How could it be fulfilled without children

Willful Childlessness: The Decision to Live Without Children

Why do couples stay childless?

The decision to live without children is influenced by both individual and societal factors. In the following I would like to go into more detail about the individual backgrounds, so I only briefly touch on important social framework conditions.

Nowadays, training takes longer and entry into working life takes place later than in previous generations. This delays the separation from the parental home, and financial independence is only achieved much later. In Western Europe, the choice of a life partner is no longer made according to prescribed rules and has become more flexible on the one hand, and more difficult on the other hand due to the desire for a “romantic love”. This has consequences for the child question.

In addition, the introduction of the pill as a safe contraceptive since the 1960s has given couples the freedom to choose whether they want to have children, how many, and when. At the same time, however, the new norm of “responsible parenting planning” (Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim) was created: only bring children into the world if their parents are also able to provide them with appropriate psychological and physical care raising.

As a result, many women and men only see themselves in a position to father children when they have professional and financial security. However, the current labor market situation and the working conditions hardly offer this security anymore; With increasing globalization, jobs cannot always be designed as desired or cannot be found at all. Be unemployed and have a child? For many, economic security is a prerequisite for parenthood. This attitude is particularly strong among women, which is not surprising as the new poor are often single mothers. Working conditions and uncertainties about childcare options make it difficult for many people to combine work and children or family.

With the current high level of unemployment, there is also the fact that geographical mobility is often a prerequisite for a job or for career advancement. Now what if both partners are working? The situation arises more and more frequently that a city does not offer a job for both partners. The job in one city can be an important stepping stone for one partner in entering or advancing into a career, while for the other it can result in job losses or even unemployment. What's the alternative? Weekend relationships and commuting! This in turn means expenditure of coordination, money and time and restricts private life. Less time for yourself, for friends, a relationship “under the cheese bell” and also fewer breaks and recovery times lead to exhaustion and thus less resilience. And should one still have children there?

How biographical experiences and personal characteristics shape the decision

When deciding on the question of children, certain characteristics or “messages” that women and men take with them from their parents' home, as well as experiences in their own family of origin, play an important role.

Sabine H. (name changed) grew up with her twin sister and younger brother with her practically single mother. Her mother had always wanted children, and when the twins came she gave up her job. The father worked on Mondays, so he was only there on weekends. Her mother was overwhelmed with the care of the two babies, which she had to cope with all by herself. She did not feel up to the situation with two children, and ultimately the mother had imagined her life to be different. When Sabine's younger brother was born, she made this clear to her children.

Sabine reports how she grew up: “So from home I noticed a very negative attitude towards children. The worst thing that could happen to a person, i.e. a woman, was that she had children - for God's sake! And: just don't do it like me ”. Her mother made it very clear to Sabine that she should better take a different path in life, and the message “Don't do it like me” has accompanied Sabine her whole life.

A transmission of messages from parents to children can be found in almost all families. In psychological terminology this is called “delegation”, and systemic family therapy has dealt with it very extensively. In the case of deliberately childless women, the messages often concern unfulfilled dreams of their mothers or fathers. Independence and unfulfilled professional desires play a particularly important role in the messages from mothers: “Live a more independent life than me” or “Don't make yourself dependent on a man like I was” are the messages. To be independent and to have children - that is mutually exclusive for many women.

For many women who were deliberately childless, the mothers did not serve as role models. In the eyes of their daughters, they had given up their jobs and their independence for their children, were emotionally and financially dependent on their fathers or completely overwhelmed by the children; in short, in the eyes of these women they did not determine their own lives. So it is hardly surprising that there is a desire for these women not to repeat the negative experiences of their own mother.

