The American dream--a fulfilling career, a home, a loving marriage, a few children…Or is it? For some, the answer is yes. But contrary to popular belief, not all couples consider having children to be part of the American dream. Some couples actually choose not to have children. Those who choose this less-traveled road are often criticized and negatively stereotyped for their decision. Many people think a couple’s life cannot possibly be complete without children. Yet having children is not for everyone. Some couples fail to realize this until after they become parents. Then, unfortunately, it is too late for them to change their minds. Couples who carefully consider the disadvantages of parenthood and the advantages of remaining childfree are better off than those who blindly pursue the idealized American dream of having children. Remaining childfree is a viable option and one more couples should explore.
Childfree couples have an advantage over parents when it comes to career development. According to Diana Burgwyn in Marriage Without Children, marriage and family are different than they were years ago because many women in the United States now work outside the home. Burgwyn says that couples who wish to devote themselves to their careers and keep their marriages intimate may find that choosing to remain childfree provides occupational advantages over choosing parenthood. For instance, parents are restricted to living in areas conducive to rearing children. Both Anne-Marie Ambert’s The Effect of Children on Parents and Jean E. Veevers’s Childless by Choice list specific child-conducive factors that parents must consider before relocating: playgrounds, schools, and the area’s safety for children. Yet one or both parents may receive their best job offers in areas that do not provide these elements of a child-conducive environment. Conversely, locations appropriate for children may not have work available in both parents’ fields.
Parents may also find it difficult or even impossible to pursue some types of careers. Burgwyn points out specific careers that are better suited for the childless because they are difficult on parents, namely careers that are always unpredictable, such as medical, editorial, political, or legal careers. While not problematic for the childfree, the unpredictability of these careers can cause turmoil for parents. Sometimes, if both parents have careers and emergencies or unpredictable career events occur, neither parent is free to conveniently care for the children. This is especially true if both parents have unpredictable careers. Burgwyn says that juggling each other’s careers and the children, too, may leave one or both parents feeling resentful because they that they cannot give enough time and energy to their individual careers.
Dual-career childfree couples have more time each day for working extra hours, with time left over for extracurricular activities. Childfree couples who have stressful jobs especially enjoy coming home to a quiet, peaceful house, says Burgwyn. Career conflict is not as much of a problem for the childless, either. The childless experience less conflict because they tend to have equality in marriage, a characteristic that will later be discussed in further detail. In fact, Burgwyn says childfree spouses often help one another with their careers, mainly because they have extra "time and energy" not being devoted to children. As Veevers points out, childfree couples have more career flexibility to change careers, accept lower paying work because they enjoy it, further their education, or relocate for career reasons. Considering the open career options, it is not surprising that Burgwyn found childfree men and women to be highly satisfied in their work. Their satisfaction is also not surprising when considering the environment remaining childfree creates.
Children impact the careers of mothers and fathers differently. Veevers says children are not as much of an obstacle in the father’s career as they are in the mother’s. Ambert also says that the chances of interrupting or changing careers due to parenthood are greater for mothers than for fathers, and that children can be a career obstacle even before they are born because of maternity leave. Burgwyn agrees, saying this is especially true of a career "in which one moves up the ladder fast." To illustrate how maternity leave can devastate such a career, she quotes Caroline Bird, author of The Two-Paycheck Marriage:
'The more promising a career, the more likely it is to lead straight to the top, the more a woman has to lose by taking time out for a baby. If you step off the career ladder in any rewarding, advancing field, you not only lose your place, but may never get back on it again. This is true of highly paid executive and technical jobs in fast moving fields such as health care, research, fashion, communication, and entertainment.’
Even if a working mother manages to maintain her career through maternity leave, the parental responsibilities that follow may conflict with her work. Though responsibility is exceptionally equal in some marriages, Burgwyn states that women are still, more often than not, the primary caretakers of children. As primary caretakers of children, mothers have a harder time making it in certain fields. For instance, mothers are less likely to be able to accept jobs requiring travel. Generally, fathers travel because of their careers and mothers remain behind to care for the children, Veevers says. Veevers explains that there are two reasons for this: 1) Paying for childcare so that both parents can travel is simply not an affordable or satisfactory arrangement for most. 2) It is harder for mothers to succeed in fields that were once male-dominated. For instance, architecture is a difficult field to break into and requires a lot of overtime, including nights and weekends. Women with children at home are often limited to small jobs in this field. In an interview with Burgwyn, Working Woman editor Kate Randall Lloyd said, "‘The woman who cannot stay late at the office is probably penalizing herself, especially in highly competitive fields such as law where sixty or seventy hours per work week is not uncommon. Clearly, women won’t make it to that catbird seat unless they can work the same hours as a man.’"
