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No kidding 

The ecstasy and agony of living childfree

click to enlarge Though many ascribe selfishness to couples that decide - to go childfree, Andrea and Peter Wenker cite - environmental concerns as a big motivation. - 2007 JON KELLEY
  • 2007 Jon Kelley
  • Though many ascribe selfishness to couples that decide to go childfree, Andrea and Peter Wenker cite environmental concerns as a big motivation.

There was a time after Andrea Wenker decided not to have kids that she still hung out with parents playmates from her youth, children who grew up to have children of their own.

Those three friends, Andrea and two new mothers, scheduled scrapbooking dates, evenings the two mothers thought of as a respite from their toddlers. But more often than not, recalls Andrea, things turned toward the babies anyway, especially when they began screaming in an adjacent room.

One night, this time in Andrea's quiet east-side home, her two friends began talking about labor. Andrea silently pasted photos of her Rhodesian ridgeback into her album as the other two recalled giving birth. The conversation stretched on for more than an hour.

"I don't have anything to contribute," Andrea thought, watching the two women assemble family snapshots in their own scrapbooks. "I don't have that."

It was only the beginning.

Andrea, 36, and her husband Peter, 39 who underwent a vasectomy years ago faced more than just a disconnect with their child-laden counterparts. Disbelieving fathers at dinner parties goaded Andrea into saying that maybe, someday, she might change her mind. Long-term friends wondered aloud if the couple regretted their decision. Coworkers and acquaintances people who know Andrea and Peter well enough to broach the topic, but aren't close enough to understand why they won't reproduce constantly needled them. Peter's mother, saying they were "thwarting the will of God," stopped speaking with her son and daughter-in-law.

"People think you're not right as a woman if you're not procreating," says Andrea.

It wasn't long before the pair decided it was time to find some new friends. An Internet search led Andrea to No Kidding!, a social group for adults who have never parented. The club was initiated 23 years ago by a childfree man in British Columbia, who noticed his friends had all but disappeared from his life once they began breeding. After he created a Web page, similar alliances began popping up throughout North America. Today, the group boasts 10,000 members in 44 groups all over the globe.

Andrea and Peter drove north to the Denver-based club, where they would go out to dinner or concerts with a loose assemblage of non-parents. Eventually, when the Colorado coordinator stepped down, Andrea took his place. Denver Metro No Kidding! now has 347 online members, with a handful of newcomers joining each month.

Andrea and Peter live in Colorado Springs, and host some of the best-attended events. At a recent costume party, Andrea asked guests to dress up as superheroes. Many came in costumes based on their strengths. She went as Grammar Girl, a takeoff on her English instruction master's program. Peter, who always dresses for the weather, wore layers. Another person was "Esposo Fabuloso," the fabulous spouse. Nobody, of course, dressed as Best Mom or Dad.

"No Kidding! gives me a relevant social life," says Peter. "When you're a minority, it's easy to feel that you are isolated and the people around you don't share your experience. Especially in Colorado Springs."

The kidless choice

Colorado Springs is unabashedly kid-centric. Up north, Focus on the Family and New Life Church glorify parenthood, while suburban sprawl accommodates ever-growing families and their litany of plastic slides, basketball hoops, sandboxes and kiddie pools. Downtown, the Uncle Wilber Fountain serves as the city's literal and figurative core, with hundreds of children splashing in the summer months. Bars and clubs might open their doors in the evenings, but so do the ice cream shops and the pizzerias.

Families in Colorado Springs pull major political weight. New U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn ran on a pro-child platform, touting his "reputation of being a strong family man," as his Web site reads. When he won last November's election, Republican supporters gathered in Mr. Biggs Family Fun Center to celebrate. The adults washed down rum and colas while their children played on plastic inflatable slides in the adjacent room.

Colorado Springs' kid fever has people like Andrea and Peter feeling like uninvited party guests.

"Many of them have to be in the closet," says Vincent Ciaccio, a spokesperson for No Kidding!'s national chapter, speaking of childfree couples in conservative cities. "They can't tell people otherwise, they have a huge backlash against them."

Still, Andrea and Peter grew up in Colorado Springs and lay claim to their community. As a teenager at Doherty High School, Andrea didn't think about having kids. But she also didn't think about not having them.