For men, choosing not to have children is more often a response to negative experiences about family life as a whole. Mathias F. (name changed), who had already experienced in his early years what it meant for a father to support a family of 5, was not up to the task of taking on the role of the father of the family. But neither did he want the potential mother of his children to get into the situation in which he experienced his mother. He says: “My papa, he got up at four in the morning, he went to the train station at five and then took the train into town to the office where he worked. He came back late in the evening. It was gone for 16 hours. He was already in his nightgown at the news TV that evening, he was already so overtired. There was the news, then off to bed, out again at four in the morning. If he'd still had family problems on his back, he would have gone crazy. My mother kept everything away from him, of course. Our mother was totally overwhelmed by four children. "

Women and men who want to be childless also have fears of passing on their own negative experiences or the fear of repeating their parents' mistakes in upbringing. For some respondents, the negative experiences in the family of origin lead to doubts about their own parenting skills. Under no circumstances do they want to pass on what they have experienced themselves and feel a special sense of responsibility here. For example, one of the women said: “So I always had concerns that I would end up raising my child exactly as my mother raised me. I did not want. I can't expect a child to do that ”.

Taking responsibility for their actions is very important to all of the women and men I have spoken to. They don't do things “by halves”, and if they “also” want something other than children in their life, then they prefer to choose the other instead of trying to integrate children into their lives. “A child has a right to certain claims, and if I cannot or do not want to meet them in full and one hundred percent, it is better not to have any” is the position taken by some of the respondents.

Behind this is a very idealized image of the mother. The women compare the feelings they have about children with those that they believe the “optimal” mother should have. The good mother must therefore always and everywhere be ready to be called upon, and make it her life's task to fully meet the needs of the child. And of course this gives her exclusively and always joy. From the social side it is also often suggested that it is possible to manage the balancing act between the perfect wife or partner, the attractive lover and the loving mother. But even for the talented gymnasts among women, this only works sporadically and in particularly good times.

The intentionally childless women and men therefore have very high demands on themselves. “I think if I had a child I would have to be willing to sacrifice my time, just devote myself to my child. And I'm not ready for that. " Deliberately childless women cannot and do not want to have children because they have other life plans and goals in life and see these two options as incompatible. For example, the sociologist Rosemarie Nave-Herz determined that some of the deliberately childless women definitely wanted to have children. She came to the conclusion that, above all, the conflict between equal options - i.e. career and children - is the actual causative condition for the repeated postponement of the desire to have children and, ultimately, the abandonment of these plans.

"I'm not a mother type"

Women and men who opt for a life without children have a stronger desire for independence and a more pronounced employment and professional orientation compared to parents. They see themselves not in a position to reconcile work and children, and report that they are afraid of being put at risk by children in their professional and private self-fulfillment. For many, an agreement between children and work is ruled out because there are few ways to combine the two.

A conversation partner, for example, decides at the age of 25 for a demanding professional career and for a life without children. “I just made the decision, either job or family. I was very young then. I was in training and just wanted to get ahead. At that time I had the opportunity to become self-employed. Then I was faced with the question of whether I should marry or pursue the profession. And I've decided for the job ”.

Some of the women surveyed continue to show that their need for independence is closely linked to an attempt to abandon the traditional role of women. The perception and balancing of one's own role as a woman in the area of ​​tension between tradition and modern ideas play an important role for some women in their attitude towards children.

The role of partnership in choosing a life without children

The partnership naturally plays a major role in the decision for a life without children. There is a smaller group of intentionally childless women and men who make the decision against having children at a very early age (up to their mid-twenties) and also not within the partnership. Before relationships are formed in which children could become an issue, these people have already made their decision. In research, they are referred to as “early articulators”.

Most people, however, make the decision regarding the issue of children within the partnership. The couple often postpones their plans for children first; That means, for different reasons the time “to get pregnant” is postponed again and again: First the training has to be completed, then you travel. The next thing to do is to find a secure job, and eventually maybe build a house or buy a condominium. A lot may have happened by then: The couple may have separated, or a mental or physical illness may have occurred. Many couples also state that they decide against having children because of the high value of the partnership. However, some postpone the decision until it has been settled for reasons of age.

