An Interview with Ellen Walker, Ph.D., on Childfree Living
David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 29th 2011
Psychologist Ellen Walker, Ph.D. is the author of the book, "Complete Without Kids: An Insider's Guide to Childfree Living by Choice or by Chance", written in reaction to her own decision to forgo having children and consequent awareness of many people who have made the same choice. Social pressure to have children cause this choice to be stigmatized unfairly. In response, she uses the term "childfree" rather than "childless" to emphasize that the choice to not have children can be a deliberate decision and not an absence. Childfree adults can be organized into three categories depending on their motivation to become childfree: deliberate choice, happenstance (where the person might have been happy to go either way) and circumstance (where the option to have children was blocked). Though there are many advantages to not having children (including the opportunity emphasize career and interests, to put more energy into maintaining marital happiness, and to save and spend money for/on one's self), there are also challenges, including a widespread perception that other people view childfree adults as selfish and concerns about retirement planning and legacy. Childfree orientated adults can have difficulties when in relationships with partners who have children due to competing expectation around who is the center of the parent partner's attention.
David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by Mentalhelp.net, covering topics in mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.
On today's show, we'll be talking with clinical psychologist Dr. Ellen Walker about the decision whether or not to have children. Ellen Walker, Ph.D., is the author of the book Complete Without Kids: An Insider's Guide to Childfree Living by Choice or by Chance. Dr. Walker was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, and has lived in Japan, Maine, and North Carolina before settling down in Washington state in 1991. She received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Seattle Pacific University and has a busy psychology practice in Bellingham, Washington. The most enjoyable part of her job, she reports, is having the opportunity to listen, a lost art in our busy culture. Childfree, Dr. Walker and her psychologist husband Chris enjoy an adventure-filled life with their two terriers, Bella and Scuppers. Now, here's the interview.
Ellen Walker: I came to write the book because I myself am a childfree adult who has, as I've reached the end of my childbearing years, have had a few struggles with the decision and wanted to make sure that I wasn't going to have any regrets about not being a parent. And I found that, as I was doing my own search for some closure here, other people also were having some of the same difficulties, so I just began to interview.
David: Yeah, it's one of the major decisions of life, isn't it?
Ellen Walker: I think it's probably the most important decision of life, to tell you the truth.
David: Yeah, because - why?
Ellen Walker: Because it's a life-long commitment. The marriage failure rate is 50%, so we can get married and get divorced, but when you have a child, that is a life-long commitment.
David: Yes, it is. And so that was something that you struggled with for your own personal decision process. Was that something that you and your husband debated about? How did that go?
Ellen Walker: We didn't really debate about it because my husband, who I've been married to now just for a few years, he already had children, and they were grown, and he did not want to start another family. And so we discussed it just briefly, but it wasn't really an option at that point.
David: Yeah. And how was that for you? Had you sort of at that point thought that maybe you would like to have children? So were you ambivalent?
Ellen Walker: I was 90% sure that I didn't, because I've always gone after anything that I wanted in the past and I never really thought about having kids. I was too busy doing all the other things that one does with their life. So I was fairly certain, but there's always that little 10% doubt.
David: Okay. So how did this personal experience lead into writing the book?
Ellen Walker: I started doing a lot of journaling about my own wonderings and doubts and doing some pretty classic decision making around that. And then I started in my private practice, and then in my friendship and social group, to ask anybody that I came upon who didn't have kids how they felt about it. And what I found is that people had a lot of feelings about it that they had never had a chance to express.
David: And I notice in the book you said that you were surprised to find that there was not a lot written on this particular subject, as you kind of went out and tried to do your own literature review and see what was out there.
Ellen Walker: Right, very little. There are probably 10 books, and the majority of those are really dated at this point - so hardly anything written on this.
David: Well, that's fascinating. Now, one of the things that you talk about in your book - and maybe you could talk about a bit - here is the role of societal pressure: parental expectations and expectations of friends and so on. Tell us about that.
