When Ellen Metter was a young girl, she didn't go for the baby-doll thing. She dressed her Barbie up as Mary Tyler Moore — a single, urban professional with her own imaginary apartment and fun date nights.
"She was hip," says Metter, author of the recent humor book Cheerfully Childless. Now Metter, 42, wonders if her young lack of interest in nurturing dolls foreshadowed her adult lack of desire to have children.
Like many women who decide against children, Metter says she questioned her leanings on occasion — either through her own self-exploration or others' prodding questions. When she met her boyfriend a few years ago, she thought she wanted to have kids with him because it seemed like the ultimate expression of their love. But the couple eventually decided against it.
"My boyfriend has great genes, he's handsome, we'd make an adorable child," Metter says. "But then again, Hitler had parents."
Humor has helped Metter communicate with others about a topic she says is misunderstood by a family-oriented culture. "It's not right for me," Metter says. "And if you're like me and never had this visceral attraction to kids then it's probably not right for you either."
Indeed, more people are deciding kids are not for them as the ranks of the childless continue to swell.
Although a government report released this week showed American women having more children than at any time in the last 30 years — in many cases, a good economy made it easier for women to have additional children — more women are also postponing childbearing or foregoing it all together.
Of women ages 40 to 44 years old, near the end of their childbearing years, 19 percent are childless, the U.S. Census Bureau reports — a number almost twice as high as 20 years earlier.
While those statistics include women who would like to have kids or are infertile, more women say they're childless by choice. Nearly 7 million women of childbearing age defined themselves as voluntarily childless in 1995, the latest year available, up from 2.4 in 1982, according to the National Center of Health Statistics.
Shunned and Misunderstood
It's no coincidence that voluntary childlessness is on the rise as women are becoming more educated and eligible for a wide variety of opportunities outside of family life, says Madelyn Cain, author of the book The Childless Revolution.
Childless couples tend to be a more educated and affluent group than their counterparts with kids. With no child-related expenses to shell out, childless couples have more disposable income to spend — 60 percent more on entertainment, 79 percent more on food and 101 percent more on dining out than parents, according to American Demographics magazine.
Despite their growing numbers, many childless individuals and couples complain that they are ignored as a legitimate interest group and consumer class and even shunned by society for their lifestyles.
"We are with childlessness where we were with homosexuality 20 years ago," Cain says. "We always talk about family-friendly America. It is always part and parcel of a politician's package. But the package they're selling doesn't match the general public."
Those who are childless say they get all sorts of unwelcome, and unfair, observations from strangers, family, friends, and co-workers alike. They're told they are: Self-centered, deviant, workaholic, immature, and child-haters.
In reality, Cain said, the reasons people are childless are varied and complex: Some have environmental, religious, medical or professional reasons. For others, it's a matter of happenstance — they didn't meet the right partner or the time just never seemed right.
Child-Free: More Selfless Than Parenting?
Some particularly rabid Web sites devoted to the "child-free," as many like to be called, refer to parents as "breeders" and condemn procreation in general, but they seem to be in a vocal minority. Most who are childless by choice say they respect parents and enjoy children. They just know parenting is not for them.
A lack of understanding about the choice to be childless can be annoying when it comes from acquaintances, and downright devastating when it comes from loved ones, Cain said.
"When your mother says, 'You're gonna regret it,' if that doesn't send a chill through you or wake you in the middle of the night …" says Cain, who interviewed 125 childless women for her book. "Those are terrible things to hold over someone's head."
Lisa Casablanca Simmons, 36, knows what it's like to be poked with questions about the choice she made as a teenager not to have children. Married for 14 years, Simmons said her husband's family first thought she was selfish.
But Simmons sees her decision as rooted in not just honest self-assessment — she thinks she would make a "terrible mom" because she's not very patient — but also selflessness.
"Isn't it selfish to bring an unwanted child into this world?" says Simmons, who lives in Los Angeles. "We're doing right by not bringing an unwanted child into the world."
Finding a Substitute for the PTA
For Kathleen Sartoris, 32, of Queens, N.Y., choosing not to have children also was part of an honest, and in her view necessary, prioritizing of her life.
"I am sure I will miss out if I never have kids, but I know I will miss out on other things if I do," said Sartoris. "It's a tradeoff."
Sartoris and her husband of 10 years travel for work and pleasure, are going back to school, and spend time volunteering. Unlike their friends who have children, Sartoris and her husband also have the freedom to pick up new hobbies and activities and not feel guilty or time-strapped, she said.
"If you have children, you have to consider your child," Sartoris said. "The idea that you can do it all and have it all is a real misconception."
The growing popularity of an international social network for childless individuals and couples, called No Kidding, is further evidence of the increased visibility of the "child-free." No Kidding now has 71 chapters and has a convention set for next month in Las Vegas.
What No Kidding provides is the kind of social networking that many parents find in activities centered on their children, members say.
"PTA, school sports, carpooling. For adults who have children, the children have a huge social network, and are usually a starting point for meeting other adults," says Mitch Greenberg, 41, who organizes events for a Maryland chapter of No Kidding.
The child-free social group fills a social void for nonparents, he said, and helps replace friends who may have lost touch because parenting consumes their time.
At some point, friends who once had many things in common find themselves alienated from one another — even if reluctantly — when they choose different paths when it comes to childbearing. "Those who we lose contact with are usually the people who have children," says Greenberg, who has been married for 15 years. "You no longer have things in common, and they're usually not available to do things," he said.
Along with social isolation, some childless people claim that our family-centered culture can be unfair to them. Some childless workers complain of having to pick up the slack for working parents, or say they are more likely to be expected to work longer hours or weekends.
What's Fair for the Child-Free?
Other complaints from nonparents include watered-down group health insurance packages to compensate for others' young dependents, or the myriad benefits such as unpaid leave, child tax credits or greater 401(k) contributions that are reserved for parents.
Of course, working parents also have complaints about how they're treated in the workplace, and Cain doesn't deny that government and corporate policies can punish both parents and nonparents for the choices they've made.
Parents and nonparents need to start communicating with one another about what is fair, Cain said. Working parents should be able to leave the job if their child is sick, Cain said, but so should childless workers have opportunities to take personal time away for themselves as well.
A compromise could be for companies to offer "personal hours" away from work instead of entire days, so workers could use their hours to fill their personal or family needs without leaving for an entire day, Cain suggests.
But Cain, who has a 16-year-old daughter, born when she was almost 40 years old, said her greatest hope is for people with and without children to understand and accept one another and their lifestyle choices.
"It could have been that I didn't have a child, would it have made me a lesser being? I hope not," Cain said. "Each woman's life should be valued as important for the choices she makes."