For the first time in human history, we’re actually stopping to ask ourselves “Do I want kids?” instead of having them by default. Your decision regarding whether or not to have kids is one of the most pivotal decisions you will ever make in your lifetime, with consequences that will impact all your days to come. In the past, nearly everyone reproduced; it was simply what one did when they reached a certain stage in life, so long as they were able. Unprecedented advances in education, technology and values have given rise to an era in which having kids is a conscious choice rather than a necessary action.
Faced with the question, many people answer easily with a resounding yes from the very center of their being. But a growing number of millennials are not convinced. As a result, more and more couples than at any other time in history are choosing not to have kids (Coughlin, 2018).
The millennial generation in particular (with Gen Z likely to follow), currently in their prime childbearing years, is purposefully deciding to remain childless in unprecedented numbers (Coughlin, 2018). COVID and economic uncertainty play significant roles in this decision, with 19% of older millennials reporting that these factors have led them to decide to either not have a child or not have an additional child, at least for now (Leonhardt, 2021). Similarly, about ⅗ of millennial’s without children say that it is simply because kids are too expensive (Murillo, 2021). And this isn’t just among US millennials–this is a phenomenon which can be observed all around the world. Birth rates are falling all over, with nearly every country set to have shrinking populations by 2100 if fertility rates continue on their current trajectory (Gallagher, 2020). 23 countries, including Italy, Portugal, Spain, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand, are expected to see their populations at least halved by the end of the century (Gallagher, 2020).
Despite the downward trend, the majority of millennials still want to have children (Coughlin, 2018). If you and your partner are in the process of contemplating this far-reaching decision yourselves, read on. We’re going to take a look at some of the pros and cons of kids vs. no kids.
The Case for Kids: Why You Should Have Them
There are plenty of good reasons to have kids. Here are just a few of the highlights.
-Having children is one of the most transformative personal development exercises.
It’s no secret that raising a child is among the most potent of life’s personal development experiences. The unique perspective of the mother below shows just one of the ways in which child-rearing can be personally transformative and engender greater empathy and understanding.
“Before having [my daughter], I’d already done a lot of inner work. Around my trauma, my habits and generational patterns, and family history. But something about having a kid…it helped me learn not to project my own reality onto others. It gives you a very intense experience of learning how to help someone figure out their story without projecting the stories that you are carrying inside of you. And I think that seeing my daughter growing up and doing my best not to project my thoughts and perceptions of the world onto her, helps me to better see and understand other people, because I don’t see them through the lens of my own projections.” (Anonymous, personal communication, 27 July, 2021).
The indescribable and unsurpassable love professed by parents towards their children speaks for itself; nothing says ego transcendence like that kind of love. Additionally, the experience of often having to put your individual whims and desires on the back burner in favor of your children also builds selflessness and humility. And, people with children are often less stressed out about problems that parents learn not to get riled up about (Khazan, 2017), such as a stain on the carpet or someone with muddy shoes messing up the wood floors.
-Among parents whose children have already moved out, rates of depression are lower and life satisfaction was higher than people without children.
This is likely because although raising children is a very stressful experience, there is a lot of social enrichment to be savored from family life once the children have already become independent and moved out.
-Although children ≠ happiness, children ≠ meaning.
Studies tend to point to declines in happiness after having children. However, those studies do not take into account the accompanying rise in a sense of meaning in life (Khazan, 2017; Pennock, 2020) or the fact that happiness rises after the kids move out (above). Which would you rather strive for–happiness or meaning?
-Given the right conditions, parents with children still at home are happier than their childless peers
When parents have an adequate support network while their children are still living at home, they can enjoy the fruits of family life without debilitating amounts of stress. An adequate support network means paid parental leave, generous amounts of holiday and sick leave, and bountiful childcare subsidies from the state (Klein, 2019). Unfortunately, these conditions do not usually exist for families in the USA, though they are the norm in countries such as Norway, Portugal and Sweden (Klein, 2019). Alternatively, close networks of extended family who help care for children and/or a relatively high level of wealth may also be leveraged to create a home environment that leads to similar levels of happiness and enrichment.
-Aside from providing meaningful social contact, grown children may also provide financial support or take on a caregiver role.
The prospect of growing old alone with no one to care for you is indeed a tiny bit daunting, and can be one of the motivators for some couples who choose to have kids. While this factor on its own probably isn’t a good enough reason to reproduce, paired with more socially-motivated goals, it can be an important consideration.
The Case Against
Studies overwhelmingly suggest that people with kids at home are less happy than childless peers. In fact, researchers have identified two ‘happiness peaks’ during adult life which correlate with periods containing less interaction with kids: The time period between the wedding and the birth of one’s first child, and the time period between when the last child moves out of the house and the death of one’s spouse.
A 1987 meta-analysis found that freedom from the responsibility of childcare was the main driver behind people not wanting to have kids, while a book written in 1995 cited freedom to travel as a major driver. Another study from 2014 in which 20 childless women took part also found that freedom and autonomy (to travel, focus on their careers, and seek higher education, among other adult freedoms) were the main reasons these women had not had children (Khazan, 2017).
-Relationship with a partner
Many childless folk cite their relationship with their partner as a motivator for not having kids (Khazan, 2017). A child will inevitably shift that relationship in a drastic way; some people value that relationship more than the potential joy that could come from parenthood and do not want to risk something that’s working well for them. Research overwhelmingly shows that marital satisfaction declines significantly after having kids. Compared with childless couples, it declines twice as steeply after childbirth (Johnson, 2016). Considering that quality of relationship with one’s spouse is the biggest predictor of overall happiness, this trend is not insignificant (Johnson, 2016).
