Having It All Without Having Children

The American birthrate is at a record low. What happens when having it all means not having children?

Photo-illustration by Randal Ford for TIME

One evening when she was 14 years old, Laura Scott was washing dishes in the kitchen with her mother when she decided she didn't want to have a child. At 26, Scott got married and waited for her mind to change. "It never happened," she says. "And I realized I was going to be fine." Now 50, Scott is more than fine: she's fulfilled. And she's not alone. The birthrate in the U.S. is the lowest in recorded American history. From 2007 to 2011, the most recent year for which there's data, the fertility rate declined 9%. A 2010 Pew Research report showed that childlessness has risen across all racial and ethnic groups, adding up to about 1 in 5 American women who end their childbearing years maternity-free, compared with 1 in 10 in the 1970s.

The decision to have a child or not is a private one, but it takes place, in America, in a culture that often equates womanhood with motherhood. Any national discussion about the struggle to reconcile womanhood with modernity tends to begin and end with one subject: parenting. If you're a woman who's not in the mommy trenches, more often than not you're excluded from the discussion. But being sidelined doesn't exempt childless women from being scolded. The Weekly Standard's Jonathan V. Last has made the case in his controversial book What to Expect When No One's Expecting that the selfishness of the childless American endangers our economic future by reducing the number of consumers and taxpayers. With fertility treatment widely available, not to mention adoption, even clinically infertile women have more options than ever to become mothers, which increases the possibility that any woman who doesn't will be judged for her choice.

Even so, women who choose not to become mothers are finding new paths of acceptance. As their ranks rise, so do positive attitudes about leading a life in which having it all doesn't mean having a baby.

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