Reading the recent article, “The New Science of Single People” published on nymag.com’s Science of Us got me thinking about what lifelong single people have in common with the childfree: it revolves around being subject to myths. In her informative piece, Jesse Singal discusses “common cultural scripts” about marriage versus staying single. Cultural and social ‘scripts’ pertain to the childfree choice as well.
Single People & the Childfree: Inaccurately Stereotyped
If you ask most people the most important differences between single and married people, Singal writes, “they’d probably answer that single people tend to be a bit lonelier, a bit sadder, maybe a bit more lacking in life purpose and fulfillment compared to their married friends and family members.” Why do people so easily think this? Because social and cultural norms tell us that we feel more happiness and experience more fulfillment when we live a married life. However, a truth: “careful studies and meta-analyses have often shown that there is no clear well-being benefit to getting hitched.”
Similarly, social and cultural pronatalist assumptions include the myth that becoming parents brings us ‘true’ fulfillment. The truth? We each have our own unique path to fulfillment. Parenthood can be part of it, but sure does not have to be. Assumptions also include the notion that if we don’t have children, in our later years we will have less emotional well-being and feel lonelier than parents with adult children. Truth: Research just does not back this up. The rare times studies claim this is the case, invariably, sample groups have issues, which I touch on below.
The Assumption: There Must Be Something Wrong With You
Because all of us are supposed to want to get married and have children, when we don’t do one or the other people can easily conclude there must be something wrong with us and our lives. And when we don’t do either, double down on what’s wrong with us!
The truth: People’s lack of desire to marry and/or parent does not stem from something wrong with them, or something they lack. They’ve simply chosen not to become a wife, husband, mother, or father. Rejecting normative roles such as these widens unique expressions of human individuality.
Research on the childfree and lifelong single people share particular issues. Those with no children have been studied and compared to people with children more than ever before in the last decade or so, but problems often exist with problematic sample groups. Studies commonly do not break down those with no children by motivation or situation, e.g., those who chose not to have children, those who want them but don’t have them right now, and those who want them but have had trouble getting pregnant. If these groups are not delineated in studies with no kid and parent sample groups, it impacts the reliability and validity of the results.
With research on singles, the first problem stems from the lack of it – not much of it exists. As Bella DePaulo, author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After has said, “The idea has been that everybody wants to get married, and eventually everybody will, so why bother studying single people?”
She reviewed research literature and was shocked to find how some studies on the effects of marriage tend to artificially inflate married people’s reported happiness and well-being. And some studies have even “lumped in divorced people with single people, artificially deflating that group’s happiness.” DePaulo also found that we see almost no studies with sample groups that make direct comparisons between people who ever got married and those who stayed single.
Learn From, Rather Than Judge
Childfree people and lifelong singles share the social and cultural experience that “it’s tough to chip away” at cherished beliefs society has about marriage and parenthood. Yet to their credit, both groups have opted out of the ‘life script’ and chosen to live in their own ways.
And both groups are growing. According to Rebecca Traister, author of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, “there are now so many single women that they alone constitute a potent, growing, and important voting bloc. Add in men and single people are a huge chunk of the population.” In the last four decades, we have seen a rise in people opting out of parenthood, and these days, this choice is talked about more than ever before.
Rather than inaccurately judge them, may more people decide to learn from those who remain single and those who pass on parenthood. As DePaulo says about potential research on singles, and it’s true for the childfree as well: “…there’s a lot of rich terrain to mine.”