Esther Earl died at age 16 from cancer. Her parents have published a collection of her writings.
American birthrates are lower now than at any time in American history — including the period after the Great Depression.
The trend is consistent across racial, cultural and socioeconomic lines.
Author Lauren Sandler writes about the phenomenon in the Time magazine cover story, “The Childfree Life: When having it all means not having children,” where she notes that though it’s becoming more common, a decision to remain child-free is anything but socially acceptable.
“We’ve always had the mandate for motherhood — it’s what women have been deemed ‘for’ in human history,” Sandler told Here & Now. “But lately, the mommy industry is so enormous, what I call ‘the ambient roar of motherhood’ seems to be so deafening, that I think that women who feel like we should have transcended this pressure by now are feeling pretty stigmatized.”
Some people may feel it’s too expensive to have kids, but others would rather do something else with their time, Sandler said. Many people who make a conscious decision not to have children feel strongly that it’s not for them.
Among them is Barbara Brownell, a hospital administrator and avid gardener in Oakland, Calif., who has been married for almost three years. She and her husband have no plans to have kids.
“Over the first two years of our relationship, we just decided that we’ve got a great life — neither one of us really had a huge pull to have children, and we’re happy the way it is,” Brownell told Here & Now. “We have plenty of children in our lives. I think that we choose to spend our time with each other and in the garden and cooking together, rather than raising children.”
Brownell does feel pressure from friends and family to have children, but she says it doesn’t burden her or her husband.
“Since we’ve been married and we have lots of friends with kids, it’s ‘Oh my God you guys are going to be the best parents! You guys are going to have beautiful children. When are you going to start?’” Brownell said. “I didn’t make the decision because it’s too expensive or any of these other reasons. I just — this is who I am.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. The birth rate in this country is now lower than it was during the Great Depression, lower than when birth control first became ubiquitous; and that is true across all races and cultures. But why are so many people deciding not to have children? That's the subject of a Time magazine cover story called "The Childfree Life." Lauren Sandler wrote it, and she's with us now from NPR studios in New York.
And Lauren, let's just say from the outset, there's nothing new per se about deciding not to have kids. Couples have done it for a long time. What is different now?
LAUREN SANDLER: I think that what's different now is there are more people doing it than ever before, and I think that there are more people aware of the pressure to have children in a different way. Of course, we've always had the mandate for motherhood. It's what women have been deemed for, in human history.
But lately, the mommy industry is so enormous. What I call the ambient roar of motherhood seems to be so deafening, that I think that women who feel like we should have transcended this pressure by now are feeling pretty stigmatized. And so I think it's both the number of women, and also the experience in a culture that seems to resist it, even though it celebrates independence.
HOBSON: So the pressure is even greater to have children?
SANDLER: I've heard that from a lot of people. I mean, certainly in the 1950s, it was a very different thing, when one was sort of understood to be a mother first. But it's funny how after feminism, to a certain extent, and when we rely on women as such an important part of the marketplace, when we celebrate self-reliance and individual choice as hallmarks of what it means to be an adult in America today, this is the one thing that kind of refuses to die; that if women do not choose to have children, our culture does not know what to do with them. They must be lacking something. They must be non-nurturing. They must be refusing to participate in our norms.
HOBSON: And is the main reason that people opt out, money - that it just costs now hundreds of thousands of dollars, from age 0 to 18, to raise a child?
SANDLER: Well, you certainly have to want it more, I think, because it's so expensive. But I think that from the beginning of time, there are some people who have really lusted for motherhood, really desired that experience; and other people who have felt ambivalent, and still more who just felt like it wasn't them at all.
For some people, it feels like it's expensive. For other people, there are other things they would rather do with their time. And I think that something that we find in common with a lot of people who don't have kids, but who really strongly made that choice, it's because they feel like they don't have the impulse inside them to make that leap.
HOBSON: Well, let's bring in Barbara Brownell. She is living in Oakland, Calif. She works in hospital administration. She takes care of her puppy, she cooks, she has social gatherings. She's been married for almost three years, but she and her husband have no plans to have children. Barbara, why did you make that choice?
BARBARA BROWNELL: Well, I think it's kind of interesting because over the, you know, first two years of our relationship, we just decided that we've got a great life. Neither one of us really had a huge pull to have children, and we're happy the way it is. We have plenty of children in our lives. I think that we choose to spend our time with each other and in the garden and cooking together, rather than raising children.
