Paul Dolan, author of "Happiness By Design" and professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics, recently made headlines after making a bold statement: single, childless women are the happiest.
While talking about his findings on happiness at a recent festival in Wales, Dolan shared with the crowd that many of the traditional parameters we use to gauge success don't actually correlate with happiness. This holds especially true, he added, when it comes to marriage and children — particularly for women. In contrast to the way society still tends to view single, childless women (as people to pity at best, or even fear at worst), women who are unmarried and don't have children are actually happier than any other subset of the population.
This is because, according to Dolan, marriage and child-rearing still holds a greater risk for women than it does for men. For men, getting married often means making more money, living longer, and generally making better choices. Meanwhile, women who marry experience higher rates of physical and mental illness than their single counterparts, and they also comparatively don't live as long. Of course, it's totally possible to live an incredibly happy, fulfilling life as a married woman with children; but that doesn't mean this path, long viewed as the only acceptable one, is a woman's singular route to happiness.
Yet, even with behavioral scientists like Dolan substantiating their claims, society continues to disbelieve single, childless women who say they're happy with their lives as they are.
“You’re pregnant!” exclaimed the other woman. “Um, nope,” Flynn said. “You’re getting married!” she guessed. Wrong again — Flynn informed her she was leaving to start her own company. That small interaction has stuck with Flynn for over a decade.
“While I’d dealt with the incessant questions about my marital aspirations and my ticking time clock before and since, this is the anecdote I always remember," Flynn said. "It crystalized that no matter what accomplishments I may achieve in the business world, in my community, in my relationships — there will always be the question about why I didn’t have children.”
Women who choose not to have children have a variety of reasons for making this decision.
“I never had any burning desire to have children. I thought it was just something that would happen along the way, but it didn’t,” Christina Previte, a lawyer, said. “I think it would’ve been nice to have children, but I personally don’t need to have children to feel complete or have a full and vibrant life.”
“I will admit that when I was in my 20s and early 30s, I had assumed I would be a mother," Jennifer Bauer, a life coach, said. "I didn't question society's expectations for my role as a woman. It took wisdom and experience to realize that I didn't actually want that life."
Some women find opportunities to nurture and mentor others through their careers.
“After suffering a miscarriage a few months after we got married, the choice was taken from me when we couldn’t get pregnant again,” Carol Gee, a writer, said. “After leaving the military, I began a career as an educator first at the junior college level and then university level. Being surrounded by students fulfilled my need to nurture, to mother, mentor and guide. I am 'play mom,' 'second mom,' 'god mommy,' and mother-figure to a number of young adults both with mothers and without.”
“I was ambivalent about having children throughout my 30's,” another woman, Michelle McAnaney, said. “I think my job working as a college consultant, helping high school students choose and apply to colleges, is enough to fulfill the nurturer in me. Because I work with my students virtually, I can travel frequently and I would have to drastically change my lifestyle to accommodate the needs of my children.”
For other women, their reason to forgo traditional motherhood can boil down to a simpler, tongue-in-cheek reason — selfishness.
“I chose not to have children because I'm selfish,” Brittany Garcia said. “It's not a popular thing to say, but I am. I like to sleep late on the weekends. I like to spend my money on what I want. I don't want to monitor my kids' social media accounts, screen time, or manage curfews.”
“I am able to be very selfish. What I mean by that is my life is not dictated by the needs of my children. I can travel whenever I want to, even on a moment’s notice,” Previte echoed.
Unfortunately, although none of the above women's decisions impact anyone beyond themselves, we've still not reached a place societally where the choice to remain childless is free of judgment.
For many, being subjected to other people's opinions persists as a drawback of this lifestyle.
“I honestly struggle to think of any drawbacks — other than the endlessly condescending nature of most of the rest of the world about it,” one woman, Ruth Attwood, explained.
“When I was in my late 30s, I was dating an older man who'd had his children, was divorced, and wanted more,” Nancy Irwin, a doctor, said. “Over dinner one night in a restaurant fairly soon in our relationship, he was rather relentless in wanting to know why I'd never chosen to have children and did not plan to going forward. When I'd had enough of his peppering me with questions, I let him know that he was making me uncomfortable; he stated flat out: ‘Well, if you never have a child, you're not really a woman.’
I stood up, threw down some cash for my portion of the uneaten food, and walked out and hailed a cab.”
Judgment comes frequently from members of one own family, too.
“My mother-in-law refers to me as the mother of her unborn grandchildren — not even as her son's wife, which would only be slightly less insulting," Garcia said. "I have a master's degree; I have a good job and am the primary breadwinner of our household. And yet my worth, in her eyes, lies only in my ability to bear children. Thankfully, my own mother thinks it’s wonderful that we live in a day and age where this truly is considered a choice and not just ‘what you do.’”
Aside from hearing rude comments from other people, some women have also considered the question of who will care for them in the future as a drawback.
“As I get older, I do think about not having children to do for me what my brothers and I have done for our dad, who has Alzheimer's,” says Sandy Weaver. Despite this concern, Sandy found a solution: “Good insurance, good savings and good friends should take care of me, if and when a time comes that I can't care for myself.”
Whatever path you take, it’s ultimately your choice and life.
“We all make our choices about where we put our time, energy and passion,” Flynn said. “So what makes one person’s choice better than any other? I’ve chosen to put my time and energies into my relationship with my partner, deep friendships, contributing and engaging in my community, and into my professional ambitions. If only the world would respect and value that.”
“I get a lot of "you'll change your mind," which is just insulting,” Garcia said. “As if I haven't carefully thought this through. I know that at the ripe old age of 36, the clock is ticking on this choice. And yet it's still a choice I make every morning when I take my birth control pill.”
Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets anthology.