This story is part of a week-long series on reproduction, from prenatal testing to male birth control.
Are you pregnant yet? Don’t you like kids? Well, it’s different when it’s your own child. Being a parent is the most important job in the world. You’re being a bit selfish. What if your parents had decided not to have you? Speaking of your parents, isn’t it cruel to deny them the joy of grandchildren? Besides, who will take care of you when you get old? You’re just saying that because you’re young. You’ll change your mind. Your biological clock is ticking! What if your kid cured cancer?
If you don’t have kids and don’t want them, apologies: You’ve heard this all before from well-meaning relatives, friends, coworkers, cashiers, taxi drivers, crossing guards. If you do have kids and you’ve said anything like the above, the childfree community would like to let you know that you’re not being as thoughtful and caring as you (maybe) mean to be.
See, all of those questions and statements are forbidden by the bylaws of popular subreddit r/childfree, where they’re known as “bingos”: “cliché phrases parents say in an effort to convince the childfree that their decision is wrong, and that they are shirking their societal duty by not reproducing.” The subreddit is a forum to vent about being antagonized by “mombies” and “daddicts.” More importantly, it’s a place for users to speak openly about choice, offer stories and support to others, and share advice about how to respond to bingos or convince doctors to sterilize them.
By now, some of you might be forming a hard nugget of disapproval for the snarky childfree redditors. You’re far from alone: Multiple sociological studies have found that voluntary childlessness often sparks immediate disdain and “moral outrage,” even from total strangers. The stigma knows no race, religion, gender, or border. Researchers have found similar negative judgements of childfree adults everywhere from India to Italy to Israel. (If you’re having trouble imagining the hostility, try typing “childless”—or even better, “childless millennial”—into Google.)
Still, fertility rates in the United States (and everywhere else) continue to drop. And contrary to certain hypotheses, voluntarily childfree people seem to rarely regret their choice. r/childfree has nearly half a million subscribers, and similar communities exist on just about every social media platform.
For the childfree, the reasons to consider childfreedom extend beyond baby hatred, questions of bodily autonomy, or suboptimal finances. Concerns go broader, ranging from the economy to politics to climate. “We basically have 12 years until the planet is an apocalyptic hellscape,” says Justine, a longtime r/childfree member in her early thirties. “We aren't as lucky as our parents, and they seem to have no idea how much more difficult it is to ‘get by’ for us than it was for them.”
When responding to crusading parents who might try to convince them out of their stance, many childfree people use prepared “scripts,” formed by years of entertaining the same inquiries. They know they’re working against ingrained biases: The childfree are keenly aware that they are prefigured in the eyes of most as a band of entitled, disrespectful millennials, trading tradition for self-interest.
Being childfree—they first want you to know—is hardly a millennial idea. “There have always been people who have made the choice not to have children, but we’ve never noticed them in that way,” says Amy Blackstone, a (childfree) sociologist at the University of Maine and author of the forthcoming book Childfree by Choice. Priests and nuns and other celibate ascetics spring to mind, but plenty of lay people throughout history have made the same call. Referring to somebody as a spinster or “confirmed bachelor” was a coy implication of queerness, but it's also a signpost for the childfree of yesteryear. “What’s different is that we’re talking about it openly now,” Blackstone says.
Activists have been challenging the taboo of childfreedom since the early 1970s, when second-wave feminism (which focused on family-centric issues such as reproductive rights, workplace equality, and marital rape) collided with the overpopulation and overconsumption worries of the environmental movement. In 1972, journalist Ellen Peck founded the National Organization for Non-Parents with a simple goal: making more people aware that parenthood was a choice, not an obligatory life chapter.
According to Blackstone, the economic boom-time of the 1980s, along with its focus on women “having it all,” re-hushed the childfree—though it didn’t extinguish them. “I wish there was something like [r/childfree] 30 years ago,” writes one redditor. “I am a 60 year old woman who has been happily married for 35 years. We are childless by choice and have never regretted it. I was always pretty sure I did not want children.” Other posters share their own experiences in the comments beneath. With over 300 upvotes: “I'm 55 myself and I can still remember being told by the gyno—at age 40!— that she wouldn't sterilize me because ‘you still might change your mind.’ Yeah, that's a negatory, ghost rider, damn satisfied with my decision, too.” (Many childfree people, but especially women, struggle for decades to get permanent birth control. Doctors’ concerns are seldom medical, so r/childfree’s moderators maintain an international list of childfree-friendly doctors and a guide to getting sterilized.)