During the initial years in these fields, childlessness is an asset that enables women to be totally focused. Women who are sterile find that they gain ground by telling employers in these fields that they will remain childfree (Burgwyn 125). This is probably because employers realize the advantages childfree women have over mothers. For instance, Veevers says that childfree women are less likely to take time off from work than mothers because mothers have the responsibilities of child care. Additionally, childfree women can more easily travel if their careers require it and do the other things their husbands do for career advancement: accept overtime, meet with coworkers outside the office, and commit to additional training and obligations. They can achieve their full potential instead of falling below it because of family obligations. Thus, women who do not have children increase their chances of success in their careers. "Among women who make outstanding achievements…rates of childlessness are much higher," says Veevers.
Career differences between fathers and childless men directly relate to finances. All parents are more at risk of having to remain in an unsatisfying occupation to handle financial responsibilities, but Veevers says this risk is greater for fathers. Despite the number of women continuing to enter the work force, many fathers still feel the full responsibility of providing for the family, not only for themselves and the children but also for the mother. Ambert finds that mothers are not as likely to work as childfree women. Thus, the mother often relies on the father for financial support of herself and their children, says Burgwyn. The dutiful father accepts the job that offers the biggest paycheck. When family members are dependents, he falls into the "‘job trap;’" he may be happier in another job that pays less, but it is his responsibility to support his family to the best of his ability and to maintain a dependable, continuous flow of income (Veevers 82). Due to increased financial obligations, men are not as likely to change jobs after having children (Ambert 37).
The childfree man, however, usually does not have as many financial obligations. He does have to work for the benefit of a child, nor is working usually necessary to support his wife. She tends to have a job and is able to take care of herself rather than relying on him (Veevers 82-3). Therefore, childfree men are not as likely as fathers to end up in the "‘job trap’" (Burgwyn 120). A few men enjoy childlessness because it enables them to work less. They do not feel as if they have to work all their lives to make all of the money they can. If childfree men decide they no longer like their careers, they feel they can keep trying new occupations or take a break from working. Even if they keep the same jobs throughout their lives and do not take time off, the knowledge that they can leave their work gives them security. Thus, childfree men tend to have "a high degree of job satisfaction" (Veevers 83-4).
Because both childfree men and their wives are more likely to work than parents, it is logical to conclude that childfree couples make more money than parents. In support of this conclusion, Veevers admits that there are significant differences between parents’ and childfree couples’ living standards in every socioeconomic class. Burgwyn, too, says that childless couples indulge in "a high standard of living" unavailable to many parents because of their children. According to Marsha D. Somers’s 1993 study, "A Comparison of Voluntarily Childfree Adults and Parents," the gross finances of childfree couples totaled $75,500 per year, while parents’ gross finances totaled $63,000 per year.
Even though parents gross less income, they end up having to spend more money than childfree couples to meet their financial obligations. Veevers points out the obvious reason for this: most of parents’ money must be spent directly or indirectly on the children. Is Veevers right? Do children really cost that much? The figures in the 1996 annual USDA report speak for themselves. They estimate that the feeding, housing, and other needs for one child born in 1995, from birth until age seventeen, will cost the child’s parents over $145,000.
The USDA’s figures "do not include the cost of childbearing or the cost of a college education." In 1997, University of North Alabama (UNA) Financial Advisor Ben Baker estimated the cost of sending a student to college at UNA for the fall and spring semesters of one year. At the time, the cost of tuition, residency, books, and additional fees for one student was $6,354. According to Baker, this cost increases each year about 1.06 to 1.07%. When he figured in the increase with the cost of sending a student to UNA for four years, the total was $27,795, and he concluded that four years at UNA roughly costs $25,000--$30,000. One should keep in mind that UNA is a regional college, making it one of the more inexpensive schools. In comparison to colleges such as Harvard and Radcliffe, UNA is considered to be inexpensive.
Veevers says that some parents may be satisfied with smaller finances if they do not ever get used to having more money. But those who do experience higher standards of living may not be so happy to give them up. A husband and wife who put off parenthood have time to get used to sharing their finances exclusively with one another. They must decide if they are willing to sacrifice that in order to become parents.
