In the United States, the number of adults opting to go childfree is growing. According to 2021 data from the Pew Research Center, 44% percent of adults aged 18 to 49 report it’s unlikely they will ever have children – up 7% from 2018 data. The decision to have children, or not, is deeply personal. Some are concerned about the climate crisis or financial constraints, while others simply don’t want or enjoy children much.
Abioye Moreau*, 26, is concerned about the dangers of pregnancy, especially for Black women. “Part of my anxiety was [that] my mother had very traumatic pregnancies. So I’m honestly just scared of pregnancy and what that could be for me,” Moreau says. Though she does still date people with or who want kids, Moreau says in a perfect world, she would have a partner with zero interest in children.
Despite the growing normalization of a childfree life, many women still encounter societal expectation, gender roles, dismissal and, sometimes, breakups. “A lot of women I see, even if they are in their early 20s, feel pressure to make a decision and to be sure about it because of this idea of a biological clock,” says Dr Erica Bach, a licensed clinical psychologist with a speciality in trauma and relationships. “There’s a lot of doubt and second guessing and it’s such a shame. [Women] deserve to feel support in different choices.”
Dating as a woman who doesn’t want kids can require some strategy. Below, experts weigh in on how to approach childfree dating.
Understand your reasons for wanting to be childfree
When approaching your love life, you don’t need to have everything figured out. But if you know children are off the table – or you’re still undecided – it’s a good idea to understand why.
Start by exploring your fantasies, daydreams and hopes, advises Dr Logan Stohle, a licensed clinical psychologist and staff therapist at The Expansive Group. “I think a great question for people is: without thinking through every angle and logistical matter, putting all obligations and practical matters aside, what do you want?” says Stohle. “When it comes to kids specifically, I ask questions like: how do you feel when you’re around kids? Do you enjoy it? Do you feel present? Or do you try to steel yourself and endure it?”
Even if you know you don’t want children, reflecting on how you feel about them can help you better imagine your future relationships and clarify your values – the why part of your decision. “When women in particular opt out of having kids, it is likely coming from somewhere deep and very meaningful for them,” adds Stohle.
For Hannah McMillen, 35, the pressures and values around motherhood were too stifling. “I know many women who are resentful because they feel the sacrifice of their independence is taken for granted,” she says.
The division of labor, too, was a consideration for McMillen. According to 2018 research from the Center of American Progress, mothers spend more time working, caretaking and keeping house than fathers. “[I] know very few families who manage to adequately divide household labor between both parents, meaning that motherhood has been a tremendous burden even for those who enjoy it most,” she says.
In short, make sure you consider everything that comes along with having children, and whether it aligns with what you want from life.
Prepare to discuss being childfree with dates
It may seem intuitive, even obvious, to lead with transparency when dating. On some dating apps, it’s easy to indicate whether you want children on your profile. Often, the topic comes up organically early on, which “can thrust a budding relationship dynamic into a pretty high-stakes and important place”, says Stohle.
But talking about kids right away may not guarantee you’re on the same page. Last year, McMillen’s boyfriend of over two years broke up with her, citing his realization that she wouldn’t change her mind about kids. “This has been the through-line in my past three relationships,” says McMillen. She states her decision to be childfree; a partner supports her, then after a number of years admits “he never believed I would really stick to my guns, and gives me the ultimatum that we can only continue to be together if I change my mind,” she says. “Obviously it has been incredibly frustrating to discover that I have not been taken seriously or have been thought of as insincere or easily swayed.”
The hard truth is that being upfront is no guarantee you will be heard or respected. Instead, the “right” time to talk – and to commit to a relationship – depends on each particular dynamic, rapport with a potential match and a good helping of gut instinct.
Still, it’s important to be clear about being childfree, says Dr Patrice Le Goy, a psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in maternal mental health and relationships.
How deeply you choose to delve into this topic is up to you. “It can be very hard to not try to offer an explanation. People aren’t really owed that unless you feel comfortable that it’s something you want to share,” she says. “Being very firm in your beliefs and knowing why you’re making the decisions makes it a lot easier to share that.” As the relationship progresses, you may choose to discuss your decision and what it means to you more thoroughly.
McMillen has adopted a new tactic: not playing her cards too early. While out on a date, she asks men how they feel about children before revealing anything about herself. “[I take] anything less than a firm commitment to being childfree as an immediate no-go zone,” she says.
If you’re considering compromising, explore your reasons – and the relationship – carefully
In a relationship, it’s normal to seek cohesion and compromise. In her first serious relationship, Moreau and her boyfriend came to an impasse around children. Moreau went to therapy to “to see if I could honestly convince myself to want kids for this man”, she remembers. “I really wanted that relationship and it was an intense time.”
Of course, everyone has the right to change their mind, but Bach says this can be a sign of people pleasing. Bach has noticed that hitting it off with someone new can mean her clients start questioning their deal breakers or trying to accommodate a partner’s wants over their own. “They start doing this mental math of ‘how can I make this work? how can I bend what I need just to be with this person?’” says Bach.
But, she says, we should be cautious when it comes to compromising our core values. Compromise about the details of a significant decision can be healthy, but having a child is all or nothing. If you know you want to be childfree, but feel a tug to have kids for someone or to save a relationship, Le Goy recommends taking a beat and noticing not only how you feel right now, but also imagining how you might feel in the future.
“If you make a decision that you’re very unhappy with, everyone’s going to suffer,” says Le Goy. “Who wants to have a kid or a relationship that you’re resentful of because it was never what you wanted in the first place?”
Incompatibility can be difficult to acknowledge and act on. But focusing on the future you do want – and your worth apart from a relationship or children – can help ground your decisions.
“In moving through the world as a childfree woman,” says McMillen, “I have learned to appreciate and celebrate the depth of my own intrinsic value.”
* name has been changed