Skip to main content

From Some to None? Fertility Expectation Dynamics of Permanently Childless Women

Abstract

Permanent childlessness is increasingly acknowledged as an outcome of a dynamic, context-dependent process, but few studies have integrated a life course framework to investigate the complex pathways leading to childlessness. This study focuses on an understudied yet revealing dimension of why individuals remain childless: stated fertility expectations over the life course. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 cohort, I use a combination of sequence analysis, data-driven clustering techniques, and multivariable regression models to identify and describe groups of permanently childless women who follow similar trajectories of stated fertility expectations. Results indicate that a little more than one-half (56 %) of eventually childless women fall into a cluster where childlessness is expected before age 30. Women in the remaining clusters (44 %) transition to expecting childlessness later in the life course but are differentiated by the types of trajectories that precede the emergence of a childless expectation. Results from multivariable regression show that several respondent characteristics, including race/ethnicity, education, and marital history, predict cluster membership. Taken together, these findings add to a growing body of literature that provides a more nuanced description of permanently childless women and motivates further research that integrates interdependencies between life course domains and fertility expectations and decision-making of those who remain childless.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3

Notes

  1. Although both sequence analysis and latent class growth models are used to describe life course dynamics, I choose to use sequence analysis, in part, to provide a more granular lens with which to view fertility expectation trajectories. In addition, prior research using real and simulated life course data has found that although both sequence analysis and latent class analysis techniques yield similar results in classifying life course trajectories, sequence analysis performs somewhat better when variations in sequences are linked with timing (Barban and Billari 2012), as is the case with the current study.

  2. The question does not distinguish between expecting to have biological or nonbiological children.

  3. Just over 10 % of the sample have a missing state at this age because they entered the study after 21.

  4. The five Likert scale items are (1) “A woman’s place is in the home, not in the office or shop;” (2) “A wife who carries out her full family responsibilities doesn’t have time for outside employment;” (3) “The employment of wives leads to more juvenile delinquency;” (4) “Women are much happier if they stay at home and take care of their children;” and (5) “It is much better for everyone concerned if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.”

  5. The employment status recode used to generate employment summary scores was not available after 1998, when participants were aged 34–41; thus, the age range used ends at age 35.

  6. I choose binary logistic regression, rather than multinomial logistic regression, to facilitate interpretation of predictors across a large number of groups. This approach yields substantively similar results to the more detailed multinomial results but offers a more straightforward interpretation of relationships between individual-level characteristics and cluster membership.

References

  • Aassve, A., Billari, F. C., & Piccarreta, R. (2007). Strings of adulthood: A sequence analysis of young British women’s work-family trajectories. European Journal of Population, 23, 369–388.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Abbott, A. (1995). Sequence analysis: New methods for old ideas. Annual Review of Sociology, 21, 93–113.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Abma, J. C., & Martinez, G. M. (2006). Childlessness among older women in the United States: Trends and profiles. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68, 1045–1056.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ajzen, I., & Klobas, J. (2013). Fertility intentions: An approach based on the theory of planned behavior. Demographic Research, 29(article 8), 203–232. https://doi.org/10.4054/DemRes.2013.29.8

    Google Scholar 

  • Bachrach, C. A., & Morgan, S. P. (2013). A cognitive-social model of fertility intentions. Population and Development Review, 39, 459–485.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Barban, N., & Billari, F. C. (2012). Classifying life course trajectories: A comparison of latent class and sequence analysis. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series C (Applied Statistics), 61, 765–784.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Baudin, T., de la Croix, D., & Gobbi, P. E. (2015). Fertility and childlessness in the United States. American Economic Review, 105, 1852–1882.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Berrington, A. (2004). Perpetual postponers? Women’s, men’s, and couple’s fertility intentions and subsequent fertility behaviour. Population Trends, 117, 9–19.

    Google Scholar 

  • Billari, F. C. (2001). Sequence analysis in demographic research. Canadian Studies in Population, 28, 439–458. https://doi.org/10.25336/P6G30C

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bloom, D. E., & Pebley, A. R. (1982). Voluntary childlessness: A review of the evidence and implications. Population Research and Policy Review, 1, 203–224.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Carmichael, G. A., & Whittaker, A. (2007). Choice and circumstance: Qualitative insights into contemporary childlessness in Australia. European Journal of Population, 23, 111–143.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cunningham, M. (2008). Changing attitudes toward the male breadwinner, female homemaker family model: Influences of women’s employment and education over the lifecourse. Social Forces, 87, 299–323.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fiori, F., Rinesi, F., & Graham, E. (2017). Choosing to remain childless? A comparative study of fertility intentions among women and men in Italy and Britain. European Journal of Population, 33, 319–350.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gabadinho, A., Ritschard, G., Müller, N. S., & Studer, M. (2011). Analyzing and visualizing state sequences in R with TraMineR. Journal of Statistical Software, 40(4), 1–37. https://doi.org/10.18637/jss.v040.i04