Ellen Walker: There is a lot of societal pressure. You'll notice, if you go to movies, that the story line always goes like this: you fall in love, you get married, and then the next scene is a year or so later and she's pregnant, and they're happy about having this little family. So that's the story line in the media. Then you probably have had friends whose adult children are getting married, and one of the first things that a young couple gets asked as soon as they're married - and sometimes even before - is "When are you going to start a family? How many children do you want to have?" And there's a lot of pressure from grandparents-to-be. They don't want to miss out.
David: Right. So there's, yes, the grandparents-to-be and well-meaning friends.
Ellen Walker: Right. Well, that's another whole group, and maybe that's the worst as you are moving into adulthood and you see your friends one-by-one begin to have families, and everything changes at that point. Your social life shifts because the activities are more focused around family activities than couple activities, for example. And if you're a couple that has either chosen to not have kids or can't get pregnant or are just putting it off, you can feel really like a misfit or alone.
David: Right. It stimulated me to think about, well, who do I know that's - what couples do I know that don't have children. And I could only think of two off the top of my head, and it just got me thinking about, well, how is their life different. And the one couple in particular, I know that they're very social. They're always having people over for dinner or going to other people's houses for dinner or going to bed-and-breakfasts and doing sort of couple-type activities like that, which somehow, even though our own children are now grown and out of the house, clearly they're into a whole different social mode and pattern than the one that we got into.
Ellen Walker: Right. One of the interesting statistics that I ran across when I was writing my book was about time, and it basically said that it takes 8 hours a day to raise 2 children to the age of 18. So if you think about that, it's enormous the amount of free time that folks without kids have.
David: Yeah, that was an interesting issue that I really hadn't thought about. I mean on the one hand that can be like a wonderful gift. On the other hand, it might present a challenge. What do I do with my time?
Ellen Walker: Right. That's what I was expecting when I started my interviews, but I found that the childfree adults that I interviewed - and it was a self-selected group; they all volunteered to come and talk to me - but none of them were bored or had too much time on their hand. They had very full, rich lives with lots of hobbies, lots of socializing, lots of volunteer work, and strong, strong careers.
David: Now, you chose to use the term "childfree" rather than the more common "childless." What was behind that decision?
Ellen Walker: I felt that whenever I used the word "childless," either writing or saying it out loud, it really symbolized a missing piece in one's life, like there's a hole there. And the opposite of that is "childfree." I don't particularly like that word either because it's sort of like "lint-free" or "mosquito-free." But they're just simply - in our language there's not a better word to describe not having children.
David: That's fascinating.
Ellen Walker: It's a little frustrating because I think parents tend to take offense to the term "childfree," and childfree adults take offense to the word "childless." And I was writing this book for childfree adults, and so I went to their camp. That's the bottom line.
David: Yeah. So I understand that you went out and conducted a series of interviews to get material for the book. How many interviews did you do? And how were they structured?
Ellen Walker: I did about 25 interviews, and a lot of them I did right here in my office or my home because I would mention the project to people and they would say, "Oh, I have a friend," and sure enough, that friend would call me within a day or so, and I'd get them in. And then I also found a few people who were either old high school acquaintances that had cropped up on a Facebook page, and I realized that they didn't have kids. And some of them did either phone interviews or they did written material from my structured interview. So the nice thing was I had people from kind of all over the country that were participating.
David: It sounds like there was a certain amount of eagerness on their part; that they felt like they had a story to get out to the world.
Ellen Walker: They did have a story. Yeah, they did. And it was interesting: both the people who were kind of on the fence - meaning they might have been parents, they would have loved being parents, but their life just didn't really turn out that way - and also the people who were very adamantly strong in their position that they really never wanted to be parents and they loved and embraced their childfree life - they wanted to talk about it with a lot of pride.
David: Interesting. Now, you say that the interviews were structured. What sorts of questions were you asking?
Ellen Walker: I asked things like "How did you come to this decision?" "What do you do every day?" "What are your weekends like?" "Tell me about your finances; tell me about how you're planning for your old age" - just general things like that, because you think about if you don't - you know how everybody says my children are going to take care of me when I get older?
Ellen Walker: Well, what happens if you don't have children? You know it's something to really contemplate.
