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How often do people change their minds about starting a family?
November 24, 2009 7:39 AM   Subscribe

How often do people change their minds about starting a family?

I have heard a lot of anecdotal evidence that people in their twenties say that they don't want to have children, and then reach their thirties and start a family. I have also heard many people saying to those who are ambivalent about children that "they will change their minds."

I would really like to find out if there have been any studies which have tracked people’s opinions on whether they "do want kids" or "do not want kids" and how those opinions may change over the years.

Does anyone know of any studies that have been done which asked people this sort of question?

I would also be interested in stats which consider people changing their mind due to meeting “the one”, men who get convinced by their female partners because now she definitely wants to have a child, and women who change their minds and put it down to “baby fever” or their "biological clock." I am particularly interested in studies which determine what proportion of people who say they don't want kids remain childfree.

I have read lots of threads on AskMefi about people being unsure and asking for advice, people who have answered included those who have become parents and say that they made a good decision, as do those who have remained childfree. Although anecdotes might suggest that "you'll change you're mind" most of the time, without having some idea of the change rate from statistical analysis I am less inclined to accept the premise as one size fits all.

Thank you in advance for your assistance.
posted by lilyflower to Human Relations (24 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Hmm... Well, I was going to pop in here with some more anecdotal evidence (in my teens and early twenties, I was planning on either not having children or adopting. my wife is currently pregnant), but thought I'd do a some quick googling to see if I could find some statistics to go with it.

To my surprise I couldn't find any good numbers on what percentage of young people say that they don't want kids. I did, however, find plenty of informal surveys like this one with 50 or so respondents and generally more than half say they don't want children. That about matches up with what I remember hearing people my age say when I was in college.

When you pair that up with the fact that 87% of American women and 81% of American men will reproduce at some point in their lives, it suggests that, yes, many of those college kids will change their minds.

Of course, there are plenty of possible complicating factors. For one, mankind is globally trending towards smaller families, and the older generations might be skewing statistics on reproduction. Also, it could well be that the people you and I have talked to about their plans to have children belong to groups that are statistically less likely to reproduce in the first place.
posted by 256 at 8:21 AM on November 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

I don't have any stats for you, but a suggestion for an additional line of inquiry:
How many people don't want a child, but then accidentally conceive and *at that point* decide to keep the child and start a family?
posted by Acari at 8:24 AM on November 24, 2009 [5 favorites]

@256 - although it's an informal survey including people who have already had kids you make an interesting point! 87% of women on the whole reproduce at some point in their lives and I have read somewhere, can't remember the source, that college educated women reproduce 75% of the time.

Using the basic data from the survey we can assume that 50% of women college graduates start by saying that they don't want children, that means that if you do want kids you are likely to carry on wanting them and eventually having them - therefore if you are in the group that starts off saying they don't want kids you are about 50% likely to change your mind to make up the other 25% of women in your demographic who do go on to have children.

@Acari - I have read that of all pregnancies about 1/2 are accidental, about 1/2 of those go on to be aborted, leaving 1/3 of all births as accidental. (Sorry I don't remember the source again!) I don't recall the data going into whether they were to be firstborns of a woman or potential subsequent children, but still a very interesting point - how many people who don't want children can't go through with an abortion and start a family for that reason?
posted by lilyflower at 8:46 AM on November 24, 2009

Good question! Can't site any specific studies. There are some elements which, I'd suggest, make this quite a tricky topic to research:
1. It depends heavily on who you mean by "people". Where in the world people are from, what kind of socio-economic background they have, their religious beliefs, their age and their family history and their relationship status are probably all going to be important. If you want opinions for "society at large" or, say, "Americans of child bearing age" then you will need to ask a lot of people and your broad -brush results may mask interesting individual differences.
2. Psychological factors: for example cognitive dissonance means we tend to post rationalise that what we got was what we wanted and planned for all along. People also tend to give enquirers the answer they think is most socially acceptable. If you are in your teens and single then there is some social pressure to not be wanting kids yet I think; if you are newly married and in your early thirties then there is an opposite expectation: you will both be preparing a nursery surely?
posted by rongorongo at 8:48 AM on November 24, 2009

I don't have the exact stats you're looking for, but I am taking a Sociology of Families class, and according to my text book, in one survey of over a thousand college students, 95% of people agreed with the statement "I want to have children some day." (Of course, what rongorongo says about polling biases may apply here). If this holds true, only 5% of people don't want children. Thus, if you look at what 256 says about percentage of men and women reproducing, it seems that more people don't have children when they want them than have children when they don't want them. (Though the stats 256 has are about reproducing, which doesn't seem to include adoption.)

