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Oh (No) Baby

Is the 'childfree' community a fast-growing, misunderstood movement -- or just a bunch of mean old kid haters?
 
 
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Winter -- with the holidays' out-of-control commercialism -- is all about children. It's a fact that makes a growing contingent of the population roll their eyes or shudder with disgust. They're the "childfree," meaning they've chosen never to have kids. They prefer that term to "childless," which they feel implies some sort of loss, or incompleteness.

Deciding not to bear the fruit of your loins is nothing new, but within the last five years the childfree community has begun to band together, largely through online support groups. The more vocal members of the community have drawn headlines with their sometimes scathing diatribes against "ankle biters," yet the range of childfree people is as varied as the range of those who choose to parent, running the gamut from caring, intelligent individuals to petty assholes.

Who are these people? What do they want? And what's a "crotch dropping?"

Kidcentric culture

It's unclear when the term "childfree" came into being, but it gained popularity in the '90s via the Childfree Network, one of the first organizations devoted to this growing segment of the population.

According to the Centers for Disease Control's 2002 survey "Fertility, Family Planning and Reproductive Health of U.S.," just saying no to kids is becoming a more popular option. Among the 61.6 million women aged 15 to 44 in 2002, 6.2 percent were voluntarily childless, up from 4.9 percent in 1982. Furthermore, the percentage of childless women who expect to have one child in their lifetimes (13 percent) was down by almost half what it was in 1995 (25 percent).

Reasons for choosing this lifestyle can range from personal to pecuniary. In a recent study conducted by economist Amalia Miller of the University of Virginia, a woman in her 20s can expect to increase her lifetime wages by 10 percent for each year she delays giving birth.

Who are the voluntarily childless? Numerous research studies have revealed that most couples who choose not to reproduce are well-educated, are employed in a professional field, have high incomes, are generally white, live in urban areas and are less religious than their child-bearing counterparts.

Childfree couples, or DINKs (Double Income No Kids), say they endure severe pressure from friends, family and co-workers, and the wrath of "breeders" who often paint the childfree as selfish, irresponsible people; hedonistic party animals; or simply "going through a phase."

From the website Childfree.net:

We choose to call ourselves "childfree" rather than "childless," because we feel the term "childless" implies that we're missing something we want -- and we aren't. We consider ourselves childfree -- free of the loss of personal freedom, money, time and energy that having children requires … being childfree-by-choice is rather frowned upon by our kidcentric society, finding information (or links to information) is difficult. Most of us are almost afraid to ask someone who might know where we can find what we're looking for … the disapproving stares and cries of "How can you not want children?!" often send us into a form of "hiding." We feel like freaks and don't realize exactly how many of us and exactly how much information is actually out there. This site attempts to remedy that problem.

The Web has become a haven for the childfree, providing a place to meet, vent and socialize. The word "childfree" nets more than 226,000 hits on Google, and there are dozens of childfree message boards and e-mail lists, from national to regional.

No Kidding is a nationwide, nonprofit social club for childfree adults. Since its inception in 1984 in Vancouver, British Columbia, the organization has grown to 92 chapters in 37 U.S. states and five other countries, including Australia, the Ivory Coast and South Korea. The group will hold an international convention in Toronto next June.

Detroit's No Kidding chapter began in 1994, and now has several dozen members who gather occasionally for barbecues and parties, and keep in touch through an e-mail list.

Member Darlene Johnson-Bignotti, 46, married and childfree: "I have friends that I can't see anymore because my idea of a good time isn't going to Chuck E. Cheese's. The very first No Kidding event I attended four years ago was really amazing; being in a room with a group of women who had something to talk about other than their children. I didn't know there were other people out there like me. It was such an experience to be around other women whose lives didn't revolve around the lives of children."

Susan Mayer, 46, works for a Big Three automaker and has been a member of Detroit's No Kidding chapter for about five years. "We do not hate children," she says. "We may not like to be around them all the time, but there are lots of things people don't like to be around all the time. Like construction."

Member Diane Evans-Gleneski, 40, and married for two and a half years: "This society has been totally brainwashed that producing a child is a must, that it's an obligation as opposed to a choice. If you don't [have kids], then you are an object of pity or scorn."

