No Kids? No Apologies Necessary

abandoned strollerMarian looked down thoughtfully, and then looked up. “It’s not that I feel my life isn’t great,” she said. “It is. It’s just that Chris and I feel so different from our friends. I miss being able to connect with everyone so easily, like we did in our twenties. We’re going to Italy and the latest great restaurants, and they’re talking about going to block parties and kid-friendly cafes.”

Though fictional, Marian, like many of the people I see, adeptly describes the diaspora that can occur between people who have chosen not to have children and those who have. Not everyone experiences this problem or feels isolated by their life circumstance, but as a psychologist I’ve noticed a theme: a divergence of connection and a lack of discussion about it.

Because American culture expects a certain trajectory—grow up, go to college/get a job, get married, have kids, have a career or stay at home, retire and wait for grandkids—those without children can feel displaced, excluded, or (unintentionally) put down.

Comments along the lines of “I’m sorry” can be shaming because they suggest that the person’s lifestyle—perhaps childless by design—should be pitied. A clear preference for a lifestyle with children over a lifestyle without can create invisibility and exclusion by default, which can cause distress in people without children.

One of the biggest hardships for people who choose not to have children, like the fictional Marian, is the change in friends or activities and the difficulty finding other people who also have chosen not to have children. The activities you choose and even the restaurants you go to with kids can be vastly different when you don’t have kids, of course.

There are three distinct categories of people who don’t have kids: those who always knew they didn’t want them; those who were ambivalent about having kids or made a choice later in life about not having them; and those who can’t biologically have kids (and have chosen not to adopt). All three categories share commonalities and differences. While I can’t speak to each individual difference, I want to speak to some general issues.

For people who tried to have kids and didn’t succeed, talking about not having kids can be painful. Such people may find themselves avoiding events or connections with others who have had children. Because there is something they want but can’t have, depression and grief are natural. Therapy can be helpful in acknowledging the loss and helping people move forward. Psychotherapy groups, in particular, can be helpful for people coping with infertility/loss/sadness about not being able to conceive.

For couples who never wanted children, the choice may have been easy—but comments from people who have kids might not be. Some can sound pitying and shaming (“I’m so sorry, are you OK?”). Or there might be an assumption that a person who chose not to have kids doesn’t like them; that’s often untrue. People in this category are not usually depressed as a result of their decision, and often feel satisfied with their life choices.

Lastly, there are people who considered having kids but chose not to have them for one reason or another. Such people and are typically (mostly) satisfied with their choice. Their reasons may vary, including a desire to focus on their careers, medical issues that might get in the way of having or raising kids, not being able to devote themselves to parenthood as much as they would like, or having been early caretakers to their parents or siblings when they were children (often called “parentified children”). If there is ambivalence about having children, therapy can be insightful.

In each of these subgroups, people without children may feel it’s harder to meet friends because people in their age group are having kids; tend to socially gravitate toward the parents of their kids’ friends; or have moved toward child-centered interests, activities, books, and restaurant choices. (It’s natural to want to read every parenting book that’s out there if you’re a parent. Spending a lot of time thinking about ways to be a good parent is wonderful, but there’s going to be a limit to the topics you can discuss with friends who don’t have children.) As a result, a gulf begins to emerge between lifestyles. It’s not an impossible gulf to close, to be sure, but one that needs awareness and attention.

Some research in psychology suggests that people who don’t have kids have happier marriages. Having kids is stressful. While I can’t speak to the validity of this research, I can say that most people with children would disagree. Some would suggest that people who don’t have kids are selfish or don’t realize what they’re missing. This is, of course, ludicrous. People who don’t want to have children shouldn’t. Having children is serious, as is having a life you love!

There are advantages and disadvantages to both ways of life. It really comes down to choice. You have a right to be happy, and your choices affect everyone around you.

If you have chosen not to have kids, you are not alone. There is nothing wrong with you. Making a decision that’s right for you makes everyone’s lives better.