Regardless of the type of decision-making - whether it was made jointly or alone, whether this decision came more strongly from a partner or whether a consensus was only found after numerous discussions - and regardless of the structure of the relationship, the women and men I spoke to were each other , aware that their relationship with a child would inevitably have changed. Childlessness is an important part of their relationship. A child changes a love relationship very much; It is different for three people than for two. Studies also confirm this. Suddenly there is no more time on the weekend to cuddle in bed until noon; conversations in the evening are dropped because one is too tired or because one of the two partners is having “the child-free evening”; the evening for two has to be planned meticulously. A child demands, and sometimes there is not much energy left for himself, let alone for the other and the relationship.

The high value that the couple relationship has for the willingly childless can also be found in the justification for the decision in favor of childlessness. “I was afraid that our relationship would change if we had less time for each other. That she is no longer what she is now, ”said one interviewee. The respondents report that they are concerned that having children could worsen the quality of the relationship, so that they would have to make significant compromises. They fear that they will not be able to maintain the closeness that they have with their partner in the usual way, and that the child will alienate them and drive a wedge between them. They have often experienced this in close circle of friends: “My best friend has a child. I saw how the child affected their relationship, ”says another of the women. “Since then, they have only been checking: who picks up the child and where, who does the shopping, household chores and nappy changing. The relationship now consists only of organizing. I don't think that children weld couples together any more, ”she continues.

Conversely, the relationship that does not work, that harbors financial or emotional uncertainties or does not offer a secure framework for a life with children, can also be a reason for deciding against having children. This was the case, for example, with a conversation partner who had planned to have children all her life. She fell in love with an artist when she was in her early thirties. The latter - significantly older than her - is very sure that he does not want any children, as his financial situation seems too insecure to him. For them, the topic of children is not so much the focus of their lives. She loves this man and postpones the subject for another time. The two move in together, and each lives independently of the other on his own salary. Every now and then they talk about the possibility of having a child. At around 35 years of age, the woman realizes that she has to make a decision - that she cannot put off the decision between husband and child any longer. With a child - she already knows that - it would be financially very tight for them as a couple. In addition, she would be primarily responsible for the child, since his professional appointments cannot be arranged with a child. She would have to give up her great passion, riding, because she could no longer take care of the horse. These are all conditions that make her uncomfortable. Before they get married, the woman ponders for a long time how important the partnership is to her and how important the desire to live with children is to her. She chooses the partnership.

Whether women and men in similar situations regard childlessness as a decision of their own or whether they experience it as unwanted in such cases depends on their person and the way they deal with events.

What are the relationships of childless couples like? Are there any differences to those of parents?

The relationships between childless women and men are very different. The variety ranges from couples who live their relationship at a distance and need a lot of freedom in the partnership to those who have very close, seemingly symbiotic relationships. Some couples consider each other to be soul mates, and others feel that they have found each other because they are so opposed to each other. The same characteristics can also be found in couples with children. There are couples who relate very exclusively to one another in their lives and others whose connection is more dependent on independence.

According to studies, couples who do not want to have children differ from couples who want to have children in that they have a stronger inner cohesion. The already described very close relationship of some childless couples results in some also from their wish to remain childless.For other couples, on the other hand, the need for exclusive attention and the feeling of not wanting to share the partner lead to a strong feeling of togetherness. These women and men have high expectations of their two-person relationship, demand a lot of attention and mutual trust and do a lot of “partnership work” in order to create the feeling of being cared for, of closeness and of exclusivity in the relationship. These needs and desires are likely to be present in some parents too; however, their fulfillment depends to a large extent on the personalities of the children, the childcare options and the partner.

Further research claims that couples who are intentionally childless often have a stronger feeling of belonging together and the need to have common interests than couples with children. They describe a stronger need to exchange ideas intellectually within the partnership and pursue their own interests and professional goals more intensively. They also strive to a greater extent for forms of equal relationships and demand progressive roles from their partners. In addition, women without children are more likely than mothers to be involved in activities outside the home with their partners and, overall, to spend more time with their partners. There are also higher demands or a lower willingness to compromise in the partnership among women who are deliberately childless compared to mothers. If their expectations are not met, women are more likely to separate from their respective partners than to compromise.