She was 18 when her mother gave birth to her youngest sister, and she watched the baby while her mother was at work. When the family opened a daycare in their home, Andrea helped tend to the toddlers.

"I grew up assuming I would have babies," she says, standing behind the counter in her kitchen. Peter, just back from work at the Air Force Academy, sits at the table with a glass of milk. "You assume. It seems weird, because it's such an important decision. To grow up assuming seems backwards."

Andrea met Peter when she was in high school. A friend who was dating Peter's roommate invited her to the boys' apartment. Andrea remembers standing on the balcony with Peter, then a religious Christian, when he told her he wanted to be a monk.

"He said he didn't want a wife or kids."

"She got one out of two," says Peter.

"I got the one that mattered."

After they were married, Andrea took nearly four years to re-evaluate her thoughts on children. By that time, Peter was hardly religiously observant, but he still didn't want children. (Today he cites environmental issues and his personal need for quiet time.) While he waited to make a vasectomy appointment, Andrea contemplated a life without kids. It was a National Public Radio piece on overpopulation that convinced her.

Even while people like Andrea and Peter battle the sense that they're the only ones without kids, the childfree choice is becoming increasingly common. The advent of birth control, coupled with an increase in women entering the workforce, has made going childfree an easier, and sometimes necessary, decision. In 1976, 16 years after the first birth-control pill became available in the United States, 10 percent of women ages 40-44 had never had a child. By 2002, that number had risen to 18 percent. According to a 2004 census, 44.6 percent of women ages 15 to 44 are childless.

The reasons cited for not having children are as multifarious as the people who make that choice. No desire. Lack of money. Environmentalism. Career advancement. Going back to school. Having found the right spouse. Having found the wrong spouse. Not having a spouse. Infertility. Travel. No time. No room. Too old. Too young.

Costs and benefits

click to enlarge 011d_cover-24658.gif

Among all the boons to childfree living long, uninterrupted conversation, carefully constructed dinners and dates with like-minded friends that last late into the evening Andrea and Peter decided together that Andrea could and should go back to school.

Last year, she lived in Fort Collins while working on her master's program in English Instruction at Colorado State University. That choice came after long discussions about finances. A few years back, Peter had lost his job in the tech industry, and Andrea who had been a "homemaker without kids" went to work answering phones for $10 an hour.

The graduate program, and all the commuting and renting it entailed, nearly wound up more than they could afford. But it would have been out of the question if they had children.

According to an MSN Money tabulation, it costs $124,800 to raise a single child on a salary below $39,000. (Generally, the more a couple makes, the more they spend on their kid.) That doesn't include college or other costs if the child stays home after the age of 18.

Peter and Andrea aside, some childless couples surely resemble the DINK stereotype that is, Double Income, No Kids of a wealthy couple with money to burn. According to a study commissioned by American Demographics magazine, childless couples heavily outspend their parenting counterparts. They shell out 60 percent more on entertainment, 79 percent more on food and 101 percent more on dining out, not to mention alcohol, clothing and pet expenditures.

Though childless couples might have more financial liberty, they still subsidize the lives of their neighbors with kids. They pay for public schools, libraries and immunizations, to name a few. And they don't receive the same tax benefits that couples with kids do. The federal earned-income tax credit rewards families with two or more children with $4,536, while a pair without kids can make $412. In recent years, President Bush expanded family tax credits to better cover dependent care and adoptions.

"Speaking for myself ... I would much rather see that money going toward a more centralized pot to helping schools or children's hospitals, rather than what amounts to simply paying people to have children," says Ciaccio.

In addition, childfree individuals say they are routinely passed up for raises on the job, though they often fill in for colleagues with kid-related commitments during the workday. Ciaccio says he hears stories of employees who get last pick for vacation days around the holidays. It's assumed, he says, that they have no family with whom to share their time.

Andrea doesn't anticipate coming up against those problems when she finishes graduate school. She concedes that her all-but-promised job as a writing instructor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs won't pay much. But she feels she belongs in that position. Besides, the university serves as a kind of oasis in a child-centric culture.

"Since I've gone back to school, several things have changed," she says. "In academia, children are not present. If their parents are there, they talk about academia. They rarely talk about their personal lives."

Still, certain thorny realities of living childfree are simply inescapable. Like the fact that women without children aren't exactly honored.

