Childlessness Transformed: Stories of Alternative Parenting

A Cross Cultural and Historical Overview of the Roles of Childless People - Debra Kaye

Cultural Perspectives
Legislation and Childlessness
Alternatives to Marriage and Family Life
Demographic Trends

A look at voluntary childlessness draws upon many aspects of Western culture. Even today, people aren't quick to admit that they've chosen childlessness. It has all kinds of negative implications, a quiet invisibility. It's been taboo. A person is considered selfish, neurotic, and immature until they become a parent. The prescripts vary from culture to culture, but the general theme, with some interesting variations, remains fairly consistent.

An attitude that pervades western thought is black and white, either/or thinking. One aspect of this is a strict division of male and female characteristics and roles. We can talk about male and female principles as opposite parts of a whole, but to draw strict dividing lines and expect a female to be 100% "female" and likewise for a male is a grave misfortune. Both men and women in our society have suffered from limited concepts of what it is to be fully human.

Generally, the belief in a maternal instinct has been strongly upheld. The animal kingdom has certain mating and birthing seasons and a clearly defined biological instinct for procreation. Freud made a case for the human maternal instinct, but more recent research suggests that it has no biological basis, although there may be a psychological, cultural one. Human beings can mate 365 days a year; a woman can become pregnant at almost any time. This suggests that choice is a necessary element, and in fact one of the things that distinguishes us from the animal kingdom. But there also has been a fear that if this element of choice were culturally approved, women wouldn't have children.

The assumption of a maternal instinct means that if a woman chooses not to have children she is lacking in some vital feminine quality. Throughout modern, western history, women's sexuality has often been diverted into motherhood and has been denied in its own right. Victorians saw men as sexual and women as maternal. In the Chinese tradition, if a man was unhappy in marriage he could take a concubine. If a woman was unhappy, the bond with her children was her outlet. This denial of women's sexuality is another aspect of either/or consciousness, implying that men and women can't each be both nurturing and sexual. Sexuality, when perceived as an aggressive male energy and a statement of personal power incompatible with a "woman's place", fragments the more natural androgyny we all share.

Margaret Mead speaks of a paternal instinct, saying that if men were allowed to handle the children more, they would not so readily go out into the world, and would be more drawn to the home and to taking care of the children.

Oftentimes in history there has been but a single acceptable alternative to marriage and family, for example, becoming a nun or priest. This is another manifestation of the either/or principle. It is still not free choice.

Historically and cross-culturally there has been a relatively small percentage of single, childless adults, and so their public image as deviant is not unwarranted. They have been a minority. Research suggests, however, that strong cultural taboos play a large part in this. In 1975, when Ann Landers' reader/parents responded to her poll on whether they'd have children if they could choose again, 70% of 50,000 said "no". Though perhaps not a fair sampling because the disgruntled may tend to be more vocal, it is nevertheless a telling percentage.

Back to the top of this page

Cultural Perspectives
Customs and taboos regarding marriage and children tend to reflect something about a particular culture's approach to life and the circumstances of life in that particular culture. For instance, Appalachian mountain whites see marriage as a goal. There is little comfort for a spinster; hard tasks and dependence lie ahead. "A woman who ain't got sense enough to get her up an old man ain't got sense enough to vote."1 This gives us a sense of the importance of practical survival in this culture.

For the Apache and Navajo, marriage was also essential for reciprocal work exchange. The Navajo saw biological continuation as a form of after-life. The childless were held to have failed to complete their life role. In this case, the custom is based on spiritual belief.

According to the Hopi creation myth, Spider Woman, the Creator, created pairs, but occasionally forgot the woman. This explained the fact that there was an evident group of bachelors, while marriage was nearly universal for women. The Hopi universe was created by a spider, spinner of the web. It would seem their world is a delicate and intricate one, in close symbiosis with nature, fairly balanced between male and female principles. Spider Woman created in pairs, not one before the other nor one out of the other. The either/or principle is absent here. And in recognizing a beautiful and interesting divine "imperfection", they acknowledge the occasional randomness of nature.

