But whenever I read about the typical attributes of people who don’t want children, I find myself nodding in agreement: “cherishes independence” (check); “doesn’t want the responsibility” (check); “aversion to noise; wants peace, quiet and alone time” (check-check-underline-check!). And OK, sue me, but my hackles are raised whenever I see a baby in a nice restaurant, as happened at a recent family birthday dinner. (Luckily the child—a delightful little boy with a smile like Wallace Shawn’s—was incredibly civilized, and his parents whisked him outside at the first hint of fuss.)
At the dinner were several relatives I’d never met, including Perri DeFino. Perri’s paternal grandfather was a first cousin of my maternal grandfather. Our ancestors came from Castelmezzano, a hardscrabble mountain town in Basilicata, one of Italy’s poorest regions. We discovered we had something else in common. Like me, she’s married, and like me, she doesn’t want kids.
A graphic designer in Brooklyn, DeFino always took for granted that she’d have children someday. “But I never really thought about it much,” she says. “It wasn’t a goal.” She thinks she became pregnant by a boyfriend in her midthirties, then miscarried: “I don’t know that for a fact; it all happened very quickly.” But when she and the guy later split up, DeFino wondered what it would be like to have a child on her own, and her therapist put her in touch with Single Mothers by Choice. DeFino went to a meeting. The adults she found interesting; the baby stories, much less so. “I wanted to know more about the women themselves, but all anybody talked about was their kids, and wanting to have kids, and more about kids. And I’m thinking, This is really boring! I don’t want be folding clothes at 2 am,” she recalls, laughing. But she’s grateful to the therapist, who by leading her to the group set her up to really think through what she wanted while she still had options.
“The decision-making process for the childless by choice is really very intense because we’re swimming against the tide,” says Two Is Enough author Laura Scott, who surveyed 171 voluntarily childless people in the U.S. and Canada. “So you start thinking really hard about yourself and why you feel this way. Am I parenthood material? You start evaluating your personality traits in a way that you probably would not if you’d simply assumed parenthood for yourself.”
The Making of a Non-Mom
Wondering about the origin of my particular species, I contacted the popular author and biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, an expert in the evolution of gender differences and the chemistry of romantic love. Turns out she’s in the no-kids club herself. “I don’t recall a five-minute period of my life when I wanted to have children, and I’m in my sixties now,” she says. Fisher believes her wiring may have something to do with her choice: “There are a lot of chemicals in the brain, and I seem to be very expressive of the dopamine system, which is linked with novelty seeking, risk taking, curiosity, creativity, spontaneity, liberality, energy. And I have never felt that I would be the right kind of mother for a child.”
Just because humans can do something doesn’t mean all of us will, she says. “I mean, we are an animal that evolved to eat meat, and there are people who don’t eat meat.”
But isn’t the drive to reproduce crucial to human survival? What makes us 7 percenters not want to do it?