I’m what researchers call an “early decider” when it comes to kids: I’m one of the lucky ones who has always known I don’t want them. The sound of a baby crying makes my muscles tense, and whenever someone passes me their toddler, I hold them out in front of me with rigid arms, unsure of what to say or how to act. Compared to some childfree adults, I’m privileged to feel at peace with my decision. I’ve rarely felt pressure from my parents; they’re banking on one of my other five siblings to provide grandchildren. This freedom has instilled confidence in my dating life. Just ask any of my friends: I’m steadfast and vocal about this topic.
And yet. On multiple occasions, I’ve been swept up in new, intoxicating relationships with people who do want kids. In each situation, we’ve taken the “we’ll figure it out later” approach despite the fact that we had conversations early on (but apparently not early enough to avoid catching feelings). Spoiler alert: it has never worked. The kids versus no-kids debate is too fundamental to disagree on.
Once unconventional, childfree lifestyles are increasingly common. According to a 2021 survey from the Pew Research Center, 44 percent of non-parents ages 18 to 49 say it is not too likely or not likely at all that they will have children — a 7 percent jump from 2018 data. Another 2022 Michigan-based study found that one in five adults are voluntarily childfree. (“Childfree” refers to adults who do not have and do not want kids, compared to folks who are undecided or cannot have kids.)
So with more and more people deciding they probably won’t ever bring a child into this world (because they don’t want to subject an innocent human to an impending climate crisis or they simply don’t want to raise ’em), dating as a childfree individual should be simple, right?
Well, the majority of adults in the United States still want to become parents. And our deeply ingrained image of the traditional family structure makes things even trickier. People “express more negative emotions such as moral outrage, pity, and disgust toward childfree adults than parents,” found the 2022 research study. Plus, this topic is one heck of a dealbreaker: “You get a job? You could always quit. You move to a new state, a new city, a new country? You could always come back. Anything can be undone, right?” says Veronica Prager of the Childfree Connection. “A child is the one thing that can’t be; it’s the biggest possible decision as far as where the trajectory of your life is going to go.” A friend of mine, Austin Martin, described this incompatibility as “when you get a snag on a shirt and then it all starts to unravel.”
Add to that the fact that half of adults think dating in general feels a lot harder in the last 10 years, according to a 2020 study from the Pew Research Center, despite the abundance of options that dating apps allow us. Lace Andersen, 41, is seeking long-term partnership, so after moving to Utah, she dedicated herself to the apps for an entire year. But after a slew of bad experiences (one guy showed up drunk, another screamed at his dog for no reason, and — perhaps the biggest red flag of all — one asked her to turn on her read receipts after a 30-minute coffee date), she’s burnt out on dating.
When dating already feels like a chore, it’s easy to get in over your head too quickly when you find that instant connection. I know this all too well: I had been dating Liam for about a week when he popped the question. “Do you think you want children?” he asked me as we watched TV (maybe it was prompted by the emotional openness of the participants on Love Is Blind). “No,” I responded. He hesitated. “No, meaning you haven’t thought about it, or no, you don’t want kids?” After I expressed my disinterest in ever bearing, much less raising, a child, his disposition changed. It was the beginning of the end. But because I was selfishly looking for something casual, I told him that I wasn’t ready for it to be over. We decided to keep seeing each other, but a few weeks later, after a fun evening out, he broke things off — it had all seemed too real, the rose-tinted future of a relationship that was never going to exist.
“Within my client and social circles, I’ve witnessed a lot of hard endings of relationships because those two paths didn’t agree,” says Katie Maynard, a licensed independent clinical social worker who works with childfree clients. So, if you’re searching for partnership, you may consider adding a bit of strategy to your dating life.
Know what you — not your family, friends, or society — really want
Childfree adults usually fall into one of two camps: Early deciders, like me, who have known from a young age, and postponers, who decide over time. Prager was a postponer. “I wasn’t 100 percent sure because of pronatalist conditioning and the way society was treating me. People were telling me I was crazy and was going to regret it,” she says. “But I always knew that I wasn’t getting pulled toward motherhood and that really confused me.”
Jenn Shapland, queer author of the book of essays Thin Skin, thought from childhood that she wanted babies. “I wanted the power and cultural sanction that accompanied pregnancy, but I also wanted my time to be my own,” she says. In grad school, she began to question her impulses after reading feminist ideas about motherhood from authors like Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Adrienne Rich. When she got together with her current childfree partner, she finally had space to examine her own desires and to shape the life she wanted. “A baby is a great apology to the world, to your parents, for being queer,” Shapland writes in an essay titled “The Meaning of Life.” “It would be a good way to ask to be forgiven, to absolve myself of being queer and gain back some of the power and status I lose as a lesbian. Like, here, Mom, take this baby! Maybe that will make up for the rest of what you lost. Is it possible that I still hold myself to the standards of straight women, that I see myself as one deep down, or that some part of me longs to be a part of the group, even though I’m queer?”
In her mid- to late 20s, Prager — like Shapland — focused on self-reflection. This process can be daunting, as many of us have assumed our entire lives that there are certain checkpoints to being an adult: first marriage, then a house, then babies. With so many external influences, how do you home in on your own beliefs and figure out what you want in life?
