Child-Free By Choice
"Biological clock, tick on!"I've been known to mutter this or even say it out loud when faced with a screaming child in an otherwise quiet restaurant or when stuck behind a row of chattering pre-teens in a crowded movie theater.Don't get me wrong, kids are OK -- as long as they're someone else's.There may still be glass ceilings out there in some professions but, in general, more women then ever are out there working and bringing home their own bacon (or tofu). Women have taken charge of their own lives. Married women/mothers who choose not to work have a choice, which is the important point.But there's one area where women are still pressured to stick to the same traditional role -- motherhood. The pressure to have children begins subtly, with little girls taking care of dolls and being bombarded with the "mother" image. There are still strong unspoken expectations in our society that a female will grow up, get married and have a child. Part of that has evolved from instinct -- the perpetuation of the species -- and part is cultural.Dr. Diane Zablotsky, assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, says, "Sociologically, one of the ways we try to understand childlessness by choice -- childless by choice is sort of a new phrase for people who are making this decision -- is the fact that historically and in the 90s, we, as a society, are very 'pro-child.'"We assume married couples are going to have children. We assume that people who have children are happier. We look to women, especially women who are married, as naturally wanting kids. So when you think about couples or women who've made the decision not to, it's interesting to think about the social context in which they make that decision."Maria Curran, a counselor in private practice, notes society is still sending strong messages to women about bearing and raising children. "For women, if you're not married with children, you're not really anybody -- you don't have a real purpose in life."Curran continues, "I've got some women I'm working with now that are exactly there: they don't think they want to have children. They feel they're OK with that, yet you can hear that doubt, but it's not really their doubt."I think in the South it's harder to be a single woman with a focus on career -- and not have that career be just something you're doing until you find a husband and have children."Then there's the grandchildren thing. "Again, some of the women I'm working with right now are under the gun -- there's that expectation that you will provide the grandchildren -- that is your primary role," Curran adds.She notes that others (from family to "helpful" friends) may try to convince a woman who has no children that her childlessness is the reason she's unhappy. "It can't possibly be because maybe she hasn't found her career niche yet or maybe because she hasn't found the right focus for her talent. It couldn't be that she doesn't spend enough time on self care, couldn't be any of those things. It has to be because she doesn't have a baby. If she'd just have that baby everything would fall into place."Zablotsky expands this thought. "The social context essentially is that we should have children, children are good for us; it's a sign of maturity and reaching adulthood when you have children, especially for women. That if you don't have children either something is wrong with you or you're incredibly selfish or immature. One of the things that folks are not real aware of is that, historically, there's usually been anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of married couples who were childless. Now, we think, in historical terms, of those being infertile couples -- although, of course, there were some couples who had made the choice. Until very recently, those couples were the object of sympathy."Susan (not her real name) is a lawyer in her mid-30s. She and her husband have been married for 12 years. "Before my husband and I got married we talked about it and both decided at that time we did not want to have children," she says. Her husband sometimes jokes that they'd "need a wife first" -- that is, someone to help take care of a child.She continues: "It's not necessarily career that comes first, it's our time with each other -- doing the things we enjoy doing together. And there's our fear of not doing the right thing by our children -- that we could screw it up."Susan fears that their decision will be perceived as selfish. She's quick to add that she had a wonderful childhood and adores her parents. Her husband comes from a family of eight siblings and between them they have 32 nieces and nephews. "We spend a great deal of time with our nieces and nephews -- we go on trips with our nieces and nephews. But as far as the everyday aspect of parenting, it scares us."Susan feels lucky to be supported by her family. "My mother, my father and sisters supported me 100 percent in that decision," she says. "Now my in-laws on the other hand -- it was beyond my mother-in-law's comprehension why a woman wouldn't want to have children."And it's not like Susan considers it an irrevocable decision. "When I turned 30 I thought, 'Whoa, have we made a mistake?' We talked about it. We've talked about adoption. Then after we talk about it, it confirms our decision -- that we made the right decision."Susan laughs and says, "A lot of my friends who have children tell me: 'You're doing the right thing! Stand your ground!'"She concludes, thoughtfully, "I think our decision was more based with the child in mind than ourselves in mind.""Most couples that you talk to and most studies show that couples still continue to feel the social pressure to have kids," Zablotsky continues. "What is happening, especially through the last 15 or 20 years -- certainly through the 80s and the 90s -- is that we have more women of childbearing age who have not had children. For instance, in 1960, 18 percent of all women