Lisa Snider of Ojai had, practically speaking, one of those fairytale romances people dream about. She met her husband when they were both in high school. She was 14 and Bill was 16 and they fell in love and became high school sweethearts. Then, after graduation, they went off on their own journeys, only to reunite a few years later to fall in love again and marry in 1991 at ages 22 and 24. Still happy and in love decades later, their relationship appears to be ideal, except for one thing: Because they have chosen not to have children, they have found they are somewhat on the fringe of the societal norm.
“We always thought we would have kids,” she said. “I mean, in the sense that we knew we should. But it was a far-off notion. We gave it five to seven years, which came and went. I never had that biological clock, let alone the ticking. It wasn’t without guilt, though.”
Snider continued with listing the reasons why she and her husband chose not to have children, reasons, she says, they are both judged for.
“Because it’s hard and expensive. Because I worry myself sick when my dog is hurt and can’t imagine being responsible for a helpless human. Because we like being engaged with people our own age, having adult time, going out and traveling. Because we love each other, and that’s enough,” she said.
But apparently it isn’t enough, according to what other people think and say. Snider has experienced a fair amount of frustration when talking about their choice. Such comments include:
“But you’d be a great mother!”
“There’s still time; you’ll change your mind.”
“But you’d still have it if you got pregnant, right?”
“Who will take care of you when you’re older?”
“You will never truly know yourself until you’ve had a child.”
“That’s so selfish.”
“Women who don’t have children aren’t very feminine.”
While Snider hasn’t let such remarks change her mind, she is still bothered by them.
“I have so many feelings swirling through me when people say those things. Are they trying to make me feel less than? It’s hard not to be upset, but I usually just let it go. Usually,” Snider said. “I don’t think my life is any better without children, it’s just different. I’m totally fulfilled by my relationship with my husband and appreciate the many freedoms we have.”
Snider is part of a small but burgeoning group of married women in the U.S. who are older than 40 and have no biological children and no other children, such as foster or adopted children. An analysis of data from the National Survey of Family Growth by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University revealed that the percentage of 40- to 44-year-old married women without children had grown from 4.5 percent in 1988 to 6 percent in 2010. Last month, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the number of childless women in that same age group, married or single, had also gone up — 15.3 percent in June 2014, up from 15.1 percent in 2012. Further, the study showed that around 18.5 percent of women 35 to 39 were childless as of last June, up from 17.2 percent in 2012.While somewhat rare, Snider is not alone, sharing similar experiences of scrutiny of childless-by-choice couples and women in general throughout Ventura County and the country.
What the experts say
The United States remains in a baby bust period — a sudden decline in the birth rate — because many people are still recovering from the economic downtrend, according to Irene Tan, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecologist in Simi Valley.
“A lot of my practice’s patients are holding off having kids because they are still recovering financially,” Tan said. “Some of them are at new jobs and can’t afford to be on maternity leave. Some have spouses that are or have been laid off and they are the sole financial provider for the family.”
The trend nowadays involves women who are waiting to have children until they are financially stable or well-established in their careers, Tan continued.
“There are young women still having kids early but more and more are choosing to wait until their careers are established or they are financially comfortable,” she said.
“Let’s face it, having kids is hard — they demand a lot of your time and patience,” Tan further emphasized. “A lot of young women now want to do the things they want to before they have children.”
Some of the barriers these women face with having kids involve being able to work while caring for their children, Tan added.
“A lot of these women can’t afford to stay at home and take care of their kids,” she said. “If they do work, they have to be able to afford child care for their kids.”
If the predictions are correct about the baby bust, and the supporting infrastructures of taxation and workforce numbers diminish, we will be faced with dramatic changes in the way we have grown accustomed to living our lives in the U.S., said Lori Hops, Ph.D., a psychologist with a private practice in Westlake Village.
“Times are changing in politics, education, jobs, economics, in all areas of what we were used to,” Hops said. “It seems that we are being asked to function differently in the 21st century.”
It’s good for people to be mindful and intentional about whether or not they want to have children, said Susan Stiffelman, a licensed marriage, family and child counselor with a private practice in Malibu and the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles.
“It’s always sad when people are afraid to have a child because of the cost but it’s important to be grown-up about recognizing what you’re getting in for,” Stiffelman said. “It seems like people are just trying to be more conscientious about the realities of child rearing.”
A shaky economy is the main reason people are being more thoughtful and realistic when it comes to the decision to have children, Stiffelman noted.
“They might want to have career experience under their belt first, or get more advanced education so they feel better equipped to cope with a very changing economy,” Stiffelman said.
Birthrates are declining worldwide, regardless of religion, culture and the like, said Bill Watkins, director of the Center for Economic Research and Forecasting at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.
“This seems to be a function of increased educational opportunities for women, increasing wealth and changing technology,” Watkins said.
A baby bust is bad for any geographic region because at some point there will be a large number of older people for everyone who’s working, Watkins continued.
“This creates a huge burden on the workers,” he said. “You also have to deal, unless the population decline is accompanied by huge productivity increases, with a shrinking economy.”
