December is a miserable time for many.
Theyre everywhere, seemingly inescapable: swarming through the malls and coffee shops, popping up on every TV commercial, blocking your path at every turn, infecting your every move.
Its enough to make your blood run cold if youre childfree.
Not childless, mind you, but childfree.
Christmas, with out-of-control commercialism, is undeniably all about children. Its a fact that makes a growing contingent of the population roll their eyes or shudder with disgust. Theyre the childfree, meaning theyve chosen never to have kids. They prefer the term to childless, which they feel implies some sort of loss or incompleteness.
Deciding not to bear the fruit of your loins is nothing new, but within the last five years the childfree community has begun to band
together, largely through online support groups. The more vocal members of the community have drawn headlines with their sometimes scathing diatribes against ankle biters, yet the range of childfree people is as varied as the range of those who choose to parent, running the gamut from caring, intelligent individuals to petty assholes.
Who are these people? What do they want? And whats a crotch dropping?
Its unclear when the term childfree came into being, but it gained popularity in the 90s via the Childfree Network, one of the first organizations devoted to this growing segment of the population.
According to the Centers for Disease Controls 2002 survey, Fertility, Family Planning and Reproductive Health of U.S., just saying no to kids is becoming a more popular option. Among the 61.6 million women aged 15 to 44 in 2002, 6.2 percent were voluntarily childless, up from 4.9 percent in 1982. Furthermore, the percentage of childless women who expect to have one child in their lifetimes (13 percent) was down by almost half what it was in 1995 (25 percent).
Reasons for choosing this lifestyle can range from personal to pecuniary. In a recent study conducted by economist Amalia Miller of the University of Virginia, a woman in her 20s can expect to increase her lifetime wages by 10 percent for each year she delays giving birth.
Who are the voluntarily childless? Numerous research studies have revealed that most couples who choose not to reproduce are well-educated, are employed in a professional field, have high incomes, are generally white, live in urban areas and are less religious than their child-bearing counterparts.
Childfree couples, or DINKs (Double Income No Kids), say they endure severe pressure from friends, family and co-workers, and the wrath of breeders who often paint the childfree as selfish, irresponsible people; hedonistic party animals; or simply going through a phase.
From the Web site childfree.net:
We choose to call ourselves childfree rather than childless, because we feel the term childless implies that were missing something we want and we arent. We consider ourselves childfree free of the loss of personal freedom, money, time and energy that having children requires ... being childfree-by-choice is rather frowned upon by our kidcentric society, finding information (or links to information) is difficult. Most of us are almost afraid to ask someone who might know where we can find what were looking for ... the disapproving stares and cries of How can you not want children?! often send us into a form of hiding. We feel like freaks and dont realize exactly how many of us and exactly how much information is actually out there. This site attempts to remedy that problem.
The Web has become a haven for the childfree, providing a place to meet, vent and socialize. The word childfree nets more than 226,000 hits on Google, and there are dozens of childfree message boards and e-mail lists, from national to regional.
No Kidding (nokidding.net) is a nationwide, nonprofit social club for childfree adults. Since its inception in 1984 in Vancouver, British Columbia, the organization has grown to 92 chapters in 37 U.S. states and five other countries, including Australia, the Ivory Coast and South Korea. The group will hold an international convention in Toronto next June.
Detroits No Kidding chapter began in 1994, and now has several dozen members who gather occasionally for barbecues and parties, and keep in touch through an e-mail list.
Member Darlene Johnson-Bignotti, 46, of Ferndale, married and childfree: I have friends that I cant see anymore because my idea of a good time isnt going to Chuck E. Cheeses. The very first No Kidding event I attended, four years ago, it was really amazing, being in a room with a group of women who had something to talk about other than their children. I didnt know that there were other people out there like me. It was such an experience to be around other women whose lives didnt revolve around the lives of children.
Susan Mayer of Wixom, 46, works for a Big Three automaker and has been a member for about five years. We do not hate children, she says. We may not like to be around them all the time, but there are lots of things people dont like to be around all the time. Like construction.
Member Diane Evans-Gleneski, 40, and married for two and a half years: This society has been totally brainwashed that producing a child is a must, that its an obligation as opposed to a choice. If you dont [have kids], then you are an object of pity or scorn.