between the ages of 25 to 39, which we sort of consider the married childbearing years, were childless. And by 1986, that increased to 28 percent."Curran says there's still a definite double standard. "We don't make it easy for women no matter what they choose," she says. "We're still going to judge you no matter what you choose. Even women who stay home [with children] sometimes face some judgment there. It's almost a no-win situation."Curran adds that it's important for women to get support in their decision. "One thing that's real helpful is if you have alliances with other women who have made the same decisions. Or maybe haven't made the same decisions but have a real strong career orientation."What if you know you'll make a lousy mother? Like most women growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I thought I'd go to college and then get married. I wanted a career, sure, but I also expected somehow that I'd have a husband and a child or two. Twins run in my family, and I figured that a set of twins would get it over with in one fell swoop.I didn't "find a husband" in college. But at 21 or 22, I thought I still had plenty of time for the "family thing." By the time I was well into my newspaper career and approaching 30, however, I was rethinking the family situation. My friends from college who had gotten married were by now either having second children or getting divorces. People that I worked with were either career-oriented or were already starting families.By the time I turned 30, I knew. No kids for me. Maybe that sounds selfish. But I'm just not good around most kids, and I've never quite been sure why. I never know how to entertain kids, other than maybe reading to them. I baby-sat maybe three or four times in my entire life. Some people just have a knack for relating to children that I've never seemed to grasp. If a mother hands me her baby to hold, the baby usually starts to cry.I also quickly learned not to talk about it. Mostly because everyone says, "Oh, you'll change your mind" or "you'll feel differently when it's your own."Many women and, indeed, many more men are successfully handling parenthood, and I salute those folks. But parenthood is not for me.Choosing to be childfree can have unforeseen repercussions just as choosing to have children has repercussions. In addition to facing criticism from family, people without children may be taken advantage of in the workplace.In her book, Why Don't You Have Kids? Living A Full Life Without Parenthood, Leslie Lafayette cites a number of instances where child-free persons, especially women, have been treated unfairly. One example involved a single woman who asked her boss six months in advance for one week of unpaid leave to climb a mountain with Outward Bound. Her request was denied while a colleague who had just taken three months unpaid leave to have a baby was granted half-days so she could be at home with her child.Another example cited was a single woman who regularly worked overtime to cover for parents who had to leave early to take their children to soccer practice or doctor's appointments. The woman wasn't compensated for this; it was just expected she would do it. The assumption was that childless adults have no life outside of work nor are their lives as important or meaningful.Zablotsky takes a larger view of the situation: "Through our work lives, our family impacts our productivity and impacts the decisions we are going to make. And it is probably true that folks with kids maybe do take more sick time. On the other hand, we can look at the support that folks will get because they have kids later on. One might make the argument that if you and I look at our work lives and project into the future, I may miss more time now because of taking care of sick kids and that may cost society. In the future, I may have kids who are going to support me, and you, the childless person, are going to have to draw on social resources. I look at things as part of the social collective."We are going to contribute and take out of the economy differently, whether we're childless or whether we have kids. I think on a one-to-one, yeah, you may feel taken advantage of because you might be the one I assume is going to work Christmas. But there are things you can do with that, for instance, one of the innovative things is with health insurance plans where you as a childless person may, with a smorgasbord approach, take different benefits than I will because you don't need to pay for health insurance for your kids. I think we can do things to give people choices that will reflect their own decisions."Peg Robarchek is 43, a writer, and has been married twice. "I think I always knew. I was never interested in kids. I remember when I was a junior in high school, talking with one of my friends about it -- she said to me, 'Well, as soon as you start having sex on a regular basis, the urge will kick in to have kids. That's just the way it happens.' I was unconvinced."She continues, "I always thought there's probably something strange about me -- when, for example, people would come into places where I was working and they'd bring the new babies, all the women would go 'ohhh' and run over and want to play with the babies and coo over the babies. I had no interest in that."First of all, I think the most positive thing is that I didn't have children that I wasn't prepared to give everything to, that I wasn't prepared to parent effectively -- that's good for the children that I didn't inflict myself upon," she says. "Secondly, for me, it obviously made it easier for me to pursue my interests, my goals in life; I think it would have been extremely difficult to accomplish some of the stuff I've accomplished in the time frame in which I've done it if I had been trying to raise children. There were times when I was trying to get some things off the ground that I didn't socialize much -- I didn't have much life outside of