Text: Erik Freudenreich
Photo: JBJ Pictures

“The desire to procreate is rooted in strong pronatalist social and cultural pressures.”

American author Laura Carroll has a long-standing interest in couples who do not wish to have children. She discusses this choice, which is increasingly imbued with ecological arguments.

Whether it be the desire for independence, a couple’s happiness, financial or ecological considerations, the choice not to become a parent has become the subject of much discussion. It has also generated many books, such as Motherhoodby written by Canadian author Sheila Heti and No Kid written by French psychoanalyst Corinne Maier. What do they have in common? They put forth the idea that becoming a parent does not necessarily lead to happiness.

American author Laura Carroll began studying the childfree choice in the 1990s, and has interviewedchildfreecouples in particular. For her, the desire to reproduce is not innate, but derived from a system of pronatalist beliefs. She argues that maternity and paternity should be a choice made in all conscience.

Why did you become interested in couples who chose not to have children?

In the late 1990s, I had been in a happy childfree marriage for ten years, and wanted to learn more about what long-term childfree marriages were like. What made them go the distance? I started looking for a book about childfree marriages. I did not find one, so decided to write the book myself. I ended up interviewing a hundred couples, from which I selected 15 from a variety of professions and lifestyles for my book, Families of Two.

Have you had to justify your childfree choice to relatives?

As soon as I started babysitting in my teens I learned I wasn't interested in making parenting the central focus of my adult life. I was lucky to have parents who raised me to believe I could create the life I wanted, and knew that, for me, it did not include becoming a mother. So it was no surprise when my husband and I shared with them that we were not going to have children.

What are the most common reasons for couples not wanting to have children?

In my research, several reasons often came up. Couples expressed concerns about having the financial resources necessary to raise a child and pay for his or her education. Another related to not being sure if bringing children into the relationship would impact it in a positive way. When they are happy in their relationship they do not want to risk changing that happiness. There is also the desire to achieve certain career or personal goals. But beyond these more objective reasons, it comes down to a lack of desire. A couple’s level of desire to have a child does not outweigh their concerns.

Is the ecological issue more frequently invoked today to justify this choice?

Although not the most common reason, a good number of the couples I interviewed in the late 1990s mentioned overpopulation as a contributing factor to their decision not to have children. Today, concern about the climate crisis is a growing reason for which people are choosing to have smaller families or no children at all.

Is the question of parenthood a frequent reason for break-ups?

This can be a factor, especially when a partner stands firm on his or her choice. The important thing is to talk about parenting wishes before making a lifelong commitment to each other. Too many couples don't do this, and then have to face it later.

You maintain that society is fundamentally pronatalist. How do you define this term?

Pronatalism is a long-held set of attitudes and beliefs that encourage reproduction and glorify parenthood. Historically, population growth stimulated the expansion of a society and increased its power.

As far back as 18 BC, reproduction was encouraged and made mandatory. The laws of the Roman Emperor Augustus penalised not having children and offered benefits to families with three or more children.

But pregnancy and giving birth were not without risks. This led to myths that idealised pregnancy and parenthood so that people would want to have more children. The American psychologist Leta Hollingworth called these myths "social devices" that emphasised the positive aspects of reproduction and encouraged pregnancy.

Many people say that there is a biological desire for children, which you refute. Why?

Biological processes occur at the time of delivery and after the birth of a child, but there is no evidence of biological processes that create the desire to have a child.

If wanting children was instinctive, we would all have children and would continue to have them until we biologically no longer could.

Instead, our biological capacities allow us to make parenthood a choice. In the course of my research, I have found that the desire to procreate is rooted in strong pronatalist social and cultural pressures and influences, which have been with us for so long that people believe it is innate and a truth about life. Over many generations, this belief has become an ingrained norm.

What are examples of pronatalist attitudes and beliefs?

There are several pronatalist attitudes and beliefs. Three important ones include what I call the pronatalist "Destiny Assumption", which is the idea that we are all destined to want children. Another is the “Normality Assumption,” which is the notion that if we don’t feel the desire to have children, there must be something wrong with us. Most people do not want themselves or their loved ones to feel this way, which creates forms of direct or indirect pressure people put on one another to have children. The third is what I call the "Fulfilment Assumption," which is the idea that parenthood is “the” way to true fulfilment in life. The truth is, parenthood is but one way to find fulfilment in life.

It seems that women are most often the subject of being childfree, while men represent half of the equation. Why?

In general, women are judged more than men when it comes to not wanting children.

This stems from the pronatalist belief that motherhood is central to what it means to be a woman. However, many men have strong feelings about being childfree. In many of the interviews I conducted, the man often felt most strongly about this choice.

Should a "parenting certification" be introduced?

This is an idea I present in The Baby Matrix which has created much discussion. We have to have a licence to drive, so why not give future parents the opportunity to prepare for an experience that will profoundly change their lives. Society also has a responsibility to ensure that children do not have unfit or ill-prepared parents. This could be training designed by a variety of specialists and be incentivised, such as receiving a tax break if one completes the training before having a child.

How many people don’t have children today?

In the United States, the census office tracks women without children in different age groups. In the 40-44 age cohort, one in five women have no children, compared to one in ten in the 1970s. But the reasons why they do not have children are not tracked. Did they not find the right partner? Have they experienced fertility problems? Did they not want children at all? Unfortunately, there are no figures for men. This is one of the reasons why I started my research on the subject. Not having children also goes way back in history. A recent book by Rachel Chrastril, How to be Childless, examines the lives of women who did not have children going back over the past five hundred years.

What impact can deciding not to have children have on society?

It can inspire people to give more thought to becoming a parent. More than ever before, in today’s world as society faces a climate crisis, the parenthood decision needs to include the life of the future child as well as what people will get from parenthood on a personal level.



Laura Carroll has a Master’s in psychology and extensive experience in consulting and editorial services. She has authored several books on and related to the childfree choice, including Families of Two,The Baby Matrix, and Man Swarm. She has also contributed to various academic works and is the founder of "International Childfree Day".