Ellen Walker: Or people say, "Oh, I'm going to leave this to my daughter: the antique furniture from the family, or my journals." Well, what happens if you don't have kids? It really - I wanted the book - and a lot of this were things that I didn't really think about until I started doing the interviews, and I realized I need to make sure I have my estate really spelled out so that my things go to the place or the people that I want them to go to, because I don't have children. I don't want it just going to the state of Washington. So it was really good food for thought.
David: Yes. Yes, I can see.
Ellen Walker: And I think for a lot of the people that I interviewed as well.
David: You talk about three main scenarios that you describe as childfree by happenstance, childfree by choice, and childfree by circumstance. Take us through each of these, if you will.
Ellen Walker: Childfree by happenstance - that's certainly the largest group, and those are people like myself who just have been busy living our lives and happened to be in relationships with men that didn't pressure us to have children, but if we had happened to marry a different guy or have a different boyfriend, or weren't doing a career that was taking up a lot of time, we might have ended up being moms. So we just kind of woke up one morning and were 45 years old and then saying, "Oh, my gosh. I forgot to decide whether or not to have kids." So that's a lot of us.
The childfree by choice - those are the people who will say, when they were 21 years old they went to their doctor and they began to ask for a tubal ligation. Or I'm reading a lot on the Internet now about young men going in and asking for a vasectomy. There's a lot of reluctance in the medical profession to give these procedures to young people.
David: I wasn't aware of that.
Ellen Walker: There is. Some of them will refuse because tubal ligation and vasectomy is fairly set; you're making your decision. But there are people who say they always knew they didn't want to have children, never been even a doubt for them. And then, of course, there are a lot of people who really, really want to be parents and they either aren't able to get pregnant, or they aren't able to find a partner that they're comfortable with, and they don't want to do it on their own. And so those people tend to have a lot of grief, a lot of grief about what they've missed out on in life with that.
David: Yeah. I'm amazed. I know people who've just spent thousands and thousands of dollars trying to get pregnant. Maybe they're having miscarriages over and over again, or maybe they just can't get pregnant, and they're doing in vitro fertilization and just spending huge amounts of money - sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully.
Ellen Walker: Right, right. And I would propose that if there wasn't so much societal pressure on people to have children, that some of those people would probably stop a lot sooner and feel okay about it. They would find other ways to meet their nurturing needs.
David: Yes, yes. So, just because they sound so much alike, let me have you just review for us what's the difference between childfree by happenstance and childfree by circumstance.
Ellen Walker: Right. So the childfree by happenstance are people that could have gone either way, and life just - they just got busy with careers or married somebody that didn't really want to have a family, but they're happy not being a parent, and they would have been happy being a parent. Childfree by circumstance are folks that their life determined that they couldn't have children. It blocked the path for them, and they really wanted to be parents.
David: Okay. Now, you're a psychologist, and so of course you were interested in possible psychological issues. Did you find psychological issues or challenges associated with each of these three scenarios?
Ellen Walker: Oh, yes. For sure. I think the biggest issue that I found that people were facing is not feeling okay. A lot of people who don't have kids, and especially women - I don't think men feel this at all - we feel that other people look at us and think that we are strange: we're cold; we're unnurturing; we're not like other women. We don't feel like we're part of the group. And even if we may feel that there's nothing wrong with us, we get messages - subtle and not so subtle - from society that there is something wrong with us. So I think there was a lot of desire to feel okay.
David: Do people ever seek psychotherapy to help them with those feelings and issues?
Ellen Walker: I've never had anybody come in just to talk about that, to tell you the truth. And it's not been something that I've ever advertised as being an expert in, so there may be other therapists that are seeing - I bet there are people who deal with fertility issues and may be more family therapists. They probably see clients who come in just to talk about that, but I haven't very much.
David: Maybe your book will draw some of those people to you.
Ellen Walker: Maybe so.
David: You do have a chapter on childfree personalities. What sorts of personality patterns emerged in your interviews?
Ellen Walker: Oh, a big one is independence. People who don't have kids like to have their free time, their space, do things their own way, tend to like to have more quiet in their lives. And it's hard to know, though, whether they became this way because of not having children, or if they were always this way.
