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Childless by Choice

Types of childfree and how society contributes to this trend

© ISTOCK

Childlessness can be voluntary or involuntary, driven by a variety of reasons, such as wishing to live for oneself, choosing a career and self-actualisation over childbearing, financial struggles, fear of getting out of shape after childbirth, and many others. Some childless people find it important to be part of a like-minded group, while some others do not care. Indeed, the widespread notion of 'childfree' fails to cover the diversity of attitudes. Sociologist Ilya Lomakin argues for using the less politicised and more inclusive term of 'voluntarily childless'. Based on his study and the resulting report prepared for the HSE's XXI April International Academic Conference, IQ.HSE takes a closer look at people who decide not to procreate.

'Non-parenting' by Choice

According to sociological data, up to 9% of Russians, both men and women, intend to remain childless.

This is a relatively small part of the population. In the U.S., 15% of women aged 40 to 44 have not given birth to any children, while in Austria, Spain and the U.K., the figure is more than 20%.

But even Russia’s 9% is a significant proportion, especially in the context of strong pronatalist trends, such as fertility incentives, most people's expressed desire to have children, and increasingly favourable attitudes towards large families in Russian society. Even more interesting than the proportion of currently childless couples—since mindsets can change over time—is the diversity of this group and the factors which drive their decision.

Notably, it is not about postponing childbirth, nor about infertility. The latter can often be corrected with the use of assisted reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilisation.

Instead, it is about a conscious decision not to have children, when a couple chooses non-reproductive sex and 'non-parenting'.

Lomakin argues that they are better described as voluntarily childlessrather than childfree.

His study is based on findings from in-depth interviews and mini-group discussions held in Moscow and St. Petersburg with people who do not intend to become parents (recruited in child-free groups on VKontakte and through personal pages in social networks).

The study reveals that not all informants describe themselves as 'childfree' and the entire group is very different from its foreign counterpart, a fairly well-defined childfree movement. The study further looks at the defining characteristics of this group in Russia. But first, a few words about the phenomenon per se.

Why Don't They Want Children?

Based on the responses, Lomakin identified the five most common stated reasons why people choose against having children.

 Wishing to avoid additional serious responsibility. 'No children, no problems. Why would I want to add to my problems?', says a 33-year-old childfree man.

 Wishing to 'live for themselves', free and independent, and unwilling to spend time and money on raising a child.

 Some respondents do not like being around young children. 'I really dislike babies <...> they can be disgusting <...>,' says a 40-year-old woman. Fewer respondents experienced negative feelings towards older children but instead appreciated their intelligence, good manners, etc.

 Seeing children as an obstacle to self-sufficiency. According to a 42-year-old female respondent, 'I am okay with children, but I don't want any of my own <...> [I choose to focus on] my personal interests and career and to be independent.’

 Some respondents refer to what they call 'a childbearing trap' and wish to avoid making irreversible decisions: 'You'll never know unless you try, but if you try, you're in there for life,’ says a 39-year-old woman.

According to the researcher, many voluntarily childless respondents 'mention more than one reason'.

A number of studies have looked at why some people choose not to parent. The reasons include: lacking a partner and not wishing to be a single parent, financial difficulties, fear of childbirth and aversion to motherhood, and fear of losing sexual attractiveness.

Some people employ altruistic rhetoric and argue that, hypothetically, adopting an orphan is better than bringing more children into the world. A similar argument refers to 'global overpopulation' stating that smaller families could lead to less consumption and production and thus reduce climate change.

These attitudes are similar to anti-natalism, or rejection of childbirth on ideological grounds, based on a variety of arguments from 'bad genes' to environmental decline.

Why Not 'Childfree'?

When journalists, politicians, sociologists and psychologists today use the term 'childfree', they imbue it with a variety of meanings. Indeed, Lomakin finds this term too vague and overloaded with connotations. Although it clearly postulates a voluntary refusal to have children, not all people who avoid parenting describe themselves as childfree. 

What are the main aspects of the term ‘childfree’?

 First, childfree is an identity that people voluntarily accept and announce to others. In Russia, some people may refuse to identify themselves as being ‘childfree’, i.e. using a transliterated English term, due to anti-American stereotypes.

 Second, being childfree is a group identity shared by people who are voluntarily childless, and this group needs to affirm their choice publicly in society.

 Third, identifying as childfree involves a degree of 'socio-political mobilisation' and preparedness to assert one’s rights in various ways, 'from rallies and pickets to attacks against online forums of "breeders" or parenting fanatics', explains the researcher.

The three aspects outlined above do not necessarily apply to every voluntarily childless person. Not all of them seek community support, while the socio-political activity of childfree Russians is limited, although it tends to be grossly exaggerated – or simply invented – by the mass media. 