Childfree people also lament what they feel is preferential treatment given to those with kids. Debra Mollen is an assistant professor of psychology at Texas Women's University, and conducted an extensive study on childfree women. She found many of her subjects were expected to work longer hours than co-workers who were mothers.

"Pregnant women get preferential parking, those without children are expected to work longer hours, people with children get tax breaks," Mollen says. "There's social sanctioning for having children."

Semen demons

For something as seemingly innocuous as not wanting kids, many childfree people are extremely gun-shy. Most interviewed for this article didn't want to be photographed. Some -- before agreeing to speak with me -- even demanded to know whether the author had kids. This may well be due to the sometimes biased and nasty treatment childfree people have gotten in the media. Kick a tame dog enough times and eventually it'll bite.

Some media have eagerly jumped on the more outspoken of the childfree set, the "hardcore" contingent. These are the folks who refer to kids as "parasites," "larvae," "semen demons" and "crotch droppings," and to bad parents as "breeders" and "stupid moos." In online forums, they scathingly unleash their frustrations about dealing with badly behaved children.

Dennis Byrne of the Chicago Tribune recently wrote a column expressing his empathy to the childfree: "Aw, poor babies." The self-proclaimed "Primo Breeder" then went on to say that "having children is both a blessing and a great service to society, perhaps one of life's greatest. Raising children is vastly more important (and difficult) work than childless couples planning a winetasting."

Web designer Brenda Smith, who's 26, childfree and living in Novi, MI, says of such criticism, "Sometimes it's easier to go with 'childhater' rather than someone who decides this as a choice. It's something to get people angry about, which makes a better story."

Though there is a small segment of the childfree community that does, in fact, loathe and detest all children, many more childfree people say that's not the case. "I have a 13-year-old nephew who's like a son to me," Johnson-Bignotti says. "Few of us who call ourselves childfree are completely free of children in our lives -- we just choose not to parent."

Parents sometimes invade online childfree communities to lecture or insult the denizens, causing white-hot flame wars. In turn, many childfree boards post stories about neglected or abused children as proof that not all parents are such selfless angels.

"Having children is a selfish act," says Mark Smigielski, 41. "There are tons of kids out there in adoption centers, and there's plenty of hungry kids out there." Smigielski says he donates some of his extra income to charities and church organizations. And by not reproducing, he says, "I'm protecting the environment and ecology."

Fight! Fight!

Why all the hatin'? And why do so many "breeders" get so pissed off at the childfree? It's not just the nasty names. Smith, who's currently earning her master's degree in religious studies, says the idea of not bearing children is in direct conflict with the Bible.

"There's the whole idea of 'be fruitful and multiply,'" Smith says. "Mary was a mother, and that's the ideal for a Christian woman. Undermining and disagreeing with that can throw that all into a tailspin."

Psychologist Mollen: "Many parents get upset because they internalize the criticism, and feel like their choice, the choice to parent, is negated. But most childfree people are simply saying, 'This is what works for us.'"

Given our country's current sociopolitical climate, being childfree is a strong political statement, whether intended or not. It spits in the face of "family values" (despite the fact that many childfree couples have deeply loving, healthy, long-term relationships) and the omnipotent Christian right-wing political machine that seems to color every facet of our lives.

"When they say family, they mean a white Christian couple with one or more minor children in a household," says Johnson-Bignotti. "That's who the political climate is catering to right now."

Being childfree touches on hotbed issues: race, class, gender and religion. Pope John Paul II openly condemned married couples who choose not to reproduce; and "anti-childfree" is gaining its own momentum. As such, the Brits have founded Kidding Aside, an organization devoted to improving the political representation of childfree citizens. Although there's been talk of a starting a similar group in this country, none has taken shape yet.

But the barbs aren't traded only by the childfree and the breeders. There's also some nasty infighting within the childfree community. Brianne Nurse, 22, of Windsor, MI, sums it up neatly: "It's a very personal issue and there are a lot of gray areas -- when you try to make it a black-and-white issue, that's when the fighting starts."

Smalheer has experienced plenty of the backlash. Although she steadfastly considers herself childfree, she's been told by many that she has no right to refer to herself by the term because she's a stepmother. Smalheer says she decided she was childfree when just 12 years old, but five years ago fell in love with a man who had a child from a previous marriage. They married last year, and her husband has joint custody of the 9-year-old boy.

