fertility struggles

People who don’t have children make up a substantial share of the population, but the stigma about not being a parent persists in modern culture, especially for women. Those without children are seen as unfulfilled, selfish, or unusual. A 2022 survey of Michigan adults found that over 20 percent were child-free, meaning they didn’t want kids, while five percent were childless, meaning they wanted kids but were unable to have them.

Almost 10 percent said they were undecided, roughly the same number said they want kids in the future, and over three percent said they were unsure. The author of the study acknowledged that it doesn’t use a nationally representative sample, but Michigan’s population is demographically similar to the U.S. overall population. Here are some of the most common questions that you shouldn’t ask those without children because they can come off as irritating, insensitive, and invasive.

“Why don’t you have children?”

Most people without kids say you wouldn’t believe the amount of women and men who have asked this question, which they would say is personal and invasive and a question that makes it seem like you should feel wrong for being childless. Strangers may not know the reason why someone has decided to be child-free, and it may not be their choice, so it’s best not to ask and wait for them to volunteer that information if they feel comfortable doing so. This question almost never comes from a neutral position.

People who ask that question never consider the possibility of not having children themselves. If you’re inclined to ask this question, stop and spend that time thinking about why you plan to have children or have children. If you’ve never questioned this or the only reason is because that’s what you do, perhaps think about that before bringing a child into the world. It’s an insensitive question when asked of someone who actively chose not to have children. It’s hurtful when asked of a person who wants kids but is unable to have them for any reason. In either case, it’s none of anyone’s business.

“You’ll never know true love if you don’t have children.”

People without kids have probably heard some version of this comment, but it can be both untrue and hurtful. Many factors influence the capacity and ability to love, and can take many forms. Parenting can be a source of deep love, but it’s not the only source. You can experience this kind of love with friends, a partner, siblings, parents, other relatives, hobbies, or even pets.

To assume that parents experience a deeper type of love than non-parents is biased and discounts that love is a complex emotion, highly individualized and can be expressed and felt in numerous ways. Others have heard that they’re missing out on the experience of having children, and they’ll never know the joy of having children. If people feel they need to have children for a healthier life, then that’s their prerogative. However, people who don’t have kids can also have a happy life.

The same can be said for dog lovers telling someone who doesn’t have a dog that they don’t know what they’re missing. When someone asks you this question, you can share your perspective on the matter and offer examples of the deep love you’ve experienced from others or in other facets of your life.

"Who will care for you when you get old?"

This is a question we should all think about, but it’s most often directed at child-free people. While the implication that one reason people have children is to have someone care for them in their old age is evident, the truth is that most adult children don’t care for their elderly parents in ways we might think they do. A Pew Research survey found that while over half of U.S. adults had helped their aging parents with housework and errands, a smaller share, only 14 percent, had helped them with things like getting dressed and bathing, the sort of care that many of us will need in our older years.

A recent estimate noted that it costs over $300,000 to raise a child through high school, which is quite a bit of money that could be saved for your older years. Plus, there’s no guarantee that your child will support you as you age. If you factor in college, you’ll have a lot of money to hire a live-in caretaker. If your children follow the life pattern that people believe they should, they’ll have their children and spouse to take care of, along with the $300,000 a year bill to raise that child. At best, your children will periodically check in on you, not take care of you.

Having children so you’ll have someone to take care of you when you’re old is a self-serving, exploitative reason to have a child. It’s a bit cultural, but it’s a distortion of culture and also ableist, as it devalues a child who might be disabled or otherwise unable to support anyone. In this economy, many people have boomerang kids, not kids who can support them.

“You can always adopt.”

It’s presumptuous to assume that someone who doesn’t have children must want to have them. No one knows the circumstances or reasons why a person is child-free unless they specifically know someone’s story. Suggesting adoption to someone who is child-free by choice dismisses their identity as an individual and their freedom of choice. Even for those who want children but are unable to have them because of a fertility issue, for example, adoption may not be their desired path or a viable option.

Telling someone to “just adopt” can also discount the grief of not being able to have a biological child. What people should also understand is that adoption is complex and isn’t a quick fix or substitute for childlessness. Adoption is more complex than many folks understand. It’s glorified in the media, but for many adoptees, it’s a harrowing, sometimes traumatic situation. Also, adoption is a loaded process many people could never afford financially or emotionally.

Whatever the reason for not having children, it’s a sensitive topic that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Some people may have tried numerous times to no avail, while others have consciously chosen not to have children. In any case, think about people’s paths before asking why they don’t have children or simply wait until they divulge the information.

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