"We celebrate women's rites of passage with a wedding shower or a baby shower," says Andrea. "Life is more than giving people stuff. But it's symbolic, a showing of support. It's not that I resent that. I notice that women that don't have kids don't have a rite of passage. If you graduate with a Ph.D. or an M.A., if you have a great accomplishment, there is no way that we recognize that rite of passage."

When Andrea made a similar statement in a 2005 Rocky Mountain News article, she was met with derision in the online comments section of the story.

"Now these people think they should be celebrated for doing NOTHING? No wonder they didn't have kids. They're too damned self-centered!" wrote one poster.

"Honey, you're a whiny liberal tweedle, and I'm delighted you've decided not to reproduce. Please consider not voting, either!" said another.

Deciding for good

Andrea and Peter, like many childfree couples, have heard the "selfish" line. But they say their desire not to have kids has less to do with their own egos than what they feel they're able to give back to the Earth.

"Given the fact that there is no biological or economic justification or impetus or imperative, you have to do some ethical and moral thinking about whether having kids is the right thing to do," says Peter. "If you are not the kind of person who wants to do it, it's not going to be fair, given the fact that the planet doesn't need your kids. It's important to make sure that if you do have kids, that it will be good for you and the planet."

Yet it's that type of analysis, the couple says, that gets their friends and relatives telling them what good parents they would be. They often hear the world needs more people like them, people who think things through, who don't accept the "scripting" they're born with, as Peter says. But Andrea and Peter can only wonder at that logic. For them, having kids would have inhibited that sort of thoughtfulness.

Andrea and Peter represent the conciliatory end of the childfree spectrum: disgruntled couples who seek to promote understanding, rather than divisiveness, between themselves and their parenting counterparts. But just as there are people who think everyone should procreate, there are also the anti-parents individuals and couples who simply dislike kids and resent that the world seems to cater to them.

In this arena, encapsulated on Web sites like ChildFree Hardcore, children are referred to as "crotch droppings" and "brats," and their parents are "housemoos" and "breeders."

One site, badbuttons.com, features lapel pins for the anti-parent with phrases like, "Babies creep me out," "I'm not pre-pregnant, I'm pre-abortion" and "Ask me about my vasectomy."

As the buttons and a litany of Web postings on those sites suggest, remaining childfree necessitates access to permanent and nonpermanent birth control. In the childfree sphere, stories abound describing the tribulations of finding a doctor who will perform sterilization. Women who want a tubal ligation, but have not yet had children, report meeting with uncompromising doctors.

"It is a part of our societal bias against women," says Ciaccio. "Despite all the advances they have made, they are still expected to be mothers. Doctors, especially the more conservative ones, don't want to take that chance."

Dr. Deborah Lasley, a Colorado Springs obstetrician and gynecologist, says she will do a tubal, but not until after talking about less-permanent options with her patients, like the removable IUD.

"I try to steer them toward some reversible birth control," she says. "If I have established a relationship and I feel they are making their own decision, I don't ban them from it. It is their body."

Yet, she adds, there is a lot of "tubal regret" among women, and she urges couples to choose a vasectomy instead.

While childless men often have an easier time finding doctors who will perform a vasectomy, they still face questions. Peter had to go through a half-hour interview, in which the doctor grilled him about his choice to go childfree.

click to enlarge Joe Gorman and Allison Swickard. - 2007 JON KELLEY

Much skepticism around the childfree lifestyle centers on the notion that the couple might change their minds later on. Andrea contends her choice is somehow threatening to people who have had children. What some people saw as an imperative in their own narratives, she saw as optional.

The biological clock, she says, is simply a myth.

Yet one psychologist in Colorado Springs maintains that it's real.

"When a woman gets to a certain age, it's a fact," says Alison Walls, director of clinical training at Colorado School of Professional Psychology. "When a woman wants to have kids, she is older and wiser. She is not as fertile as she was, but at a young age she wouldn't make the kind of parent she would later on. I think the prime fertility years are between 15 and 25. People don't want to have kids at that time. The biological clock and lifestyle and maturity rate don't go together."

Walls admits that childfree couples might simply not want to parent, but she also repeats some oft-heard stereotypes that make the kidless community bristle. Childfree adults may have been abused when they were young, she says. Or they're too self-centered to have kids. Or their parents were narcissistic.