Debates have been ongoing for decades on what exactly 'childfree' means and how the term should or should not be used.  Some researchers argue that the very use of the word 'childfree' conveys a sense of superiority by implying that motherhood is only for those women who are too foolish to avoid it. According to other authors, the term 'childfree' may mean that children are generally not worth it, which is almost a kind of ideological chauvinism.

Rhetoric of Childlessness

As a phenomenon, voluntary childlessness is more common in developed countries, according to Lomakin. 'Non-parents' typically belong to the economically prosperous, secularised and well-educated contingent in society.

In fact, certain hidden forms of rejecting parenthood have a long history. 'Demographers in many regions of Europe, North America and Australia reported high levels of childlessness in the 19th and early 20th centuries', Lomakin recalls. The question remains as to how voluntary non-parenting used to be at that time.

According to some researchers, there have always been people voluntarily abstaining from childbirth, but 'before the era of the sexual revolution <...> such people had not given much thought to their choice or perhaps some had consciously reflected on it but never voiced it publicly'.

Social transformations, in particular the sexual and contraceptive revolutions, released the genie of childfree attitudes in the 1960s and 1970s in the West and at the turn of the 21st century in Russia. Sexuality and reproduction, two concepts that used to be linked together were now separated. 

During the first half of the 1970s, the notion of childfree emerged. It was introduced by the feminist National Organization for Non-Parents (NON, later renamed National Alliance for Optional Parenthood, NAOP) to give social identity to voluntarily childless people. NON/NAOP sought to make this lifestyle choice socially acceptable and argued that population growth needed to be controlled. 

The term 'childfree' reflected 'the political idea of liberation from pronatalism and from socially-imposed parental responsibilities', according to Lomakin.

While the childfree lifestyle stopped being socially unacceptable as a result, it has still not acquired full legitimacy, and the idea of being 'free from children' remains marginal for many people. 'Non-parents' face criticism from society, individual politicians and the mass media.

Limits of Tolerance

Many respondents in Lomakin's sample reported being judged and misunderstood by others, ranging from total strangers to co-workers, who often attempted to engage them in a heart-to-heart conversation and tried to change their mind. 

According to a 21-year-old woman from Moscow, 'My doctor pointed out [my smoking] <...> and said, you need to stay healthy to bear children. I said, I do not want to bear children. She said, how is this possible? You just don't understand! You are a woman, a future mum!' The respondent comments, 'It seems that some people consider me only as a human reproduction machine.’

The researcher notes that some consciously childless couples lie about infertility to cover up their choice.

They do it when they can't be bothered to explain matters to others, given that rational arguments may not work. So they say instead, 'There's nothing we can do about our infertility, and assisted reproductive technologies have not been helpful.’

Interestingly, the reverse is also true and people who are unable to conceive for medical reasons avoid the stigma of infertility – which is still strong in Russian society – by telling relatives and well-wishers that they are 'childfree' or 'voluntarily childless', Lomakin notes.

Childless Who Don’t Need Support

Many respondents stressed that not having children is their conscious choice and part of their identity.

According to a 40-year-old female respondent, 'Being childfree is a conscious choice against bearing children <...> that a woman makes on her own <...>. She makes this decision because she is better off this way.’

A 33-year-old woman explains this outlook, 'Whether you are rich or poor, whatever interests you may wish to pursue, you will never want to bear a child.’ In this sense, the childfree attitude is the direct opposite of the ideology of intensive mothering and overbearing mothers whose lives revolve around their child.

Socialising with people who share their lifestyle is another core characteristic of the childfree. According to a 26-year-old male respondent, 'Childfree is about living for ourselves and enjoying it. This is not yet considered a crime.’  

Being around like-minded people can be important. A 25-year-old woman comments, 'You are a childfree if you need to assert yourself, to belong to a certain social group, and keep trying to find people around you who support your lifestyle choice.’

However, not all consciously childless individuals share this need to belong—in fact, some avoid associating with a particular group.

According to a 39-year-old woman, 'I know that there are [childfree] communities, but we don’t need this kind of support from anyone <...>. We do not advertise ourselves [as childfree]. For us, it simply means that we live our own life. <...> All we say is that we do not have children.’

And finally, some respondents refuse to identify as childfree. 'I say that I [simply] do not want any children, just leave me alone!', a 23-year-old woman says.

An older female respondent explains, ‘One can simply have their own opinion and stick to it. <...> I have never sought any information about it, have never googled things like: "So I'm childfree, how do I live now?" I have my own ideas as to how I should live my life.’

According to the researcher, the broader term 'voluntary childlessness' fits this self-identity better than 'childfree' which is loaded with all sorts of meanings.

Apolitical Childlessness

Russian 'non-parents' are not quite 'childfree' in a political sense either. According to the respondents, they never hold public rallies but only socialise with like-minded people.