David: Did you find that there were any personality differences between the three types of childfree circumstances that you described?
Ellen Walker: Not necessarily. No. I guess the only big difference would be that people who are childless by circumstance - meaning that they never got over not being able to have a child - they tend to have a personality type that is not as flexible and able to adapt to the roadblocks that life naturally brings on. So that is definitely a personality trait.
David: Yeah. Now, earlier you said that childfree couples have a lot more free time on their hands, and it turned out that wasn't a problem, that they could easily fill up their time. Childfree couples also have a lot more money on their hands, too, don't they?
Ellen Walker: Oh, my gosh. One of the studies that I read said that if you - that a child costs $150,000, and that does not include college. That's just like a normal child without any significant expenses. So, yes, that's a huge amount of money.
David: Wow. I know those kinds of figures always really scared me as a dad. Actually, I'm the father of four grown children at this point. And those kinds of figures always struck terror in me, and somehow we made it through. I'm not a rich guy, but somehow we made it through, so… But you read those statistics and I would imagine that would cause many people to maybe to balk.
Ellen Walker: Well, it does. The other thing that happens is - like I'm 50. I just turned 50 this year, and I'm thinking about possibly retiring. And my peer group, some of my friends, will say, "Well, Ellen, how can you even be possibly thinking about not having a clinical practice any more?" And I'll say, "Look, not only have I not had to spend $150,000 raising a child, but I've had more time to be in my office earning money." So there are two factors there, so it is a big difference. And I don't think most people use that as a decision-making tool, and I would not encourage people to use that, actually, because I think if you really want to have a child - children are not - there's not a dollar amount that they're worth, of course. They're invaluable.
David: What about childfree singles? I'm thinking of single men or women who don't have children and who are pretty sure that they don't want to have children. What sorts of issues do they face?
Ellen Walker: They have a lot of issues in the dating world. That's a big one. I had a woman that I interviewed, and she was about 38 and had had her tubes tied when she was in her early 30s. But she talked about how she kept meeting men who had children - they were divorced and had children from a prior marriage - and she was always the second fiddle. On holidays he had to be with his kids; the finances were strained because he was spending all his money on child support; and so it just felt like a real imbalanced kind of relationship. She was placing him in her full focus, but he was not able to do that with her. And this was happening with a series of guys that she dated.
David: And I would imagine, too, that if a single person is really clear that they don't want to have children, that might be an automatic disqualifier with many of the people that they go out with once that fact comes out.
Ellen Walker: Oh, right. Absolutely. Right. And I think it's something that people should talk about very early in their dating, before they get too attached. It just doesn't work out very well to force somebody to have a child or to force somebody into not having a child.
David: I've been following the positive psychology movement. Are you familiar with that at all?
Ellen Walker: Yes.
David: Yeah, so you know there's been an explosion of recent research on happiness. And one of the strongest findings seems to be that social ties, close relationships, are especially important for a lasting sense of happiness. So I'm wondering - do you see any implications for the childfree decision?
Ellen Walker: I do, and another happiness fact is that childfree adults score higher on happiness scales than parents do.
Ellen Walker: Childfree couples score higher on marital satisfaction scales than do couples with children. And another interesting note there is that in - this is talking about older years. Older adults get more social reward from their friendships than they do from their family members, and so I think it speaks to how for some childfree adults who do a good job of nurturing friendships throughout their life - which I think we probably do better at because we have more time - we are probably going to be in better shape in our older years than our peers who are parents and are expecting something from their adult kids that they're not going to get.
David: Yeah, I know oftentimes there's a bitterness when older people aren't hearing from their kids or feeling abandoned by their kids.
Ellen Walker: Right, yes. Now, there was one interesting story that a man told me, and I think men tend to not be as good at building up a good social network for themselves as women do. But this guy told me the story about how he had moved to a city a thousand miles from his family, and he was working there, and he had an accident. I think he fell off a ladder or something, and he had a very severe injury and could not - he was bedridden for about a month. And he had nobody to come over and help him out except his secretary because he did not have a good social network of friends that he could count on and he didn't have children. He didn't have a wife, and his brothers and siblings and parents were living a thousand miles away. So that's another thing, I think. When you don't have kids, you need to make sure that you do a very good job of nurturing your social support network because it's critical.