But is this lifestyle and relationship style the cause or consequence of the decision to be childless? Because one thing is clear: When a couple has one or more children, at least one partner is usually temporarily restricted from pursuing their own interests and professional goals. The couple with children will be able to go out less - or only one of them will be able to go out as the other has to look after the child. Maybe they can go out together once a week - provided they have enough money to spend on babysitting or willing helpers. Anyone who has children has to make more compromises in life overall - and that of course also applies to the relationship. The gender-specific division of labor is still prevalent today after the birth of children.

Overall, it could be that there are no differences between parents and childless people with regard to ideas about how to shape relationships and that the differences observed in practice can rather be explained as the consequences of different lifestyles. It has often been suggested in the literature that childless marriages are more unhappy and divorce more likely. More recent studies, on the other hand, find that childless couples are just as satisfied with their lives as couples with children. In my studies, too, there were no differences in partnership satisfaction between the intentionally childless couples and their parents. There were couples who were satisfied with their partnership and some who broke up. For couples who separated, the child issue was not a major factor in the separation or divorce. There were a variety of other reasons for the breakups, such as marriages or partnerships with children. The higher divorce rates among childless couples reported in some studies could also be attributed to the fact that it is simply easier for childless couples to separate, as separation is extremely stressful for children.

What actually happens if one of the partners wants children and the other partner doesn't? According to study results, almost half of the couples agree on the decision to be childless; in the other half, one partner has decided against having children, while the other partner is undecided. Open disagreement is rare when it comes to deciding whether to be childless between couples; it occurs most often when husbands try to persuade their wives to be childless. Often women express their vote on the issue of children, which is then taken up and supported by the men. But men of today's generation (born 1960 and up) are now more concerned about whether they want to have children or not than their predecessors and are increasingly making the decision not to have children.

If one of the partners decided against having children at a young age, it is more difficult to come to a consensus within the partnership than if the other partner is insecure or might want to have children. Usually it is the man who knows early on that he does not want children, and the woman is initially insecure. Over time, her desire to have children may become clearer and more and more certain that she wants children. Then it becomes difficult. Does the partner have to change his mind after all? Often a phase then occurs in which the child's topic is initially discussed more often.

The conflict over the child issue can easily escalate because the positions of the two partners are becoming increasingly polarized. Let us assume here the more common case that the woman wants to have children and the man is insecure or determined not to have children. It now often happens that in the course of the dispute and the increasing escalation of the conflict, women no longer notice their own ambivalences about the child's issue. The man, on the other hand, out of defiance and out of the dynamic of the conversation, advocates the no to the child question ever more vehemently.

In such situations it may be helpful to let the topic rest for a while and to review your own position on the question. Once the conflict has been defused, some couples will have surprising twists and turns. Suddenly the man develops a desire to have children, or an unplanned pregnancy occurs and the man becomes an “absolute child lover”. If this does not happen, a phase comes for these couples in which everyone actually has to decide for themselves how to proceed. Often it is the woman who has to choose between the partnership and her desire to have children. This decision is difficult, especially since the woman does not know what her life with children could look like later - has she just got lost in an idea and completely wrong ideas? - has found a partner with whom she can now realize this lifelong dream. But what if she decides against having children and later bitterly regrets it? Or if, in five years' time, she separates from her current partner and then grievously reproaches himself and him?

What to do? Neither in one direction nor in the other can opposing life plans be brought together. This means that it is of no use to one partner who wants children to be dissuaded from this life plan, nor to the other partner to be persuaded to have children. The decision must be taken independently by everyone for themselves in order to keep the probability of a later burden on the relationship through accusations and lawsuits low. Whatever the decision, there will be a price to be paid for them: either the relationship will break up or you will compromise in favor of the partnership. The consequences of a decision against children are just as great as the decision for them - both cannot be reversed after a certain point in time.

What can decision-making aids be? As strategies and steps for decision-making, those affected describe the fact that they sought discussions with parents and consciously tackled their own confrontation with the issue of children, for example by clarifying their own short-term and long-term goals, determining the pros and cons of the question of having children or even a life have tried with a child by “borrowing” a child.

