
From my quickly-assembled Zoom lair, I interviewed a diverse sample of 107 childless (some by choice, some by circumstance) American women during the height of the pandemic. In my conversations with these women, who were aged 35-50, I tried to understand how they thought about their current family status (i.e., without children), as well as the prospect of future motherhood during this unsettled time. Would the pandemic spur a greater desire for biological or adopted children? Or might it instead solidify their desire to remain childless?
The answers were striking. As I discuss in a recent article published in Population and Development Review, virtually all participants framed the pandemic as “a good time to not have children” (in the words of Annie). This was the case for several reasons. First, for some participants who had hoped to have children in the future, the pandemic posed new barriers to pregnancy and childrearing, making motherhood seem even more infeasible than in pre-pandemic times. These barriers ranged from losing access to fertility clinics and assisted reproductive treatments to losing jobs and confidence in their ability to afford having children. The pandemic also led many in this group to view permanent childlessness as an increasingly likely outcome given the uncertainties they faced. As Alyssa, who was considering adoption before COVID-19 put it, “as the pandemic went on, I just couldn’t imagine having a baby… I’m kind of over it emotionally…[and] working out whether it would be okay for me to not be a mother.”Second, for many, the positive aspects of life without children were sharpened by the pandemic, prompting newfound feelings of legitimacy and relief over a family status that has historically been stigmatized. Interviewees viewed pandemic-related challenges as confirmation of their pre-existing reservations and anxieties about motherhood, which included concerns related to childcare challenges and work-life conflict, as well as the emotional and mental labor they saw as being required of “good” motherhood. Women told me that they saw their friends with children struggling, and they often framed their own experiences of the pandemic as less stressful by comparison. For example, Carol noted, “I sympathize so much with what people are going through… by not having children, I only have to worry about myself and my partner.”
Beyond describing relief, interviewees also expressed that the pandemic validated their childlessness. Nearly every woman in my sample alluded to prior experiences in which their childless status had been called into question, stigmatized, or socially devalued. Yet, for some, the pandemic served as a symbolic catalyst that recast childlessness as a status that was understandable and even socially legitimate. Citing the financial, time-related, and emotional hardships they perceived mothers facing during this unsettled period, women emphasized the comparative simplicity of life as a nonmother. Renae, who noted that being unmarried and childless had often felt like being marked by others as a “red flag,” told me the pandemic was a “game changer” that provided “such redemption.”
These accounts suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic shifted how women without children viewed their childless status. Heightened barriers to pregnancy and adoption, combined with the highly gendered challenges faced by parents during this period of uncertainty, made their future childlessness appear not only more likely but also more appealing and socially legitimate. What’s more, this research offers a new concept—“gendered uncertainty”—to illustrate how times of widespread crisis can decrease the perceived feasibility of future motherhood, particularly in contexts like the United States that offer little structural support (e.g., paid sick or parental leave) for families. Now, as life returns to “normal,” it will be important to continue to examine under what social circumstances childlessness—or parenthood—is perceived as valid, desirable, and/or feasible.
Holly Hummer is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at Harvard University. She studies family and gender and is writing a dissertation about women without children in the United States and Japan.