First Comes Love. Then Comes Sterilization.
Inside America's Baby Bust. Meet the young women who never want to have kids.
Rachel Diamond looks like most of the moms at the Park Slope café where we meet. She’s wearing a green t-shirt under a black corduroy jumper, sensible shoes and carries a smart, leather bag. She sips a four dollar iced chai. Except the 31-year-old isn’t a mom. And she never will be. “You know,” Diamond says cheerily, “I never expected to be the poster child of sterilization.”
On the aspiring actor’s TikTok, one finds short funny videos about Diamond’s job working the register at a cafe near Union Square and updates on her rescue pitbull, Rue, who has anemia. Mixed in are the clips extolling her child-free life. They have titles like “Sterilization Attempt #3” and “Being Childfree: We DO Know What We’re Missing.” It’s been five months since she had her fallopian tubes cut — not tied — and she has 64,000 followers.
Growing up near Hershey, Penn., Diamond always assumed she’d have a family of her own. Then came college at Arcadia University; her political awakening, away from her conservative roots, and towards progressivism; and a therapist who she found online a few months after graduation who made her realize that being spanked as a child was deeply traumatic, and that it made her fear authority figures like her father. She decided that she never wanted to be one herself. Never ever ever.
“Looking back, I never pretended that my American Girl dolls were children, they were always my sisters,” she says. “There were little things showing that I wasn’t preparing myself for motherhood. I think for me, it’s as innate as saying, ‘I’ve always wanted to be a mom.’”
Diamond is hardly an outlier. Americans are making fewer babies than we’ve made since we started keeping track in the 1930s. And some women, like Diamond, are not just putting off pregnancy but eliminating the possibility of it altogether.
Last year, the number of deaths exceeded that of births in 25 states — up from five the year before. The marriage rate is also at an all-time low, at 6.5 marriages per 1,000 people. Millennials are the first generation where a majority are unmarried (about 56%). They are also more likely to live with their own parents, according to Pew, than previous generations were in their twenties and thirties.
They also aren’t having sex. The number of young men (ages 18 to 30) who admit they have had no sex in the past year tripled between 2008 and 2018. Cities like New York, where young, secular Americans flock to to build their lives, are increasingly childless. In San Francisco, there are more dogs than children.
It used to be that people wanted to make babies. Women, especially, but also men. That was a healthy young person’s default position, and our existence depended on it. We wanted to do other things, of course, and the great post-feminist challenge was how to have it all — the proper work-life balance, the career and the baby, the supportive husband and the adventurous life.
But now, for an increasing number, the question isn’t how to have it all. It’s: why do it at all?
This psychological reversal didn’t just happen. It took place inside the hurricane of spiritual, cultural and environmental forces swirling around us. But the message from this young cohort is clear: Life is already exhausting enough. And the world is broken and burning. Who would want to bring new, innocent life into a criminally unequal society situated on a planet with catastrophically rising sea levels?
The Rapture — sorry, the end — is upon us, and this is no time for onesies. So says The New Yorker and NPR and AOC. According to a new poll, 39% of Gen Zers are hesitant to procreate for fear of the climate apocalypse. A nationally representative study of adults in Michigan found that over a quarter of adults there are child-free by choice. And new research by the Institute of Family Studies found that the desire to have a child among adults decreased by 17% since the onset of the pandemic.
“I think it's morally wrong to bring a child into the world,” said Isabel, 28, a self proclaimed anti-natalist who lives in southwestern Texas and did not want her last name in print. “No matter how good someone has it, they will suffer.”
Texas’s new, highly restrictive abortion law has led her to take action sooner instead of later. “I was going to wait until I was thirty to get the procedure done,” Isabel said, “but, with the Heartbeat Bill in place, I can't take the risk of getting pregnant and not being able to abort.”
Last week, she was approved for The Operation — aka laparoscopic bilateral salpingectomy. (Many surgeons won’t sterilize young, childless women because studies indicate high rates of regret, so it can take time to lock one down.) During the procedure, which she hopes will take place in the next few months depending on Covid and the hospital’s capacity to perform elective surgeries, Isabel’s surgeon will make three incisions: two near her abdomen and one just above her belly button. This will allow the surgeon to insert cameras and then remove her fallopian tubes.
