If there’s one thing that all cultures share, it’s the idea that becoming a parent makes adulthood complete. Parenthood has long been seen as a rite of passage, one that made a legal adult a real adult. Though a person may have completed their culture’s coming of age rituals, like a quinceañera or getting your driver’s license, the adulthood that these rites grant is seen as flawed, being little more than a graduation from childhood. If you’ve seen Star Wars, you might remember this scene where Mace Windu tells Anakin that, “You are on this council, but we do not grant you the rank of Master.”
You get the idea.
But for the people at r/childfree, Reddit’s voluntarily childless community, having children isn’t so much a requirement as it is an option. And it’s one they’ve opted out of.
The History of the Childfree Movement
The childfree Reddit movement isn’t something new. For as long as people have been having children, there have been people who don’t want to pop out their own little genetic copies. The growing numbers of the childfree Reddit community owe this increase in popularity, and even feasibility, to several historic changes.
As awful as this may sound, not having children used to be a financial death sentence. Historically speaking, children are the best investment an adult could make prior to the advent of industrialization. Back when most households were rural and depended on a farm, having several little hands to till the land, milk cows, and herd cattle were a necessity. Even today, many farm households, especially in underdeveloped countries, rely on child labor to keep the family’s wallet and stomachs full.
Having children also provided a social safety net. Before the days of institutionalized child care and state-sponsored welfare, children were the go-to life insurance plan and investment portfolio. Children grew up to be strong, money-making adults once their parents became old and sickly. By the time this happened, their children would likely have their own children as well, meaning there would be someone left at home to look after ailing grandparents and younger siblings.
But talking about these factors in the past tense implies that having children is no longer a necessity for most people. In resource-poor communities, not having children cuts adults out of the larger social fabric, isolating them from peers who chose parenthood, and puts them in a more precarious financial situation.
So, why the sudden popularity of going childfree? It all starts with the steam engine.
The industrial revolution saw the first shift from manual labor to automation. For the first time in history, goods could be produced en masse without needing an army of workers. Factories also did something major: destabilize families. Higher urban wages drove breadwinners out of the countryside and into city centers, a phenomenon still observed in China today.
The decreased financial need for a big family, coupled with the fact that even women were working in factories, helped start the shift towards smaller households as families could now make more money with fewer children and work life began to engulf family life. You can see this effect in real time in our present era by observing the sharp decrease in birth rates in countries like Japan, South Korea, and China, with many young adults citing extreme working hours and high costs of living as a reason for not having children.
Two other key reasons for the rise of the childfree Reddit movement are intricately tied together, and to financial factors, as well.
The industrial revolution saw the introduction of women into the workforce. With jobs came money and with it, the freedom that only money can buy. Though women were paid 5 shillings a week versus the 10 shillings their male co-workers would earn, it gave them a taste of what it was like to have their own money to spend. Granted, most women entered the workforce to help support their families. But the idea of financial freedom had already rooted in the minds of 19th-century women.
As women became increasingly present in the public sphere, they began to realize how they weren’t all too different from their male counterparts, who had long been valued as their superiors, protectors, and patrons. The opportunity to provide for themselves, and thus determine their own future without being relegated to a nunnery, saw the rise of feminism in the 19th century.
This first wave of women’s rights advocacy focused on obtaining the right to vote, but after addressing the lack of political rights that women had, the feminist movement found that there was, in the words of Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, a “problem that has no name”. Friedan was talking about the unspoken expectation for a woman to be a wife and a mother, her life restricted to the domestic sphere again after a brief prance in the sunlight as an unmarried young adult.
The quest for freedom against mandatory domestic life found a timely ally: the first commercially available contraceptive pill. This serendipitous friend of second-wave feminism was invented in 1960 by American chemist Frank Colton. Colton’s contraceptive pill was called Enovid and by 1961, it would become wildly available in the United Kingdom through the NHS.
The sale of contraceptive pills was approved in the United States a little earlier, with the FDA permitting its commercial sale in 1961. Despite its tiny size, less than your pinky’s fingernail, the contraceptive pill symbolized power and freedom for millions of women across the globe. This little tablet gave women the ability to make a choice that no other generation of women had before them: to be or not to be a mother.
In just a few decades, the medical reach and societal impact of the contraceptive pill have become so great that you no longer need to specify that you’re referring to a contraceptive pill at all. Just say the pill and, given that they haven’t been living under a rock for decades, anyone is bound to know what you’re talking about.