While the world’s population will likely be declining by the end of this century, “Our work indicates that California is not likely to see a declining population within the next 50 years, unless migration patterns change in big ways,” Watkins added. “Births will likely exceed deaths for that period.”
Lower birth rates is a problem facing not only the U.S., but many countries around the world,including Europe, Japan and China, said Sung Won Sohn, a professor of economics at California State University, Channel Islands.
“So clearly a baby bust will have a significant impact going forward,” Sohn said.
Economic growth requires labor, “So when you have fewer bodies, obviously growth will not be healthy,” Sohn said. “The other aspect is that people eat, buy and consume … so fewer bodies mean less consumption.”
In the olden days when agriculture was a main driving force, families had many children because they were needed for labor.
“Medical science was not as advanced back then so the mortality rate was high; today the mortality rate is much lower so you don’t have to have as many children as we used to,” Sohn said.
The world has also become more urbanized, making people busier today.
“For example, most women work, whereas 40 or 50 years ago most women stayed home and raised families,” Sohn said, “so it’s a combination of all these things resulting in a baby bust.”
Unlike in the past, having children in marriage is optional for women today, said Akiko Yasuike, associate professor of sociology at California Lutheran University.
“Many women have children without wedlock but they tend not to have many children as they have to raise their children with only one income,” Yasuike said. “The low fertility rate is a result of diversification of lifestyles as much as of an economic constraint to families.”
Children used to be an economic asset for families when children were an important source of labor.
“But as the economy shifted to an industrial economy and universal public education was introduced, the number of children in urban families started to decrease,” Yasuike said. “Children became an economic burden, not an asset, for families. Now, having a child requires investing a certain amount of money.”
The availability of effective contraceptives helped couples maintain smaller family size. Couples also responded to the economic change that made having children expensive, not economically beneficial, Yasuike noted.
“Given this trend, it is not hard to predict that the more expensive raising a child becomes, the fewer children a couple has, or that the lower a couple’s income is, the fewer children they have,” Yasuike said.
According to CNN, it is estimated to cost $245,340 to raise a child to 18 years of age. Reports by the U.S. Census Bureau show the inflation-adjusted U.S. median income in 2012 was $51,017.
“The U.S. median income declined every year since 2008, when the U.S. started to experience a financial crisis, and $51,017 is almost the same as the inflation-adjusted median income of 1996, which was $51,720,” Yasuike said.
The income level of the U.S. middle class dropped back to the 1996 level though prices, including college expenses, increased.
“It is reasonable to think that some couples are responding to the current economic situation by reducing the number of children they have or not having them at all,” Yasuike said.
Another important trend contributing to a low fertility rate is that one’s lifestyle choices have diversified.
“Marriage today is an option, not a necessity for survival,” Yasuike said. “Educational and occupational opportunities and reproductive control for women made marriage optional, and some women choose to live their lives without marriage and children.”
If the low fertility rate and subsequent population decrease did not cause serious problems, the Japanese government would not have made increasing the fertility rate one of its important policy issues, Yasuike further emphasized.
“The Japanese government did not succeed to increase the fertility rate and has one of the most restrictive immigration policies among the developed countries,” Yasuike said. “For the last 20 years or so, Japan’s economic growth was minimal. Fewer working-age people do not just mean fewer workers for a Japanese economy but also mean the quality of the work-force suffering because of less competition.”
As the U.S. economy shifted from an industrial economy to a service and finance economy, an income gap started to widen.
“However, U.S. tax policy has not been adjusted to address this widening income gap,” Yasuike said. “Economic consideration is not the only aspect that affects a couple’s or woman’s decision to have a child, but the expansion of low-income population will not contribute to increasing a fertility rate.”
With all the statistics, data and a volatile economy aside, what it really seems to boil down to, at least for some of the couples in Ventura County, is that they just didn’t feel that need to reproduce.
Denise Sindelar of Ventura was first married at age 19 and was on the road to buying a four-bedroom house in Santa Clarita when she realized she wasn’t ready to start a family. That marriage ended four years later and she moved to Ventura. At 29, she remarried, having lived together with her boyfriend for four years, and they have been together ever since. They are now in their 50s. Like Snider, that biological clock never seemed to be an issue, much less a countdown.
“I would say that we initially knew that starting a family was not a high priority for either of us, but also [we] didn’t take any permanent action to eliminate the option,” Sindelar said. “Into our 30s we would periodically touch base to see if we were still both happy with the status quo. My husband is one of eight siblings and I think there was an expectation that we would eventually get around to settling down to raise a family. As we approached 40, we were pretty certain that kids were not a part of our future.
“I think it has to do with our not having a real drive to procreate. I never felt the tick of the biological clock and frankly panicked the one time I thought I might be pregnant. I was of the mind that if we decided later on to raise a family, we would be really good foster parents, though this option never came to pass either. All in all I have always been very career-driven and there really didn’t seem to be room to fit in a family. It could also be my parents’ constant threat that my kids would put me through the same drama I inflicted on them as a teen.”
In the end, the trend of more women and couples choosing not to have children is on the upswing with no signs it will stop. What will come of that remains to be seen.