'The childfree do not represent any [political] movement,’ says a 37-year-old man, who is echoed by a 21-year-old, ‘I am all for hanging out together and socialising. <...> We communicate online most of the time, but sometimes we get together offline as friends. But this is not associated with any political or social organising.’

According to Lomakin, members of Russian thematic groups are not childfree in the true sense of the word: while they share this identity with a community of like-minded people, the socio-political or advocacy component is almost always absent. 

Child Haters: Who Are They?

40 years ago, the first book was published based on findings from a sociological study of the 'childless by choice'. Its author, Canadian scholar Jean E. Veeverscategorised the study group into 'rejectors' of parenthood who dislike children and 'aficionados' who are reluctant to change their carefree childless lifestyle and abandon travel, entertainment or bohemian lives for the sake of children. 

In Russia today, the latter category tends to be described as 'childfree', while 'rejectors' have been widely referred to as 'child haters' in public discourse.

The respondents strongly denied having anything to do with the latter. Child haters, they said, 'give childfree people a bad name'.

The difference between the two, according to a 26-year-old male respondent, is that 'the childfree are okay with other people's children but do not want any of their own'. 

'I make this distinction: child haters are those who want to harm [children], e.g. by planting razor blades in sandboxes,’ says a 40-year-old woman. '<...> I consider myself a childfree, because I would never want to do harm or to engage in any evil propaganda.’

By emphasising their difference from child haters, those who identify as childfree tend to position themselves as more tolerant and positive and use it 'as a defence from pronatalist attacks', Lomakin notes. On the other hand, politicised pronatalists and alarmist mass media outlets often use the notion of 'child hate' to make their point.

However, according to Lomakin, ‘child hate’ may be more of a bogus than a real-life phenomenon—none of the study participants agreed to describe themselves in terms of being a 'child hater'. 

Shades of Childlessness and Revision of Terms

Lomakin emphasises that 'voluntarily childless' is a more inclusive, more fundamental and less loaded concept than 'childfree'.

It is more inclusive because it accommodates both those who seek to assert themselves via a like-minded community and those who choose not to procreate for whatever personal reason and don’t need community support. It is more fundamental because being childfree is an extension of being voluntarily childless.

The term 'voluntarily childless' is less loaded, because the only message it conveys is 'I do not want to have children'.

Various shades of meaning can be added to this basic concept, e.g. intentional childlessness emphasises a conscious choice to remain childless. 'I have been thinking a lot about it, and I realise that I do not want to have children ever,’ a 33-year-old female respondent says.

According to Lomakin, the difference between voluntary and intentional childlessness is that the former may have emotional reasons behind it, while the latter is mainly a rational choice, 'with a wide range of variations between the two'.

There is also intended childlessness which is often driven by external circumstances (other than infertility) and thus can be transitory. 'I am not sure whether it is possible to be voluntarily childless in this country,’ says a 25-year-old woman. 'This wording <...> can cause controversy, with all that pressure from society. So I have decided that I do not want children at the moment.’

Social Pressure on Women Contributes to Non-parenting

Researchers note that mothering has never been easy: 'raising a child means sleepless nights and working all day to wash, feed and change them'. Society's expectations are higher than ever today, and have been described as 'excessive and artificial'.

Parenting has become a full-time occupation which requires skills and competencies in fields such as education, child psychology and others. Indeed, parents as well as society drive the trend towards professionalisation of childrearing by competing among themselves in terms of their children's success.

The growing trend of 'intensive mothering' requires a particularly serious investment of time and effort. To complicate things even further, most mothers in Russia have day jobs, leading to a 'double-employment effect' when women are required to give their best both at work and at home. This is partly a matter of their own perfectionism and the struggle to be 'top of the class' in various spheres and partly the impact of pressure and high expectations placed on women by today's society.

Some young Russian women are scared of this exhausting lifestyle. The 'excessive' effort involved in parenting 'may not be acceptable or affordable for everyone', according to Lomakin. As a result, some young couples keep postponing childbirth or abandon the idea altogether.

Contributing to non-parenting choices is another category of parents which can be described as 'reluctant parents'—those who feel that raising a child has been too much for them. Already being mums and dads, such 'reluctant' parents admit that the ideal lifetime number of children for them is zero.

While such testimonies can reaffirm the childless choice, this is not always the case. 

'People's attitudes can change significantly over time,’ Lomakin emphasises. Chances are that some of today's 'voluntarily childless' may eventually become parents. 

Longitudinal panel studies of childlessness could provide insights into these dynamics. 'No such studies have so far been undertaken in Russia, and our knowledge of voluntarily childless Russians is limited and fragmented at the moment, suggesting a fruitful area for further study,' Lomakin comments.

IQ
 

Study author:
Ilya Lomakin, Research Assistant, HSE Laboratory for Comparative Social Research
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, April 22