Centuries of history, societal shifts, and advancements in medicine and production have created the modern childfree movement as we know it today. Though going childfree is becoming more popular, members of the childfree Reddit community often report that their relatives and friends don’t seem to understand their reasons for going childfree. A common tension comes from the misconception that childfree people hate children or that they have more militant views about parenthood. This is, however, a misunderstanding that stems from the confusion of the childfree movement with the anti-natalism movement.
Childfree vs Anti-Natalism
A lot of the negative responses to people in the childfree Reddit community are due to the belief that childfree people despise children. On the contrary, childfree simply means that a person has voluntarily chosen to not be a parent. This particular term was chosen to make it clear that people who choose not to have children are exercising their freedom of choice. This choice makes them free from the responsibilities of parenthood, or if you’re feeling scornful, the burdens of parenthood. On the other hand, people who are childless actually want to have children but may have other factors holding them back from becoming parents, whether that be fertility issues or lack of financial stability.
While parenthood is a matter of personal choice to both the childfree Reddit community and the pro-parenthood camp, the philosophy of anti-natalism takes on a more extreme view on having children. There’s just no beating around the bush about it. The members of the anti-natalism movement don’t just opt out of having children, they hold a moral position that having children is inherently morally reprehensible.
Before anyone gets mad and goes to the comments, I’d like to clarify that I did reach out to anti-natalists to confirm whether the impression I got of their views, compared to r/childfree, was correct.
A Redditor, who asked not to be named, explained that anti-natalism was a natural conclusion of their pre-existing ties to nihilism, a philosophy that sees no inherent meaning in life nor any point to it. “If life is suffering,” he explained, “then why make more?”
This isn’t to say that anti-natalists despise children. On the contrary, many childfree and anti-natalists enjoy other people’s children or, at least, not bear any animosity towards them. But for anti-natalists, not having children is more than just a matter of preference. With it comes a grim sense of pity for new life that will have to go through the suffering of existence.
Why People Go Childfree
The childfree Reddit community makes themselves clear on their personal reasons for not having children. While some of these reasons are ethical in nature, like not wanting to add to the world’s overpopulation or melt the polar ice caps more, many of the reasons given by members of r/childfree are personal in nature and are fairly easy to understand, even from an outsider or parent’s perspective. The reason? The fears and factors behind the choice made by r/childfree members are the same concerns that niggle in the back of every parent’s mind.
The most popular reasons for members of the childfree Reddit group are practical. Redditor u/O_Cressida says she and her husband aren’t particularly good at keeping house nor does she like the idea of being available 24/7 to care for a child. Being a freelancer, her employment neither provides a stable income or a predictable schedule, both of which would be needed by a small child.
You also get users like u/FuzzyRussianHat who simply doesn’t like children, especially younger ones. Children are loud and they like the solitude of not having screaming children at home, a sentiment that isn’t too unfamiliar to parents given that they’ve nicknamed a stage of toddlerhood the Terrible Twos.
Another Redditor shared that she didn’t want to risk severe mental health issues by having children. She had a familial history of post-partum depression and the changes that pregnancy would make on her body would trigger her eating disorders and problems with a distorted body image.
Meanwhile, some members of the childfree Reddit community have sharp memories of their own childhood and observational skills when it comes to children and teens today. One user made the comparison between having kids with ‘taking thousands of dollars and burning it’. The user brings up that no matter how well you try to raise your child, a child may grow up ungrateful for the financial sacrifices made on their behalf. Another user replied, agreeing that many people blame their parents for the way their lives turned out. In that case, why waste resources wasting children at all?
Reddit user u/dino_friends shared on the childfree Reddit community exactly how she felt about becoming a parent and the existing culture around parenthood:
“Childrearing isn’t some kind of guaranteed ticket to bliss. It also isn’t martyrdom just because it’s straining. Your children didn’t ask to be born, your children have no obligation to fulfill you, and you didn’t do some great noble thing by having children. Children don’t deserve to be raised by people who have nothing else going for them.”
She went on to clarify that their views aren’t exactly the same as that of r/antinatalism, explaining that it’s great if parents are happy with having children and their children are happy with them. But she also exposed a glaring logical flaw in the view that people are somehow less than for not having children.
She posited that if we agree that a person without a child has less value, then we are also agreeing that a person’s only worth is found in having children.
If you’re starting to get the idea that there’s more money and free time to be found by joining the childfree Reddit community, you’re not exactly wrong. That said, maybe you’d like to weigh the pros and cons of having children and not having children before pulling the trigger on your genetic line.
Childfree vs. Parenthood
With all the reasons given by the childfree Reddit community, one can’t help but wonder if any of the perceived benefits to not having children have numbers to back them up.
