“The next time you’re opening presents will be at your baby shower.” My mother-in-law (MIL) spoke these words to me the day after my wife and I were married and we were opening wedding gifts. Admittedly, my experience is not unique; I know of others who felt pressured to have kids soon after getting hitched (and in many cases prior to that). My MIL’s comment reflects her (and many others’) strong pronatalism, or the belief that adults should have and raise children for their own and society’s well-being. In fact, pronatalism can be so strong that the resulting societal pressure to have kids ultimately undermines childfree (or childless)* individuals’ happiness and life satisfaction.
In a recent analysis of a large-scale multi-national survey, researchers wanted to study the link between parental status and happiness one-step further and assess whether country-specific fertility rates also affect childfree couples’ happiness with their lives. Why fertility rates? Because fertility rates below 2.1 children per woman are “below replacement level,” meaning that a given population will shrink (assuming no immigration or migration) if the average woman in that society/country has fewer than 2.1 children in her lifetime. Not surprisingly, below replacement fertility rates generally pose problems for countries (see this great Slate piece on how countries try to boost low fertility rates), so the researchers thought national fertility rates could also affect nonparents’ happiness by creating standards or expectations for what is considered “normal.”
Fertility rates reflect the hypothetical average number of children a woman is expected to have over her lifetime given the number of children women of various ages actually have in a given society. Fertility rates vary widely by country, from a high of 5.9 (Nigeria) to a low of 1.2 (Belarus, Slovakia, South Korea, and others). Incidentally, the US fertility rate is right at 2.0 (i.e., just below replacement level; however, the US population continues to grow because of immigration). Pronatalism was measured by individual responses to the question: “Is it necessary for a woman to have a child?” Countries were classified by the researchers as strongly pronatalist if at least 70% of those surveyed said “yes” to this question (e.g., in Bangladesh a whopping 98% of citizens believe being a mother is a critical function in life) or weakly pronatalist if less than 30% said yes (e.g., only 17% of Americans believed the same, making the US and New Zealand, which was also at 17%, the “weakest” pronatalist countries in the study). Finally, all respondents also reported how happy and satisfied they were with their lives.
What did their analysis reveal? As expected, childfree respondents (male and female) from strongly pronatalist countries were much less happy compared to individuals from weakly pronatalist countries. This finding supports the general idea that a country’s beliefs about childbearing are transmitted to nonparents and affects how they feel about their lives more generally if they do versus don’t have children. Importantly, childfree individuals from strongly pronatalist countries were particularly unhappy with life if they lived in a country with below replacement fertility rates. This may seem odd at first, given that lower fertility rates would suggest it’s more ‘normal’ to have fewer kids, which might reduce pressure to do so. One possibility suggested by the researchers is that individuals in poorer countries (which tend to be more pronatalist) live in tougher environments, which reduces fertility rates and decreases life satisfaction. In other words, for example, chronic worries over putting food on the table could both make people unhappy and make them wary about having children. I’d also suggest that the pressure in a pronatalist society may be particularly intense when fertility rates are below replacement level (i.e., “we particularly need children, don’t fail us!”). Regardless, this is a really nice example of research that considers how real-world social environments and cultural expectations can affect individual feelings about life.
And, for what it’s worth, my MIL now has two grandchildren. I could say her pressure had nothing to do with it. And I could be wrong.
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Tanak, K., & Johnson, N. E. (in press). Childlessness and mental well-being in a global context. Journal of Family Issues. DOI: 10.1177/0192513X14526393
Dr. Tim Loving – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving’s research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He’s a former Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
*The use of the term “childfree” vs. “childless” isn’t simply political correctness. Generally speaking, “childfree” is used when referring to those that made the rationale choice to not have kids. “Childless” is used when referring to those who tried or wanted to have kids but didn’t for whatever reason (this is a bit of an oversimplification). The distinction between the two is a relatively new one in the academic literature. More often than not “childless” is the term used, including in this article, when individuals’ desires to have or not have children are unknown. Personally, I prefer “childfree” as it is less pronatalist, and doesn’t imply that somebody is missing out on something, so I have adopted it here.