Not having kids is nothing new. What centuries of history tell us about childlessness today.Roundup
tags: children, cultural history, womens history, medical history, reproductive history
Rachel Chrastil is professor of history at Xavier University and the author of "How to Be Childless: A History and Philosophy of Life Without Children."
In the 21st century, millions of women around the world will reach the age of 45 without having given birth. Some will experience infertility, others will choose childlessness early in life, and many will spend years debating whether to have a child.
As early as the 1500s, women in the towns and villages of northwestern Europe began to postpone marriage to their mid-20s, rather than their early teens, when they first became biologically capable of motherhood. Instead of marrying young and joining their in-laws’ households, they now wanted to set up an independent household, which took time and money. As young adults, they worked to save for a dowry, to purchase the linens and household pots and pans that would last their entire marriage.
This elevated notion of marriage ironically left wide open the possibility that many people would never marry, and never have children, at all. Once individuals postponed marriage, a combination of personal choices and economic, cultural and biological constraints shaped fertility outcomes. This made childlessness more common. In pre-revolutionary French cities, 15 to 22 percent of the adult population remained single and, probably, without children.
This new approach to marriage and motherhood gave women more flexibility and independence. In recent years, historians have uncovered an astonishing record of early modern women’s capacity to support themselves as domestic servants, traders, seamstresses, moneylenders, laundresses and in many other trades, as well, despite legal prohibitions. Some, like poet Mary Masters, came to terms with never becoming mothers.
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