Childfree people also lament what they feel is preferential treatment given to those with kids. Debra Mollen is an assistant professor of psychology at Texas Womens University, and conducted an extensive study on childfree women. She found many of her subjects were expected to work longer hours than co-workers who were mothers.
Pregnant women get preferential parking, those without children are expected to work longer hours, people with children get tax breaks, Mollen says. Theres social sanctioning for having children.
For something as seemingly innocuous as not wanting kids, many childfree are extremely gun-shy. Most interviewed for this article didnt want to be photographed. Some before agreeing to speak with Metro Times even demanded to know whether the author had kids. This may well be due to the sometimes biased and nasty treatment childfree people have gotten in the media. Kick a tame dog enough times and eventually itll bite.
Some media have eagerly jumped on the more outspoken of the childfree set, the hardcore contingent. These are the folks who refer to kids as parasites, larvae, semen demons and crotch droppings, and to bad parents as breeders and stupid moos. In online forums, they scathingly unleash their frustrations about dealing with badly behaved children.
Dennis Byrne of the Chicago Tribune recently wrote a column expressing his empathy to the childfree: Aw, poor babies. The self-proclaimed Primo Breeder then went on to say that having children is both a blessing and a great service to society, perhaps one of lifes greatest. Raising children is vastly more important (and difficult) work than childless couples planning a winetasting.
Web designer Brenda Smith, whos 26, childfree and living in Novi, says of such criticism, Sometimes its easier to go with childhater rather than someone who decides this as a choice. Its something to get people angry about, which makes a better story.
Sarah Smalheer, 32, of Chelsea: Its always the most unsavory bits that make the best story. Everybody loves to hear about how we call people with kids all these mean names. But like any group, theres a very outspoken minority and a more mellow majority.
Though there certainly is a small segment of the childfree community that does, in fact, loathe and detest all children, many more childfree people say thats not the case. I have a 13-year-old nephew whos like a son to me, Johnson-Bignotti says. Few of us who call ourselves childfree are completely free of children in our lives we just choose not to parent.
Parents sometimes invade online childfree communities to lecture or insult the denizens, causing white-hot flame wars. In turn, many childfree boards post stories about neglected or abused children as proof that not all parents are such selfless angels.
Having children is a selfish act, says Mark Smigielski, 41, of Sterling Heights. There are tons of kids out there in adoption centers, and theres plenty of hungry kids out there. Smigielski says he donates some of his extra income to charities and local church organizations. And by not reproducing, he says, Im protecting the environment and ecology.
Why all the hatin? And why do so many breeders get so pissed off at the childfree? Its not just the nasty names. Smith, whos currently earning her masters degree in religious studies, says the idea of not bearing children is in direct conflict with the Bible.
Theres the whole idea of be fruitful and multiply, Smith says. Mary was a mother, and thats the ideal for a Christian woman. Undermining and disagreeing with that can throw that all into a tailspin.
Psychologist Mollen: Many parents get upset because they internalize the criticism, and feel like their choice, the choice to parent, is negated. But most childfree people are simply saying, This is what works for us.
Given our countrys current sociopolitical climate, being childfree is a strong political statement, whether intended or not. It spits in the face of family values (despite the fact that many childfree couples have deeply loving, healthy, long-term relationships) and the omnipotent Christian right-wing political machine that seems to color every facet of our lives these days.
When they say family, they mean a white Christian couple with one or more minor children in a household, says Johnson-Bignotti. Thats who the political climate is catering to right now.
Being childfree touches on hotbed issues: race, class, gender and religion. Pope John Paul II openly condemned married couples who choose not to reproduce; and anti-childfree is gaining its own momentum. As such, the Brits have founded Kidding Aside (www.kiddingaside.net), an organization devoted to improve the political representation of childfree citizens. Although theres been talk of a starting a similar group in this country, none has taken shape as of yet.
But the barbs arent traded only by the childfree and the breeders. Theres also some nasty infighting within the childfree community. Brianne Nurse, 22, of Windsor, sums it up neatly: Its a very personal issue and there are a lot of gray areas when you try to make it a black-and-white issue, thats when the fighting starts.
