Childless by (100% Regret-Free) Choice

Intentional non-moms: the last taboo?

by Nanette Varian • Editor { View Profile }
Photograph: Photo by iStock.

The "Selfish" Slur

The term childless by choice carries an overtone of loss. “My life is not less for it!” said one reader on More’s Facebook page, adding that she prefers child free. But that in turn implies being rid of something that’s bad for you (like sugar, fat or smoke). Still, I’d take either of those terms over some of the other names that we intentional non-mothers have been called: selfish, neurotic, childish, irresponsible, immature, unfeminine, unfulfilled, materialistic, uptight, even deviant. Sometimes people mean well, but they just “really, really wanted children themselves, and they cannot understand why other people would not want the same thing,” says Laura S. Scott, author of Two Is Enough: A Couple’s Guide to Living Childless by Choice and the producer of a documentary, The Childless by Choice Project, scheduled for release this fall. “They’re what I call the parenthood lobby.” But Scott suspects that some of these lobbyists are actually a little envious of folks without children. “Because the sacrifices you make as a parent are huge,” she says, “and sometimes the rewards for parenthood aren’t quite as you expected. So it’s like we got a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

It’s the “selfish” accusation that’s especially galling to Sandy Barker. “What’s wrong with putting yourself first?” she asks. “If you do and you’re fulfilled and happy, you have far more to give to others.” Barker’s younger friends and colleagues in Seattle respect her decision; it’s the fellow forty-somethings back in her native Australia who have trouble: “At parties, ‘Do you have kids?’ is the female equivalent ­of the male ‘What do you do?’  And I say, ‘I love kids. I’m a teacher. I’ve dedicated my professional career to being around them. But I choose not to have any.’ And then it’s that awkward social moment where both of you realize that you really have nothing in common, and I think I’ll go get another refill of my wine . . .”

The child of an English father and an American mother, Barker was raised Mormon. When she was 21, her bishop asked why she wasn’t married yet. “Because I’m going to college and I want to have a career,” she told him. Barker left the church and vacillated on becoming a mother. “By the time I was in my midthirties, I realized I was much happier being Auntie Sand to the children of girlfriends and family members,” she says. “I love that role . . . But I just have so much I want to do, and I know I couldn’t have lived this life otherwise.” Barker met her boyfriend, Ben, an American software developer, while sailing in the Greek Islands; when we spoke, the couple had just returned from Italy. She joined Ben in Seattle when he was transferred there, but had trouble finding work as a teacher. She now coordinates volunteers for Geocaching, a game that engages online communities in GPS-based treasure-hunt challenges. “I’m enjoying the work, but I do miss the kids,” she says.

Although she chose not to become a mother, Barker clearly likes to spend a lot of time with children. We don’t all have her patience. In our house, my father would go into a rage at any kind of kid-created noise, leading my brothers George and Gene to joke (sort of) that we needed to behave as though we lived in a tomb. When I was young, I hated my dad for that. Now I can relate. But my brothers turned out to be wonderfully patient parents, and even I can amuse my step-grandkids for prolonged periods. Progress.

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