It is a complicated thing to study, to be sure. I'm not sure your motivation on asking the question, but I would like to add that it's not a good idea to assume/hope that someone will change his or her mind on child-rearing preferences. Even if most people changed his or her mind, it doesn't mean your partner will. (You can ignore that last part if the question is a merely curious one).
posted by too bad you're not me at 9:12 AM on November 24, 2009

I suspect you'll have a hard time with honest answers or accurate statistics. It is taboo for people to openly admit regret at having children.
posted by quarterframer at 9:17 AM on November 24, 2009 [10 favorites]

Here's how my thinking on the matter evolved. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I definitely thought "Oh yeah, I'm having kids, no doubt. In a couple of more years."

Then I hit my mid-twenties and thought "Sure, I'll have kids. Maybe in three or so years."

By the time I was thirty, it was , "I think I'll have kids. Maybe in another five years."

By my mid-thirties, it was, "Ehh, I'm not so sure about this. Definitely not yet."

A couple of more years and I realized the older I got the more I wanted to push it off. I finally settled the issue by getting a vasectomy. And haven't regretted it even one whit.

My father used to say, "Having kids is like joining the military. You have to do it when you're young and stupid, or you'll never do it at all." :-)
posted by browse at 9:30 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

@too bad you're not me - I am actually asking this question as both my husband and I do not want children, but people with children tell us that we will change our minds. This is slightly irritating and also for me unnerving as it concerns me that I might hit my mid thirties and do a u-turn in opinion! Having statistical data reassures me that I am not guaranteed to change my mind.
posted by lilyflower at 9:41 AM on November 24, 2009

This is a good question. I'm not in my thirties, so YMMV, but I used to be adamantly against having children. I'm not sure when, or why, that changed, but it's now a major life goal of mine. My current timeline would be in five to ten years.

On the other hand, my SO has always been flaky in that aspect. When I first met him he didn't want children, then after a few months of being together he confessed that he wants them in the future, and now he's back to "No kids, ever." This may be because there's a newborn addition to his family and he's witnessing first-hand what it's like.
posted by biochemist at 9:54 AM on November 24, 2009

Well, this is anecdotal, so there's no real significance to it, but take from it what you will. If you have thought about kids and why you do or don't want to have them, it's less likely that you're going to 'change your mind'. I'm 32, the prime time for baby rabies, and my husband and I couldn't be firmer in our decision to remain childfree. We thought about kids, and talked about the pros and cons of each choice. Then, we made our decision and we don't really think about it any more. We're not gleeful or snarky about people with kids, and we're not silently pining.

In my experience, the couples we know who have remained childfree did the same sort of rational decision making that we did. Those who didn't . . . well, they have kids now, and we don't see much of them any more (their decision, not ours).
posted by Concolora at 10:01 AM on November 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

I change my mind almost daily. I am in my late twenties, and this is kind of new--a few years ago, I vehemently did not want kids, and a few years before that (late high school/early college), I desperately did. Now I flip-flop between "oh, kids would be nice" and "ohmygod no way" and "yes, please babbbbbiiiiiieeeessssss!"

I figure I probably will have children someday, but I would not be opposed to not having them either. My sister has said all her life that she didn't want kids and I believe her. I have a childless aunt who's thrilled with her decision. Not everyone was cut out to be parents, and it's not like the species is about to die out.