If you have kids, here are some suggestions on talking with people who don’t have children:

  • Be willing to recognize differences. Difference does not have to equal comparison or competition. We can learn from each other.
  • Be sensitive and aware of assumptions; not having children doesn’t necessitate depression and is not an insult to a life with children. It’s a choice. And it doesn’t mean you can’t share in other similarities.
  • Be open and curious. You might learn something. There are pros and cons to every decision.

There are many ways to experience the gift of life, and it doesn’t have to come from having children. One of the best ways is by reaching across the divide of differences to support and learn from each other.

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  • Harry

    Harry

    March 17th, 2014 at 10:33 AM

    I made a conscious decision not to have children but God knows I have been made to feel like a pariah because of that choice over the years. But I have often wondered would people have thought that I was better to be irresponsible and to bring a child into the world that I didn’t want or couldn’t take care of? To me that’s even worse.

  • John Lee

    John Lee

    March 17th, 2014 at 1:14 PM

    Happiness is an inside job. I’ve seen to many parent try to meet their emotional needs through their adult children. My daughter lives 900 miles away we talk frequently but has no impact on my social or emotional needs

    In today’s world, if I was young I would not bring new kids into this world. I would adyopt as there are so many at risk kids

    Loosing kids is what is damaging!

  • Heather Schwartz

    Heather Schwartz

    March 17th, 2014 at 3:43 PM

    Harry, I”m so sorry you’ve had those experiences! You know, I just don’t think people know how to respond when there’s difference (or when the usual similarities don’t bring you together). But, I’m so sorry for your hard times! I agree completely with you: bringing kids into the world when you don’t want them IS irresponsible. Good for you for knowing yourself!

  • Harry

    Harry

    March 18th, 2014 at 3:52 AM

    Thanks Heather! That might be the most supportive words about not having kids that anyone has ever said to me. Of course there have been times when I have second guessed myself, wondered if I made the right decision, bu in the end I know that I made the decision that will always make the mosts ense for me in my life and the things that I wanted. Its’ not that I have looked for validation but it is nice from time to time to have someone tell you that they understand and that it is okay.

  • Heather Schwartz

    Heather Schwartz

    March 18th, 2014 at 10:03 AM

    Harry, I’m so glad that you felt supported! That is my intent. Again, I think the lack of discussion of having children or not having children could be part of the problem — the lack of awareness of others on how to respond. There are plenty of others just like you! That said, I’m in complete agreement with you that if you were not sure of a choice this big, you chose to be mindful and act with integrity. Good for you!

  • Heather Schwartz

    Heather Schwartz

    March 18th, 2014 at 10:04 AM

    John,

    I’m so sorry for the lack of connection with your daughter! I can only imagine how painful that would be. Yes, the loss of kids — either through disconnection or death must be one of the most painful experiences of life. I’m so sorry to hear it!

  • Elizabeth

    Elizabeth

    March 18th, 2014 at 2:41 PM

    Having children changed me in so many ways. Children teach us so much about life and about ourselves. I guess it is for some and not for others, I can only speak from my own experience. For me, having children made me see outside of my own life, worries, depression and brought into my life the greatest love I have ever known. That’s my experience. My life feels all the more richer for it.

  • Terry

    Terry

    March 18th, 2014 at 3:50 PM

    This is something that I very much struggle with becaus ein the church that I was raised in one of the main tenets told me that a big part of my responsibility as a citizen of the world is to procreate so to choose to go against that just feels wrong to me.

    Even if there was a part of me that felt like I wouldn’t make a good parent or this wasn’t something that I was made to do it would almost feel like since God was commanding it that I would have to make this a part of my life and that of any family that I choose to have. I know that the connection will come.

    I haven’t really come to that stage in my life where I am ready to take the plunge and get married but I know that when I do there will be no question, children are definitely in my future and it would be hard for me to see a future without them.

  • Heather Schwartz

    Heather Schwartz

    March 18th, 2014 at 8:40 PM

    Elizabeth, that’s wonderful that having children has fulfilled you in so many ways. We are always richer when we follow our hearts, whether that involves having children or not.