Isabel is planning a “sterilization celebration” at a local sushi joint. There will be lots of booze, a smattering of friends, and her brother and his husband, who are also child-free. “I don't want to work my life away,” says Isabel, who hopes to retire in her fifties or earlier.
Darlene Nickell, 31, in Denver, Colo., had her tubes removed eight months ago. “My generation is very aware of the ways that our parents traumatized us,” she tells me. “My mom smoked a lot of weed and did her own thing, and my dad was away a lot for work.” She says her parents’ marriage improved after they became empty nesters.
She first set out to get sterilized at the age of 21 and was told by her doctor that she needed written consent from her male partner or to have already had two kids. Meantime, her childless male friend from high school had successfully gotten his vasectomy a year before. “That felt like an attack on me.”
Darlene, who was surprised that her obstetrician agreed to sterilize her when she brought it up at her yearly check up, is the self-proclaimed black sheep of her family — though she says her two younger sisters, one in her twenties and one in her teens, are likely to follow her lead. The 23-year-old is exploring sterilization herself; the other is “feeling inspired” by the child-free life.
The child-free find each other on social media, mostly on Reddit. There’s r/childfree and r/antinatalism and r/fencesitters — as in, “I’m on the fence about this whole kids thing.” You can also find doctors who will sterilize you, and how-to guides with tips and frequently asked questions like “Can you trust a fence-sitter boyfriend who doesn’t want a vasectomy?”
Rachel Diamond’s live-in boyfriend, Cameron Gilkes, 33, introduced her to Reddit and her new family of people dead set against creating families. “I asked to get a vasectomy at 24 and 26,” says Cameron, who was hopeful for any type of male contraceptive, one injectable called Vasalgel has been stuck in trials for years, before Rachel got sterilized. “We’d been trying for a long time,” she says.
They met on eHarmony seven years ago and “came out” to each other on their second date. The script from the movie they saw that night, “Interstellar,” sits on a stuffed bookshelf next to “The Feminine Mystique,” “Screenwriting for Dummies,” and “The Peter Pan Chronicles” in the two-bedroom apartment they share with a third roommate who they met through a friend.
The space is well-kept, if cramped with accessories and toys for their “special-needs” pitbull. (“She’s scared of other dogs,” Diamond explained. “She’s never been socialized because she was bred for fighting, and she is so much f-ing work.”) Star Wars action figures are lined up atop a shoe rack and just beneath a Bluetooth-enabled lightsaber, custom made to be as close to movie-realness as possible. On the fridge are magnets from The Strand, one of a Baby Yoda peeking out of a spaceship, and a few from the Brooklyn Public Library, including one declaring “Knowledge is Power.”
Child-freedom — and Diamond and Gilkes are child-free, not anti-natalist, in that they don’t think it’s necessarily wrong for other people to procreate — comes with its own lingo. “Brant” means “breeder rant” (as in, the annoying things people with kids tell people without kids about how great life is with kids). “Mombie” is a haggard mom-zombie, lost to the land of breast milk and binkies. “THINKER” is an acronym standing for “Two Healthy Incomes No Kids Early Retirement.” “Bingo-ing” refers to the questions the child-free get asked by the child-full: “What if your kid cures cancer? What if you regret it? Who will take care of you when you’re older?”
The dating apps have taken note. On Hinge for example, under the “My Vitals” section, there’s also “Vices,” like if you take drugs, and “Virtues,” for religious and political affiliations, you can tick off whether you want children, if you don’t want them, or if you’re “open” to it. If you’re child-free, you can eliminate future breeders from your feed using a premium plan starting at $29.99 per month.
The child-free have many reasons for not wanting babies: fear of pregnancy, fear of authority, fear of preeclampsia (a pregnancy disorder that can lead to undesirable outcomes for the mother and baby), fear of postpartum depression. And, in Diamond and Gilkes’ case, racism.
Diamond is white. Gilkes is black. And they say they worry about what life would be like for a biracial baby in today’s America. “I wouldn’t be able to say ‘I understand’ if they came home from school and had been bullied for their hair or their skin color,” Diamond said.