Back to your original question though, I think it's also interesting to look at it from the perspective of where people are in relationships also. When I'm in a good or great relationship, my desire for kids flatlines or goes up slightly; when I'm single or in a not-great relationship, my desire either goes down significantly or skyrockets (an attempt to "fix things"?). However, a friend of mine wants kids at a certain age and has plans for getting pregnant regardless of her relationship status. Her desire has remained steady throughout the time I've known her. That kind of desire might be an interesting predictor of actual child-bearing.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 10:48 AM on November 24, 2009

Of course you're not "guaranteed to change your mind." There are people who don't have children by choice, and clearly they didn't change their minds.

Statistically, since the majority of people choose to have children, you're in a minority. But it's not a minority of one (or two)--the very existence of people who chose not to have children proves that.

So you can use me as an example if you like. My Largely Mythological Husband and I are childless by choice, even though we love being aunt/uncle and godparent to some very wonderful children. There. You aren't "guaranteed to change your mind."
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:08 AM on November 24, 2009

Lilyflower, people do change their minds, for sure, but many also decide to stay without kids. I also know two people that had kids later in life (after thinking they didn't want them) and both confided that they're not sure they'd do it again. They made the decision because they thought it was their last chance even though they had previously thought they didn't want kids. Not that they don't love their kids and aren't extremely devoted mothers, but they thought they made the decision because the clock was running out if they were to change their minds, and that alone DID change their minds.

I'm in my early 30's, and still have no desire to have kids. I just can't IMAGINE a life with a child of my own. I'd have to give up too much I don't want to give up. I did, however, go through a bought where my biological clock was fighting with my intellectual decision to not have kids. I did not want kids, yet I kept having the urge to have kids. It was weird because I knew exactly what was happening, but I couldn't change the feeling. I have no doubt many woman cave at that urge or have a stronger urge than mine.

This is more anecdotal evidence, but I found a great askme thread that covers this topic, and it cemented my decision that I wasn't choosing the wrong thing. In it is a great salon article on the same topic.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 11:11 AM on November 24, 2009

Bout not bought.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 11:14 AM on November 24, 2009

The book Families of Two by Laura Carroll is about that very thing. I recommend it a lot on AskMeFi. Spoiler: the book is about people that never changed their minds about not wanting kids. They're all very happy.

iirc, it doesn't get so much into aggregates so much as the stories of the individual families they talked to. But there were people that used to want kids and didn't want them anymore and were glad they didn't have them, and pretty much everyone says people told them they would change their minds and they didn't. So it doesn't entirely fit what you're asking for, but it might still interest you as a counterpoint to the louder argument that everyone wants kids eventually. The couples in the book talk about their lives and what course their feelings toward having kids took.

(fwiw, when well-meaning people say you'll "change your mind" about it "when you get older," it's irritating and insulting. As a sort of public service announcement to anyone reading this: If someone tells you they don't want children or have never wanted children, just accept it; if they change their mind later it's none of your business, and it's not worth alienating them to argue that they'll "come around," especially when you have no way of knowing that. You put the person in a position where all they can say is "no, you're wrong," which basically leads the conversation around to where it started -- with the person stating how they feel toward children -- except now you've forced it into something more contentious for no good reason except that you want them to want to have children. You don't get to decide how other people feel, and trying to do that for someone else makes them feel awkward and angry. Also, just because you might have changed your mind doesn't mean other people will, and for the love of god, don't say things like "you'll change your mind when you meet the right person," especially when that person is in a relationship with "the right person" who doesn't want kids either. This sort of behavior is one of the rudest things I've ever encountered that's still socially acceptable for some reason.)
posted by Nattie at 11:38 AM on November 24, 2009 [5 favorites]

There is data on this subject--I wouldn't call it extensive, but it's certainly there. There's been huge shifts in the marriage and fertility patterns among American women in the past 50 years, and so demographers and other social scientists who are trying to predict future population growth are pretty interested in how well "birth expectations" predict actual birth outcomes. (This makes a pretty big difference in things like how quickly Social Security will go bankrupt--if the 1990s and 2000s represent a temporary low in total fertility rates and we bounce back up in the next decade, the fiscal outlook is much better than if the low fertility we've seen for the past decade or two is the new permanent state of being.)

