Tanzina Vega: In the United States, fewer people are having babies. According to recent data from the CDC, the US birth rate is now at a 35 year low. Many people, especially younger Americans, are delaying when they have children or choosing not to have them at all. With the coronavirus pandemic, further revealing the challenges of parenting, some people are rethinking having children altogether. Childfree people today, especially if they're women, still face scrutiny over their decision not to have kids. Dr. Amy Blackstone is a sociology professor at the University of Maine and the author of Child-Free By Choice, the movement redefining family and creating a new age of independence. Amy, thanks for being with us.
Dr. Amy Blackstone: Thank you.
Tanzina: Also, with us is to Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Executive Editor of Teen Vogue, who recently wrote about this very topic for the Atlantic. Samhita, thanks for being with us.
Samhita Mukhopadhyay: I'm so excited to be here.
Tanzina: Samhita, you wrote about this piece about being childfree in the era of coronavirus, and you talked about seeing memes and posts on social media. Tell us what you were noticing.
Samhita: I noticed a forum that often, extolled the virtues of parenting and family and fun times, had taken a bit of a pivot, and I noticed a lot of the mothers in my life were getting really honest about how challenging it's been to be at home with their children 24/7, the isolation they're feeling, the inability to focus on their work or their tasks or even just having a little bit of free time. I noticed it because I hadn't really seen something like that before, where people were speaking very honestly about the challenges of parenting.
Tanzina: What about your friends and folks who don't have children, what were they saying on social media?
Samhita: One of the things that I noticed was this was a bit of a quieter conversation, there was definitely a group of people that were being loud on social media as they tend to be about being childfree. What I noticed more than anything was many of my friends who-- I don't think they were firmly in the iron childfree camp, because they felt a lot of both ambivalence and anxiety about saying I'm definitely not having children, start to whisper amongst each other and say, "Hey, maybe this was not the worst decision in the world, or maybe kids aren't going to work out for me." That honestly felt like something new.
Tanzina: I agree, Samhita, for sure having been someone myself who for 44 years with childfree, and now suddenly I'm not. I totally understand both sides of this moment, particularly in the pandemic. Amy, before the pandemic, was there a tendency to compare circumstances among who has it better or worse, people with kids, people without kids?
Amy: Absolutely, there was that tendency. As Samhita points out, that's still happening today. I think what's different is that the pandemic has given parents an opportunity to really open up about the difficulties of parenthood. I mean, prior to the pandemic, women, in particular, were demonized for talking about anything other than the joys of parenting. I think this is a real opportunity for both childfree people and parents to have honest discussion about their choices, the reasons for them, and the consequences of them.
Tanzina: Amy, what about the childfree women, in particular? As I mentioned, I have been one for many years of my life. I think we're viewed with different lenses. Has that changed because of the pandemic
Amy: Well, normally, I'm an optimist. I would like to say that the pandemic has changed that I don't know that it has. I think one of the most common refrains I heard from women that I interviewed for my book was that either they worried that or they've been told that they're less of a woman because they don't have kids or because they don't want to have kids.
We do have this very strong cultural belief that women are instinctually drawn to becoming mothers, so something must be wrong with them. If they don't want kids, that is a cultural belief. There's no scientific evidence to support the argument that we're instinctually drawn to have kids. I hope that this pandemic opens up that discussion, but that's pressure that women still face, and even the pandemic hasn't changed that reality for women.
Tanzina: Samhita, you are a powerhouse over at Teen Vogue, you're a success in your own right, you're fantastic and yet have you had to deal with what Amy was just describing by being a childfree professional woman?
Samhita: Absolutely, maybe not as much as friends. Even when I was thinking about writing this piece, I did have a moment where I was like, "Oh, everyone's going to say, oh, but Samhita, you can do whatever you want to do." The pressure often comes from places that you don't expect or places you do expect too, your family. My aunts and uncles are always asking questions. I think that your friends who have children will just make comments where there is a bit of an assumption that your life isn't really complete until you figure out what's going to happen with that step.
