Childfree and Happy: Psychologist Ellen Walker on Why Not Having Kids Is Better

To be or not to be a mom: That’s the question that psychologist Ellen Walker, Ph.D. discusses in her book Complete Without Kids: Childfree Living By Choice or By Chance. Study after study proves that childfree adults are happier than parents, and Walker agrees. But how do you know whether you’ll be happy without having kids? And what does life look like when you skip out on parenthood? We asked Walker for her take on how to make the tough decisions, and how to deal with the pros and cons of being childfree:

How did you decide not to have kids?

Well I’m one of those poeple who woke up one morning and realized I was 45 and had forgotten to have kids. I was busy! I was getting a Ph.D., having a full psychology practice, doing community service, and traveling around the world with friends. And I had never been with a man who wanted to have a family, so I just never thought about it. Then when I was 45 I got together with my current husband who has grown children, and being around someone who interacts with kids and has the responsibilities of a dad really pushed some buttons for me and made me wonder if I’d made a mistake. Overall, it was a positive experience because it forced me to reflect and ask myself whether it was something I really wanted, and ultimately I decided: No; I don’t think I need kids. If I had wanted to have a child I would have thought about it and made those decisions already.

Does your experience as a clinical psychologist support research that says childless adults are happier?

Definitely. Women are so overwhelmed with their lives, I see so many moms who are exhausted and don’t have energy to take care of themselves, so they’re overweight, losing their relationship with their husband because they don’t have time to spend together and they’re too tired for sex, they’re not succeeding at work because they don’t have time, and on top of that, they feel bad about how they’re doing as a mom because they don’t have time to parent the way would like to. They’re not satisfied with any aspect of their life, and they’re exhausted.

Research has been done on how much time everything takes, and they found that on average, it takes eight hours a day per parent to raise two children to the age of 18. Those of us who don’t have children have eight hours extra day – that’s huge! We have time for careers, friends, sleep, working out, being with our partners. I think we have time to have a balanced life and that makes us a lot more satisfied.

What’s the best thing about not having kids as an adult?

I would say that I have reduced anxiety all around because of having more control over my life. I have control over my time, I have the freedom to do the things I want to do in my life, I have more financial means (kids cost about $200,000).

How can childless adults maintain a good social life, when all their friends are busy at their kids’ soccer matches?

It’s tough; most of my friends are older, and it’s simply because all the people my age who are parents don’t have time for friendships with people who don’t have kids. (They only have time for other moms because they can have playdates and go to soccer games together.)

You really have to make an effort to seek out people who are in the same boat. In the last couple of years, if I meet someone who doesn’t have kids, I really try to nurture a friendship with them. Anywhere you live, there are a certain number of people who are childfree, so seek them out and focus on those relationships instead. And then I also have friends on other side of country who have kids and we meet for kid-free weekends.

What about the downsides, like when you get old and there’s no one to take care of you, or you’re alone in old age?

I don’t know too many older people who’s kids are taking care of them; I think that’s a myth. I live 300,000 miles from my parents, and we talk on the phone but I’m certainly not taking care of them. An interesting fact is that in older age, we get our main emotional support from friendships as opposed to relatives. That’s across the board, not just childfree adults. So that tells me that people who don’t have kids will be in even better shape when they get older, because they’ve spent their entire lives prioritizing friendships, and they don’t have the false expectation that their needs will be met by a child who may or may not be there.

Another huge downfall is being the odd man out. When all of your friends start having families and you’re the only one who’s not doing it, that’s a lonely experience. It’s like when you’re the only one who leaves for college, and all of your friends stay behind to work at the mill: You’re not going to have anything to talk with them about. You can lose a lot of friends, and it’s isolating.

So how can people maintain relationships with their friends who’ve become parents?

If you’re a childfree person who likes children, then tell your friends you want to be invited over for birthday parties and dinners; that you want to be part of their family life. If, on the other hand, you’re not interested in being involved with their family, then make sure you have dates with your friends that are adult-focused. Have your girlfriend meet you for drinks at a fancy bar and put on nice clothes and makeup. Encourage her to get out of that mommy role; she’ll appreciate it so much, and she’ll be a better mom for it.

How do you recommend that people make a decision and ensure that they don’t have any regrets down the road?

Ask yourself some common sense questions: Do you enjoy being around children? Do you like going to kids’ birthday parties and soccer games? When you see a movie with families doing these activities, do you get excited or do you go “ew”? It’s unfair and selfish for someone who doesn’t enjoy family activities to have a child and expect them to be a little adult.

And think about what you’re willing to give up to be a great parent. Are you going to give up your fancy vacations? Give up climbing the ladder at work? Sleep? Time for hobbies? There will be sacrifices, and you need to be willing to make them (and be happy to, because being with your kid will be so great).

