The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

No Children—No Health

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Though embraced by many feminists as a release from biological bondage, the new popularity of childlessness may be putting women’s health in jeopardy. That jeopardy stands out clearly in a study of childlessness conducted by a team of researchers at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia.

Curious about “the physical and mental health and well-being of childless women, particularly during the reproductive years,” the researchers pored over data collected from a convenience sample of fifty women between the ages of 30 and 45. These data establish that compared with the adult female population of Australia as a whole, “childless women reported statistically significant poorer general health, vitality, social functioning and mental health.”

Further analysis actually intensified the mystery of the distinctively poor health of the childless women: “The lifestyle behaviours of these childless women, in general, were similar to those for Australian females with the exception of vegetable consumption,” the researchers report. And the childless women in the study “were more likely to consume five or more servings of vegetables per day” than are typical for Australian females. What is more, the researchers noted that their sample of childless women was “biased towards higher socio-economic status based on education and income.”

Perhaps, the researchers conjecture, the childless women in the study suffer from distinctively poor health because “marital status may influence a woman’s health.” After all, even at a time when out-of-wedlock births are on the rise in Australia (as elsewhere), “childlessness is influenced by marital status with the unmarried more likely to remain childless.” Unfortunately, the sample of childless women in this study was too small to permit definitive conclusions on this point.

However, the researchers do see that their mental-health findings harmonize with those of previous studies concluding “that women without children reported poorer mental health than mothers” and that “young women who intended to remain childless reported significantly poorer mental health compared to young women who intended to mother.”

Such findings deserve attention given the “childlessness among Australian women [and other affluent nations’ women] is increasing.” Because “a woman’s health and wellbeing during her reproductive years may have longer term health consequences,” the researchers believe that “the shift in childbearing patterns is creating a need to reflect on this social change and the associated possible negative health and wellbeing consequences.”

(Melissa L Graham et al., “An Examination of the Health and Wellbeing of Childless Women: A Cross-Sectional Exploratory Study in Victoria, Australia,” BMC Women’s Health 11 [November 10, 2011]: 47, emphasis added.)