Some couples come to a decision through the decision of what is known as a “legitimate decision-making authority”. In this case, the greater concern of mothers by parenthood is taken into account and therefore the woman is allowed to have more weight than the attitude of the man. Once the decision has been made, some people avoid a partner who wants to have children, someone who could potentially question their decision again and who is at risk of being asked to deal with this issue.

Life without children: life goals and attitudes towards life

"What would I be without my children?" One hears this sentence from parents now and then. Children fulfill many functions in a parent's life. For example, they offer structure: as soon as you have children, life automatically takes on “a shape”. For some parents the questions about their own wishes in life, about the meaning of life, are thus settled; it is easier for them to take responsibility for a child's life than for their own. Others “use” children to avoid the risk of having to prove themselves professionally or as an excuse for professional failure.

Furthermore, children guarantee a certain contact: parents rarely get lonely. Children are the connection to the younger generations; one has the feeling of participating in the further development of the world, because the perspective of the younger ones remains transparent. Some parents think that children make it possible to go through an inner growth process - with children adults could develop themselves further and learn to see the world with different eyes. People with children can also meet certain needs: Children offer them the opportunity to fulfill their desire for care. And of course, many parents of children hope for support in old age or have the idea that they will continue to live through their own children after they die.

Of course, children also meet other needs, and some of these are very different from one another. Only a few should be hinted at at this point - this list is not intended to be exhaustive as this is not the subject of the article.

People - both parents and childless - have the needs outlined above to varying degrees. These can be lived out through children; but of course there are also other ways of meeting the needs mentioned. Childless people - but also parents - make use of these alternatives.

Alternatives to living with children

Childless people develop alternatives to a life with children. Often they see that by deciding against children they missed an opportunity in life, but also gained a lot. In many cases, they are professional goals that they would never have achieved with children. This can also be stays abroad, during which childless people have gained impressions and experiences that have shaped their future lives. Others would never have traveled so much, had no music or acting career, and they would not have written any books.

For some childless people, on the other hand, the focus is on their personal development or on the deep interpersonal relationships that they have been able to form because they have been able to devote themselves to other people to a degree that parents can often no longer do when they have to care for children. For some childless people, the desire to have time for yourself is very important: to be able to take the time to clarify your own life issues or to have the opportunity to devote yourself to your own wishes and needs and not - as is so often the case in Life - having to adjust to the expectations, needs and desires of others.

Having no children also means that no one has to go on living their unlived dreams, no one begins to do or to finish what has always wanted to be done or started. Women and men without children actually have to face things earlier and more clearly: They have to complete their dreams, plans and wishes on their own or say goodbye to them. There is no one to whom one's own expectations can be passed on - no one who redeems in a representative way things that one has not admitted to oneself, that one has not dared, has not achieved, has not managed. Parents often comfort themselves over these disappointments by having the children realize their own dreams or compensate for their own failures. Childless people are thrown back on themselves more directly, earlier and more clearly, and confronted with their own finitude.

Many childless people - like parents too, of course - satisfy the need for contact through intensive partnerships or friendships. For some childless women and men, friends are actually a kind of family substitute - in the sense of a group of people to whom they feel they belong, with whom they are familiar and with whom they have found their place in life. Friends and siblings “replace” children and provide comfort and support in times of crisis.

Many childless women and men also explicitly seek contact with children. As an alternative to biological children, childless women and men often maintain very close relationships with neighbors' children, nieces and nephews, sponsored children or the children of friends. Many childless people seek contact with children because they want to keep in touch with the next generation. The professional activity is another possibility for them to span this arc (e.g. training of apprentices).


On the subject is the book Life Without Children by the author at Rowohlt Verlag. When women do not want to be mothers appeared.


Dr. Christine Carl, psychological psychotherapist

University Clinic Freiburg
Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy
Main street 5
79104 Freiburg


Created on October 21, 2004, last changed on March 3, 2010