David: Yeah, that's a really good point. What do you see as the future of childfree? Are there forces that are likely to move more of us in that direction?
Ellen Walker: Absolutely, yes. Right now it's about 20% of the adult female population, which that's huge. It's a lot more than it would have been even 10 years ago. And I think as you have more and more especially celebrities like Oprah Winfrey - she recently spoke out about how had she had children, she would not have been able to accomplish all of the things that she's done, not only in her career but with some of her philanthropic pursuits. She's got an orphanage in Africa, etc. And so when you see people like her, who are very attractive and successful and clearly very happy, and she doesn't have children, I think a lot of young women are going to say, "Well, hey. That's an option. Let me think about this instead of just blindly falling into pregnancy."
David: I saw you made reference to Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point. Does that apply somehow to what we've been discussing?
Ellen Walker: I think it might. I think that as more and more people speak out about the option of not having kids, and young people really begin to view it as a decision instead of something they just do, I'd see more people making the choice to not have children. And once you reach a certain mass point, it could really grow. In fact, in some countries it's kind of viewed as an epidemic. Japan, for example, their government is begging people to have children.
David: Yeah, that's interesting - the economic implications of that decision when it's exercised on a large scale. It really does have economic and also environmental consequences.
Ellen Walker: Right. Positive environmental consequences, but could be negative economic consequences if we don't - we need to plan.
David: So what's your advice to listeners who might be dealing with the decision to be childfree or not?
Ellen Walker: Well, I would definitely say read my book, and the other thing is go out and do some good social science: really view the decision as a very serious one, spend time with your friends who have children and talk to them about their real experiences, and spend time with your friends who don't have children. Just really do your research and weigh it and plan. If you want to have a child, make sure you are ready for it. And if you don't want to have a child, think about what that means in terms of what are you going to do with the free time, how are you going to have your social support met, etc. Just take charge of your life.
David: Well, that sounds like solid advice. Dr. Ellen Walker, thanks so much for being my guest on Wise Counsel.
Ellen Walker: Thank you very much.
David: I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Dr. Ellen Walker. In addition to her website at www.completewithoutkids.com, there are two others she mentions at the end of her book that you might want to explore. One is http://idonotwantkids.livejournal.com/, which is a dating site, clearly for people who know they do not want kids. And the other is www.nokidding.net, which she describes as a worldwide social networking site.
You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by Mentalhelp.net. If you found today's show interesting, we encourage you to visit Mentalhelp.net, where you can add a comment or question to this show's web page, view other shows in the series, or simply page through the site, which is full of interesting mental health and wellness content. Access the show's page and show archive information via the podcast box on the Mentalhelp.net home page.
If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like ShrinkRapRadio, my other interview podcast series, which is available online at www.shrinkrapradio.com. Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.
Ellen Walker, Ph.D. is the author of the book, Complete Without Kids: An Insider's Guide to Childfree Living by Choice or by Chance. Dr. Walker was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, and has lived in Japan, Maine, and North Carolina, before settling down in Washington State in 1991. She received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Seattle Pacific University, and has a busy psychology practice in Bellingham, Washington. The most enjoyable part of her job is having the opportunity to listen, a lost art in our busy culture.
Childfree, Dr. Walker and her psychologist husband, Chris, enjoy an adventure-filled life with their two terriers, Bella and Scuppers.
Great interview - Russ - Nov 24th 2011
Another twist on this conversation might be what I'm seeing in a lot of my female friends, which is having kids much later in life. Despite the health risks to both mother and child, I have several friends who are having children in their 40s, for various reasons.
One friend had absolutely no intention of having kids. An accidental pregnancy led to a son when she was 41, and she and her husband just had a daughter at age 43, both perfectly healthy.
It's a very tough call for both men and women. Finances aside, I know a lot of people in their 30s who struggle with sacrificing their freedom, their time, their time *together* and their respective alone time to have a child. And when you hear studies like the one cited in this interview, where people who have children are generally less happy, it makes the decision even tougher.