Maynard recommends considering both paths: “Spend a lot of time looking at what parenthood, especially motherhood, would be like, and then spend a lot of time looking at what it would be like to move forward,” she says. To do the work you need to ask yourself some tough questions (or work with a therapist) to deconstruct your belief systems. “What are you carrying around that isn’t serving you, that isn’t true?” Maynard asks her patients.
After you give yourself time to process, write your new narrative for what life could look like in the future. What are your life goals? How do you want to spend your time? Keep in mind these revelations don’t need to be earth-shattering, and resist the urge to critique yourself as selfish. “A lot of people feel like, well, if I don’t have kids, I should do something meaningful with my life,” says Maynard. “We try to take all those expectations off.”
Filter your dating pool
Once you’re firm in your decision to be childfree, dating might seem easy. After all, you have a gigantic, glaringly obvious dealbreaker. Finding someone who shares that choice is the next hurdle.
Dana Cama, 32, recently entered the dating world after ending a seven-year relationship. “I would rather establish [that I don’t want kids] right from the beginning,” she says. “I don’t really want to waste my time anymore with finding something where we’re just really lusty over each other.” Cama sets her boundaries before the first date. “On the dating apps now, it asks if you want kids, which is really helpful,” she says. “So as I’m looking through profiles, I won’t even bother with somebody who says they want kids.” Andersen takes this approach a step further, not only checking the “don’t want children” box on the apps, but also writing it out on her profile. The one caveat, she says: “They never read it.”
Communicate your intentions upfront
Not everyone pays attention when they’re swiping, so this is where some good old-fashioned in-person communication comes in handy (or at least a few in-app messages). The easiest way is to ask the question — Do you want kids? — outright. But if being direct isn’t your thing, you can bring it up in a more nuanced way. Maynard suggests a phrase like: “Since I don’t want kids, I’ll be able to do this and that.” She explains that it should be “something where you’re authentically putting it out there in the very beginning.”
Getting these tough questions out of the way at the beginning avoids conflict down the road, even if you don’t see things getting serious. “I’ve had so many people reach out to me saying, ‘I thought this would be like a light and fun thing. We didn’t want to have big discussions because we’re getting to know each other,’ right?’” says Prager. “It sounds amazing, but now he wants kids and you don’t, and it’s even more complicated because you’re in love.”
When Prager mentioned this, it felt like a personal attack. That’s how I operated in most of my relationships (and probably still operate). In my late 20s, I dated Alex for two years. Both of us knew that we were on different pages. Maybe neither of us saw it as a long-term romance, or maybe we were avoiding the obvious. Despite knowing the relationship wasn’t sustainable, we were compelled to stay together because of a magnetic chemistry. Some days, I thought, “What would having kids together look like?” but I knew I was grasping at anything to try to save what was inevitably set up to fail. One of us would have to make an ultimate sacrifice, and neither of us was willing to do it.
While I don’t regret that relationship, I’m at an age where I wouldn’t want to repeat it. But I’m also afraid of cutting off a good match before I even give them a chance. “We worry so much about that first impression,” says Maynard. “I don’t want to say anything to scare them away, so I’m just going to be kind of vague but really cute.” By taking this approach, you’re doing yourself a disservice. (And if you scare them away, good riddance.)
If all of this feels a bit overwhelming, keep in mind these skills come with time. “I feel a lot more comfortable now that I’m older,” says Cama. “Once you get into your 30s, it’s way easier to have those conversations,” says Maynard. “Everyone is sort of on the same page, we’ve all dated people, we’ve had serious conversations.”
Ask follow-up questions
After finding someone who agrees about being childfree, it becomes “crucial to speak to the other person about why,” says Prager. Why don’t you want kids? Digging deep into the reasons can be really enlightening and can ensure you’re on the same page. Maybe someone’s motivations are strictly financial, and this decision could change with age and a new, higher-paying position. Better to know this now than five years in. These follow-up questions will help you figure out your non-negotiables, too. Maybe you’re okay with dating someone with kids — say, a teenager — but don’t want to take on any parental duties.
Plus, follow-up questions can provide insight into how much thought someone has given it. “A lot of people are very wishy-washy about whether they want kids or not,” says Maynard. Specifically, many women I talked to said their male partners were on the fence until their relationship. (One man I talked to was ambivalent but then later said he couldn’t “imagine feeling fulfilled without children.”) When you think about it biologically, men can get away with a mere cursory thought — they don’t need to carry a baby inside them, after all — while women cannot. This topic is even more nuanced for people in queer relationships, as having kids is “an endeavor that requires planning, determination, and in most cases, a large financial investment,” writes Shapland in Thin Skin.
Accept both grief and joy as part of the process
Sometimes, even if you’re staying true to yourself, grief can come up in the dating process, says Maynard, whether it’s because you met a great match who wants kids, ended a relationship over opposing values, or are feeling heartbreak about “missing out” on a family. If you’ve had thoughts like, “This is me being authentic. And I’m kind of sad about it,” Maynard says, “that’s totally natural and doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you.”
But childfree dating can also ease some of the pressures of dating. “If I wanted kids, dating would be horrendous because you feel like you’re running out of time,” says Andersen, adding that she’s also open to various lifestyles. “To be a parent, you’ll look for someone with a consistent job, good health insurance, all these things that you need to have to be able to take care of a family and stuff,” she says. “I can date whoever, really. There’s no limitation.”