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Americans are having fewer kids, but child-free people are still stigmatized

UPDATED: Sun., March 12, 2017

 (Hector Casanova / Tribune New Service)
(Hector Casanova / Tribune New Service)
By Laura Barcella Washington Post

Americans are having fewer kids. The U.S. fertility rate is at an all-time low, with more single and coupled people choosing to delay or forego parenthood. However, remaining child-free still isn’t socially accepted.

That conclusion was reconfirmed in a study detailing the stigmatization, social backlash and “moral outrage” toward child-free people.

In the study, Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, a psychology professor at Indiana University, asked 197 college undergraduates from a large Midwestern university to read a vignette about a married graduate from the school who was described as male or female, with either zero or two children.

Asked to assess their feelings toward the graduates on a scale of 1 to 5, Ashburn-Nardo wanted to discern whether her participants – who had an average age of 20 – would view the child-free alums as more or less psychologically satisfied than their parent peers.

What she found was astonishing, Ashburn-Nardo wrote in an email. She discovered that the child-free alums were “perceived to be significantly less psychologically fulfilled” than those who were parents – and that participants experienced such reactions as disgust, disapproval, annoyance, outrage and anger when evaluating the child-free folks.

There was no gender gap in how the nonparents were viewed; participants believed both child-free men and women were less likely to lead happy lives. Ashburn-Nardo’s findings indicate that at least some young people see parenthood as more of a moral obligation than a personal choice – and that people who don’t have kids should prepare to be judged, even stigmatized.

“The (moral outrage) was the most surprising,” Ashburn-Nardo wrote. “It’s still shocking to me that people can report such feelings toward a person they’ve never met, and never could meet.”

As a single 40-year-old woman who has long waffled about wanting kids, I found this research disheartening. I’ve always despised being the subject of others’ pity, and this study confirmed that people like me are ripe for others’ scorn. But being child-free is not a decision I’ve reached lightly. In fact, it was never a concrete decision at all.

As an adopted child, I’ve always longed for a more cohesive sense of family (a boyfriend once told me I wouldn’t be able to “heal my childhood wounds” until I became a mother myself). And though I’ve never been especially maternal, for years I harbored a fantasy of finding the perfect partner – the kind of mate who would make having a child feel like an inevitability instead of a question mark. I believed that if I was “in love enough,” I’d feel that primal push toward motherhood that seemed to grip so many of my friends.

That ideal partner hasn’t come along yet, and neither has an unwavering desire to be a mom. But after some soul-searching, I realized that even as a child, when I imagined my grown-up future, I didn’t necessarily picture motherhood. I saw a warm, passionate long-term relationship with a man I loved, plus good friends, glamorous travels, a cozy home and lots of animals. In addition to a few relatives, that might be all the family I need. Why that very personal – but also painful – realization would offend others makes me feel even further stigmatized.

Though Ashburn-Nardo, who typically studies racism and how to combat it, is married, she’s all too familiar with feeling judged. She recalled how strangers at dinner parties have often assumed that she and her husband were parents and have even asked about their nonexistent kids. “I understand that … most people our age have children,” she acknowledged. But when she corrected them, strangers’ reactions – “a look of disdain, like we’d done something wrong” – were what drove her toward this research.

That disdain is correlated with the umbrella term “moral outrage” used in Ashburn-Nardo’s study. “People experience moral outrage when they perceive someone has violated a morally prescribed behavior, something we’re ‘supposed to do’ because it’s what we see as right,” she explained. “In this case, there’s a societal expectation that people should desire to have children.”

What does this outrage on the part of the college-aged participants say to other young people who choose to forego child-rearing? And what does it say to child-free adults like me? According to Ashburn-Nardo, it sends the message that “parenthood is not only something we all should want, but that it is the (only) recipe for happiness and fulfillment.” However, most scientific literature shows that’s, well, not true. “Meta-analyses of hundreds of studies demonstrate that having children negatively affects relationship satisfaction,” Ashburn-Nardo pointed out.

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