Childless – and Godless

A growing number of American women are avoiding the maternity ward. The circumstances of America’s childless women receive illuminating attention in a study completed by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). This study highlights—among other things—the sterilizing consequences of irreligion.

The NCHS scholars see a number of clear patterns in nationally representative data collected between 1982 and 2002. First they note, “Over the last three decades, the United States has seen a steady increase in the proportion of women who are childless at older ages.” Some of these childless women, the researchers acknowledge, are “temporarily childless” women who do intend to have children at some point. Not infrequently, these are women who choose “later childrearing” as a strategy for securing “higher levels of education, more highly skilled careers, and more seniority in the workplace.” Provocatively, the authors of the study suggest, “some [of these women] will regret not having started childbearing earlier even if it would have meant curtailment of workplace attainment.”

But the “temporarily childless” women do not finally interest the researchers nearly as much as do the “voluntarily childless.” The NCHS analysts report that while only 5 percent of American women between the ages of 35 and 44 were voluntarily childless in 1982, the percentage almost doubled before the end of the century, as it “peaked in 1995 at 9 percent.” Demographers have since witnessed “a slight downturn” in voluntary childlessness in recent years, but 7 percent of American women between the ages of 35 and 44 were still in this category in 2002, the last year for which data are available.

As they further investigate the nation’s fertility patterns, the researchers can only marvel at “the uniqueness of the voluntarily childless.” Who are these women? Disproportionately, they are White, though the very latest data indicate “the percentage of the voluntarily childless who were Black [has] increased to be equivalent to their percents in the total population.” In contrast, Hispanic women are “underrepresented among the voluntarily childless in all survey years.”

But career attitudes matter more than ethnicity in defining the character of the voluntarily childless. The researchers observe that “since at least 1988, [the voluntarily childless] have stood out as having the highest percents working full time, even compared to the temporarily childless.” Quite likely, this commitment to employment explains why “voluntarily childless women have higher educations . . . than the overall population.” Unburdened by children, these women are significantly more likely than other women to move ahead in “professional and managerial occupations” and they are, therefore, the beneficiaries of “the highest individual and family incomes” reported by women of their ages.

Voluntarily childless women do seem to be finding their way to the bank. But not many of them are finding their way to church. With good reasons, the authors of the study stress “the uniqueness of the voluntarily childless with respect to religiosity.” Among voluntarily childless women, the researchers find a remarkably high percentage “reporting no religious affiliation, never attending religious services, and reporting religion as not important in their daily lives.” This pattern thus “underscores the importance of religion in one’s life for shaping childbearing attitudes and vice versa.”

For Americans who still read their Bibles, this study may call to mind verses in which the Lord God summons the faithful to worship with a promise: “So shall your seed and your name remain” (Isa. 66:22).

(Joyce C. Abma and Gladys M. Martinez, “Childlessness Among Older Women in the United States: Trends and Profiles,”Journal of Marriage and Family 68 [2006]: 1045–56.)