(CNN) — Dyanna Volek was never one to dream of being a mother.
From an early age, she knew deep down that she didn’t want to have children. Perhaps it was due to watching her mother sacrifice her dream of becoming a flight attendant and working three jobs to raise two children on her own. Or perhaps it was that other endeavors of hers interested him more.
“I always look forward to the next thing,” said Volek, who works in local government in San Francisco. “Being a mother was never one of them.”
Still, the idea of not having children seemed taboo, so she didn’t give it much thought. It wasn’t until a few years ago when he started a serious relationship with his partner that she really recognized his feelings. When she and her husband got married last November, they had come to one conclusion: They didn’t want children.
Volek is now 37 years old and does not see herself changing her mind.
Not having children gives you a sense of freedom that your friends who are parents don’t have. Now that they are vaccinated, she and her husband have been able to eat out at restaurants, attend concerts and travel without worrying about putting their children’s safety at risk.
They can work to retire early, a goal that would otherwise be unattainable in a city as expensive as theirs. And in their daily lives, they have a lot of time for themselves.
Volek is part of a growing number of women in the United States who are choosing not to have children, part of a trend that has been underway for more than a decade.
Since 2007, the nation’s birth rate has decreased by about 2% each year on average. Despite early speculation of a pandemic baby boom, the coronavirus crisis further accelerated the decline, with births falling 4% last year.
It was the largest annual decline in the number of births since 1973, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Demographers point to a number of factors driving this phenomenon: economic insecurity, political uncertainty, changing gender norms, and a decrease in stigma around choosing not to have children. Although the pandemic has exposed how little support American families receive from the government when it comes to childcare and other obligations, some women have already made up their minds.
These are some of the reasons why some women choose not to have children.
They don’t want the responsibility
Cecilia Sanders, a 32-year-old project manager in Chicago, had long been sure she didn’t want children. She felt motherhood was too big a responsibility and the idea of pregnancy scared her.
Still, she says she felt pressured to feel different, as if she would disappoint others if she decided not to have children. For about a year, she tried to force herself to change her mind, talking to friends who were parents about her experiences and how they made time for themselves.
Turns out her friends often didn’t have time for themselves. Their children, they said, came first.
Sanders realized that sacrificing her own needs to fulfill her duty as a mother would be especially taxing on her. She deals with anxiety and depression, and when those conditions flare, even taking care of herself becomes a challenge.
The idea of raising children without neglecting their mental health seemed almost impossible.
“After a year of really thinking about it, I was like, ‘No. If I do this, I’m lying to myself,'” she said.
They fear lack of support
For some, the way America treats mothers is reason enough not to have children.
Amy Blackstone, a sociologist at the University of Maine and the author of “Childfree by Choice: The Movement Redefining Family and Creating a New Age of Independence,” says the lack of family-friendly policies in the US is one explanation for the decline in the birth rate in recent years, something made even clearer by the pandemic.
For the past year, parents have had to keep working, often without childcare or while having to help their children learn remotely. The situation has left people stressed and exhausted, and perhaps more likely to delay or reconsider having more children.
“The pandemic has really revealed to us how poorly we support parents in America,” Blackstone said. “We’ve come to see the truth that we always knew but never spoke out loud, which is that parenting is really hard. And we don’t really support fathers in that role.”
That was certainly a consideration for Yana Grant, a 24-year-old from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who decided last year not to have children. The United States does not offer a national paid parental leave program. Child care can be expensive or hard to come by. And women are more likely to shoulder the lion’s share of parental responsibilities and household chores.
“As soon as you find out you’re pregnant, you have to be a mother first and a woman second,” Grant said. “Men become men and then become a father, it seems.”
As a black woman, Grant also has other things to worry about. Black women are more likely than women of any other race to die from pregnancy-related problems. They are also more likely to have their concerns dismissed, their pain untreated, and their experiences disbelieved.
For Grant, those concerns are rooted in reality. A few years ago, he felt his heart beat fast and his throat swell, and he went to see a medical professional. She says the doctor told her to stay hydrated and sent her home without checking her thyroid. When she saw another doctor for the same symptoms about a year later, she was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder that leads to an overactive thyroid gland.
If she becomes pregnant and something goes wrong, Grant fears her symptoms and complaints could be similarly dismissed.
“I feel like as a black woman, you don’t have much that is your own,” she said. “So keeping that part of me is the only thing I know I have control over. [Puedo] say I made that conscious decision to save myself because chances are no one else will.”
They like their life the way it is
As Jordan Levey focused on law school and building his career, he assumed that a “maternal instinct” would eventually kick in. Once he found a mate, he thought, they would settle down and maybe decide to have children.
Now 35 and married for four years, Levey says she and her husband have realized they prefer their current lifestyle. They own a condo and are doting parents to their dog. And although they both make a comfortable living, they prefer to spend their money on the things they love.
“We are very happy with our lives. We love to travel, we love to cook, we both really value our alone time and that personal care,” she said. “I think we’d be perfect parents, but I don’t think we’d enjoy it.”
For Sanders, not having children allows him to devote time to all his interests: writing, playing the guitar, hiking, traveling and rescuing animals. It also means that she can focus more on her career, which is “the most important thing” for her.
“I definitely feel like I probably wouldn’t be as far in my career as I am right now and wouldn’t be able to live my normal life and pursue my hobbies and passions,” Sanders said. “I wouldn’t be living my life to the fullest.”
That women like Levey and Sanders feel empowered to choose a childless lifestyle is significant, Blackstone says.
In the past, women who might have been inclined to remain childfree might have given birth anyway because that is what society expected of them. However, in recent decades those norms and attitudes have changed.
“We have more conversations about the reality that parenthood is a choice, not something that everyone has to do,” he said.
But they’re still judged by their choice
Perhaps it is more socially acceptable than ever for women not to have children. Still, women who choose not to have children say they still feel like they constantly have to explain their choices to others.
They have been called selfish, accused of hating children, and told that they will regret their decision later in life when they find themselves alone.
Volek says she feels that childless people like her are judged as shallow or have not understood the enormity of the decision they are making, when that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“People who choose not to have children think about it a lot, I would say even more than people who have children,” he added.
The assumption that childless women don’t care about children is also not true, some say. Volek loves to play with the children of her friends. Levey enjoys spending time with her niece and his nephew.
Grant is in a relationship with a man who has a son and is perfectly happy to hang out with the young man.
“I’ll ask him if he wants to go see ‘Boss Baby 2.’ I’ll take him to some of the [museos] Smithsonians,” said the Oklahoma resident, who plans to move with her partner to Washington City. “But that’s as far as I’m going.”
Blackstone, who has interviewed countless people about their decision not to have children, says the people she’s spoken with acknowledge that they may one day regret their decision.
But he said they would rather not have children and repent later than have children and repent.
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