Childlessness is Not a New Thing

Childlessness is not a 21st-century aberration. It turns out couples and single women have gone without children for as long as anyone has been keeping track. The Baby Boom was an anomaly that made us all think the way our parents did it was the standard by which all things should be judged.

Oh Lord, you’re thinking. Sue has lost it now. Big words, history lessons. Bear with me. I am reading a new book titled How to Be Childless: A History and Philosophy of Life Without Children by historian Rachel Chrastil. As you might guess, it’s the kind of book that’s slow reading, with lots of charts, footnotes and a source list that goes on for days. But I am learning so much.

As early as the 1500s, Chrastil writes, women delayed marriage for varying reasons. Some were trying to save up for a sufficient dowry to attract a husband. By putting off marriage and childbirth, women then, like now, could work, save money, and claim a place in society. Of course, if they waited too long, they might end up childless. Some decided they did not ever want the constraints of marriage. In those days, married women gave up all their rights to own property or manage their finances to their husbands. So-called “singlewomen” had more independence.

In the early 20th century, wars, the great flu epidemic, depressions, and other problems also caused couples to bear fewer children. Couples who suffered from infertility did not have the options available now. But those were not the only reasons. Women were claiming more rights, more autonomy. Remember, the suffragettes were marching for the right to vote.

Chrastil charts a drop in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Like now, one in five women did not have children. Why have we not heard about this? The answer is simple: They had no children or grandchildren to pass on their stories. “They fade out of our family history,” she says.

Even those who did have children were having fewer because they wanted more out of life than motherhood. But people didn’t discuss any of this in public. Even as recently as the 1960s, when I hit puberty, folks didn’t talk about pregnancy or periods or why “Aunt Jo” never had any children.

What about being childless by marriage? I’m halfway through the book. In the parts I have read so far, Chrastil doesn’t address the subject head-on, but she does note that there are “many gradations of voluntary childlessness.” Among fertile couples, she classifies couples as those who agree to have children, who agree to postpone having children, or who do not agree on the subject. I assume most of us here fall into that third category. I hope she writes more directly about this in the later pages.

Meanwhile, did you know birth control did not start with “the pill?” It might not have been as easy, but people had ways to prevent conception–besides pulling out before ejaculation or the ever-popular “Sorry, not tonight.” In the early times, women also used various herbs and prolonged breastfeeding to space out their children.

In the 1800s, couples used soapy douches, dried gut condoms, diaphragms, vaginal sponges and pessaries (a device that blocks access to the cervix). They were illegal in some places, but people used them and didn’t talk about it. Check out this website for more on early birth control. 

None of these methods were as reliable as today’s birth control pills, but they did slow the process, especially when combined with the “rhythm” method of timing intercourse with the woman’s least fertile periods. If those failed, there was abortion, not legal but definitely done. Chrastil writes, “In the United States in the early twentieth century, estimates range between 250,000 and 1 million illegal abortions a year.”

The baby boom, which happened in a period of economic growth and post-war happiness, was not the norm.  Looking back on those “Leave It to Beaver” years, we’re likely to think that’s how it always was. June and Ward got married young, bore their standard two children, and raised them in a big house with a white picket fence. Ward never said, “I don’t think I want children,” and June certainly didn’t rip off her apron and declare she’d rather have a career than bake cookies for their sons. But that’s not the way it always was, and it’s certainly not the way it is now.

We have more factors to consider these days. We have reliable birth control, and abortion is legal. Far more couples divorce and remarry, creating blended families and situations where one spouse has children and the other does not. Women have more career options. Both men and women are inclined to delay marriage and childbirth until they have finished their education and gotten their careers established. It’s a new world, but it’s also an old one.

We’re not the first childless generation after all.

So, what do you think about that? Your comments are welcome.








7 thoughts on “Childlessness is Not a New Thing

  1. Growing up, I had an aunt who was childless, unmarried, and who had a physical deformity. I didn’t think much about her and what she must have gone through. She passed away young (50s). Looking back, she was always laughing and joking with us nieces and nephews; she loved us and enjoyed life as much as possible. Not much held her back!
    Now, as I am also childless, I feel closer to her.


  2. Well, I can certainly believe we’re not the first people not to have kids. As you said, sex and reproductive matters just weren’t talked about in years gone by, and if you didn’t have kids & grandkids, your story wasn’t as likely to be told. Women’s stories generally are not a part of the history we’ve been taught. Plus, past generations didn’t have an easy way to connect & chat with each other (i.e., the Internet) like we do now. 🙂 Lots of stories are getting shared that never saw the light of day before!

    This book is in my TBR pile (on my e-reader). I think Jody Day mentioned it a while back. I’ll look forward to reading it myself eventually!


  3. Hi Sue,

    So glad to find this page. Here is my story: I am 40 1/2. One year ago, I met a man after ten years of being single, and a lifetime of short and unstable relationships. I don’t think I ever committed fully to another person before. Through my thirties, I sometimes thought about having kids on my own, but I knew that being a single mom wasn’t the kind of life I really wanted – the thought of having a partner and love, and hopefully a family, seemed much more important. Still, at 38, I got scared that time was running out and went to a fertility clinic to have some eggs frozen – only to find out that I already was almost out of eggs and my AMH was extremely low. The clinic strongly discouraged me from trying to freeze any, as it would likely result in a loss of both money and hope. I was starting to picture my life as childless, sensing that there could be both freedom and grief in it, when I met a man 15 years older than me the following fall. I didn’t think love like this existed, that it would ever happen to me. I didn’t know I could feel this close to someone, that some other person could contain and love the whole person I am – my feelings, my fears, my faults, making me feel so safe, so wanted, so happy.

    And yet, it is so, so, so hard. He has two grown-up kids and made it clear from the start that he wouldn’t change his mind about not wanting another baby. He simply feels too old for an infant or a toddler. We have talked it through, cried together and discussed our differences very openly. He is open to having a foster child of 6-8 years, and we don’t use birth control – so there is a “come what may” agreement between us. Still, the past year has been the hardest of my life, as well as the happiest of my life – if those two things are possible at the same time. Moving through this crisis is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I know that my chances of conceiving naturally are very small, and the thought of what could have been possible with IVF or egg donation is impossible to shake off. The pain of facing the fact that I most likely will never be a mother feels almost unbearable and meaningless, and I am ridden by the anxiety that I will never recover from it. Sometimes I reach the point where everything feels hopeless, and despite the absolutely wonderful relationship I have, I feel that the disagreement about children is too much for me, that I’m unable to cope with this impossible decision. But the thought of giving up on a love it took me a lifetime to find, to start what would undoubtedly be a very hard and unsure journey for a partner who would go through egg donation with me, while heartbroken, in my forties – it just feels very wrong, too. I wish I could just feel at peace with my childless state and just be thankful for the relationship, but I feel scared, sad and at a loss. It’s like I’m walking around seeking for confirmation that this relationship is not doomed, while at the same time feeling devastated. I honestly don’t know how I go on from this. I only hope and pray that it will get easier in time, and that better days are ahead.


    • Siri, I feel your pain. You are at a point where it feels like everything has to be decided right now, and I know it’s painful. I hope you can find a way to love your wonderful man and accept that he and his kids are a gift. But I know that isn’t easy. Hang in there. You are not alone.


      • Dear Sue, thank you for your kind comment a while ago. I feel I am changing between the good stages, where I can look into a bright future and connect with my man (still wonderful!), and the bad stages, where I feel stuck in my anger, shame and resentment and not able to move past it. Right now, it’s the latter. I get so anxious – will it ruin the relationship? Will it ever get better, and when? What is the key to letting go?


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