Gilkes said, “I had a girlfriend break up with me because she didn’t want to deal with the racism that came with dating a black guy, and said if we had kids she wouldn’t know how to do black girl hair.” (That prompted Diamond to roll her eyes. “I mean, there are salons and professionals for that.”)
I asked them if they ever thought about their own personal legacy — the people they would leave behind. “The whole legacy thing makes me laugh,” Rachel said. “It’s like, ‘Who do you think you are?’ Do you want your kid to be a founding father? That would make them a colonizer.”
Sophia — a 19-year old communications student who goes to a small school in British Columbia, and declined to give her last name for privacy reasons — was just approved for sterilization by her doctor in Canada. She told me she has a great relationship with her parents who are “super chill” about her decision to be child-free, despite the fact that they’re both religious Christians. She has one sister who she says is pro-kid, or at least not anti, and though Sophia doesn't believe in God anymore — she’s left behind the church she grew up in and its “toxic culture” — she describes herself as “vaguely spiritual.”
She says taking the pill or using another non-permanent birth control would amount to kicking the can down the road since she knows she doesn’t want kids ever. “I’m going to do this invasive thing once, rest for a few days, and never think about it again.”
The teen, who has a roommate named Emily and a part-time job at a grocery store, doesn’t have a clear picture of her life besides travelling, and maybe moving to the coast, away from the “semi-desert grasslands” where she lives now. In high school she visited Ecuador and Kenya on humanitarian trips, and has dreams to hit every continent.
She was surprised that the doctor, who will sterilize her in the coming months, didn’t ask about her sexual history. If she did she would have found out that it amounts to little more than flirting and a few dates.
“I’m a virgin, and I was worried that she would send me off to have sex before she agreed to do it,” Sophia says. She acknowledged that she may come down with a case of baby fever in her twenties, but that that’s just another risk that she’s accepting. “There’s no point regretting what you can’t change,” she says. If she were to eventually find a partner who wanted kids? “That would just be a dealbreaker for me.” She doesn't remember one moment that turned her off permanently to parenthood, but she never really liked being around other kids when she was one, and hated babysitting when she got older. “I found it draining.”
Chelsea, a 25 year-old in Sacramento, told me kids “kind of gross her out.” She’s weighing the risks of going under the knife, like infection or mood swings brought on by anesthesia, but says regret isn’t one of them. “What’s there to regret?” writes another Redditor, “That I’ll be too happy? Too free?”
According to Clay Routledge, an existential psychologist at North Dakota State University who has studied young people’s attitudes toward the future, there is a growing school of thought among twenty-somethings that humans are the problem. It’s not just that we’ve built factories and polluted the oceans and launched tons of garbage into space. It’s that there’s something about us — our psychology, our chromosomal wiring — that makes it impossible for us to make things better.
“They’re saying that the future isn’t a good investment,” Routledge says. “And if there’s no future, why would you be anything but hedonistic? Why would you donate to charities? Why would you try to make the world better or care about human progress?” He adds that this generation has a sense that “humans were a mistake.”
Sophie Lewis, a British feminist scholar, calls the institution of the family a “microfactory of debtors” and argues that it generally “sucks.” In her book, “Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family,” Lewis describes pregnancy as “something to be struggled in and against.” She dreams of a post-parent world, one in which the old notion of the family is replaced with a “classless commune on the basis of the best available care for all.”
She might well get it, unless the current fever breaks.
“I used to think all kids are bad, and I had a period in middle school where I was ultra liberal, and I thought everyone should stop having kids,” says 19-year-old Sophia in British Columbia. “I chalk it up to emotional immaturity. As I got older, I realized that there was more to this, and I didn’t have to be super uptight in my beliefs.”
I ask what she hopes her childless life will look like. What countries will she visit? Where will she live? What will she do with all of her free time, and what does she hope her career will be? “It’s kind of hard to ask someone who is nineteen and hasn’t finished college what they want their life to look like,” she tells me, a little annoyed.
Suzy Weiss’s last feature for us was about the explosion in American homeschooling.
Read it here: