Life Style

The adults celebrating child-free lives

From consciously child-free influencers, to online communities for people who’ve decided against having kids, the no-kids movement is booming – but so is the backlash.

In one of Marcela Munoz’s most recent videos, the 27-year-old dances in a sunny park, wearing denim shorts and high tops. This carefree, untethered social-media post is the embodiment of her mission to celebrate her child-free lifestyle. As the owner of Childfree Millennial TikTok, Instagram and YouTube accounts, Munoz is one of a growing number of influencers producing content designed to validate why they never want to have kids.

“The number-one thing that I always say when people ask me why I’m child-free – it’s because I don’t have a desire to have children,” says Munoz, a small-business owner from Kansas, US. She also believes kids would interfere with her passions for spontaneous travel, football training and regular lie-ins. In one of her other recent posts, she jokes, “if you have baby fever take a nap, if you enjoyed that nap don’t have kids”. “I can’t tell you how many times my [parent] friends are like ‘Oh my gosh, I only got two hours of sleep last night, my kids were throwing up and I had to take care of that,’” says Munoz. “That doesn’t sound appealing to me at all!”

While deciding against having children is nothing new, a trend for owning the ‘child-free’ label and discussing that choice more openly is picking up pace. Alongside the rise of individual influencers like Munoz, online communities and support groups for child-free adults have mushroomed in the past couple of years. But while the child-free movement is growing, researchers argue that societal acceptance and understanding of the choice to live without kids is shifting at a much slower pace.

Choosing a life without kids

Most child-free online communities define their members as people who have consciously decided never to have children. This contrasts with other adults who don’t currently have kids, but want them in the future, or adults who had hoped to have children, but were unable to (usually labelled ‘childless’). Childless people may have faced fertility challenges or other medical issues, or been affected by social circumstances, such as not meeting a suitable or willing partner at the right time, for instance.

The term ‘child-free’ has existed since the early 1900s, although it wasn’t until the 1970s that feminists began using it more widely, as a way of denoting women who were voluntarily childless as a distinct group. The suffix ‘free’ was chosen to capture the sense of freedom and lack of obligation felt by many of those who had voluntarily decided not to have kids.

However, most academic research has typically “lumped all people who don’t have children into the same group,” explains Elizabeth Hintz, an assistant professor in communication at the University of Connecticut, US, who’s studied perceptions of child-free identities. This doesn’t reflect the very different experiences and feelings of child-free and childless people, she says, and means there’s a lack of long-term comparative data looking specifically at either group.Marcela Munoz, 27, runs child-free social media accounts to share her lifestyle (Credit: Courtesy of Marcela Munoz)

Marcela Munoz, 27, runs child-free social media accounts to share her lifestyle (Credit: Courtesy of Marcela Munoz)

Nevertheless, in our hashtag-heavy social media age, the ‘child-free’ label is gaining fresh momentum, says Hintz, as more people who’ve opted not to have children have reclaimed the word. This trend sits alongside some research that suggests growing numbers of adults in the West may be actively choosing not to have kids. In the US, a 2021 Pew Research Center study showed some 44% of non-parents aged 18 to 49 don’t think they will have children, up from 37% in 2018. More than half listed their main reason as “don’t want to have children” rather than more circumstantial factors such as medical issues or not wanting to raise a child without having a partner. In England and Wales, a 2020 YouGov study suggested that more than half of British 35-to-44-year-olds who haven’t had kids never plan on doing so.

The reasons people don’t want children

The reasons millennials and Gen Zers are choosing to be child-free are wide-ranging, says Hintz, although there are several common trajectories.

“There are people who know early in life that they don’t want children and they never waver. There are people who come to the decision later in life and then proclaim it as a part of their identity. And then there are people who are sort of on the fence about whether to have children that might flip-flop back and forth.”

Ciara O’Neill, a London-based 31-year-old social media manager, puts herself firmly in the first category. “I’ve never really wanted to have a child, or I’ve never really seen myself as like a future parent,” she says. “I don’t feel like I have this maternal yearning to procreate, really.” Her boyfriend of three years feels the same way, she says, and the couple also believes having kids would make it more challenging for them to travel or work abroad in the future.

For Cristina Garcia Trapero, an English teacher working in Spain, deciding she wanted to identify as child-free was more of a gradual process. “When I was a teen or in my early 20s, I thought about kids, but it was because I believed that was what everyone had to do,” she says. Now 32 and currently single, she started embracing a child-free identity a couple of years ago, after concluding she couldn’t see herself as a mum. “I am a person who enjoys silence and alone time, and I wouldn’t be able to have that with kids,” she says.

Garcia Trapero also lists “climate change and the state of the world” as external factors that influenced her reasoning, reflecting a small but growing trend identified by child-free researchers such as Hintz. In the 2021 Pew Research study, 9% of non-parents said that “the state of the world” was the reason they probably won’t have kids, with 5% citing a concern for the environment.

I’ve never really wanted to have a child, or I’ve never really seen myself as like a future parent. I don’t feel like I have this maternal yearning to procreate, really – Ciara O’Neill

Margaret O’Connor, a counsellor and psychotherapist in Limerick, Ireland, works primarily with clients in Hertz’s so-called “flip-flop” group, and hosts the Are Kids for Me? podcast. She says practical and financial issues like living in insecure rental accommodation, working in the gig economy and limited access to healthcare are also increasingly pertinent for many millennials, as they weigh up whether to have children.

“These things can maybe be mitigated or navigated to a degree if the desire is strong enough to have a baby – you can move or get a different job,” she explains. However, she says growing numbers of young people who are uncertain about becoming parents are stopping to question what exactly those kinds of “sacrifices” might look like, in contrast to previous generations, who may have been more likely to follow societal norms and start a family, anyway.

Increased awareness of the potential physical and mental toll of starting a family is also having an influence, says O’Connor. “The women that I work with are really taking account of the impact of pregnancy and childbirth, and also their ability to be as engaged as they want physically and mentally,” says O’Connor. “Whether people live near their family of origin or friends network is also definitely a factor.”

The rise of child-free advocates

For a generation that grew up sharing everything on social media, Munoz argues that child-free millennials initially dragged their heels when it came to vocalising and celebrating their decisions online, but says there’s been “a big shift” in recent years. She argues that there’s been a snowball effect, with more people starting to feel comfortable talking about their experiences, after seeing “how open and vocal” other intentional non-parents have become.

“When I started my Instagram account, there were maybe three or four other child-free Instagram accounts … But now, two years later, fast forward – there are hundreds, hundreds and hundreds of child-free accounts,” she says. “You can tell that there’s some sort of a movement going on right now.”

 On Instagram, the hashtag #childfree has garnered more than 311,000 posts to date. And on TikTok, where Munoz is also active, the hashtags #child-free and #childfreebychoice have rocketed in popularity during the past couple years, with 570 million views and 391 million views of each tag, respectively. Munoz’s TikTok strikes a light and comedic tone, but she says the subject still spawns plenty of deeper discussions about some of the pressures experienced by people who are child-free. For instance, some of her followers know they don’t want children, but feel they could risk losing friendships or disappointing their own parents if they decide to be childfree.

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