Because kids change a relationship so drastically, it’s important to get a prenup in order to ensure that you are both clear on plans and expectations for the future and for all possible scenarios.
This one is particularly relevant for women. The fact that many women regret becoming mothers is one of humanity’s best-kept secrets, probably because of the amount of shame that comes with it.
One woman dubbed “Alison” in a BBC article about women who regret motherhood explained that although she loved her children dearly, looking back she wishes she had chosen otherwise. She felt that she had to put everyone else first, and that having children and taking care of them severely limited her career. She didn’t discover until having children that she simply was not a maternal person. Alison’s story shows that a.) the bliss and joy professed by many parents does not represent everyone’s experience and b.) some people prefer personal advancement to come through means other than parenthood (Mackenzie, 2018).
Researchers have attempted to put a number on exactly how common it is to regret parenthood. A survey conducted in Germany in 2016 of 1,200 participants found that 8% reported regretting parenthood (Mackenzie, 2018). When factoring in the shame that comes with admitting this even to oneself, that number is likely significantly higher in reality.
People like Alison and the unnamed multitudes of others (some of whom can be found by browsing online forums) who regret becoming parents are seen as selfish and usually don’t speak out; for this reason it is impossible to truly quantify how many feel this way. If someone shares that they might not want kids, others are likely to try to convince them otherwise, whereas the inclination to have children is rarely called into question the same way. If more people spoke out about their experiences of regret, it might help would-be parents who are on the fence to gain a more complete perspective.
If you’re feeling pulled in opposite directions, how are you to decide something so pivotal and life-altering? Here are a few expert tips on navigating the decision.
One important thing to realize is that no matter what you choose, there will be a loss (Khazan, 2017). If you choose to have kids, you will lose a large degree of freedom, of carefreeness, and of money. Your career may suffer, and your own interests and desires will likely need to be deprioritized for a huge portion of your life. If you choose not to have kids, you will miss out on one of the most intense emotional bonds that exists + a potentially extraordinary time of personal development, and you may be more likely to feel less satisfied and be lacking support in old age.
It isn’t just this decision; every decision comes with a loss. Although that may sound somewhat bleak, it’s actually liberating because realizing that it’s going to happen either way can help alleviate the fear of missing out. While it’s important to make a decision you’re happy with, it’s equally important to simply make a decision, period (Khazan, 2017).
When considering what you will gain from each possibility, remember to also ask yourself ‘what set of experiences am I more ok with missing out on?’
Another important rule of thumb is not to have kids primarily because you feel like it is the default. While this may seem obvious, there is so much pressure to bear children; it is still so strongly regarded as the norm that many couples do end up going down this route on autopilot, without pausing to consider whether it’s what they actually want (Marin, 2021).
Check out whether your inclination towards having kids is also due in part to a feeling of pressure to do so or because it will make your partner or parent happy. Make sure you figure out first what you feel as an individual, when you put aside your partner or your Mom or society’s perspective on parenthood. (Marin, 2021).
If one of you is leaning towards wanting kids and the other is leaning away from it, this is something you can explore as you write your prenup. You can write in plans for when and how you will make this decision together, how you will go about it if you do decide to have kids (who will take care of the kids? What will each of your roles be?), and what you will do if you’re unable to reconcile the disagreement on having children or not. Although some of this will not be legally enforceable, it will have symbolic importance and serve as a time and place for you to think through and document these important plans.
If you decide to have kids, that’s fantastic! We wish you healthy children and lots of love and laughs. If you do not actively feel a strong desire to have kids, you might be among the many folks who are simply meant for a different path in life than parenthood. And that is 100% ok.
Coughlin, J. 2018. Millennials Aren’t Having Kids. Here’s Why That’s a Problem for Baby Boomer Real Estate and Retirement. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/josephcoughlin/2018/06/11/millennials-arent-having-kids-heres-why-thats-a-problem-for-baby-boomer-real-estate-retirement/?sh=6e5f7d5c2058
Gallagher, J. 2020. Fertility Rate: ‘Jaw-Dropping’ Global Crash in Children Being Born. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/health-53409521.
Johnson, M. 2016. Why Having Children is Bad for Your Marriage. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/05/06/why-having-children-is-bad-for-your-marriage/
Klein, A. 2019. Having Kids Makes You Happier, but Only When They Move Out. Retrieved from: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2213655-having-kids-makes-you-happier-but-only-when-they-move-out/
Leonhardt, Megan. 2021. Older millennials have lived through 2 economic crises—and it’s affecting their decisions around having kids. Retrieved from: https://www.cnbc.com/2021/05/18/older-millennials-delayed-families-but-the-pandemic-made-kids-more-uncertain.html
Mackenzie, J. The Women Who Regret Having Children. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/education-43555736
Marin, V & X. 2021. Should I Have Kids or Not? How to Decide If You Want Kids. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVOzDrju3YA
Murillo, A. L. 2021. Millennials Aren’t Having Kids Because it’s Too Expensive. Retrieved from: https://money.com/child-care-costs-declining-birth-rate/
Pennock, S. F. 2020. Why You Should Have Never Had Kids (If You Want To Be Happy, That Is). Retrieved from: https://positivepsychology.com/parenthood-paradox/