Without Children: The Long History of Not Being a Mother by Peggy O’Donnell Heffington, Seal Press, coming out April 18, 2023. [pre-publication copy sent by publicist]
Women didn’t start choosing not to have children in the late 20th century with the advent of legal abortion and The Pill. As historian Peggy O’Donnell Heffington describes in this book, it has been happening throughout history. Women were using a variety of herbal concoctions and crazy methods to keep sperm from meeting egg long before birth control pills became widely available in the 1970s. What is new is the way families have separated themselves up into mom-dad-children units, each living in their own separate homes instead of the multi-generational communal living of earlier eras. In those times, mothers had aunts, grandparents and siblings to help. Now they’re expected to do all the childcare AND work outside the home, giving most of their income to daycare.
Other things have changed, too. Couples worry more about overpopulation, climate change, and the financial challenges of parenting. Women delay parenting to pursue education and careers, then struggle with infertility when it’s almost too late. It’s much less of a scandal these days if a couple decides not to reproduce, but there is still a strong belief that having children is the norm and if we’re not doing that we need to explain ourselves.
This book looks at the various reasons for not having children, including wanting more out of life, concerns about our overcrowded planet, the frustrations of infertility, and simply choosing not to have them. Heffington goes into great depth on each subject. We learn about early birth control, family organization, activists who fought for women’s right to control their own bodies, how fertility treatments work and the statistics on their effectiveness, and much more. The level of detail is incredible, but the facts never bog down the narrative. Don’t let the footnotes scare you away. I highly recommend it for anyone trying to decide whether or not to have children or dealing with the decision after it’s a done deal, as well as for the people who love them.
My only quibble is that she doesn’t say much about being childless by marriage. It’s sort of buried in the many ways we can wind up without children. I wish she had said more about that. Still, it’s full of fascinating facts. For example:
*Nearly half of millennial women have no children and an increasing number don’t ever plan to.
* Births have dropped dramatically since the 2008 recession because couples feel they just can’t afford it. Add in the pandemic, and even fewer are willing to jump into the parenting pool. The same thing happened during the Great Depression early in the 20th century.
* Contraception has only been legal in the United States for married women since 1965 and for all American women since 1972. (That’s the year I lost my virginity. That blows my mind. If I had started having sex one year earlier, I would not have been able to get The Pill. I would probably have been pregnant on my wedding day.)
* People have been using all kinds of methods to prevent or to end pregnancies throughout history. Among the possibilities: mixing a spermicide made of hydrated sodium carbonate with crocodile droppings, blocking the cervix with a disk made of acacia gum, and rubbing crushed juniper berries on the man’s penis. Some of the things described here actually worked.
* There’s a theory that humans live far beyond their reproductive years so they can care for their extended families and the children in their communities rather than having more or any children of their own.
* The choice not to have children may not feel like much of a choice at all when you factor in the challenges of establishing a career, finding the right partner, saving for a home, paying off student loans, or working multiple jobs to make ends meet. (I would add dealing with physical or emotional problems, marrying partners who already have children, who have had vasectomies or hysterectomies, or who just plain don’t want them. Is it really a choice when you can have this person you love OR children and might end up with neither?)
Heffington, who claims a husband and two pugs as family, writes from the point of view of a historian. A professor at the University of Chicago, she writes and teaches on the histories of gender, rights, and the environment. It all comes together in Without Children.
The book comes out next month, but you can preorder it now.