Proof That Being Child-Free Is Judged

by JR Thorpe

Planning on being a voluntarily childless woman? Join the club; we've got jackets. As I write this I am looking at a woman with a delightfully fuzzy-headed baby and feeling no pull whatsoever to have one of my own, though I am slightly jealous of its onesie style (polka-dot yellow).

It's becoming an increasingly less taboo topic among women, who are sold on the idea that the maternal urge is universal and that denying it is somehow monstrous. However, as open as celebrities (Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler, and others among them) and ordinary people are about their child-free lifestyle by choice, the stigma remains real. And no, that's not an illusion. New research indicates that judgement towards those who don't want kids is real, and that it's driven not necessarily by misunderstanding or "live and let live" impulses but by something different: moral indignation.

This isn't how we're supposed to treat our child-free sisters. Surely feminism is nearly at the point where human women no longer have to be seen as incomplete, selfish, weird, or unnatural? Not so fast, apparently. Women who choose not to have kids aren't imagining it; they're genuinely not being given the same treatment as those who did, because of our ideas about womanhood and the necessity of children to adult female fulfillment. Let's unpack this a bit.

Proof That Moral Outrage Towards Non-Parents Is Real

The science we're working on here comes from a new study published this month in Sex Roles about parenthood as a "moral imperative," and there are a bunch of things to notice about it. One is that it was done using surveys of 197 undergraduates of both genders, which indicates that the results aren't about old-fashioned generational thinking. Another is that it comes from one university in particular in the Midwest, so we shouldn't over-generalize about this being a nationwide phenomenon. However, as an indication of anti-childfree sentiment, it's an intriguing experiment.

The undergrads were given vignettes about the lives of different people, male or female, who were either child-free or had two children. They were then asked to rate both their opinion of the person's happiness and their own emotional reaction to the person's situation. Unsurprisingly, given societal images of children as blessings, the people who were presented as having zero kids were thought to be a lot less "psychologically fulfilled" than the ones with two little rugrats. That's not really new; what is remarkable, and caused comment when the study was released, was the fact that the undergrads had interesting moral reactions to child-free people.

"Childfree targets," the study reported, "elicited significantly greater moral outrage," including feelings of anger, disapproval, and disgust. The decision not to have a child wasn't seen as a personal choice unrelated to other peoples' opinions; it was a threat to moral values, and inspired people to feel visceral negativity towards the non-parents. That's pretty extraordinary, but not necessarily a giant surprise to anybody who's faced off active disapproval of their child-free status. So where did this moral outrage come from, and what can we do about it?

Why This Sort Of Treatment Matters

Regarding another human with disgust or anger because of a choice that has absolutely nothing to do with you, breaks no laws, and has no impact on your life is a fairly astonishing response. But children and our feelings towards childbearing can be complex and highly odd. Infertility and "barrenness" have, as I've pointed out before, been treated as intensely problematic throughout most human civilizations in history, as either a violation of the proper role of a woman or deeply unhealthy for the woman herself. Bearing a child is what women are "supposed" to do, and if they don't, what's the point of having them around?

The fact that the study showed this outrage extended to childless men as well was an intriguing result, and slightly heartening; but men have historically meant to be concerned with their "issue," particularly in patrilineal societies in which property, name and respect descended down the male line and sons were paramount. The notion of a life incomplete with children also influences masculinity and how we view dudes. "Go forth and multiply" has been the ethos of the human race for its entire run on the earth, so it's understandable that with the choice not to obey that dictum come some deep-held judgements.

As the study points out, the idea of being strongly morally condemned for a life choice can have serious issues elsewhere; they might be vulnerable to discriminatory treatment "in the workplace or in health care," though there's not enough evidence to support this. As childfree lifestyles are expanding with women's education, workforce involvement and wealth (the rate of women without children by 40 has tripled in the U.S. since the 1980s, though that data includes those who cannot have kids or tried and failed), this concerns a widening slice of the population. An impressive 47.6 percent of the U.S. female population between 15 and 44 had never had kids in 2014, the highest proportion on record. The fact that moral outrage about the child-free exists even in a young, relatively educated slice of the population who voluntarily sign up for psychology surveys isn't encouraging.

So what can we do about it? Keeping normalizing the choice is a start. Speak up, speak often, and make the voices of women you admire who've made the same choice more widely heard. Explain yourself as much or as little as you like, but being visible is important. And make it clear that no, it doesn't make you less of anything, woman or otherwise.