The financial expense of rearing children can cost parents more than money; it can cost them their stability and future plans. According to Ambert, parents do not feel as in control of their lives as childless couples, and today’s child can cause parents to lose their stability and freedom: "Parents are at the mercy of an array of professionals--from pediatricians, pedodentists, orthodontists, day-care workers, teachers--not to omit the demands made on them not only by their children, but also by their children’s friends." Parents must plan their time and sacrifice what they need to provide what their children need for development.
Parents do have some hope of eventually ending the constant sacrifices they make for their children’s well-being. According to John J. Macionis, author of Sociology, middle-aged parents usually have more money because the children have moved out, eliminating the cost of rearing them. Still, relief is not guaranteed. Even after parents reach middle adulthood, their children may still be financially dependent on them. Ambert points out that children can alter their parents’ future because they can create unanticipated circumstances. Specifically, they may not move out when parents believe they will, finish school on time, acquire an anticipated job, or ever get married. Through these and other circumstances, children may force parents to postpone or eliminate all of their plans (Ambert 48-9).
Because they are not financially obligated to children, childfree couples can clearly live more comfortably and liberally. For example, Burgwyn says they do not need as much money as parents do, making it easier for them to afford frivolous things, such as recreation, traveling, higher education, and clothing. They can also work jobs that pay more and require more responsibility. For these reasons, childfree couples can survive on one spouse’s pay better than parents can (Burgwyn 122). If they wish, one spouse can temporarily earn the full income while the mate attends school or changes jobs (Burgwyn 30). One of the greatest financial advantages that childfree couples have is flexibility in future planning. Ambert says the childfree do not have to be as cautious in their planning because their finances are greater, and unlike parents, they do not have to plan around children. They can take more risks and are open to more opportunities. It is easier for them to travel, to move, and to spend money with discretion. It is also easier for them to retire early.
Despite the occupational and financial advantages of being childfree, Veevers says childfree people are often stereotyped as "maladjusted." Yet because of the advantages of their childfree lifestyle, they may actually be better adjusted than parents. The childfree couples studied by Veevers had unusually egalitarian relationships. Burgwyn, too, cites voluntarily childless couples as usually having more egalitarian relationships, including nontraditional sex roles and sharing of leadership and finances. Veevers concludes that egalitarian relationships are a direct result of remaining childless. Two of her findings support her theory: First, involuntarily childless couples had more egalitarian relationships than parents; second, no matter how egalitarian a couple’s relationship was before the first child’s birth, after the first child’s birth, that relationship divided into traditional roles (102).
Verifiers of Veevers findings include textbooks authors John J. Macionis, Sociology, 2nd Edition, and Diane E. Papalia, and Sally Wendkins Olds, Human Development. They agree that among couples who divide the chores before they become parents, the woman often gets the full workload after they become parents. Even when both parents have jobs, most fathers refuse to help with the housework because they see it as feminine (Macionis 378). Before becoming fathers, men tend to be more interested in having children than women (Papalia and Olds 461). After becoming fathers, however, they do not spend as much time with the children as mothers do (Papalia and Olds 461; Macionis 378). Women, therefore, generally end up bearing the majority of the responsibility for caring for the home and the children (Macionis 378).
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Ambert, Anne-Marie. The Effect of Children on Parents. New York: Haworth Press, 1992.
Baker, Ben. Personal Interview. 27 Oct. 1997.
Belsky, Jay, and Michael Rovine. “Patterns of Marital Change Across the Transition to Parenthood: Pregnancy to Three Years Postpartum.” Journal of Marriage and Family 52 (1990): 5-19.
Burgwyn, Diana. Marriage Without Children. New York: Harper, 1981.
Connidas, Ingrid Arnet and Julie Anne McMullin. “To Have or Not to Have: Parent Status and the Subjective Well-Being of Older Men and Women.” Gerontologist 33 (1993): 630-36.
Johnson, Colleen Leahy, and Donald Catalano. “The Childless Elderly and Their Family Supports.” Gerontologist 21 (1981): 610-18.
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USDA. “USDA Releases Annual Report on the Cost of Raising a Child.” 1996.
http://www.usda.gov/fes/library/960531-1.txt (4 Nov. 1997).
Veevers, Jean E. Childless by Choice. Toronto: Butterworth, 1980.