The main data source that asks women (and more recently, men) about their childbearing expectations is the National Survey of Family Growth, which is fielded about every five years. One of the questions asked is "how many children do you expect to have in your life?" (See Table 7 in the 1995 or 2002 reports--it's been hovering around 9 percent for since the late 1980s.) As you can see, when you look at this by 5-year age cohorts, there's a definite U-shaped pattern: teenage girls (age 15-19) report relative high rates of intended childlessness, then there's a big drop in women age 20-24 who say they expect to remain childless, and then it ticks slightly higher for each 5-year age group through to age 45. What you would be interested in is how the percentage of women in each age cohort that say they expect to bear zero children changes in each survey.

Unfortunately the age breakdowns are only included in the published reports for 1995 and 2002 (the overall data is available for 1988, 1982, and 1973, but wasn't published at that level of detail). The data is suggestive of the idea that teenage girls may change their minds, but by their early 20s women who don't want kids don't change their minds--for instance, 5.1 percent of women aged 20-24 in 1995 don't intend to ever have children, and this rises to 6.1 percent of women aged 25-29 in 2002 (roughly the same cohort 5 years later). The same pattern holds for women at all ages except for teenagers--in the survey five years later, women who are in the next-oldest cohort report higher levels of expecting to remain childless.

If you had statistical software and the time to do some tabulations, you could definitely download the publicly-available data and get actual numbers that track cohorts of women across each survey** and see how attitudes persisted or changed. If it's actually the case that women tend to change their minds about this, for any given cohort you'd see the highest percentage of saying they expected to have 0 children at age 15-19, then a slowly dwindling percentage for each 5 years after that. Conversely, if you saw that the percentage of women in each cohort saying they expected 0 children was pretty stable between ages 20-45 across the surveys, you could either conclude that (a) women who know they don't want children in their early 20s stick with that decision, or (b) women who expect to have kids and women who don't expect to have kids are equally likely to change their minds about it as they get older.

**Note that it's not actually the same women surveyed, but it is a representative sample of women that age--statistically speaking, this should be just as good unless there's some reason that women in the "want children" and women in the "do not want children" groups die at different rates. I can't think of any plausible reason why this would be so--maternal mortality is extremely low, and mortality generally for women of childbearing age is tiny in the U.S.--so I'm inclined to say it's pretty solid.
posted by iminurmefi at 12:12 PM on November 24, 2009 [6 favorites]

statistically speaking, this should be just as good unless there's some reason that women in the "want children" and women in the "do not want children" groups die at different rates. I can't think of any plausible reason why this would be so

There may be some noise in the signal from women with chronic or terminal illness who don't plan to have children because their life expectancy is estimated to be very low, but I'm not sure how you'd filter that out.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:05 PM on November 24, 2009

lilyflower: "@Acari - I have read that of all pregnancies about 1/2 are accidental, about 1/2 of those go on to be aborted, leaving 1/3 of all births as accidental. (Sorry I don't remember the source again!)"

How is half of a half (at most) equal to a third?
posted by turkeyphant at 2:12 PM on November 24, 2009

How is half of a half (at most) equal to a third?
posted by turkeyphant at 4:12 AM on November 25 [+] [!]

If you have 100 pregnancies (50 planned, and 50 unplanned), and 25 of them are aborted, that leaves 75 pregnancies, 25 of which are unplanned. Or if you like 3/4 of all pregancies go to term. 2/4 are planned and succesful, 1/4 is unplanned and successful. Hence 1/3 of 3/4.
posted by b33j at 2:43 PM on November 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

You got me interested in the question, and so I looked around some more, and did manage to dig up a paper that is asking the exact question you're interested in. It looks like the relative stability in the percentage of women of childbearing age (15-45) who expect to have no children is a reflection of an equal number of women changing their mind in each direction (from childlessness to wanting children, and from wanting children to childlessness), rather than stability in the decision to remain childless.