the jobs I was working and that was simply the way it needed to be at that time. If I had had children, that energy would have had to go to the children."Despite what I'm saying I don't think there's anything more important than raising our children," she adds. "I see an awful lot of my friends who are putting that first and making it their priority now and I admire that. I think that's wonderful -- I think that's the way, in an ideal world, that it should be."Peg, like Susan, isn't completely devoid of contact with children. "At this point in my life, one of the great blessings in my life is that I have a stepdaughter. I get to participate in her life. She's a great kid and she taught me a lot about kids. My editors say that the best parts of my books are the parts with children."Women who decide not to have children may feel much more in control of their lives and able, as Peg Robarchek mentioned, to pursue goals that may not be possible if children are in the equation. They can find the freedom to more easily explore new job possibilities, to travel more, to devote more time to other creative endeavors.While it seems wrong to simply have children so you won't be lonely or so that you will have someone to take care of you in your old age, anyone who makes the decision not to reproduce may have to face some regrets. But even wise choices sometimes come with a price.Melissa Myer is outspoken in her conviction that she has done the right thing by not having children. She's in her late 30s, owns her own business and takes care of four dogs. "When I was young, I never even enjoyed baby-sitting. I can only recall maybe four times when I baby sat. I even took a baby-sitting course -- so I would learn, you know, how to feed a baby, change a diaper, first aid -- and I still can't change a diaper right."I could never connect with children. I've never really known how to entertain them. I've never felt comfortable around them," she adds.Melissa feels fortunate that she has had no pressure from her parents to either get married or have children. Her sister is also childless. Melissa feels that she and her sister "have felt like we've never lived up to the expectations that they [her parents] had for us. I think it has something to do with that -- like if we weren't that good as children, you know, what kind of parent could we be?"She says friends have said, "Wait until you have one of your own, you'll feel differently." Her answer to this is, "Why should I have one just to see if I'll feel differently?""I don't think my life is any better for not having children. I've just always thought I would never make a good mother....The one regret I have is that my sister and I are the last of our family. I will be getting, inheriting, at some point all these wonderful family heirlooms, and I have no one to leave them to."My great grandfather built a family mausoleum up in Ohio in 1895. It's one of those real cool old ones -- black iron gate and stone archway. Who is going to take care of the mausoleum? There's nobody that'll be around to put flowers there or to remember us."The issue of whether or not to have children is very sensitive and very personal. At the same time, it goes beyond personal considerations to considerations of the fate of children and the legacy of families. Whether or not a woman has a child is an important decision that should be weighed carefully. The responsibilities can be terrifying and the rewards beyond measure."I find it interesting both as a sociologist and as a person," says Zablotsky, "that having children is the most intimate decision you can make, and the most intimate thing you can do with another person. And so on the one hand we have the fact that it's such a core of what we are and what we decide to do -- and yet it's the one thing that people feel free to give you advice about -- you know, strangers. You can be sitting next to somebody on a plane they ask you if you're married, and you say yes. They ask you how many kids you have, and you say, oh well I don't have any children. They say, oh well, maybe someday, and you say, well I really don't want 'em. They'll tell you what they think. I find that to be astounding."They can form those negative ideas about you by your one statement, 'I don't want children.'"The one thing that seems to be happening more and more is we used to think about childlessness as sort of childless by default: I'm childless because I never met the right partner. I'm childless because I never got married. I'm childless because I couldn't have children. One of the changes we've seen in this half century -- certainly by the 70s, 80s, 90s -- is childless by choice. And that's one of the reasons that that phrase 'by choice' has stuck because it represents people making the conscious decision that they follow through on not to have kids. That represents a change of direction for more and more people."Leslie Lafayette summed it up this way, "The truth about living child-free is that it can be exciting, adventurous, satisfying, meaningful, and complete."SIDEBAR: For More Info:Childless By Choice is a resource organization for people who have decided not to have children and for persons who are deciding whether or not to become parents. It was founded by a husband and wife team, Carin Smith and Jay Bender. Although the organization's info sheet indicates they will no longer be publishing a newsletter, they have a variety of other materials available. For more info, write Childless By Choice, PO Box 695, Leavenworth WA 98826. E-Mail address is email@example.com.The Childfree Network was founded in 1992 by Leslie Lafayette. The network provides support and information to childless men and women and couples and tries to create a positive climate for choice. The Network offers a newsletter. Send an SASE w/ 55 cents postage for info to Childfree Network, 7777 Sunrise Boulevard, Suite 1800, Citrus Heights CA 95610. Telephone, 919-773-7178.