The Polish have had a custom where men and women who failed to mate during the preceding season were penalized during Shrovetide Carnival. Shrovetide was a time for confession of sins and prescribing a penance. Chicken feet, turkey windpipes, herring skeletons and the like were pinned on the childless as they entered the church dressed in their best. Derogatory verses were thrown at them and blocks of wood were tied to their feet. Bachelors were caught and tied to logs, although they could buy their way out with a round of drinks.

In this harvest ceremony, it was customary for a young virgin to carry a wreath, symbolizing victory in the season of bringing forth life. Marriage and having children were seen as a holy duty. It was a sin not to marry and have children. Unmarrieds were treated as inferiors and were not considered to be adults. They had no social or economic outlets. Yet there is humor in the punishment, a certain lightheartedness, showing a culture that appreciates innate earthiness as well as spiritual values, and doesn't separate the two or negate one in favor of the other. Imagine a bachelor, chained, lying with a log instead of a living breathing woman. But then, he could buy his way out with drinks and all would be forgotten, both figuratively and probably literally, before many rounds.

In Africa, it is considered a duty to God to have children. It is part of their ancestor worship. The dead are most revered; next come the elders. Each couple has many children. They not only replace themselves but also recreate the extended family, grandmothers, aunts and uncles etc., as a way of honoring them and linking the generations.

For the Chinese, marriage and family line have been of such great importance that failure to maintain the line meant negation of one's ancestors. Of the three unfilial acts, the lack of posterity was the greatest. If a betrothed man died, the woman was wed symbolically, immediately becoming a widow, never to remarry. If a man died unmarried, the family found a girl who had died around the same time and a posthumous marriage was performed. Life was not complete without marriage; one was not a "finished person". To be considered an adult one had to have a child. Having children, especially males, increased the status of both men and women. In "New China" there are more bachelors and spinsters. People are getting married later, in order to finish schooling and to begin careers. Remaining single may be a statement of protest against the old system.

In Korea, a man was considered a boy at any age if he did not marry. In Tamil, Southern India, it is said that an unmarried woman cannot attain nirvana. In Okayama, Japan, an unmarried person was considered strange. In the Zulu tribe, an unmarried woman could not build a house but remained in her parents house even when they died. In the African Igbo tribe, celibacy was considered unnatural and immoral; the commu-nity must maintain its lineage. Childless women were held in contempt. Their bellies were slit on burial, and their names were blotted out.

These represent a range of attitudes and customs that can be found in many other cultures as well, although the particular form of expression will vary. For instance, the Africans tend to act things out more physically, while the Japanese take more of a quiet inner stance. The fact that a free standing woman could not exist is true in many traditions.

In direct contrast to all of the cultures discussed so far is Israeli kibbutz life. While traditional Judaism is a religion of patriarchs, kibbutz life is disarming to patriarchy in its casual attitude toward children. The parent-child relationship is not based on piety and ancestor worship. Life on the kibbutz is bound together with the larger shared purpose of the collective. Generally, there is less possessiveness about children and responsibility is shared. The nuclear family as a unit takes care of the psychological and physiological needs of the children. Education and socialization are in the hands of nurse teachers who become "significant others" for the child. Children have more than one male and female role model and are wanted and treasured. As the kibbutz is able to support more children, people tend to have larger families. Yet whether or not one chooses to have children at all is increasingly a matter of individual choice; childlessness is acceptable.

At some points in history, childless women have been accused of being witches. Marian Faux, in her book, Childless by Choice, says that the witch has become a metaphor for the childless woman. Margaret Mead gives this descriptive image, "The figure of the witch who kills living things, who strokes the throat of children until they die, whose very glance causes cows to lose their calves, and fresh milk to curdle as it stands, is a statement of human fear of what can be done to mankind by a woman who denies or is forced to deny childbearing and child-cherishing."2

And yet witchcraft in its original form, apart from these negative images, was a nature religion based on the Goddess principle. Here is another reversal. The witch, originally a symbol of woman's spiritual power, has become something despised and feared, something to be controlled. And interestingly enough, this is our relation to the principles of nature as well. Drawing from Genesis, men have presumed dominion over nature rather than creating a reciprocal relationship. The imbalance that has evolved is especially clear today. While the ecological system finds balance quite well without interference, modern society has not learned from its example. If we are willing, nature can be our great teacher.

