For 19 years I was the baby of the family, alternately teased and spoiled by my older siblings. Then my position was usurped when my brother Gene had a baby of his own. My nephew had jaundice, so he needed to spend a few extra days at the hospital, baking in a tiny light box. This gave me more time to fret about everything from how to hold him (“Support the head!”) to how his presence would affect the family dynamic. But Sean finally did come home, and I managed to pick him up without incident. Today I can’t imagine life without him (or his brother, or my nieces, or my stepdaughters and their kids). But I’ve never wanted children of my own. Not back then. Not in my thirties, when the media insisted my biological clock should be ticking away madly. And not now, some 30 years (and a newly fluctuating FSH level) since Sean’s birth. Still, though I’ve always been consistent about this, I’ve also always felt a bit defensive, and I suspect that most other intentional non-mothers feel the same. In our increasingly childcentric culture, a variety of parental types (single, gay, older) are gaining some measure of acceptance. I’m happy for them—but wonder why, given this bumper crop of reproductive options, the decision not to become a parent at all can still be a conversation stopper.
It’s not as if we “intentionals” are so rare. According to U.S. Census data, the percentage of women ages 40 to 44 who’ve never given birth has doubled over the past 30 years or so, and studies have finally begun to separate the nonparents-by-chance from the nonparents-by-choice, an important acknowledgment that, yes, some of us actually did want it this way. When the National Center for Health Statistics broke out the voluntary non-moms in 2002, it found that among women ages 35 to 44 who had never given birth, 7 percent (1.5 million) had chosen that route. And that 7 percent is making itself heard. In the past few years, there have been many cultural expressions of this choice: books, websites, blogs, newsgroups, Facebook pages, even entertainments like “Breeder Bingo” cards and drinking games (mark a box or down a shot every time someone chides you with a platitude like “It’s different when they’re your own!”).
As I face my progeny-free middle and older age, it’s comforting to see I’m not the only one waving good-bye, dry eyed, as the baby train leaves the station for good. But who are the other women on the platform with me? As a group that is brave—or crazy—enough to violate one of America’s last taboos, do we share certain characteristics? And if so, is there some explanation for why we’ve all opted to go this route?