The citation is "Persistence and Change in Decisions to Remain Childless," Tim B. Heaton, Cardell K. Jacobson and Kimberlee Holland. Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 61, No. 2 (May, 1999), pp. 531-539. It looks to mostly be behind a paywall on the intertubes, but I snagged a copy through my library and here are the pieces that are probably most interesting to you:

*The study used longitudinal data from a nationally-representative survey (National Survey of Families and Households) that interviewed women & men in 1988 and 1994 and asked them about their childbearing intentions and birth history

*Crosstabbing individuals by intentions in 1988 compared to outcomes in 1994 found:

45% wanted kids in 1988 and still wanted kids in 1994 but had postponed childbearing
25% wanted kids in 1988 and had borne a child by 1994
13% wanted kids in 1988 but had changed their mind or were undecided in 1994
7% did not want kids in 1988 and still did not want kids in 1994
6% did not want kids in 1988 but had changed their mind or had a child by 1994
(The rest were non-responders in 1994)

*Higher levels of education and income made it less likely that someone would switch from wanting to be childless to having or wanting to have a kid

So, I guess the take-away would be that people aren't exactly wrong when they predict you'll change your mind--about half (6% of the 13% that originally wanted to be childless) in this survey did change their minds--but that even more people who say they do want children to change their minds and decide that they don't. Additionally, over two-thirds of those surveyed who said they intended to have kids had not done so by six years later (!), and most of those years have historically constituted the peak childbearing years for women, which goes a long way towards explaining the large decline in fertility we've seen in the past decades.

I'd suggest just practicing a very mysterious Mona Lisa-like smile and saying, "Well, the future is full of surprises for everyone, isn't it?" and feeling silently superior that you'd never be rude enough to tell someone who expressed a desire for children that "oh, you'll probably change your mind or never get around to it," despite the fact that it may be about as true.
posted by iminurmefi at 3:07 PM on November 24, 2009 [7 favorites]

b33j: "How is half of a half (at most) equal to a third?
posted by turkeyphant at 4:12 AM on November 25 [+] [!]

If you have 100 pregnancies (50 planned, and 50 unplanned), and 25 of them are aborted, that leaves 75 pregnancies, 25 of which are unplanned. Or if you like 3/4 of all pregancies go to term. 2/4 are planned and succesful, 1/4 is unplanned and successful. Hence 1/3 of 3/4.

I apologise - I wasn't thinking and was too concerned with trying to calculate the other possibilities as well.
posted by turkeyphant at 3:50 PM on November 24, 2009

It probably depends on personality types too. I seem to recall some general discussion on childfree sites that most of the people there weren't remotely interested in playing with baby dolls. They didn't start out nurturing, and never got better at it. Some people also came from large families and spent their childhoods being parents, and don't want to. Those sorts of early articulators don't tend to have a drastic change of opinion.

As for the mind-changes, well, some people can go either way, especially if they get married and it's "expected."
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:55 PM on November 24, 2009

As another anecdote both my sister and I were adamant about not having children, but for vastly different reasons. I was worried about my mental health, my ability to parent and the sort of problems that engenders. My sister just hated the whole concept. Both of us have changed our minds - me because my friend (who is now the other anachronism) convinced me that self-loathing was a damn stupid reason for anything truly serious apart from getting therapy to stop being self-loathing. With that change came the realisation that I would like to have a child, but I certainly didn't have the baby lust that overcomes a lot of women I know. Baby anachronism is an awesome addition to our lives, but I don't think you need to have a child for any reason. Or that you'll change your mind.

My sister changed her mind because her fiancé demanded it as a condition on their relationship. That is a shitty reason in my opinion and something I find difficult to reconcile with my sister's general attitude.

This was all typed with baby anachronism on my lap. I love her dearly but it's taken ten minutes to type between the flailing, grabbing of my glasses, random yelling and now the attempts to eat my hair. My cup of tea has also gone cold.
posted by geek anachronism at 5:23 PM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

The results tend to be skewed because, during the flipping back and forth, people often get stuck in the "want kids" position by default: it's easier to not want kids, change your mind, and have them later, than to have kids, change your mind, and not want them later (or at least publicly admit it).
posted by Jacqueline at 8:28 PM on November 24, 2009

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