Back to the top of this page

Legislation and Childlessness
Western culture has tended to view reproduction as a matter for legislative control rather than personal choice. Population was seen as a basic natural resource. In early Imperial Rome, as in many countries at many times, there was no place for detached persons. Everyone was supposed be under the control of a household that had a male head of house. Marriage and procreation were a solemn religious duty. After the Punic Wars, in 2 A.D., the sex ratios changed and there were more women than men. Women who didn't marry remained legally part of their father's household. Marriage and family became less important, and as the older generation died off, a class of wealthy independent women arose. Those who had inherited enough money found that they could live comfortably and respectably without marriage and family cares. They took on other pursuits, such as politics, philosophy and the military, which had long been considered the arena of men.

There were more bachelors at this time as well, some allegedly avoiding marriage because of resentment toward the increasingly "ambitious women". Penalties were soon imposed by the state to turn this tide. A law was recommended that everyone must marry, and legislation soon followed. Privileges were awarded according to the number of children one had. By the times of the late Empire, legislation had been enacted so that unmarried women between the ages of 20 and 25, and unmarried men from 25 to 60 could not receive estates or legacies unless they married within a short period of time. Thus a class of free-standing wealthy people was successfully eliminated.

Pro-natalist policies are nothing new. At certain times in history, they may have been directly connected to the survival of culture. The Bible commands, "Be fruitful and multiply." The ancient Jewish book, the Talmud says, "He who brings no children in to the world is like a murderer...A childless person is like the dead." Catholics consider children to be the most important part of marriage. In very orthodox sects of both religions, marriages of the voluntarily childless may be annulled or divorced.

Policies have also been made in order to control the nature of the society. The first recorded attempt to increase births by legislation came around 2000 B.C. in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. In 17th Century Spain, men who married early and had many children were given tax exemptions. In France, nobility with 10 or more legitimate children were given pensions. Even today there is an ongoing debate about taxes and home mortgage privileges that favor parents.

In Stuart Britain, marriages were arranged and there were few unmarrieds. The Protestant Reformation dissolved convents, thus eliminating the only viable alternative to marriage. Marriage was considered a girl's profession; if she wasn't married by 30, it was a confession of failure and she "might as well be dead." Having children could be a way of attaining immortality, if they were brought up in the true faith and observance of Christ's religion. God, impatient with barrenness and cursing a single life, hated the childless. A cultural metaphor for the single was the fly, while the married were like useful bees. Single childless people were considered pests, flies, burdens to the family.

In the early Christian church, however, marriage and family life carried a demeaned status. Though probably desired by most, it was belittled in formal teachings. The ideal was to be celibate, like Paul. In no other culture were celibates given higher status than those who were married. In the early Christian church, virginity was revered as supernaturally great and noble. Girls were most highly valued because they could remain "brides of Christ", virginal like Mary. It was said that the "unmarried woman cares for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy in body and spirit; but she that marries cares for the things of the world and how she may please her husband."3

The clergy realized that in order to produce virgins there had to be families. They also recognized that Christ himself seemed to sanction them. There was ambiguity in the early church. Marriage was not yet a sacrament. In the 1540's marriage was solemnized by the church. Marriage in the hand of Christ was a holy rite, and the earlier glorification of celibacy was seen simply as something necessary in establishing the church.

Back to the top of this page

Alternatives to Marriage and Family Life
It is interesting to note that most acceptable alternatives to marriage and family have been spiritual ones. The bride of Christ, in early Christian times, was given the highest status. She nurtured a broader group, visiting Christians in prison and caring for the sick. In the 1600's in Tudor Britain, the functioning example of those living chaste lives in monasteries and convents was said to raise the spiritual level of those living normal, family lives. Queen Elizabeth, the virgin queen, resisted marriage. Though her virginity rested solely in her public image, she denied the tradition of producing male heirs to the throne. This tradition had taken on such importance that it was a cause for division. Think of Henry VIII, who failing to produce a male heir, blamed it all on Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, and executed her. By sidestepping the model of lineage, Elizabeth was able to retain her own power through remaining unmarried. She took on the image of Virgin Queen, like the bride of Christ before, which enabled her perhaps to mother her people in a broader sense.

In India, celibacy, only when done for religious reasons, is considered a proper way of life. Holy men, called fakirs, don't marry. There is a tradition of girls dedicated to singing and dancing in the temples who are considered married to the deity. They can never be widows, and their morals aren't questioned as long as they sing and dance regularly.