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gray, E., Evans, A., & Reimondos, A. (2013). Childbearing desires of childless men and women: When are goals adjusted? Advances in Life Course Research, 18, 141–149.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Greenstein, T. N. (1995). Gender ideology, marital disruption, and the employment of married women. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 57, 31–42.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hagestad, G. O., & Call, V. R. A. (2007). Pathways to childlessness. Journal of Family Issues, 28, 1338–1361.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hakim, C. (2002). A new approach to explaining fertility patterns: Preference theory. Population and Development Review, 29, 349–373.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hartnett, C. S. (2014). White-Hispanic differences in meeting lifetime fertility intentions in the U.S. Demographic Research, 30(article 43), 1245–1276. https://doi.org/10.4054/DemRes.2014.30.43

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hayford, S. R. (2009). The evolution of fertility expectations over the life course. Demography, 46, 765–783.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hayford, S. R. (2013). Marriage (still) matters: The contribution of demographic change to trends in childlessness in the United States. Demography, 50, 1641–1661.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hayford, S. R., & Morgan, S. P. (2008). Religiosity and fertility in the United States: The role of fertility intentions. Social Forces, 86, 1163–1188.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Heaton, T. B., Jacobson, C. K., & Holland, K. (1999). Persistence and change in decisions to remain childless. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 61, 531–539.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Heaton, T. B., Lichter, D. T., & Amoateng, A. (1989). The timing of family formation: Rural-urban differentials in first intercourse, childbirth, and marriage. Rural Sociology, 54, 1–16.

    Google Scholar 

  • Heiland, F., Prskawetz, A., & Sanderson, W. C. (2008). Are individuals’ desired family sizes stable? Evidence from West German panel data. European Journal of Population, 24(article 129). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10680-008-9162-x

  • Houseknecht, S. K. (1979). Timing of the decision to remain voluntarily childless: Evidence for continuous socialization. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 4, 81–96.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Iacovou, M., & Tavares, L. P. (2011). Yearning, learning, and conceding: Reasons men and women change their childbearing intentions. Population and Development Review, 37, 89–123.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Johnson-Hanks, J., Bachrach, C., Morgan, S. P., & Kohler, H.-P. (2011). Understanding family change and variation: Toward a theory of conjunctural action. New York, NY: Springer.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Jones, R. K. (2017). Are uncertain fertility intentions a temporary or long-term outlook? Findings from a panel study. Women's Health Issues, 27, 21–28.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Juhn, C., & Potter, S. (2006). Changes in labor force participation in the United States. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20(3), 27–46.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Keizer, R., Dykstra, P. A., & Jansen, M. D. (2008). Pathways into childlessness: Evidence of gendered life course dynamics. Journal of Biosocial Science, 40, 863–878.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lee, R. D. (1980). Aiming at a moving target: Period fertility and changing reproductive goals. Population Studies, 34, 205–226.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lesnard, L. (2010). Setting cost in optimal matching to uncover contemporaneous socio-temporal patterns. Sociological Methods & Research, 38, 389–419.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Letherby, G. (2002). Childless and bereft?: Stereotypes and realities in relation to “voluntary” and “involuntary” childlessness and womanhood. Sociological Inquiry, 72, 7–20.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Livingston, G. (2015). Childlessness falls, family size grows among highly educated women (Pew Social & Demographic Trends Report). Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

    Google Scholar 

  • Maximova, K., & Quesnel-Vallée, A. (2009). Mental health consequences of unintended childlessness and unplanned births: Gender differences and life course dynamics. Social Science & Medicine, 68, 850–857.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McAllister, F., & Clarke, L. (1998). Choosing childlessness. London, UK: Family Policy Studies Centre.

