Dr. Leslie Ashburn-Nardo doesn't have kids. According to the married social psychologist, this makes for some awkward moments at dinner parties.
Ashburn-Nardo, a psychology professor at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis, studies stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. Most of her research looks at sexism and racism, but she recently branched out. The professor's latest study, published in the journal Sex Roles in March 2017, explores American attitudes toward the decision to forego parenthood.
"I started drawing parallels between my research [on racism and sexism] and my personal experience as a childfree woman," Ashburn-Nardo writes in an email.
"My husband and I would meet total strangers, like at dinner parties, who'd ask about our kids," she recounts. "I understand that's a natural thing to do ... most people our age do have children. But what surprised me was the reaction when we would say, 'We don't have kids.'"
It wasn't a look of surprise, she says, but "of disdain, like we'd done something wrong."
A Lasting Stigma
Between the 1970s and 2010, the percentage of American women who never bear children jumped from 10 percent to 20 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. The percentage of highly educated American women without children actually fell between 1994 and 2014, but millennials — those born between 1980 and 1995 — are posting lower procreation numbers than any previous generation.
Yet the cultural stigmatization of people who choose to forego parenthood, particularly women, has staying power. In February 2017, 48-year-old Jennifer Aniston was falsely declared pregnant for the seemingly 500th time in 20 years (check out her 2016 op-ed on The Huffington Post, around the 450th time). TV personality Jeannie Mai told The Christian Post in March she wishes people in her church would stop laying hands on her belly and praying for her to want to give birth.
What drives this obsession with other people's desire to procreate, or the apparent distress that results from their decision not to, is unclear, but Ashburn-Nardo suspected it goes beyond social convention.
The theory that parenthood is perceived as a moral imperative – not just the "normal" thing to do, but the right thing to do — dates at least to the 1970s. Ashburn-Nardo's study offers the first empirical evidence supporting it.
The population sample was narrow — 197 U.S. college students, mostly white females — but the findings offer a glimpse into what underlies the stigma.
Subjects were told they were involved in a study about intuition and the ability to predict the future. Each subject read a paragraph describing one of four, ostensibly nonfictional, married people. Two of the characters had two children, and two had chosen not to have any. Subjects then filled out a questionnaire in which they predicted the character's level of fulfillment in areas of marriage, family and life overall.
Amidst decoy questions, the survey also assessed the subject's annoyance, outrage, anger, disapproval and disgust with the character, the latter three identified as components of moral outrage.
Across the board, characters who chose not to have children — both women and men — elicited higher scores in anger, disapproval and disgust, and lower scores in all areas of predicted life fulfillment.
The dark predictions signify punishment, says Ashburn-Nardo — a belief that people who choose not to have kids should be worse off than those who accept the "moral obligation of parenthood."
Straying From the Path
Voluntarily single people face similar reactions, says Bella DePaulo, social-psychology project scientist at University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of" Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After." DePaulo, who was not involved in the current study, thinks the stigmas are related.
"In American society (and others as well), people are expected to follow a certain path through adult life," DePaulo writes in an email. "That includes getting married by a certain age, and then having children.
"What's more, people are not just supposed to follow that path, they are supposed to want to follow it."
DePaulo, who studies stereotypes, notes the older and more happily unattached the single people, the harsher the judgment.
Beliefs that marriage and parenthood are critical to personal fulfillment are part of a larger worldview, "a way of thinking that helps people make sense of the world," explains DePaulo.
In that paradigm, people who choose to be single, or who get married and then choose not to have kids, threaten to unleash chaos on an ordered, happy world.
"That makes people mad," DePaulo notes.
If Ashburn-Nardo's findings hold true, it makes people outraged, morally outraged, which could explain a disdainful look at a dinner party, or a decades-long obsession with Jennifer Aniston's uterus, or a little-known form of workplace discrimination in which employees with kids enjoy priority in scheduling, because they "need" it more.
People without kids report getting the shaft on airplanes and tax day, too. Their frustration, writes clinical psychologist Ellen Walker on Psychology Today, is a "murmur becoming a low uproar."
Ashburn-Nardo thinks the uproar of the childfree might be a long time coming.
"It's a form of stigma we haven't necessarily described as such," she writes, "but when you look at the [psychology] literature, it seems always to have been there."