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In many cultures couples have traditionally followed the path of meeting, getting married, and raising a family. For some, this is the right choice but for others, factors such as career, prioritizing couple closeness, disinterest in raising children, and financial stability become more significant than choosing to be a parent. While “childless” couples are unable to have children due to biological or psychological reasons, being voluntarily childfree is quite different than grappling with infertility or deciding to become adoptive parents.
Many couples feel that family and society expect them to follow a sequence of life stages including growing their family by adding children after they get married. The picture of a nuclear family with two parents and their biological children is widely portrayed in the media; couples desiring not to have children are often underrepresented in popular culture. Couples who temporarily identify as childfree are seen in a more positive light than couples who choose to remain childfree permanently (Koropeckyj-Cox et al. 2007). The latter often experience pressure and/or stigma from society.
At the same time a number of demographic changes have been noted in the USA. The number of married couples is slowly decreasing with more individuals cohabiting before marriage or choosing not to marry at all (McGoldrick 2011). College educated individuals are more likely to delay marriage, with few individuals marrying before age 25 (Cherlin 2010). Furthermore, an increasing number of couples have chosen to remain childfree. In 1990, roughly six million childless married couples were under the age of 45 (American Demographics 1993). At present couples without children make up about 6.9% of the population in the United States (CDC 2015) with some estimates of voluntary childlessness at 7–8% of the US population (Abma and Martinez 2006).
Relevant Research About Family Life
People report that their reasons for choosing to not pursue parenthood includes greater sense of freedom from responsibility in being sans children, prioritizing their couple relationship, career and economic considerations, philanthropic concerns, not liking children, their own early socialization experiences, and concerns about the physical changes of bearing children (Hird and Abshoff 2000).
Contemporary marriages in the developed world are less concerned with cultural and family needs and instead individuals focus on personal fulfilment and satisfying partnerships (McGoldrick 2011). Since the 1970s women in these nations have decreased childbearing voluntarily in order to pursue other roles and identities (Hird and Abshoff 2000). Feminism enhanced women’s rights in numerous areas including reproductive freedoms so that choosing motherhood became a choice (Boucai and Karniol 2008; Rittenour and Colaner 2012). Furthermore, in the USA, we saw a trend of emerging adults (individuals in their 20s) completing higher levels of education than previous generations (Merz and Liefbroer 2012), and postponing relational decisions in order to pursue career and personal goals, compared with individuals in earlier times who sought the stability much earlier in life.
While individuals who choose to be childfree come from diverse racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds (Mollen 2006), women hold more favorable attitudes towards being childfree than men, reflecting the higher opportunity costs of motherhood versus fatherhood (Merz and Liefbroer 2012). Individuals who display low religiosity, have civil versus religious wedding ceremonies, and who tend to disagree with traditional Biblical beliefs are more likely to decide to remain childfree (Heaton et al. 1992).
Very little research exists on the topic of couples’ decision-making on whether to become parents or not. Cowan and Cowan’s (2000) study on reproductive decision-making found that approximately half of the couples take a thoughtful approach in deciding whether or not to have children. Notably, 12% of the couples they observed were categorized as “Yes-No” couples with one partner ready to pursue parenthood while the other did not. By the time the child reached 6 years of age, all of the “Yes-No” couples had divorced (Cowan and Cowan 2000; Massey-Hastings 2011).
Special Considerations for Couple and Family Therapy
Women who reject motherhood may face more social consequences than men (Mollen 2006). Therapists may wish to discuss with their clients notions of motherhood, femininity, and the gendered cost of nonconformity.
Childfree couples are often perceived in less favorable light than those who are parents (Mollen 2006; Kemkes 2008). They may be perceived as lacking the commitment and responsibility required to raise children (Hird and Abshoff 2000). These couples may also receive unsolicited advice and pressure from friends, family, and strangers that they might regret the decision later. Therapists can assist these couples in examining their choices in depth.
Couples who value their religious traditions that endorse the importance of procreation may face additional pressure to explain their childfree stance (Merz and Liefbroer 2012). These couples may need support in understanding and resolving their conflicting values and desires.
Cowan and Cowan (2000) found that a majority of couples fluctuated between wanting/not wanting to have children. Couple and family therapists need to be prepared for their clients’ decisions to shift. Further, it is paramount to help couples negotiate this issue honestly in the case of “Yes-No” couples.
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