Childless by (100% Regret-Free) Choice

Intentional non-moms: the last taboo?

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

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?

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.

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?

“Nobody knows,” she replies. “But for millions of years, women needed to have children, not only to become an adult and a functioning member of society but to produce individuals who could help them as they aged. Today we don’t need that. There were women like you and me a million years ago, but they probably didn’t have the opportunity to live their lives the way they would have liked to. Our feelings are not new.  What’s new is the environment, which enables us to choose a different way.”

In the late ’90s, a flutter of publicity surrounded the discovery that, absent a particular version of certain genes (mainly the Mest and Peg3), female mice were much less nurturing of their pups. Even virgin mice of that type were less solicitous of their peers’ newborns. Could my lack of reproductive drive be the result of some genetic hiccup? An empty-Mest syndrome?

On this topic, the experts are dodgy. The Kinsey Institute said they “don’t track birth demographics and wouldn’t know who to refer you to.” The American Medical Association sent me to the American Psychiatric Association, which never responded. A nice lady at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine said, “I find your subject matter intriguing, ­as I also fit into the same category,” and hooked me up with a woman who hooked me up with Janet Takefman, director of research and psychological services at the McGill Reproductive Centre in Montreal. She was nice, too, but lightly scolded me for the implications of my question. “I’d be surprised to hear of any physiological studies done on women who choose not to have children,” she said in an e-mail message. “To not have children is a choice, not a disease or a deficit.”

“Of course women have maternal genes—genes that give them breasts and ovaries and enable them to be mothers,” Steve Jones, a genetics professor at University College London, told writer Nicki Defago for her 2005 book, Childfree and Loving It! “But we don’t know if some have genes that make them want motherhood more or will make them better at it.” The scientists are still not sure. When I e-mailed Jones recently, he replied, “Well, I do not know of any gene that would persuade humans not to reproduce . . . There are plenty of cases in animals where particular castes do not reproduce—bees, wasps, termites are the famous ones; naked mole rats and meerkats also fall into that category.”

Interesting. Is there some common thread among these nonreproductive creatures?

“One of the strange regularities is that animals that live in burrows and hives tend to do this,” Jones responded. “There is a bizarre scientific paper [on this subject] with the wonderful title ‘Sex in Rotting Wood.’ ”

Elinor Burkett encountered somewhat less bonhomie 12 years ago when she began the research that ultimately grew into her book The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless. Hoping to include some insights from Betty Friedan, she phoned the feminist icon, who, Burkett reports in her book, “listened silently for the first 45 seconds,” then berated her about the importance of supporting “the great majority of women [who] have children.” And then she hung up.

“She was angry,” Burkett says now, via e-mail. “For the most part, [Friedan and other] women’s-movement leaders accepted as fact that women will be mothers . . . and all too many seem to react with hostility to any suggestion that we need to create a society in which women’s choices about parenting are fully respected and supported, as if even bringing up the issue constitutes a threat to their attempts to gain more benefits for mothers.”

This may have been a necessary strategy for feminists, says Elaine Tyler May, a professor of history and American studies at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and the author of Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness. “I think because the feminist movement took such a beating for being ‘antifamily,’ feminist leaders strategically may not have been as vocal on that issue,” May says. “Childlessness is obviously a major piece of reproductive choice . . . [But] you don’t want to spend a lot of your political capital in ways that would harm your movement more broadly.”
 

Finally, Acceptance

Authors Scott, Fisher and May are all confident that society is turning a corner on childlessness. So are the other women I interviewed, almost all of whom said their parents and friends accepted their decision. Even the majority of Vincent Ciaccio’s friends were, if not fully supportive, at least tolerant of his decision. Ciaccio is a braver soul than I am—he had surgery to make it physically impossible for him to have a child. The vasectomy took place 10 years ago, when he was 23. (His family knew he was considering the procedure, then learned he had gone through with it when he appeared on Sally Jessy Raphael to discuss his decision, and Grandma happened to be watching and saw the caption under his head.) His reasoning: The procedure would be less invasive for him than a tubal ligation would be for his then-girlfriend (they’ve since married), and doctors tend to give men seeking sterilization less grief than they do women—a theory reinforced by the stories Ciaccio heard when he and his wife, a corporate lawyer, became spokes people for No Kidding!, an international social club that arranges get-togethers for childless people.

“For close to 10 years I spoke with people from all over the country and even the world,” Ciaccio says. “And I think in part the problem comes down to some doctors’ mindset of, ‘You say you don’t want kids now but, you know, you’re going to change your mind because all women want kids. So I’m not going to perform this procedure because I know you better than you know you.’ ”

Though his wife is still active in No Kidding!, Ciaccio bowed out in order to concentrate on his PhD thesis at Rutgers University. The topic: men who don’t want children, a group he feels has been underresearched.