Smalheer has experienced plenty of the backlash. Although she steadfastly considers herself childfree, shes been told by many that she has no right to refer to herself by the term because shes a stepmother. Smalheer says she decided she was childfree when just 12 years old, but five years ago fell in love with a man who had a child from a previous marriage. They married last year, and her husband has joint custody of the 9-year-old boy.
I still consider myself childfree because Ive never had any of my own, and never will, Smalheer says. You cant choose who you fall in love with.
Theres an ongoing argument that pops up on nearly every childfree online community. It becomes a game of one-upmanship: Im more childfree than you because of blank that blank can be filled with all kinds of things, like Ive been sterilized or Id never even date someone with kids. People like me, whove become involved with someone with kids, are seen as betraying the cause, having sold out, going over to the dark side.
Johnson-Bignotti doesnt agree that someone whos a stepparent can still be childfree. She compares the phenomenon to those who identify themselves as gay and later become straight.
In that case, you were never gay in the first place, she says. Same thing with childfree. People who go on to have kids, or arent sure, they shouldnt identify themselves as childfree. They should identify themselves as fence-sitters. A childfree person whos had kids or married into it, theyve ruined it for me because of what it says to other people: That person changed their mind, you will too.
Its an interesting analogy. The friction between some childfree people is similar to the conflicts that sometimes arise between gays and bisexuals the notion that bisexuals are cheating, having it all or are just fence-sitters.
Childfree by birth
The analogy goes further. One idea thats beginning to gain strength and popularity in the childfree realm is that childfree is an inherent psychological imprint, a trait you are born with, like homosexuality. The idea that youre genetically wired to be childfree is supported by those who claim they knew as kids that they never wanted to have one.
My mother knew something was wrong with me when I played Barbies with my friend, and her Barbie married Ken and they had five kids, Evans-Gleneski says. My Barbie was president of an oil company, drove a Corvette and lived by herself in a townhouse.
Most people interviewed for this article claim they knew they were childfree at a very young age. Mayer says she knew when she was 6. Those in their 40s have been childfree for decades, all the while being told theyd eventually change their minds.
Smith, 26, says her mothers finally realized that pardon the pun shes not kidding. When her mothers friends or relatives say that Smith will eventually come around, Mom knows better. Shell say, Nope, you dont know Brenda. Its not a phase.
Although shes still young, Nurse believes shes childfree for life: My mom says that as far back as 7 years old, I was saying I didnt want kids. I made the formal decision at 18, and then at 19 or 20 I discovered the childfree community online.
I never rule anything out completely. There is a chance I may change my mind one day, but its not a big chance and I dont see it happening.
At the root of much of the childfree debate is the issue of bratty kids. Children misbehaving in public has been a hot topic in recent years, with newspaper columnists mourning the days of true discipline, lamenting the lack of manners displayed by kids these days. And it accounts for the popularity of shows like Supernanny.
This all bubbled to a media froth recently when the owner of a Chicago café posted a sign in his store, warning that Children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices. What was intended as a simple plea to parents to keep their kids in line turned into another big childfree debate, sparking stories in The New York Times and dozens of outraged opinion columns on both sides of the issue.
The issue was not just kids, but also bad parenting; Johnson-Bignotti says not all parents are breeders.
A breeder is like the stray dog down the street, having babies because it doesnt know any better. A parent is someone who actually takes responsibility for their child, she says.
And plenty of gasp non childfree people are in agreement: The occasional, and unavoidable, tantrum aside, kids should be taught to behave well in public. Even Gary Glenn of the American Family Association sides with the childfree on this issue. I have children, and I find it extremely annoying to have to sit in a restaurant with parents who are incapable or unwilling to discipline their children, he says.
Glenn says of the childfree, If thats somebodys choice, thats certainly their prerogative, but then quickly adds, Im sure theyre more than happy to collect the Social Security benefits from couples who do have children who grow up to be contributing members of society.
What do childfree people want? For one, they want you to mind your own business. Two, they want your kids to be quiet. Other than that, theyre mostly content to live their own childfree lives in peace.
But some want to take it to the next level still; nonsmoking bars and restaurants are everywhere these days, so why not apply the same strictures to kids? Childfree restaurants, coffee shops, hotels, resorts ...
When Im in a nice restaurant paying $20 for a steak, I want that baby to be quiet, Mayer says. There are certain places where there just should not be strollers.Sarah Klein is culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]