In the Japanese tradition, Ainu women who didn't menstruate were considered "bloodless," pure. They were prohibited from having sex, but they could be shamans because they were thought to have a more receptive nervous system.

Early Assyrians and Babylonians saw sex as a taking of the male by the female. Men were diminished in climax. The woman had consumed a portion of the man's vital spirit. There were 1000 forms of asceticism and celibacy.

Among the Ancient Greeks, both Sappho and Orpheus provide models of love between members of the same sex whose basis was spiritual and obviously not based on procreation. According to Orphic legend, masculine loves stood in opposition to purely sensual and sexual desires aroused by women. Orpheus gave new direction to the mightiest emotions that lead to a higher stage of existence, an ethical transcending of the lower Eros. This is seen in mythology in the relationships between Zeus and Ganymede, Pelops and Poseidon, and in the homosexuality of the time which took on religious significance.

Sappho sought to unify physical and etheric beauty, striving to elevate women by eliciting their passion and enthusiasm. She sought the love of the Lesbian maidens, serving her inferiors in order to win and teach them. She worked with the physical and psychic, with the idea that outer and inner beauty are one, each a reflection of the other. She hated disorder and gracelessness. Punishing heterosexuality, she felt that being chaste from men made for a chaste soul.

In tropical Africa, among the Bobo Nieniege, women who have passed childbearing age and have no children can have a marriage between women. It is not necessarily a lesbian relationship, and comes about perhaps to avoid the prospects of an unhappy old age.

Other alternatives among the Lapps and Scots show more economical reasons for remaining childless. Many Lapp men marry late or not at all in order to keep a sibling work team together. Postponing marriage also raises the economy of the parental household. The Scots have a high percentage of unmarrieds. Women often remained single in order to have a more powerful inherited household. Living with a sister or brother, they often care for elderly parents.

Back to the top of this page

Demographic Trends
Among caucasians in the United States over the past 150 years, with the exception of the 1950's, each generation has had fewer children per family. Not since the Depression have so many chosen childlessness. Some say the current trend is a reflection of the "Me Generation," which is another way of expressing the cultural statement that childless people are selfish. Research states that while the voluntarily childless are more androgynous, they are not more neurotic than those with children.

Since the mid-1960's, the number of married women choosing not to have children has doubled. This group consists largely of highly educated whites. Wealth and education have long been a factor in this choice. Most social change is initiated by those who are well-educated and have the time and finances to maintain the change. Contrary to popular belief, some studies say that childlessness makes a marriage stronger. There is more time and energy to devote to the relationship and there is generally a strong bond, a special vitality and closeness associated with childless couples.

In the 1950's, a woman with children was a symbol of adult femininity. Motherhood was considered more of a career than it is today. Being a mother meant total self-sacrifice and precluded having a sense of personal identity. This attitude grew largely out of studies done in the 1930's by psychiatrist Karen Horney. She stated that a psychologically healthy child is the direct result of good parenting, especially mothering. Anxious efforts to live up to this ideal of being a "good parent" may create a burden of guilt for the mother that is perceived by the child. This attitude contributed to the upswing in voluntary childlessness in the generation that followed. The child's interpretation of the parents' role is a key to understanding decisions that are made in later life. A child may perceive sacrifices made by the parent as even more overwhelming than they were.

Some people choose not to have children because they experienced childhood itself as limiting, for example if they felt a lot of sibling rivalry. Many find increased enjoyment in adult life while working and being independent. Some of the voluntarily childless feel that they parented enough in their childhood because of the illness or death of their mother. Yet some who have been in this situation choose to have children. Again, it is the perception of the situation that is the key factor. If a child was in the position of taking care of a childlike dependent mother, then as an adult he or she may react strongly against having someone utterly dependent upon them.

The voluntarily childless are a group of diverse individuals who tend to be non-vocal, non-proselytizing and not particularly radical. Their support systems, rather than having a presence in a community, tend to be personal in nature. Quiet invisibility has characterized this group throughout history. If one did not espouse an acceptable alternative, then one tended to fall through the cracks of society, disempowered from taking an active role. This is true even today. Can you imagine an unmarried and childless president of the United States? Another reason for the invisibility factor has been the selective writing of history which has basically been a history of men, leaving out most of women's contributions, and leaving out many aspects of womanhood that didn't fit into the categories of marriage and family.