  • Yasmine

    Yasmine

    March 19th, 2014 at 3:59 AM

    I shouldn’t have to apologize for the choices that I have made in my life. If I made them in a way that is responsible and works with my lifestyle, then that’s just it, they are my choices and they effect me, no one else. Who are these people who even care anyway what I do in my own home? Obviously they are people who need to get a life of their own or they wouldn’t be so concerned about mine, or that’s the way I feel about it anyway. I stay out of their business and they should stay out of mine, and if I choose to not have kids and feel like that’s the life for me, then that should be that.

  • Heather Schwartz

    Heather Schwartz

    March 19th, 2014 at 9:37 AM

    Terry, you are always entitled to your opinion – especially about how you live your life! It’s so important to know that what’s right for one person is not necessarily what’s right for another. Again, as I mentioned in this article, it’s about respecting differences.

    Yasmine, yes, I agree with you. You shouldn’t have to apologize to anyone. You have a right to live your life the way you see fit. And, if that means not having kids, that’s fine.

    People often feel passionately about this issue. My point is that there is no one right way. What’s right for one person is not always what’s right for another.

    I suggest that we respect each other’s choices, and lifestyles.

  • werenothavingababy - Lance

    werenothavingababy - Lance

    March 19th, 2014 at 10:53 AM

    Nice post. I especially like your advice about being aware of assumptions. However it is my experience that many parents are incapable of becoming aware of and questioning their assumptions. After all, most of them have kids due to those assumptions and to question them now would be to question having their children in hindsight.

    In any case, the more that having children is presented as a choice, the more people will actively choose to have or not have children and fewer will fall into the trap/assumption that you must have children. Hopefully that results in more happy people; children, parents, and childfree adults alike.

  • lena

    lena

    March 19th, 2014 at 12:01 PM

    hey you can always put them off by saying you’re just not sure yet, when the time is right you might decide to have one

  • Heather Schwartz

    Heather Schwartz

    March 19th, 2014 at 12:07 PM

    What a great point, Lance! I didn’t think of the idea that parents may feel that they are questioning having children if they read this article! And, of course, that’s not my perspective, at all! But, it is an excellent point. I agree with you; the more people know that they have a choice and act from a place of choice, the more this will be a discussion for all, without a lot of judgment.

  • Tracy

    Tracy

    March 19th, 2014 at 5:35 PM

    It is only natural for people with children to want to hang out with other parents. We are often isolated, at least in my case, and need people to sure our experiences. Parenting is a hard (and rewarding) task, with many emotional ups and downs. Couples without children seem to be less-dynamic in these emotional journeys. It seems to me a phase (not having children) I encountered in my college/honeymoon years, and I’ve grown since that time. Childless couples do not teach me anything, for it is simpler to not make sacrifices with your time, money, love and pursuits. Unless, of course, it is a childless couple serving as missionaries, in which case, most churches and people would be very supportive.

  • Meghan

    Meghan

    March 23rd, 2014 at 7:43 PM

    Tracy,
    I feel bad that you have such a limited view of what you believe childfree couples can teach you. Besides, who says they need to teach you anything anyway? The point of this article is to encourage people to do what they feel is right for them- not what close minded members of society believe they should do. Let’s not forget about the MANY people who have children just because they think they should, then do a lousy job of loving them and raising them to be productive, loving members of society! I would argue that perhaps if those people felt that there wasn’t so much pressure to have children they didn’t fully want, they might have made a better choice.

  • Heather Schwartz

    Heather Schwartz

    March 20th, 2014 at 10:01 AM

    Given the strength of people’s responses, it’s clear that this is an issue that needs to be discussed because it’s close to everyone’s hearts. This is my point in the article: love makes a family not hate or judgement or whether you have children or not.

  • becki sanderson

    becki sanderson

    March 20th, 2014 at 3:01 PM

    Who should you ever feel like you shouldh ave to apologize to?
    Okay, so I can see if you have deceived someone and told him that you wanted kids and then you get married and surprise! a family is not for you.
    But if the two of you made this choice together and it is right for you then who should you ever have to say that you are sorry to? Your parents? Your friends? They will get over all that?
    You have to first of all be true to yourself, that’s it. You know what’s imprtant to you in life and if kids are at the bottom of the priority list then I say let them stay there and choose to be a favorite aunt and uncle.

