Child-Free Couples: Thriving Without Kids

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Kaye Walters of Santa Barbara, Calif., knew she didn’t want children, but convincing other people she wanted to remain child-free was trickier.

“I like kids,” the magazine editor and writer tells WebMD, “but I can get my ‘kid fix’ from my nieces and nephews.”

As a response to societal pressures to procreate, she launched the web site Kid Free & Lovin’ It in August 2007. She’s also writing a book on the subject.

“My motivation to start the site was the same for starting my book: I got tired of everyone assuming I would have kids or constantly asking me when I was going to have them,” says Walters, now 46. “Knowing that I may never have kids, I didn’t quite know how to answer them without disappointing them or making them defensive. So I googled the subject matter, and found there were many groups of child-free people in my same boat, dealing with a myriad of child-free issues.”

What It Means to Be Child-Free by Choice

In her book The Childless Revolution, author Madelyn Cain echoes Walters’ sentiments. She writes that those who are childless by choice don’t see themselves as lacking anything. She notes that their preference is to be referred to as ‘child-free,’ which reflects a considered lifestyle choice.

Whether more people are adopting this lifestyle choice is harder to quantify — there just isn’t that much data on the subject — but Americans’ views on the importance of children to a relationship do appear to be changing. A 2007 Pew Research Center survey showed that attitudes on whether children are integral to a relationship are changing. Just 41% of Americans said children are “very important” to a successful marriage. That’s down from 65% in 1990.

Today, resources for the voluntarily child-free abound. Support sources include social networking groups, like Childfree Meetup; web sites, such as nokidding.net; and books, including Families of Two: Interviews With Happily Married Couples Without Children by Choice.

Laura Scott of Roanoke, Va., was motivated to create the Childless by Choice project to test commonly held assumptions about the child-free. Her self-described “research project” has ballooned into a book and documentary based on a survey of North American child-free couples, historians, and social scientists.

“One of my interviewees called parenthood a ‘checklist’ item,” Scott tells WebMD. “You graduate high school: check. Go to college: check. Marry: check. Buy a house: check. Have a kid: check. Most people, like myself, who decided early not to have kids, acknowledged an absence of desire. Speaking for myself, relationships deteriorate after couples have kids,” says Walters. “The husband is suddenly a ‘distant second’ to the kids or they disagree on how to raise them. Often there is little or no romantic energy left for each other. Brian and I enjoy being each other’s No. 1.”

Child-Free Couples: Still Battling Stigma

Elaine Gibson, an Atlanta-based marriage and family therapist and professional counselor, says that many outsiders still make negative assumptions about a couple’s child-free status. “Couples who are clear that they don’t want to have children don’t find there is as much social stigma,” she says. “When couples are forthright and have a lot of interesting things going on in their life, people experience that positive energy from them.”

Cynthia McKay is the CEO of her own gourmet gift basket business; her husband, Paul Gomez, is the assistant attorney general for Colorado. They’ve been married for 18 years. They are up-front about their decision to remain child-free.

“Most people say that we are the type of people who would be the best kind of parents,” McKay tells WebMD. “They feel we could financially and emotionally offer an excellent environment for a child. Our friends see how we cared for our dog for 15 years and felt that we had all the nurturing skills we would need to be good parents. We disagree.”

“I tell people that we are very comfortable with our decision not to have kids and have no regrets,” Gomez adds. “Not everyone’s priority is to be a parent. We direct our energies elsewhere, such as animal-rights causes and politics.”

Barbara Fisher, a licensed professional counselor in Atlanta, says that for some, the choice not to have children is spiritual. “For many people, being child-free has to do with their destiny. They may not be here to parent.”

Scott says her research has shown that couples, more so than singles, suffer the greatest pressure to have kids and the greatest social stigma.

Vincent Ciaccio, a spokesman for No Kidding, believes that women more than men bear the brunt of the stigma. “I am aware of [some women] who just don’t mention they are child-free in mixed company.”

Making the Choice to Remain Child-Free

In an ideal world, both partners would be in agreement on the issue of having — or not having — children. Some couples, like McKay and Gomez, discussed the possibility at length early in their relationship and agreed not to delve into parenthood.

“We discussed the pros and cons of having kids and came to the conclusion that there are too many reasons not to have them, and not enough good reasons to have them,” Walters adds.

But sometimes the issue must be negotiated.

Atlantans Duane and Robin Marcus married young — at age 20 — and have been married for 34 years. Duane says he never felt “capable of being a father.” His position was resolute.

But 12 years into their marriage Robin’s biological clock started ticking. “I was never a strong believer in having kids — I was about 75% sure I didn’t want them,” she tells WebMD. “It was more a body urge.”

Still, she wrestled for three years with conflicted feelings, trying to decide if motherhood or marriage was more pressing. Both admit it was a tough time. Robin expressed anger and frustration with Duane’s unwavering position. But, she says, “We worked through it; we kept discussing it. I think we grew together and made the right decision.”

“Having a child is an extremely challenging commitment,” Duane adds. “You can’t talk somebody into doing it.”

Lori Buckley, PsyD, a certified sex therapist in Pasadena, Calif., agrees that female sterilization because of the near-100% success rate, though experts recommend exploring all the available options.

Robin took the psychology student friend of ours says that the 50s are the ‘generative phase,’ a time to give back to the younger generation,” Duane says. “Our participation in the community as elders is very nurturing.”

The Quinns agree. They’ve written a book in English and Spanish and teach classes together.

“I always give the same answer,” says Mick, when asked if he and wife are happy with their child-free relationship. “Separately and together, the work we do is way more important in our opinion than putting the time, effort, and focus into raising one or two children — especially when there are billions of spare ones around.”