"I still consider myself childfree because I've never had any of my own, and never will," Smalheer says. "You can't choose who you fall in love with.

"There's an ongoing argument that pops up on nearly every childfree online community. It becomes a game of one-upmanship: I'm more childfree than you because of 'blank' -- that blank can be filled with all kinds of things, like 'I've been sterilized' or 'I'd never even date someone with kids.' People like me, who've become involved with someone with kids, are seen as betraying the cause, having sold out, going over to the dark side."

Johnson-Bignotti doesn't agree that someone who's a stepparent can still be childfree. She compares the phenomenon to those who identify themselves as gay and later become straight.

"In that case, you were never gay in the first place," she says. "Same thing with childfree. People who go on to have kids, or aren't sure, they shouldn't identify themselves as childfree. They should identify themselves as fence-sitters. A childfree person who's had kids or married into it, they've ruined it for me because of what it says to other people: That person changed their mind, you will too."

It's an interesting analogy. The friction between some childfree people is similar to the conflicts that sometimes arise between gays and bisexuals -- the notion that bisexuals are "cheating," "having it all" or are just fence-sitters.

Childfree by birth

That analogy goes further. One idea that's beginning to gain strength and popularity in the childfree realm is that being childfree is an inherent psychological imprint, a trait you are born with, like homosexuality. The idea that you're genetically wired to be childfree is supported by those who claim they knew as kids that they never wanted to have one.

"My mother knew something was 'wrong' with me when I played Barbies with my friend, and her Barbie married Ken and they had five kids," Evans-Gleneski says. "My Barbie was president of an oil company, drove a Corvette and lived by herself in a townhouse."

Most people interviewed for this article claim they knew they were childfree at a very young age. Mayer says she knew when she was six. Those in their forties have been childfree for decades, all the while being told they'd eventually change their minds.

Smith, 26, says her mother has finally realized that -- pardon the pun -- she's not kidding. When her mother's friends or relatives say that Smith will eventually come around, Mom knows better. "She'll say, 'Nope, you don't know Brenda. It's not a phase.'"

Although she's still young, Nurse believes she's childfree for life: "My mom says that as far back as 7 years old, I was saying I didn't want kids. I made the formal decision at 18, and then at 19 or 20 I discovered the childfree community online.

"I never rule anything out completely. There is a chance I may change my mind one day, but it's not a big chance and I don't see it happening."

Ain't misbehavin'

At the root of much of the childfree debate is the issue of bratty kids. Children misbehaving in public has been a hot topic in recent years, with newspaper columnists mourning the days of true discipline, lamenting the lack of manners displayed by kids these days. And it accounts for the popularity of shows like Supernanny.

This all bubbled to a media froth recently when the owner of a Chicago café posted a sign in his store, warning that "Children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices." What was intended as a simple plea to parents to keep their kids in line turned into another big childfree debate, sparking stories in The New York Times and dozens of outraged opinion columns on both sides of the issue.

The issue was not just kids, but also bad parenting; Johnson-Bignotti says not all parents are "breeders."

"A breeder is like the stray dog down the street, having babies because it doesn't know any better. A parent is someone who actually takes responsibility for their child," she says.

And plenty of -- gasp -- non-childfree people are in agreement: The occasional, and unavoidable, tantrum aside, kids should be taught to behave well in public. Even Gary Glenn of the American Family Association sides with the childfree on this issue. "I have children, and I find it extremely annoying to have to sit in a restaurant with parents who are incapable or unwilling to discipline their children," he says.

Glenn says of the childfree, "If that's somebody's choice, that's certainly their prerogative," but then quickly adds, "I'm sure they're more than happy to collect the Social Security benefits from couples who do have children who grow up to be contributing members of society."

What do childfree people want? For one, they want you to mind your own business. Two, they want your kids to be quiet. Other than that, they're mostly content to live their own childfree lives in peace.

But some want to take it to the next level still; nonsmoking bars and restaurants are everywhere these days, so why not apply the same strictures to kids? Childfree restaurants, coffee shops, hotels, resorts …

"When I'm in a nice restaurant paying $20 for a steak, I want that baby to be quiet," Mayer says. "There are certain places where there just should not be strollers."

Sarah Klein is the culture editor at the Detroit Metro Times.