The millennial-aged redditors seem to have a broader focus—as a generation, they’ve been shaped by third-wave feminism, acceptance of wider notions of family, climate change, and the Great Recession. “Since the recession, everyone is freaking out about lower fertility rates caused by women delaying pregnancy,” says Alison Gemmill, a demographer at Stony Brook University. But the childfree aren’t just delaying, and that’s started to show in the data too. “We’ve also seen a decline in fertility intention. More women are intending to have no children,” Gemmill says. She doesn’t foresee an imminent demographic apocalypse, but that hasn’t stopped political pundits and other commentators from preaching about society’s impending doom.
“People worry we won’t have enough taxpayers to pay for our aging population,” Blackstone says. “It also becomes a nationalist concern: ‘We need more people to defend our borders.’” In the mouths of some conservative commentators, worrying about low birth rates in the US and Western Europe takes on a tone not just of nationalism but also of ethnic anxiety—You Will Not Replace Us (as long as these inconvenient millennial women start churning out babies). One strategy for softening the appearance of racism is recruiting far-right mommy bloggers, like Wife With a Purpose. These women spread motherly messages about their laundry and their role in preserving white "heritage." Online spaces controlled by the so-called alt-right teem with them—advocating for “radical traditionalism” and sharing Norman Rockwell-esque photos with captions reminding you that men are meant to protect and women to nurture.
Living as they do in a stridently pro-reproduction climate, it’s difficult for childfree people to publicly express the sentiments behind the downward-trending data. “Participants from a range of places told us how they felt ‘like a freak’ until they went online,” says Tracy Morison, a lecturer at Massey University of New Zealand who has studied online childfree communities. “Then they discovered others who felt the same as they did and discovered a vocabulary to articulate what they had been thinking and feeling.” For many, even the term “childfree” (as opposed to “childless,” a word that implies loss and incompleteness) was an affirming revelation.
The feelings the childfree have learned to articulate within their own spaces are often grounded in deep reflection. Sure, people pop off about hating obnoxious kids—codenamed Bratleys in the US, “sprogs” or “anklebiters” in Morison’s part of the world—so much so that a splinter subreddit, r/truechildfree, broke away to become a more “respectful” alternative. (Another, more hardline subreddit, r/antinatalism, is for people who “assign negative value to birth.” It can get pretty nihilistic.) For most, more sober discussions take precedence: economic woes, environmental concerns, political unrest. US users fret about reproductive rights under attack. Lots of them probably still wouldn’t be interested in having kids even in a stable economy with no environmental threats, but a sense of grim calculation—why would I bring a child into a world I can’t guarantee will be able to nurture them?—also pervades the space.
The harsher realities of millennial life certainly weigh heavily on Justine. “I got my bachelor’s degree and licensure in a field where I ended up not being able to find work. I was unemployed for years. After completing a year or so of occupational training, I finally obtained a job in medical transcription, a field that is slowly dying due to automation, with a paycheck based on production,” she says. “Adding a kid to my life would be insane even if I wanted to.”
For Justine and many other childfree people, having their struggles sneered at as selfishness is especially isolating. Morison’s research has found mounting hostility between parents and the childfree—especially mothers and childfree women. For childfree people, the animus comes from a lifetime of judgement, invasive questions, and, at times, real disadvantage. Morison found that childfree individuals were often expected to work overtime because they had no children. In some states, like Iowa, the government will take a larger percentage of your estate if you leave your possession to someone other than a biological heir—something some childfree Iowans feel unduly penalized by.
The centrality of parenthood can hurt parents too. “Having kids—lots of them—is glorified, so people are pressured to have kids when they aren’t ready to, to have more kids than they want to or can afford, or to spend heaps of resources on becoming biological parents,” Morison says. “Then talking about the challenges or even regrets of parenthood is culturally taboo.” Discussions about postpartum depression have only recently made it to the mainstream, in no small part because of supportive online communities, but struggling new mothers still face stigmas of their own.
The childfree movement rejects one of life’s basic drives with reason and thoughtfulness, asking fundamental questions about the worlds childfree people live in. “The reality is that in the US, we have some of the worst supports for parents in the workplace in the world,” Blackstone says. If a plummeting fertility rate is truly a concern, some policy changes—say, paid family leave, or the environmental reforms teenagers around the world have been asking for—might help. Still, asking non-parents what would convince them to procreate is, the childfree people’s view, the wrong question. “I wish we could shift conversations away from ‘What’s wrong with you?’ and toward why some people are hesitant to become parents,” Blackstone says. “If there are cultural problems, let’s solve them. But then leave the rest of us alone.” Parenthood may no longer be the default. Most childfree people are deeply concerned about the state of future—and procreating isn’t the only way to contribute.
How We Reproduce
- It's Either the Best Time or the Worst Time to Have a Baby
- The Tricky Ethics of Noninvasive Prenatal Testing
- Male Birth Control Could Actually Happen. But Do Men Want It?
- How Big Data Could Help Prevent Premature Births
- You Know What Else Can Reproduce Now? Robots
- Gadgets and Gear for Making (or Not Making) Babies