Gender division

For another childfree couple in Colorado Springs, that societal expectation of "you'll change your mind" has crept into the marriage. Though Allison Swickard, 30, and Joe Gorman, 34, decided long ago not to have kids, Joe still questions his wife.

"I ask her, "Are you sure?'" he says. "This would be a big deal in our marriage. I am kind of brainwashed by society. I expect her to change her mind."

For Allison's part, the periodic questioning agitates her. But she admits she can't be completely certain.

"I am 99.9999 a lot of nines sure that I don't want children," she says. "But a scientist hasn't said I'm not going to. You can't prove to me that I won't. If you are aware, either you know or you don't know. You're either a kid person or not. But what we've been schooled masks what we know. We buy into things."

Allison and Joe grew up thinking they wouldn't marry or have children. Early in their relationship what they call "Round 1" of their dating life they sat on the couch in Allison's living room and talked about kids. Allison felt that she'd be an overbearing and too-involved mother. She rarely babysat as a child and enjoyed her time spent alone. Joe never thought about children. His older sister, now in her 50s, never procreated, and though his family was very Catholic, he thought they'd accept his choice as well.

"I very clearly remember talking about it," says Allison, sitting at the kitchen table with Joe in their downtown home after a Sunday afternoon hike. "I was excited that he was on the same page. You meet someone and there's some energy there, and the values are there and the decisions from the values are there."

But, like Andrea, she faced a certain exclusion when the women around her began having children.

"Once, we were with some friends. Everyone there had just had a baby, and I was the only person in the room without one," Allison says. "I can talk about everything. But it felt like hours, and I had nothing to contribute. That was the first time there was something in my mind, to make me think, "There will always be this difference.' One coworker of mine had a baby, and she described entering into this club of moms.

"I like to be involved. It made me feel sad for a second, but it didn't make me want to have kids."

Allison and Joe have few childfree friends, and occasionally babysit for parents they are close with. When they host parties at their home, they don't allow kids, but they also put their two large dogs in a kennel. The couple also has several cats Allison says the animals fulfill the nurturer in her.

"She won't want kids as long as I keep her in warm, fuzzy things," says Joe.

The notion of woman as nurturer, as keeper of home and hearth, is a traditional concept that doesn't typically align with the choice not to have children. Some kidless women take umbrage at the idea that they must fill their days with a child substitute, like a pet or a garden. Still, it's myopic to deny that a childfree woman might still feel the need to mother in some sense of the word.

"People define [the childfree] as people who have never parented," says Andrea's mother Alice Vincent, speaking by telephone from Boulder. "To me, that doesn't seem accurate. Andrea has done some good parenting, taking care of her little sister and other children. Those are parenting kind of things. She is an aunt, so maybe one would say that doesn't count."

In spite of the equality in their marriages there are no distinct homemakers or breadwinners in either pair Joe and Allison and Peter and Andrea evoke some very gendered traditions when it comes to who does what inside the home.

Until recently, Andrea did nearly all of the cooking and cleaning including laundry within her home. Peter wasn't as good at it, they both say. But when Andrea lived in Fort Collins during part of the week, Peter found he didn't know how to scrub the toilet, and he hired someone to do it for him. Today, they're working toward a more balanced way of dividing the labor. It's something, they say, that they'd be unable to focus on if they had children.

"If I believe Andrea has an equal value to mine, having her do all of the housework if I'm at work doing creative problem-solving and she is doing housework it's not walking the walk," says Peter. "Andrea has to perceive herself as an enriching member of society."

Life goes on

At a recent No Kidding! event, Andrea and Peter walked to Josh and John's with a gaggle of other childfree couples after a mariachi performance at Colorado College. The couples held hands for a time, and then separated, the women apart from the men.

Though kids were all around them kindergartners at the mariachi show, preteens on summer break at the ice cream shop nobody talked about children. Nobody paid them any mind. It was a stark contrast to that evening, just a few years ago, when Andrea sat scrapbooking with the two mothers.

Nor did anyone talk about his or her choice not to have children. In that context, it didn't really matter. There were no justifications to be made.

Later in the evening, when most of the ice cream cups were empty, Andrea divulged that her new neighbors were opening a daycare next door. She and Peter were looking to move to a new house in any case, she said. That would speed their search.

The rest of the group looked at each other, nodding. They got it.


naomi@csindy.com

  • The ecstasy and agony of living childfree

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