Ask yourself about your own life stability: Are you financially stable, is your marriage stable, do you have a good support network? Make sure you go into having a child with your life in order so it’s not chaotic.

[For more on this topic, check out Ellen's recent column on Psychology Today, "Will I Be a Mom?"]

But is there really a perfect time to have kids? A lot of people say that you can never be “ready” — is that a healthy mindset?

I think that mindset is an excuse. I was surprised to find out that 50% of pregnancies in the U.S. are not planned – that’s a lot of people not taking control of their lives. There’s not going to be an absolute perfect time, but it would sure be nice if people were really ready, and it would make it a lot less stressful.

Having kids is one of the biggest decisions that anyone is going to make in their life, but so many people do it by default or because “everyone else is doing it so I better jump on the bandwagon.” Or likewise, they put it off and realize “hey, now I’m 40 and I never had kids,” and suddenly it’s too late or too difficult. People really need to think about it and ask themselves these questions from a younger age.

Ellen Walker was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, living in Japan, Maine, and North Carolina, before settling down in Washington State in 1991. She received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Seattle Pacific University, and has a busy psychology practice in Bellingham, Washington. The most enjoyable part of her job is having the opportunity to listen, a lost art in our busy culture. Childfree, Dr. Walker and her psychologist husband, Chris, enjoy an adventure-filled life with their two terriers, Bella and Scuppers.

To learn more, check out her website, completewithoutkids.com, and her column on Psychology Today.

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    • Dani

      Hmmm, interesting.
      I am a 32 mum of three. Have over come depression / anxiety issues I have had since beforeI had children,and have lost most of the weight I gained in same period. I am studying a Bachleor of Health Sciene full time, have a reasonable sized house that I keep clean, multiple pets I care for, a strict excercise routine, and a happy partner……yet I’m happy. And through my studies I have had the pure joy of meeting many women in similar circumstances who are also quite content, and complete. I am not at all saying it is easy, but there is nothing more fulfilling than getting cuddles form my beautiful babies at the end of a hard day, or being woken up to breakfast in bed delivered by my four year old.
      Doesn’t ring true for me, sorry.

    • Robin

      I don’t know… this is kind of a “what works for me may not work for you” kind of article. I have an only child and no thoughts of having another… for some of the reasons she talks about in this article; no time. People tell me that my son NEEDS a brother or sister or he’ll be lonely when he grows up. How will he know the difference? If he grows up as an only, that will be his experience… he won’t know any other experience. That will be his normal.

      If you don’t have any children, that is your experience; that is your normal. If you have kids, then that is your normal. You can only have one experience. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can only have one experience. I think we’re either wired to be “glass half-empty” people or “glass half-full” people… and no matter which pathway you decided to go down, you’re happy or not depending on what your overall take on life is… not just whether or not you decide to have kids.

      • Chloe Grey

        I know this is an old article and comment but I LOVED what you said here. Completely true and I wish people would relax and just live their lives without worrying about the choices of others or how others feel about their choices. Do not ever listen to those people who say you son MUST have a sibling. I didn’t and I grew up happy and not even a tiny bit lonely. All my friends at school wanted to come to my house because it was more fun without their siblings around. Many of those friends are still close to me but rarely see or want to see their own brothers and sisters. People need to stop this policing of each other. Have confidence in your own life and stop worrying SO much that your neighbor doesn’t live just like you.

    • Hanna

      It may not ring true for some, but for those of us who genuinely do not want to be parents, the idea that the most fulfilling moment in life would involve children couldn’t be further from the truth.

      It sounds selfish, especially to those WITH children, but my greatest successes in life have been those that I have achieved myself, through hard work. Not the achievements of my body’s natural desire to procreate.

      I may not have children to cuddle with at the end of a hard day, but I do have my own pride in my work, my healthy relationship with my significant other, and all of the lovely adult-centered things I’ve always wanted.

      The desire to mother doesn’t ring true for me, or for many, many others. It’s time the childless by choice came out and admitted: for some, parenting has no place.

    • Emily

      Interesting article. My husband and I are childless, but in the “by chance” category she has grouped us into with her concept. We WANT(ed) children, but were unable to do so after many years of trying, investing a lot of money into expensive reproductive procedures that did not work and eventually, heartbreak.

      What’s “funny” about this for me is that I haven’t always yearned to be a mother until I was in my late 20′s. Then, when it just didn’t work out after nearly a decade, I thought that perhaps I was right all along about not wanting children. It’s a hard choice to make when it feels like you weren’t even given the opportunity to choose–it was something that just happened to you.

