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. "You might change your mind," said her mother, whom Scott describes as "bone tired" from a life in which she "didn't have any time for herself." Scott's mom worked as a samplemaker for an upholstery company; after making dinner for Scott and her brother, she'd park them in front of the television and go down to the basement to spend her evening cutting and sewing. That life was what "doing it all" meant to Scott. "I learned you could but did you want to?" she says. At 26, Scott got married and waited for her mind to change. "I thought I would be struck by a biological lightning bolt," she recalls. "It never happened. And I realized I was going to be fine." As she says from her Tampa office, where she works as a professional coach, writer and documentary filmmaker, "My main motive not to have kids was that I loved my life the way it was."
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, which includes the fertility crash of the Great Depression. 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. Even before the recession hit, in 2008, the proportion of women ages 40 to 44 who had never given birth had grown by 80%, from 10% to 18%, since 1976, when a new vanguard began to question the reproductive imperative. These statistics may not have the heft of childlessness in some European countries like Italy, where nearly one-quarter of women never give birth but the rise is both dramatic and, in the scope of our history, quite sudden.
The decision to have a child or not is a private one, but it takes place, in America at least, in a culture that often equates womanhood with motherhood. The birthrate may have fallen, but the baby-product industry is at a record high, an estimated $49 billion for 2013. Any national discussion about the struggle to reconcile womanhood with modernity tends to begin and end with one subject: parenting. Even Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, a book focused on encouraging women's professional development, devotes a large chunk of its take-home advice to balancing work and family, presuming that, like its author, ambitious women will have both. It's great that we're in the midst of a cultural conversation about the individual choices and structural barriers that shape our lives. But if you're a woman who's not in the mommy trenches, more often than not you're excluded from the discussion.
Being sidelined doesn't exempt childless women from being scolded. In a December column in the New York Times headlined MORE BABIES, PLEASE, Ross Douthat argued that the "retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion" an indicator of "decadence," revealing "a spirit that privileges the present over the future." 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 is responsible for no less than the possible destruction of 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. "There's more pressure on women to be mothers, to fulfill that obligation, than I've ever seen," says Amy Richards, author of Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself. "In the past we assumed it was out of a woman's control" whether or not she had a child. "Now we think it's her choice, so we can blame her."
And it is chiefly her. Statisticians measure a woman's childbearing years as spanning from ages 15 to 44 a bracket that might change as fertility protocols advance but that for now means it's far easier to label a woman of a certain age childless than a man, who might become a first-time father at 65. Both culturally and academically, "childlessness defaults to women, in all scholarship in the social sciences," says Pamela Smock, of the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan. That applies whether a woman's married or single, straight or gay. "Lesbian motherhood used to be an oxymoron, but it's a whole different ball game now," says Nancy Mezey, author of New Choices, New Families: How Lesbians Decide About Motherhood. "Now there's that pressure of the American cultural mind-set, that motherhood mandate."
Even so, women who choose not to become mothers are finding new paths of acceptance. As their ranks rise and as the community of adults without kids diversifies in terms of race, education levels and political affiliations so do positive attitudes about being able to lead a fulfilling, childless life. Along the way, these women are inventing a new female archetype, one for whom having it all doesn't mean having a baby.