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Is there any good evidence around the Biological Clock / Baby Clock?
May 7, 2014 3:40 AM   Subscribe

Has there ever been a prospective study tracking how many people who say "I'll definitely never want children" end up changing their minds? Or vice versa?

At least in British (perhaps all Western?) culture, the "biological clock" is a widespread idea: young people, especially women, who aren't interested in kids will reach a certain age and suddenly become consumed by the desire to have some, or a regret that they didn't.

Talking to friends and searching the 'net, it's very easy to find stories of young people who say they'll definitely never want kids (and are sick of being told otherwise), and older people who started like that and either did or didn't change their mind in the end. However, given the extremely strong selection biases in how people choose to post and spread these anecdotes (e.g. "child-free" communities vs mumsnet), it's really tough to get a sense of the proportions, and whether there really is any widespread trend.

Given that this has pretty big social/health policy implications (not least fertility control; I've talked to both men and women who've been denied sterilisation surgeries because it's assumed they'll change their minds later), what credible research has been done into this assumption? I'd love to see something like a big prospective study, yielding a % of people who've changed their mind in either direction, but I'd be interested in any credible, formal research investigating the idea.

NB: Hopefully this goes without saying, but I'm not suggesting that a lack of academic research invalidates peoples' experiences, or that the existence of a trend would make people who run counter to that trend "wrong" in any way. I'm just curious whether an effect actually exists at the population level, and how that effect compares to the received wisdom. Individual anecdotes -- or collections of anecdotes from a self-selecting population -- are not useful for assessing this.
posted by metaBugs to Society & Culture (4 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
A Generation of Childless Women: Lessons from the United States looks at "age-specific likelihoods of wanting a baby."
posted by unknowncommand at 5:43 AM on May 7

This is more what you're asking, but less recent: Persistence and Change in Decisions to Remain Childless
posted by unknowncommand at 5:54 AM on May 7

Voluntary Childlessness, Fertility" plans" and the" demand" for Children: Evidence from Eurobarometer Surveys:

"This is especially true as it may be very difficult to distinguish decisions about the timing of children from decisions about whether or not to have them at all. Evidence from Eurobarometer surveys using respondents’ recall of earlier ‘plans’ shows that these are rarely fulfilled...It also shows that their own fertility plans or forecasts made before respondents reached ages where childbearing is common, are an unreliable guide to future behaviour, at least on the basis of their own recall of those plans...Negative fertility intentions appear to be less stable than positive ones over the longer term. This is mostly because almost all those who originally intend to have children proceed to realize their desires. There is also some evidence of a trend an increase in the proportion of men and women who intended to remain childless at around age twenty...Women without children or plans for them are more likely to have more education, be employed, to be working in managerial and professional occupations and to be single and living in an urban area...Women who originally do not plan to have children are more likely than others to remain childless, but their intentions are not in themselves a good predictor of later behaviour."

See also:
Why have children in the 21st century? Biological predisposition, social coercion, rational choice

Is there an innate need for children?

Regret and psychological well-being among voluntarily and involuntarily childless women and mothers
posted by melissasaurus at 8:36 AM on May 7 [1 favorite]

I was coming in here to cite the same paper that unknown command did. In case you don't have access to the full paper through JSTOR, I summarized the main findings in an earlier comment a few years ago. Basically, looking at people's stated childbearing intentions in 1988 versus their actual family status in 1994, the researchers 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)
posted by iminurmefi at 9:54 AM on May 7 [2 favorites]

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