Women are the major focus of discourse when it comes to discussing the choice between parenthood and a childfree life. In our book, Enough of Us, we dedicate a chapter to the motives for reproducing. A recent Time magazine cover story focuses on a narrow range of reasons why women choose to forego parenthood. That article dealt almost exclusively with women who just wanted more comfortable lifestyles, without considering more philosophical motives for a childfree existence. But where do the menfolk stand in relation to this issue?
Patricia Lunneborg’s 1999 book, The Chosen Lives of Childfree Men, is an inquiry into men who have opted out of parenting. What was the profile of the typical man who chose to forego parenthood? Lunneborg knew there was an “information gap” about men’s motives for deciding not to be fathers, so she took a “sample of convenience” of 30 men from the United States and the United Kingdom in order to explore voluntary childlessness from a male viewpoint. Lunneborg, a former Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington, took her sample from friends of friends, appeals for subjects from American Childless by Choice, Zero Population Growth (now Population Connection), and the British Organisation of Non-Parents.
Through the interviewing process, which was designed for discovery rather than scientific study, she concluded that the “typical childfree man … doesn’t want children, he doesn’t want to manage people.” He wants an uncomplicated life, with minimal stress. Although work is important to him, he isn’t highly ambitious. In this 1999 study he preferred to change jobs as his interests shifted, and wanted to carve out time for learning and travel. He also tended to be artistic and leaned toward “making things with his hands.”
A childfree man’s ideas about fatherhood are less personal and more society-oriented than most women’s. Lunneborg’s sample of men expressed “the same heightened sense of responsibility” about children being the first priority in one’s life. But if he doesn’t think he could do it right, especially given the present state of society, then the tendency is simply to “don’t do it.” Their fear was that they wouldn’t succeed in keeping their offspring safe from a host of “unhealthy pressures of society.” Many of the men in the study also expressed concerns about bearing children in the face of global overpopulation. Only a minority of the 30 males interviewed believed that their decision not to reproduce made a positive difference in our overcrowded world.
On the other hand, Lunneborg found that “even though many of the voluntarily childless men subscribed to the zero population growth ideology, that’s not why they chose to be childfree. They made their decisions for personal not political reasons.”
The personal reasons related to social and economic realities. The difficulties when one is a father, which includes being both breadwinner and sharing childcare duties with their mate, was not something these men relished. The possibility of divorce is another consideration. What if a father remarries and finds himself with two families to support, both financially and emotionally? That lifestyle would be too stressful for the majority of men in this study.
Responsibility is a big issue for men. Lunneborg quotes historian Laurie Lisle regarding the research on non-fathers in her 1996 book, Without Child: Challenging the stigma of childlessness: “Liberal or idealistic men who believe in gender equality or co-parenting are sometimes more reluctant to undertake fatherhood than traditional males who feel no obligation to share child care. Opting for childlessness often seems more honorable to many of them than taking on halfhearted or irresponsible fatherhood.”
Lunneborg concluded from her own work and that of others researchers, that once a woman “makes the decision not to have a child, she confronts another equally daunting task: on what is she going to base her identity as a woman and as a person . . .?” She then asked if the same could be said of men. Her conclusion was “no.” A childfree woman must forge another identity, whereas men who chose not to be fathers “were happy as they were . . .” and clearly content not to make more of us.
Does Patricia Lunneborg’s study hold up today? We’d love to hear from fathers and non-fathers alike about this one. In our own research survey for Enough of Us we never considered men’s motives as a separate issue, much to our own failure. But we have little incentive to believe that there have been great changes to men’s inclinations about parenthood in the last 14 years.