  • Heather Schwartz

    Heather Schwartz

    March 21st, 2014 at 8:52 AM

    “You have to first of all be true to yourself, that’s it.” So true, Becki. It’s like that old metaphor that you have to put on your own oxygen mask on the plane before you can put on someone else’s, including children! You have to take care of yourself first, and for some people, that means not having children. Having children when you don’t want to or feel you aren’t up to it IS the problem.

    And, I agree; no apologies necessary!

  • Shelby Anne

    Shelby Anne

    March 23rd, 2014 at 4:38 AM

    The one thing I do find disturbing is that many young people make this decision not to have children at a very young age and then they want to change their minds later on but they have done something that makes it impossible. I wish that more people would wait a while longer before maijn g the decision because you never know what might happen later on in life to change your mind and if you do something drastic when you are young you could be unable to do that and the choice will have already been made, maybe at an age when you wrwen’t quite ready for that.

  • Heather Schwartz

    Heather Schwartz

    March 23rd, 2014 at 3:45 PM

    Shelby, I think the same could be true for those who decide early on to have children because they want to feel that someone is theirs, want to have family, or they want to give to a child what they never experienced themselves. In fact, this is is a situation that I hear about far more than people who chose not to have kids!

    And, the repercussions of having children when you’re trying to heal yourself or don’t have the financial or emotional resources to care for a child are immense! I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say that a choice has been made early on; short of having surgery that prevents kids, most people can choose later on whether they want to have kids, even if they said no when they were younger.

    As a psychologist, I hear about the effects of having kids too early, not being emotionally or financially ready to have children, and the damaging effects for the children of not feeling wanted.

    What I’d like to suggest, as others have, is that having children is a serious decision and whether you have children or not, you are still whole.

  • Marlene

    Marlene

    March 23rd, 2014 at 5:09 PM

    This article is so on target! I experienced being the odd one out of the bunch all the time and it was very difficult to make new friends since I did not have children that would have brought me together with other women. I got so tired of being apologetic about not having kids. I am happy now that I am obviously not of the bearing age although I look Marvelous I don’t have to answer the questions very often!

  • Heather Schwartz

    Heather Schwartz

    March 23rd, 2014 at 8:43 PM

    Marlene, first off, how awesome that you look and feel so good!!! I’m so sorry you’ve gone through such hard experiences with people who haven’t understood your choice not to have kids! I think people get very defensive when you’re different, or else they don’t feel they can connect with you, which is really too bad. Having difficulty making friends with common pursuits is common for couples/people without kids until you get to the age (as you have) when kids are less of a focal point. How wonderful that you get to enjoy yourself where you are in life now. Kudos to you!

    Meghan, your points are right on! So many people don’t realize they have a choice in whether to have kids, and don’t know the first thing on how to care for them. Of course, there are many parents who do an incredible job, and that’s fabulous, because it’s so important. But, it’s essential for people to know that they have choices. We can all learn from each other — but only if we’re open to it.

    And, obviously, you can be a good person in a variety of different ways. The greatest ways, I would say, are through acceptance and love.

    As Dave Willis says, “Be an encourager. The world already has plenty of critics.”

    So true, isn’t it?

  • Amanda

    Amanda

    October 19th, 2014 at 10:45 AM

    What a great article and I think it needs to be discussed more too. My husband and I have decided not to have children and I am very happy and comfortable with the decision we have made. It is VERY hard to find people to hang out with that are like us or don’t mind that we are childless. I do feel very isolated from friends that have kids. I also do not dislike children myself, I do have 11 nieces and nephews to play/hangout with and I do. It’s just a personal choice for very MANY reasons that we both decided on.

  • Heather Schwartz

    Heather Schwartz

    October 21st, 2014 at 9:54 PM

    Thanks, Amanda! How wonderful to be clear in your decisions despite the emotional setbacks of being different from friends or connecting with people who are similar in situation to you. It can be hard, for sure! And, yet, I hear that you’re clear, which is a great place to be in. All the best to you!

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