I think a lot of women also internalize that. I think their reluctance to openly admit a comfort with not having children is what Amy was saying, is that pressure where you know you're going to be judged for the decision and are you ready to take on that heavy mantle that is a childfree woman or a woman who's barren or whatever all of the stereotypes are. I've absolutely felt it in my own life. I've also felt and Tanzina,you and I have talked about this, the kind of the going back and forth of, "Do I need a child to complete my life? Do I just want to have a child? Or will I be okay not having a child?" I think that we need more space to be openly having those conversations, be honest about it, instead of this assumption that we just all inherently want children and we're always shoving down this desire and this instinct, which is just not reality.
Tanzina: It's not reality. Samhita, I wonder if you've also heard people say, "Oh, you're so lucky right now."
Samhita: I've definitely heard that. That was part of what motivated me to write. The piece was friends-- Like that meme that was circulating and I don't know if you saw it. It was this very innocuous, almost beautiful piece of content. Then when you read it, you were like, "Oh my God blink twice if you need help." [chuckles] It was very jarring. I also took it as almost a type of reprimanding of childfree people. Don't take for granted that you can read a book in the middle of the day.
The reality is almost none of us can read a book in the middle of the day. We're working like crazy. We have so many other demands in our life. I'm very careful to include truly what parents are going through right now because I think it's unconscionable. The tip to put the kinds of pressure that we're putting on parents right now between balancing raising children and working from home.
Tanzina: In your piece, In The Atlantic, you wrote, their assumptions that your life as a 40-year-old childfree person means you're on a daily yoga retreat. When I read that, I thought that's not a bad thing. It's part of the assumption and Amy, I'd like to hear your thoughts too. It's part of the assumption that childfree people just have no responsibility, because I know I felt that when I didn't have a child.
Samhita: There is absolutely this assumption that you don't have other responsibility. As I talked about In The Atlantic, I was tasked with taking care of my parents. My mother was vulnerable in the pandemic, and I've had to make tremendous amounts of personal sacrifice to keep her safe and to make sure that she was able to have her chemotherapy treatments and things like that.
There is this assumption and there isn't space for our imagination around what a woman does when she doesn't have children. We support our communities, we're supporting our friends, we are often working a lot. I think there is this assumption that we have free time and we are using our money for our hobbies only and things like that. I also don't want to say like we do have more free time in not having to raise a child during the pandemic. I don't think it's fair to say that I have the exact same pressures as someone who is raising a small child right now.
I do think we need some space to really think about how do we construct our lives? Why are there these two binary ways we think about this, whereas we should be helping each other? I love children. I get a lot of value out of spending time with my friends who have children, and they get a break [chuckles] when their kids are with me. I think we need to really start thinking about that.
Tanzina: We are deeply grateful for people like you, Samhita. I had someone offer at the peak of the pandemic when I couldn't do my own laundry to come and do it socially distance and she doesn't have children. She's a wonderful person, and she really lifted that burden for me. Amy, as you hear this conversation, I almost feel like childfree people have to justify their decision to others in some instances. Is that what you're finding in your research?
Amy: Oh, absolutely, we do. It's funny because if you think about what's involved in parenting and required of parents and given the narrative we all hear about how much we care about and love children, you would think that it would be parents that we should be asking to justify their choice rather than the childfree. Yes, childfree people do often find themselves in that position of having to justify and not just justify, but a lot of, I guess, this is the same as justify but explain.
I was nodding crazy as Samhita was talking. This assumption that we don't have a care in the world or responsibilities in the world I think serves both to divide parents in the childfree and also is completely untrue. As Samhita said, we have parents who we care for. We have friends, we have partners. I have students, I have children in my lives that I care about and our communities.
If you look at the impact that childfree people make in their communities, we know from research that we give a greater proportion of our financial income to charities and to our communities, which makes sense because we're not spending it on rearing kids and we volunteer more intensively than parents do in our communities. We are spending our time doing things that have value for the good of society, but I think it's easy for folks to overlook that.