HOBSON: Are you feeling the pressure that we just heard about from Lauren; from others who say, you should be having kids?
BROWNELL: Well, it's really interesting. I think as a woman, my whole life I've heard, when are you going to get married? When are you going to have kids? Your kids are going to be gorgeous. And I've always just said, well, that's just not where I'm going with my life.
But since we've been married - and we have lots of friends with kids - it's oh my God, you guys are going to be the best parents; you guys are going to have beautiful children; when are you going to start? And I think most of our friends know us well enough that we are making an active decision.
But I think that a lot of friends still continue to say oh, there's that little glimmer of hope that they're going to have kids. So I think it's still there. I don't think either one of us are burdened with the pressure of other people wanting us to have children.
HOBSON: Do you think you ever might change your mind?
BROWNELL: You know, I think - I think anything could happen. But I'm 40; my husband's 37; and we're really, really happy. We love our life the way it is. We, you know, bought a house last year, and we have a beautiful garden that we spend every night in, and we have great vacations and fun with our friends. And I feel like for me, it's such an independent choice on my own.
Culturally, I know there are all types of things in society that are pushing people in other directions. But I didn't make the decision because it's too expensive, or any of those other reasons. I just - this is who I am.
SANDLER: Barbara, I've heard that from so many people I've interviewed, and it's really interesting because that economic question is always the logical question. And I asked it so many times myself but, you know, it really is that thing within, isn't it?
BROWNELL: Well, it's happiness. What makes you happy? That's what you do.
HOBSON: Now Lauren, we do see certain areas of the world, certain ethnicities, that are having lots of kids. I just did an interview last week about the nation of Yemen, where each woman has an average of five kids. So is this something that is happening all over the world, or is this really a U.S.-specific phenomenon - and maybe Europe, too?
SANDLER: Well, the U.S. is actually a little late to the game. The child-free trend has been far stronger in Europe, and also in Asia. But it's interesting that you mention Yemen because what you'll see around the world, and especially in the U.S., is a correlation between religiosity and the number of babies that a woman has.
This tends to be a very secular trend, although I certainly interviewed people who are Christians, who feel very excluded within their own community because it's not an impulse that they feel that God is impelling them to follow through on.
HOBSON: What are the consequences that you learned about in your reporting, that we should be thinking about if many people are choosing to go child-free?
SANDLER: You know, it's a good question, and there are a lot of different answers to it. You'll find a lot of conservative economists who think that this means the end of our economy. There are some people who believe that this will be the end of our military. There is a lot of hand-wringing amongst people who believe that women's purpose is really to have babies.
I am not one of those people, and I see a very different way of looking at this - which is that I don't believe that we have yet really come to terms with what women's freedom truly looks like, and yet even though we depend on women so much now in the marketplace and in furthering our culture, we have an expectation, and we don't have policy to support that expectation.
The disconnect between the realities of motherhood and the realities of a modern working life are quite dramatic, and they're especially dramatic in the United States. I recently published a book on what it means to have an only child, which is actually my personal choice, and so I've spent years now, talking to people about how these choices are made. And I have yet to find a single person who thinks about the larger social implications of their own possible birth.
HOBSON: Barbara, are you one of many children, or are you an only child?
BROWNELL: I'm one of three. I have a younger brother and an older sister.
HOBSON: And what about you, Lauren?
SANDLER: I am an only child with an only child. So this is interesting, too. People tend to either rebel against what they were raised within, or repeat it if it made them happy. And so you will find people who, you know, weren't nuts about their siblings and therefore, make different choices.
HOBSON: Lauren Sandler wrote "The Childfree Life" in Time magazine. She joined us from NPR in New York. And Barbara Brownell joined us from Oakland, Calif. Thanks to both of you.
BROWNELL: Thank you.
SANDLER: Thank you.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Well, Jeremy, a lot of people are weighing in our Facebook page - no surprise. Lacey Finn(ph) addresses regrets. She writes: People constantly told me I'd get the urge to have kids. I'm 47, never did. Vicky Gann(ph) says: I'm a juvenile custody service specialist. I see the effects of misinformed parenting. Karen Wood(ph) says when she sees a cute baby, she regrets not having kids but then says: When it cries or throws up, I am good.
YOUNG: Father Tom Brown(ph) is skeptical, though. He writes: I've known several couples who have chosen not to have children. They're missing something; they're not complete.
HOBSON: Well, let us know what you think at Facebook.com/hereandnowradio or at hereandnow.org. We'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.