What motivates a man to get sterilized? Financial reasons, relationship issues—or something deeper?
The comments in last month’s column about Laura S. Scott’s research got pretty lively. This one gets my nomination for the Most Original Reason Not to Have Kids award:
I never liked children, and I never liked being a child, either. To me, being a child means being ignorant, powerless, and dependent upon others for all of one’s needs. To inflict such a state on another person, even if only temporarily, strikes me as immoral.
Holy crap. Never heard that argument before.
But another comment left by author Laura Carroll piqued my interest. After writing that men do have a lot to say regarding a couple’s decision to reproduce, she drops this:
A trend in men’s background is also the fact that they often observed their fathers struggle to provide for their families when they were growing up and the guys decided they did not want this as part of their adult life.
First question: are all childless-by-choice researchers named Laura?
Second question: is this Laura right? I called her to get more details.
Carroll tells me that several years ago she placed ads across the country seeking input from child-free couples married longer than 10 years. She focused on couples for several reasons, one of them being a lack of focus on men in previous child-free research. Her findings are published in Families of Two: Interviews With Happily Married Couples Without Children by Choice; she blogs at LauraCarroll.com.
As she traveled the country collecting interviews and stories, she noticed a surprising trend: about two out of five guys mentioned the difficulty their fathers had in providing for their families.
“When they saw their father working two jobs or struggling to make ends meet, they thought to themselves even as boys that when they grow up they didn’t want to have a life like that,” Carroll says.
The sentiment wasn’t confined to seeing Dad’s troubles, either.
“The mother seemed to have her own struggles keeping up with raising the kids,” says Carroll. “And sometimes the boys got the feeling from their moms that they really weren’t happy.”
She emails me a typical response from Carlos, a man in his 40s:
I was a serious kid and became aware of political, social, and environmental issues at a young age. My parents loved us, and sometimes struggled to provide the materials things that kids need. I did not want to feel these kinds of pressures.
She adds that there was another related trend: “Many times they were either the oldest child or the only child,” Carroll says.
Carroll emphasizes, however that her information comes from surveys collected from over a hundred couples and shouldn’t be treated as “statistically validated data.”
Also of note, women typically offered different reasons for remaining child-free, including having to babysit younger siblings and exposure to an older female role model who didn’t have children.
Why do men offer up their parents as part of their reasoning? Carroll can only speculate.
“Sometimes we’re influenced to be just like them and sometimes we’re influenced to do what we pick up as what they wish they would have done,” she says.
I’m no social scientist, but I’m thinking this difference highlights stereotypical societal gender roles: boys may feel more pressure to earn money, so it naturally factors into their reasoning not to have kids. (Have fun with that one, commenters.)
So, while it’s not hard science, it makes you wonder just how much a kid’s home life plays into his own desires to become a father. After all, for every two men who mentioned their fathers, three didn’t.
In my family, Dad was the stay-at-home type. Sometime around my fourth grade, after years of him holding odd jobs at McDonald’s or casino accounting offices, Mom went off to nursing school. She came home with what was supposed a stable future for the family.
But in our rigidly patriarchal Mormon faith, God expects you to put bacon on the bread table. (Or however that saying goes.) Dad struggled for years to come up with a business idea that would allow him to fulfill his God-given manly duties. But as Mom moved up the nursing management career ladder, Dad’s income-generating plans fizzled out. Money got tight as the Cox clan grew from one to seven kids.
Now, years later, I want zero. Coincidence?
Carroll found plenty of the typical motivations for staying kid-free—financial cost, impact on a relationship, environmental reasons—but above all, the decision is emotional.
“Depending on how honest a person is about how they really, truly feel about it, that’s when those more objective reasons kick in,” she says.
“It works just for the opposite, that if we really wanted to have kids, we might be more apt to believe that we can come up with the money to raise the kids, that it would help our relationship be even better,” she explains.
“I just found that those more objective motives really supported what in the end is a heart-based decision,” she says. “If people get close to that, they get close to their answer.”
This certainly isn’t the last time this column will delve into this topic. I sent an email to the American Sociological Association hoping to find an academic familiar with the research on the child-free crowd. As I type this, they were still tracking down someone. Hopefully they find someone named Laura.