Sandy Barker was enormously relieved when her partner’s parents gave them their blessing. “I had a nice sit-down with Ben’s mom,” she says. “I get emotional thinking about it. I mean, Ben is 10 years younger than I am. If she was dying to be a grandmother, she and I would’ve had a whole different conversation!” Barker’s father and stepmother (who is also childless, and a schoolteacher) support her lifestyle. Her mother is a little more disappointed not to be a grandmother, Barker says. Fortunately for everyone, Barker’s sister just got married, and “she’s very keen to have kids.”

The women who’ve made this choice are well aware of its advantages. Perri DeFino says she and her husband are “able to do a lot of things that our friends can’t because they’ve spent a lot of money on college for their kids. Traveling is the most obvious one. And, frankly, this house.” The couple is renovating a brownstone.

“On weekends, when every parent has to go to soccer games and whatnot, I can go to my running group or visit my dad back in New Jersey,” says Vicki VanArsdale, a freelance writer and personal trainer in Arlington, Virginia.

“More flexibility,” says Bernadette Armiento, a holistic health and nutrition counselor in West Orange, New Jersey. “If I’d had children, especially young ones, I don’t know if I could have left corporate life to start my own business.” (She used to work in the financial sector.) And as Lisa Tamargo, executive director of a trade association in Tampa, notes, relationship “do-overs” are much easier when you’re responsible only for yourself. Otherwise, “you’re always connected to the child’s father.”

The downsides of childlessness are harder to tease out. “Regret is the bogeyman,” researcher Scott says. “But even though I went looking for evidence of regret, I didn’t find it.” (It may be that people with second thoughts about their decision were less likely to participate in Scott’s survey; subjects were self-selected, and many came to her via organizations for the childless by choice.)

I sometimes think, If I had a child, I’d name him or her after my brother Gene, who died in 2003. I wonder, Would he or she have my brown eyes and blond hair? Be a smart-ass like my husband? But that’s about the extent of it.

“To not have that life experience of being a mother—it’s a slight regret,” says Armiento. “But I also don’t have the extreme worry and pain that can go with it.”

VanArsdale recalls happy moments from an otherwise difficult childhood: “My parents worked hard, but my mom always had home-cooked meals for us, and we always baked. So in a way that stuff is missing for me, passing it down to somebody else. But I don’t feel like it’s ‘missing-missing.’ ”

If the bogeyman isn’t regret, maybe it’s concern about the future.

“Like other baby boomers, I think I’ll live forever or at least live healthy until I die,” jokes Armiento. “God only knows what’s going to happen,” blurts DeFino with a laugh. Like so many of us, she eyeballs her sibling’s kids: “I told one of my nieces, ‘You’re going to have to take care of four ‘parents,’ you know, not just two.’ It probably freaks her out a little bit. And it’s not realistic anyway, because she lives in a different city.”

“There are no guarantees in life,” says VanArsdale. “Even if I had children, they could move to the other side of the country, they could hate me, they could get sick and die. But [eldercare] is a very good point. My dogs or cats are not going to be able to take care of me. So I’ll be winging it. It’s really not something I worry about. Which might be foolish, but it’s certainly not the reason to have a kid, you know?” Me, I’m hoping the money I’ve saved on strollers, sneakers, tongue piercings and college tuition will be enough to see me through my dotage with some decent hired help. (I didn’t change my stepdaughters’ diapers—the girls were grown by the time I met them. So why should they change mine?)

Bottom line: Being a parent does not ensure a happier old age, says Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Florida in Gainesville who has done several studies on childlessness and aging. Other factors—having a husband or partner, the quality of one’s relationships with family and friends—play a huge role. There is simply “no clear-cut connection” between being a parent and being less lonely, says Koropeckyj-Cox. “Having what you want is more important than whether or not you have kids.”

As I’ve grown older, and especially since my brother’s death, I’ve become intensely interested in genealogy. Finding relatives from the past can be very satisfying: They make no demands other than to be discovered, and you can’t lose them because they’re already gone.

My mother’s side came over from Italy in 1920 to escape grinding poverty; my father’s was fleeing religious persecution in 17th-century France. Among these brave, flawed forebears are farmers and butchers, soldiers and slaveholders, a blacksmith, a shoe repairman, an operating-­room nurse and the 63rd mayor of New York City. I’m glad there’s always someone in the family having a baby, moving the whole mess forward. And I’m glad it isn’t me.

Nanette Varian is a features editor at More. She dotes happily on her two cats.

Originally published in the October 2010 issue of More. This is an expanded version of the original article.

First Published Thu, 2010-08-26 09:43

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