    Google Scholar 

  • McQuillan, J., Greil, A. L., Shreffler, K. M., & Bedrous, A. V. (2015). The importance of motherhood and fertility intentions among U.S. women. Sociological Perspectives, 58, 20–35.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McQuillan, J., Greil, A. L., Scheffler, K. M., & Tichenor, V. (2008). The importance of motherhood among women in the contemporary United States. Gender & Society, 22, 477–496.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McQuillan, J., Greil, A. L., Shreffler, K. M., Wonch-Hill, P. A., Gentzler, K. C., & Hathcoat, J. D. (2012). Does the reason matter? Variations in childless concerns among U.S. women. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 1166–1181.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Miettinen, A. (2010). Voluntary or involuntary childlessness? Socio-demographic factors and childlessness intentions among childless Finnish men and women aged 25–44. Finnish Yearbook of Population Research, 45, 5–24.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mills, M., Rindfuss, R. R., McDonald, P., & te Velde, E. (2011). Why do people postpone parenthood? Reasons and social policy incentives. Human Reproduction Update, 17, 848–860.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Morgan, S. P. (1982). Parity-specific fertility intentions and uncertainty: The United States, 1970 to 1976. Demography, 19, 315–334.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mynarska, M., Matysiak, A., Rybińska, A., Tocchioni, V., & Vignoli, D. (2015). Diverse paths into childlessness over the life course. Advances in Life Course Research, 25, 35–48.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ní Bhrolcháin, M., & Beaujouan, E. (2012). Fertility postponement is largely due to rising educational enrolment. Population Studies, 66, 311–327.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Park, N. K., & Hill, P. W. (2014). Is adoption an option? The role of importance of motherhood and fertility help-seeking in considering adoption. Journal of Family Issues, 35, 601–626.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Quesnel-Vallée, A., & Morgan, S. P. (2003). Missing the target? Correspondence of fertility intentions and behavior in the U.S. Population Research and Policy Review, 22, 497–525.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rackin, H. M., & Bachrach, C. A. (2016). Assessing the predictive value of fertility expectations through a cognitive-social model. Population Research and Policy Review, 35, 527–551.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Royston, P., & White, I. R. (2011). Multiple imputation by chained equations (MICE): Implementation in Stata. Journal of Statistical Software, 45(4). https://doi.org/10.18637/jss.v045.i04

  • Russo, N. F. (1976). The motherhood mandate. Journal of Social Issues, 32(3), 143–153.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schmidt, L., Sobotka, T., Bentzen, J. G., & Nyboe Andersen, A. (2012). Demographic and medical consequences of the postponement of parenthood. Human Reproduction Update, 18, 29–43.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schoen, R., Astone, N. M., Kim, Y. J., Nathanson, C. A., & Fields, J. M. (1999). Do fertility intentions affect fertility behavior? Journal of Marriage and the Family, 61, 790–799.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Settle, B., & Brumley, K. (2014). “It’s the choices you make that get you there”: Decision-making pathways of childfree women. Michigan Family Review, 18, 1–22. https://doi.org/10.3998/mfr.4919087.0018.102

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sharma, R., Biedenharn, K. R., Fedor, J. M., & Agarwal, A. (2013). Lifestyle factors and reproductive health: Taking control of your fertility. Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology, 11(article 66). https://doi.org/10.1186/1477-7827-11-66

  • Shreffler, K. M., Tiemeyer, S., Dorius, C., Spierling, T., Greil, A. L., & McQuillan, J. (2016). Infertility and fertility intentions, desires, and outcomes among US women. Demographic Research, 35(article 39), 1149–1168. https://doi.org/10.4054/DemRes.2016.35.39

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Šidák, Z. (1967). Rectangular confidence regions for the means of multivariate normal distributions. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 62, 626–633.

    Google Scholar 

  • Steele, E. J., Giles, L. C., Davies, M. J., & Moore, V. M. (2014). Is precarious employment associated with women remaining childless until age 35 years? Results from an Australian birth cohort study. Human Reproduction, 29, 155–160.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Stewart, S. D. (2002). The effect of stepchildren on childbearing intentions and births. Demography, 39, 181–197.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Studer, M. (2013). WeightedCluster library manual: A practical guide to creating typologies of trajectories in the social sciences with R (LIVES Working Papers No. 24). Lausanne, Switzerland: NCCR LIVES.

    Google Scholar 

  • Trent, K. (1994). Family context and adolescents’ fertility expectations. Youth & Society, 26, 118–137.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Trinitapoli, J., & Yeatman, S. (2018). The flexibility of fertility preferences in a context of uncertainty. Population and Development Review, 44, 87–116.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • van de Kaa, D. J. (2001). Postmodern fertility preferences: From changing value orientation to new behavior. Population and Development Review, 27(Suppl.), 290–331.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ware, J., Kosinski, M., & Keller, S. D. (1996). A 12-item short-form health survey: Construction of scales and preliminary tests of reliability and validity. Medical Care, 34, 220–233.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

I am grateful for helpful feedback from Joshua Goldstein and Jennifer Johnson-Hanks. Research reported in this publication was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number T32-HD007275. The content is solely the responsibility of the author and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Alison Gemmill.

Electronic supplementary material

ESM 1

(PDF 171 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Gemmill, A. From Some to None? Fertility Expectation Dynamics of Permanently Childless Women. Demography 56, 129–149 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-018-0739-7

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-018-0739-7

Keywords

  • Childlessness
  • Fertility expectations
  • Life course
  • Sequence analysis