Granted, not all of the childless women are childless by choice; but that phenomenon is growing as well, along with the strangest (to me) iteration of this unusual lifestyle: the married couple who choose never to procreate.
Nearly one in five American women in her early 40s is childless, according to a report that shows a striking increase in women who don't have biological children.
The trend was much less common in the 1970s, when one in 10 women did not have children by 40 to 44, the age bracket researchers use to designate the end of childbearing years.
The report, released Friday by the Pew Research Center, cites social and cultural shifts behind the change, including less pressure to have children, better contraceptive measures and expanded job opportunities for women.
"I certainly think it's notable that there is such a large increase in the share of women who do not have children for whatever reasons," said D'Vera Cohn, a coauthor of the study. She said that some women were childless by choice; others wanted children but could not have them. A "very, very small number" would go on to have children, she said.
"The fact that nearly one of five women does not have a child of her own -- that's an enormous transformation from the past," Cohn said.
As a Catholic, I don't really understand the lifestyle choices of the "poor silly girls" who simply shack up with men on a serial basis, needing no more committment than a door key--but it is rather easy to understand why women in these irregular situations would choose to render themselves chemically sterile or have themselves (or their partners) surgically spayed or neutered, so to speak. Bringing children into a tenuous relationship with a built-in "expiration date" would be beyond foolish. But it is much harder to understand why a married couple who is both physically capable of having children and not yet too elderly to do so would choose childlessness.
The Catholic mindset views children as blessings from God, desirable for their own sake and because they are at all times the living symbols of their parents' love. So deep is the connection between marriage and childbearing that I have seen several Catholic priests say or write that for a Catholic couple to attempt to marry in spite of a publicly expressed intention never to have children at all invalidates the marriage; that is, upon examination if the publicly expressed intention is revealed their marriage will be held to be invalid. Now, what constitutes a publicly expressed intention, etc. will vary, so it would be imprudent for casual observers to pronounce on the validity of a marriage; but in general, a Catholic couple may not enter a valid Catholic marriage having expressed a desire to remain childless by choice.
But what about those who are not Catholic or not particularly religious, who want marriage (e.g., they aren't satisfied with merely shacking up), yet who insist they don't want children? Are they merely selfish, or are there other factors at work?
I spent some time this afternoon reading what childless couples and those who have studied them have to say about their reasons to avoid having children. Though there are many reasons, I noticed that one word cropped up again and again: fear. Take the following, for instance:
--fear that having children would mean giving up some of their privacy as a couple;
--fear that children will take up too much of their time;
--fear that children will cost them too much of their money;
--fear that their careers would suffer from the demands that children and child-rearing would put upon them;
--fear of change;
--fear that things like freedom, social lives, the ability to travel or be spontaneous, etc. would disappear;
--fear of certain specific aspects of child-rearing (diaper-changing gets mentioned a lot, as if childless couples think there is something so disgusting and horrific about changing an infant's diaper that they would much rather not reproduce than ever have to experience this act);
--and, saddest and most telling of all, the fear that having a child would so negatively impact their relationship with their husband or wife that the marriage would fall apart.
In fact, as regards that last one, childless couples are statistically more likely than couples with children to divorce. But the perception that bringing a child into one's marriage would end the marriage is just so terribly sad to me. It is my experience, and the experience of most people I know, that having a child just adds to the love and joy of the family; it doesn't subtract in any way from the love between husband and wife, but bonds them in a way that is hard to describe to a person who has never experienced the joy of seeing a new little soul gazing up at both mother and father with wise wonderful belonging in her infant expression.
I don't think it's an overstatement at all to say this: men and women learn the fullest extent of their ability to love when they welcome into their home the child who is the fruit of their love. I think it says something about the disease rampant in our selfish culture that so many people are too afraid of this kind of sacrificial love to wish to experience it.