It turns out that going childfree has its own advantages and drawbacks depending on your gender and social environment. A study published in 2010 found that though childlessness has been often presumed to negatively affect well-being, it seemed to actually be a good thing for women who have never been married. Not only do women in this demographic more involved in social lives outside their homes, but they were also more highly educated than other groups of women, including mothers. The negative effects of going childfree are more prevalent in unmarried men who report experiencing higher rates of depression and loneliness compared to married men and men with children.
But do these differences carry over into old age? According to this study from BMC Geriatrics, there weren’t any differences to be found in the psychological well-being of 85-year-olds who had children and those that stayed childfree. Both groups were just as likely to end up in institutional care. Granted, the study was conducted in Linköping Municipality, Sweden. African-Americans, by contrast, are less receptive to the idea of placing elderly parents in institutionalized care. The same can be said of people of Asian descent, who come from a culture where putting parents in formal care systems remains a taboo.
So, how about the financial benefits of not having children versus having them? According to this study, unmarried childless people had an average of anywhere from $51,000-$69,000 more wealth than parents. Compared to the lifetime costs of raising children, an estimate in the early 2000s found that raising children costs parents $206,000 on average. This is without taking into account the hours of work that go into childrearing instead of income-generating activities, like work.
If you still want to have your own children despite the lack of advantages given by parenthood, what’s the best way to go about it?
Sociologists suggest doing it late and keeping it small. While there are valid concerns about the health risks and difficulties in conceiving children later in life, older mothers were found to give their children more advantages in life and enjoy having children more. Older parents just tended to be richer and have fewer children, putting their offspring in a better position to monopolize and leverage their parent’s resources. If that sounds like a lot of gibberish, imagine this: Who do you think will have an easier achieving their dreams: the child of two parents working entry-level or minimum wage jobs who has three siblings competing for resources or the only child of a regional manager and a partner at a law firm?
How Free Is Childfree?
There’s one thing that stands out about the reasons given by many members of the childfree Reddit group and it’s this: most people seem to be going childfree largely because of economic factors. Let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong with members of the childfree Reddit choosing to not become parents because they simply don’t want to become parents. But a systemic issue comes to the front when we account for the fact that many childfree people cite financial instability and not wanting to rear children as their main reasons for not wanting to have children.
In Japan, the reluctance to marry and have children mostly comes down to a lack of employment opportunities and unequal division of domestic labor. Problems brought on by cultural ideas on gender roles, which dictate that household work is women’s work, drive women away from becoming wives because they will be expected to take on the majority of housework even if they work as well.
But how do you explain the low birth rates in Western Europe, whose countries are known for their generous parental leave and financial and social support for parents? Even in these countries, it is predominantly women who don’t want children as they continue to do the majority of household work and childrearing. Women, as found in this study, only seem to want more children when they know their partners will share in the burdens and responsibilities of adulthood equally.
Though partners may choose to contribute more in keeping house, couples still have little control over the economy and employment rates. It may be common sense to not have children you can’t afford, but it raises the question of why you should be, in practice, deprived from exercising your reproductive rights simply because you don’t have the same financial means as the 1%.
The supposedly simple solution of not having kids you can’t afford ignores the persistence of the racial wealth gap which sees most poor families belong to racial minorities, particularly African-American households. Given current demographics, instituting laws that forbid the poor from having children would be, in effect, just eugenics with extra steps.
The legal and ethical problems of not allowing the poor to have children become even starker when viewed through the lens of China’s One Child Policy. The One Child Policy saw forced abortions, forced sterilizations, and the mass abandonment of female babies. In a society where the poor cannot have children, what do you do when a woman is already pregnant or has given birth to a child? Should the state have the power to force them to ‘unhave’ their children?
At the end of the day, whether or not someone wants to have children comes down to a matter of personal choice. Anything else would call for a greater level of control on people’s private lives, putting the exercise of the ability to reproduce under the jurisdiction of the state. And while the childfree Reddit doesn’t need children, national economies worldwide do.
China, a nation infamous for its One Child Policy, has already set aside its preference for a low birth rate as it now advocates for people to have three children. But the damage has already been done. Young Chinese are disinterested in having children and they have neither the time or the money to raise them, an issue that puts them at risk of deflation.
You might be thinking that deflation is a good thing, given that it would mean your money wouldn’t depreciate, but deflation is a death sentence for an economy because it means that growth is grinding to a halt. It’s a growing problem in Japan where low birth rates and long life expectancies leave its younger citizens working to simply support older generations and many of these younger people no longer believe they will ever be able to retire.
But just as forcing people to not have children is an ethical dilemma, forcing people to have children presents its own moral conundrum. As the childfree Reddit movement continues to grow, we may have to brace ourselves for the economic hit that we’ll all be taking. Until then, c’est la vie.