Some women have been afraid to step outside the realm of financial dependence on their husbands. Having children seemed to give them a sense of security that their men would not abandon them. Also, there have been many cultural fears and strong reactions against the river of emerging feminism, to the point where feminists, while advocating free choice and control of their own bodies, also espoused motherhood. Early feminist issues were centered on birth control and planned parenthood. The zero option (childlessness) has been a more recent consideration.

At present, childlessness is becoming acceptable. But Marian Faux reminds us that, "What the witch symbolized historically, a cultural metaphor for the childless woman, she could come to represent once again if the cultural mandate is not revised to ensure the reproductive freedom of all women all the time, and not just in times like the present when low population is desired."4

Back to the top of this page

The very word "childless" implies that one is lacking something. There is a cloud of possessiveness in regard to children, a feeling that each person must have their own. In reality, the fact that a person doesn't have their "own" children does not mean that they necessarily have to live a childless life. There are many ways to include children in one's life short of "having them". Margaret Mead suggests that the generative impulse could be expressed in other ways, such as passing ideas on to the younger generation through teaching, writing or by inspiring example.

We have the capacity to reproduce. But we're now at a time when survival of the species may be more affected by nuclear concerns than by reproduction. In fact, excessive reproduction is one causal factor in the current environmental problems that threaten survival.

Parenting can be a metaphor that we can extend into other realms that may call us as individuals. There is much nurturing to be done. Individuals who exercise their freedom of choice and become most fully themselves are an inspiring example to others. This is a promising way to nurture the growth of everyone.

1. Human Relations Area Files, Inc. (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, Microfiche ill.; 10.5 x 15 cm., 1968-)
2. Margaret Mead, Male & Female: A Study of Sexes in a Changing World (Greenwood: 1971 repro. of 1949 ed.)
3. Queen, Habenstein, & Adams The Family in Various Cultures (Chicago: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1961)
4. Marian Faux, Childless by Choice: Choosing Childlessness in the Eighties (New York: Anchor Press / Doubleday, 1984)

Back to the top of this page

Back to the Table of Contents


1. Marian Faux, Childlessness by Choice: Choosing Childlessness in the Eighties (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984)

2. Rohrlich-Leavitt, Women Cross-Culturally, Change and Challenge (The Hague, Paris: Mouton Publishers, 1975)

3. Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan, A Baby? . . . Maybe - A Guide to Making the Most Fateful Decision Of Your Life (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1975)

4. Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (The University of Chicago Press: 1960)

5. Barbara G. Walker, The Crone -Woman of Age, Wisdom, and Power (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985)

6. Queen, Habenstein, Adams, The Family in Various Cultures (Chicago: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1961)

7. Robert F. Spencer, Forms in Symbolic Action (Seattle: American Ethnological Society/University of Washington Press, 1969)

8. Christine Overall, Ethics and Human Reprodiction - A Feminist Analysis (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1987)

9. Eric Hobsbawm & Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1983)

10. Nicholas Gage, Hellas (New York, Villard Books, 1987)

11. J.J. Bachofen, Myth, Religion and Mother Right - Selected Writings of J.J. Bachofen (Princeton University Press, 1967)

12. Vicki Love, Childless Is Not Less (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1984)

13. Elaine Campbell, The Childless Marriage - An Exploratory Study Of Couples Who Do Not Want Children (London: Tavistock Publications, 1985)

14. Susan Cavin, Lesbian Origins (San Francisco, ism press, 1985)

15. Joyce Trebilcot, Mothering - Essays in Feminist Theory (New Jersey: Rowman & Allenheld, 1984)

16. Janet Sayers, Biological Politics -Feminist and Anti-Feminist Perspectives (London: Tavistock Publications, 1982)

17. Wallace MacCaffrey, The Shaping of the Elizabethan Regime (Princeton University Press, 1968)

18. Margaret Mead, Male & Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World, (Greenwood, 1971 repro. of 1949 ed.)

19. Human Relations Area Files, Inc. (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, Microfiche, ill.: 10.5 x 15cm.)

Back to the Table of Contents
Back to the main Childlessness Transformed page