FRIDAY, Oct. 19, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Women are more comfortable with the idea of childlessness than men, new research shows, and the surprise finding might really reflect differences in how each gender views the pressures of parenthood.
"On a basic level, for men and women, parenting and parenthood mean different things," said study author Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox. "For me, it reflects that there's something important happening in the experiences of men and women where those different experiences are leading to different perceptions of family, relationships, gender and children."
Differences in socioeconomic factors such as race, age, employment, attitudes toward marriage and religion explain only part of the gender gap. "Instead, these responses indicate greater acceptance of childlessness, particularly among women, as one possible life path whether chosen or shaped by circumstances," the study concluded.
The research is published in the November issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family. The study is based on data collected in two national surveys that were conducted in 1987 to 1988 and in 1994. Over the past few decades, the number of women who are childless has varied widely, said Koropeckyj-Cox, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Florida.
During the Baby Boom years, only about 9 percent of women were childless in their 40s. Recent statistics indicate that about 20 percent of women in their 40s are now childless, she added. "As women wait longer to have children, they may be less likely to have children," she explained.
"It's definitely a big shift," Koropeckyj-Cox said. "1962 is the tail end of the Baby Boom, and there definitely was a feeling that having children was what everybody did. The attitudes were definite and specific. Those who couldn't were regarded with pity, and those who could but didn't were disrespected."
Koropeckyj-Cox speculated that some women may not be choosing motherhood because of the burden of how difficult the dual roles of mom and working women are. "Other studies have documented that men tend to experience pretty strong economic and social rewards from being a dad, whereas women experience more of the pressures and more of the demands of the immediate day-to-day reality of parenting and juggling work."
The study argues that even though its data is at least 10 years old, that gender gap still may be pivotal in shaping attitudes toward childlessness. Conditions in terms of work and other issues for women considering parenthood don't seem to have changed much, Koropeckyj-Cox noted, but "one of my next steps would be to keep looking at it with more recent data."
At first, the findings seem "counterintuitive," said Irene Goldenberg, a professor emerita of psychiatry at University of California, Los Angeles. "People would say that women care more" about children. But, as the study implies, "women know the costs more."
The finding that women's acceptance of childlessness increases with the amount of education they have shows that "the smarter you are, the more you know about the costs," Goldenberg added. "You understand that it's difficult to do both things. The whole idea of doing both is really tough. Doing both at a high level is maybe possible for only a few women. Ordinary women can't handle it all."
Goldenberg added that she thinks "women are not really going for childlessness, but that they are more attuned to the demands -- both economic and social demands -- of parenthood, and they carry more of these responsibilities."
Nadine Kaslow, chief psychologist at Emory Medical School in Atlanta, viewed the findings similarly, adding that "women who are successful professionals make a choice that they don't want to have children in their lives, because they have other things in their lives." Men, however, "tend to think that is what you do in life. You grow up and have a baby."
That male attitude may come from their most primal being, explained Barry Ginsberg, a Pennsylvania psychologist specializing in relationships. "For a man, the loss of having a family and carrying on the gene pool makes men helpless, because they can't give birth," Ginsberg said.
From an "evolutionary standpoint, men would go around impregnating all the women they could find, so that at least one of those women would survive" and produce a child, he explained.
The National Association of Mothers' Center has support and advice for moms.