Tanzina: Does that also place a burden on parents, particularly if they are women, Amy, because I wonder if the idea that all the single people are just free and childfree people are out there with all this free time and they're caring less versus the the the narrative that says, "Parents, particularly mothers, have to dedicate thousand percent of their attention to their kids?" Doesn't this narrative hurt both sides of the equation?
Amy: It absolutely does and this is one thing I argue in my book, that if we can come to see our interests shared, for example, around issues of work-life balance, I think when we hear that term work-life balance, sometimes the vision that people call up in their mind when they hear the term life is children, but the reality is, as Samhita has said as well, that we all have lives outside of work that we value, that matter to us and we all need and deserve balance between our work and our lives. I think the more that parents and the childfree can come to see that reality, the more that we can work together to change the systems and the structures that are harming all of us.
Tanzina: Given what we're talking about, I'm wondering if we're finally at an inflection point where one of two things will happen, we know the birth rate is declining, whether we'll continue to see that decline and or will childfree people start to be more accepted in American society.
Amy: Oh, I'm glad you asked that question because [chuckles] the birth rate question is one that people have been talking about since before the pandemic, but it's come up again during the pandemic. Early in the pandemic, I saw articles with authors arguing that we should expect to see a baby boom at some point in the near future as a result of the reality that we're all stuck at home with less to do than we once had. I actually think we're going to see something quite different from that.
We know from decades of demographic research that in times of economic stress that birth rates go down and we all know what the economic impact of the pandemic has been. I do think that we're going to see birth rates continue to decline as a result of the pandemic, absolutely. I hope that we will start to see more acceptance of childfree people in the childfree choice.
I think the jury is still out on that, but one thing that gives me hope with respect to what's happening in the pandemic is that it has opened up a space for parents to talk about the challenges of parenting and I think that that has to be a part of the conversation about why people may opt out of parenthood and why parenthood might not be the best fit for all of us. I'm hopeful that the result will be wider acceptance of the childfree choice. I think we have to wait and see.
Tanzina: Samhita, in your piece in The Atlantic, you wrote, and I'm quoting here, "For the first time in a long time, I don't think it really makes sense for me to have children, the future is too uncertain and the current environment too unsafe." That's a quote from your piece in The Atlantic and I'm wondering if you could expound on that because I imagine that COVID-19 has revealed a lot about the structural inequities that we face in this country for having children. What can you tell us about that even more?
Samhita: Absolutely. I say this in the piece, I turned 42 this year, and at the beginning of this year, I was looking into potential fertility treatments and considering what it would look like to have a child on my own. As I was starting that medical process, the pandemic hit and as we know necessary medical, we stopped having access to the types of appointments and meetings you need. It almost felt like a moment of intervention where I thought, wow, this would not be an easy thing for me to try and navigate, especially in a moment like this.
Just from a medical perspective, it brought up a lot of questions for me in terms of how much that requires and our very precarious system that can't really expand to meet the demands of the moment. That was one of the first things. The second was, having conversations with my friends about what a hard time they were having and how they were trying to juggle all the different pieces and to Dr. Blackstone's point, what we're seeing is that the division of labor for heterosexual straight couples, the division of labor tends to fall on the woman and more so.
You have that article in The New York Times where a woman was like, "I had to dissolve my business because I had to take care of my children." Everybody was like, "The husband couldn't do one thing? You couldn't support with any part of the child-rearing."
Tanzina: That could happen, we should say, that could also happen in same-sex couples, dynamics are different, but there always is some sort of division of labor, right?
Interviewee: Absolutely, there's one person who takes a bigger role in the child-rearing and it could be for many reasons. That imbalance really made me start to think about how these structures that we hope will set us free, will give us joy, will fulfill our lives. Often, we end up confined in these environments and we don't have a ton of-- The assumption is, of course, my marriage is equal, of course, we're dividing this labor, but the truth is that that's not always happening. How do we kind of navigate that while still not fully losing ourselves?
Tanzina: Samhita Mukhopadhyay is the executive editor of Teen Vogue and Dr. Amy Blackstone is a sociology professor at the University of Maine and the author of Childfree by Choice. Thanks to you both for joining me.
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