New research suggests voluntarily child-free people are stigmatised for their decision, with others considering their choice “morally wrong”.
Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, an associate professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, recently investigated this bias against those who choose to not have children.
“What’s remarkable about our findings is the moral outrage participants reported feeling toward a stranger who decided to not have children,” Ashburn-Nardo said.
“Our data suggests that not having children is seen not only as atypical, or surprising, but also as morally wrong.”
During the study, participants read a brief description about a married adult person and then rated their perceptions of the person’s degree of psychological fulfilment and their feelings toward the person.
The description varied only in terms of the portrayed person’s gender and whether they had chosen to have children.
“Consistent with many personal anecdotes, participants rated voluntarily child-free men and women as significantly less fulfilled than men and women with children,” Ashburn-Nardo said.
“This effect was driven by feelings of moral outrage - anger, disapproval and disgust - toward the voluntarily child-free people.”
She added that the findings are consistent with other studies of backlash against people who violate social roles and other stereotypic expectations - when people violate their expected roles, they suffer social sanctions.
But Ashburn-Nardo believes these findings offer the first known empirical evidence that parenthood is seen as a moral imperative.
“Having children is obviously a more typical decision, so perhaps people are rightfully surprised when they meet a married adult who, with their partner, has chosen to not have children. That they are also outraged by child-free people is what’s novel about this work,” she said.
“Other research has linked moral outrage to discrimination and interpersonal mistreatment.
“It’s possible that, to the extent they evoke moral outrage, voluntarily child-free people suffer similar consequences, such as in the workplace or in health care. Exploring such outcomes for this demographic is the next step in my research.”
Someone who knows the stigma attached to wanting to be child-free all too well, is Holly Brockwell.
The 30-year-old underwent female sterilisation last year after years of struggling to convince health professionals that she didn’t want kids.
Speaking about her experience led to her being attacked by trolls on social media.
“People said I was a waste of a perfectly good womb, that I was insulting people who couldn’t have children, that I should never have sex if I didn’t want babies,” she said at the time.
“I’ve suffered horrendous attacks on my character, looks, career, even my partner. I’ve been called names that I can’t repeat...and all because I don’t want to become a mother.
“Sadly, some child-free women get these kinds of comments from their own families, whereas mine has been supportive.”
Producer and director Lisa Downs has also felt shunned by others after revealing she doesn’t want to have children.
“I find with being childless and knowing you don’t want children, you are treated like the atheist in a religious group,” she blogged on The Huffington Post UK.
“Why am I always the one to justify why I don’t want kids, rather than putting the onus back on those who do want children? Why can’t they be the topic of conversation to justify why they DO want children?
“For me, I’m tired of being the one that has to always justify why I don’t want children, as though I need to experience it to change my mind. It’s not like buying a new dress, being able to take it back ‘if I change my mind’. A kid is for life, and I can’t take it back, and for me, how I picture my life has no room for children.”
She added that she feels women are more stigmatised than men for not wanting children and this is based on outdated, sexist ideas.
“Women’s sole job in life isn’t to have children,” she said.
“It’s to give themselves the best life they can imagine, as we only have one shot at it.”
The latest study is published in the journal ‘Sex Roles: A Journal of Research’.