      My husband and I have learned to enjoy the moments in our lives that present themselves when you don’t have kids. Traveling, spending $, etc. Those things bring us happiness, but I sometimes feel the pang of guilt over not having children. Ultimately, I think it’s a matter of conscious choice.

    • The Midlife Gals

      My sister and I are ‘childless by choice’ along with millions of others who are too afraid to admit their happiness, so we applaud the author for this article. We can get pretty good cuddles and unconditional love from our cats…and they don’t talk back…AND, we don’t have to send them to college either. We came back together to care for our mother, The Ancient One, who did not have a maternal bone in her body, so we’re pretty glad we didn’t pass THAT gene onto another generation. Besides, if KK had given birth, she would have seat-belted that baby to the couch until it turned 18…she has control issues.

      Since you other members of our childless by choice club have that extra time on your hands, come giggle and guffaw with us at http://www.themidlifegals.com which is our website dedicated to saying things about middle age that a gazillion others are thinking. They’re just too afraid. We do it with laughter, and that is FREE!! Sincerely, KK and Sal

    • Darla

      If everyone chose to be happy rather than parents (assuming thats the straight choice) then the human species would die out.
      Already the social demographic who should be having more children to provide the intelligent drivers of a better future have reduced their birthrate.
      I hope this is largely a symptom of the current self-absorbed age that will change when more people realise the satisfaction to be had by building duty and responsibility to society into their lives rather than focusing so entirely on the self.
      All but one of my friends is childless – from choice – and whereas I with two young ones am frequently exhausted and pressed to screaming point, they don’t seem any more happy or satisfied with their lives than I am. They complain of work pressures and wondering ‘what is it all for’. The triggers are different. I think I get more happiness from jumping in puddles, sticking up blobby paintings to my fridge and sewing things for the kids than they do from their holidays and meals out. Having children doesn’t have to be expensive by the way – childcare is always the biggest cost so look after them yourself and do without the non-essential holidays and meals out and needless clothes and gadgets.

      • Leah

        I don’t think that people who are childless by choice are necessarily selfish. I’m 22 and don’t think I ever want kids, at least not biological kids. I enjoy working with kids, but taking care of my own 24/7 isn’t for me. They’re cute and it’s enjoyable to watch them grow, but I like having free time with friends and with my boyfriend (I have other reasons, this is just 1). I do a lot to contribute to society though, like volunteering, which is 1 thing that shows I’m not selfish.

    • Lindsay

      i just hope when people are deciding not to have children they are going about it the RIGHT way and not getting pregnant and having an abortion or having the baby just to give it up when there are so many kids in this world without a home. It is so good in life to know what you want whether its to have kids or not but do it responsibly; we all know there are people in this world that have kids that should totally be sterilized.

    • Adult

      I hear ” Bla bla bla, I’m really self involved”

    • JL Goes Vegan

      We fall into the “by chance” category, re: physical ability and the “by choice” category re: we chose to stop medical intervention and did not consider adoption. Some people’s lives are rich because of their children. And some people, like us, can find many riches in their lives that do require having children.

    • shelly

      I think that people’s personal lifestyle choices are completely personal. Sure, some people may not have the parental instinct, but others thrive to have a family unit and make it work. Life is what YOU make it. I personally want children and I think that if you are with the right man or partner( for adopting), children are just an expression of the two of you, and are another person to love. I can also understand a more self- fulfilling life without kids. Whatever your choice, I think it is wrong to condone either lifestyle as wrong or unhappy. It’s all about your ideas of happiness. I believe in true, lifelong love with someone, and that relationships are what you make them… you chose to make them stronger.( Once again it’s all up to choice).

      So this article is literally pointless based on my beliefs.. and there are ups and downs to every life choice.

    • telecat

      If everyone chose to be happy rather than parents (assuming thats the straight choice) then the human species would die out.

      So what? Humans aren’t good for the planet. The planet doesn’t care. Being childfree is BETTER than being a parent. Cats are WAAY better than children.

    • Andy R

      It’s clear that parenting can take up a lot of people’s lives and can be very demanding, causing people to lose a lot of their limited time on this earth.
      I think this article highlights an unfortunate fact of existence – namely, a lot of the intelligent and careful people in society don’t have children. This is either by conscious choice, or the habit of using contraception by defualt – no unplanned births for this sort of person.

      It can’t be good for the human race to be losing these genes, but I can see why it happens – they don’t wish to lose the prime of their lives.

      I have seen many of the bright sparks that were my friends, with whom I have enjoyed some fantastic times, become either incredible boring and baby centred, or else very tired and lacking in time and energy, not able to express their creativity.

      How sad it is, that raising a human being takes up so much of another human being’s life, and even though it undoubtably brings joy to some, it clearly takes a lot of the glow out of others.