No Kids By Choice: Tracking the Evolution of Social Change

05/12/2015 01:17 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016

The release of Meghan Daum's new book, Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed, has spurred another swell of online media, posts and threads on not having children by choice. In the last 15 years, we have seen a number of media waves on this topic. In the big picture, we've seen an ascent of talk about this in the public sphere since the 70s. That's over four decades. Where are we after 40+ years of talking about the childfree choice? Let's start with a quick broad stroke look back in time.

From the '70s to 2000

One of the first times, if not the first time major media addressed this topic was on 60 Minutes in 1974. And it was not treated well. Ask Marcia Drut-Davis, author of the memoir, Confessions of a Childfree Woman, who was ostracized, even fired from her teaching job after appearing on a segment about not have children by choice.

During these years, we began to see seminal and ground-breaking books coming out on women foregoing motherhood. Mardy Ireland's Reconceiving Women, Jeanne Safer's Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life Without Children, and Leslie Lafayette's Why Don't You Have Kids? to name just a few really took on the subject. We also began to see more books on the parenthood decision itself -- two that still stand the test of time include The Parenthood Decision by Beverly Engel and I'm OK You're a Brat by Susan Jeffers.

By 2000, the topic made network television again, this time in a more receptive, positive fashion. I know -- along with one of the couples in my book, Families of Two, I was interviewed on The Early Show. By 2000, we began to see more in print, radio and television media on this choice.

15 Years of Exposure Explosion

It was not until the advent and expansion of the Internet that we saw this demographic really begin to move out of the tributaries of society. Websites, blogs and online print media fueled an explosion of information and education about opting out of parenthood. Like always, however, media has had a bit of a tendency to overstate, even mislead on certain fronts.

For example, as in years past, various online media have recently reported that we are seeing real increases in women not having children. The last media wave often quotes this reference when stating we're seeing more women without children than ever before: U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey indicates that 47.6 percent of women between age 15 and 44 had never had children, up from 46.5 percent in 2012.

Now, is this a "real" increase? And with a woman's mean age of first birth at 26, what does this wide of an age range really tell us? A better, yet potentially less juicy, stat from the media's perspective is women ages 40-44 who have never had children has hovered at one in five for over 10 years. What's also often not pointed out is Pew Research's recent finding of an uptick in 40-44 year old women with advanced degrees having their first child.

This kind of thing aside, it's clear -- with ever growing waves of information online, more major media like TIME taking on the topic, and more popular figures talking about it beyond a quote or two (like Oprah), in the last 15 years the no kids by choice topic has never seen more exposure. And in the last decade or so we've seen more research on those with no kids than ever before.

Where We Are: Three Positive Trends

Closer to having some myths busted -- at last

With lots of years of hammering on inaccurate assumptions, we've nicked away at stubborn myths like those with no children by choice are selfish and that having children is "the" key to fulfillment. However, we're not as close to the myth bust on what I call the pronatalist Destiny Assumption -- the idea that we are biologically wired to want to have children and that something is "wrong" with us if we don't. What author Jeanne Safer writes about her struggle to accept that she did not want to be a mother -- "I don't really want to have a baby, I want to want to have a baby" -- still drives a lot of ambivalence on the parenthood decision today.

A desire for less adversarial tone

Daum says she wanted to put together her book to "lift the discussion out of the familiar rhetoric, which so often pits parents against non-parents," and get beyond a "cultural paradigm" that sets up the two groups as adversaries. I would say that in the bigger scheme of things, this cultural paradigm is relatively new, and has developed as the internet has grown and changed how the world communicates. The adversarial nature of the discussion on this topic we've seen in recent times was not there when it hit major media 15 years ago.

Cyberculture can often promote combative tones and oppositional communication, and when it comes to those violating the parenthood norm, this has been no exception. We see articles, posts and videos that get people riling to generate hundreds of comments, which spurs more posts and forum threads linking to those articles, posts and videos. In the case of parents and non-parents, this kind of online communication has only served to judge and separate both camps. Now we are seeing more signs of a desire to move off the adversarial and judgment about others' reproductive choices - even attempts to find common ground.

Generational progress

The childfree choice is gaining more levels of acceptance with each generation. Thanks, Generations X and Y, for seeing parent and non-parenthood choices on more equal ground than generations before you. According to a Wharton School study (with 1992 and 2012 graduating college students) and the resulting book, Baby Bust, in response to the question,"Do you plan to have children?" 41 percent of women college students said yes, 14 percent said probably, and 27 percent said probably not or no; 42 percent of men college students said yes, 12 percent said probably, 30 percent said probably not or no. In the 1992 group, the probably not or no percentages were 3 percent and 6 percent, respectively -- quite a difference.

It will be interesting to see what happens as this generation gets older. What's most important, though, is that there is now more of a recognition and understanding of what I wrote in an article 15 years ago:

"Whatever their reasons, it is important to understand that people's lack of desire to parent does not stem from something they lack. It is just about differences in desires and choices. Like other differences we encounter with each other, rather than presuppose and judge each other, a willingness to understand and respect each other and the choices we make is far more important. When the choice not to reproduce is recognized as just as worthy and legitimate as the choice to reproduce, we will have full reproductive freedom."

Are we there? With thankfulness for all who have contributed to the last 40+ year social and cultural change wave, I'd say right now, in 2015, we're a notch closer to this end.