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.