This summer, 28-year-old Anthony Shepherd and his wife of seven years, Cynthia, will fly from China, where they've been teaching English since 2009, to Wisconsin for a vacation. In addition to relaxing, catching up with friends, and attending her brother's wedding, they plan on stopping by a vasectomy clinic. The People's Republic may be notorious for its one-child policy, but the Shepherds' attitude toward reproduction is even more stringent. Call it the zero-child policy.
Even before the Shepherds left Asheville, North Carolina, for Sichuan province, they'd made their life decision based on the experiences of their "childed" friends. "We watched them struggle to pay bills, find suitable apartments or houses to fit their families, and work at jobs they didn't like because they needed the insurance," Cynthia says. So she and Anthony enthusiastically took a pass on parenthood, an increasingly common decision for America's couples.
Considering the state of the economy, it should come as no surprise that the ranks of the child-free are exploding. The Department of Agriculture reports that the average cost for a middle-income two-parent family to support a kid through high school is $286,050 (it's nearly half a million dollars for couples in higher tax brackets). Want him or her to get a college education? The number jumps to nearly $350,000 for a public university, and more than $400,000 for private. Though if your kid's planning to major in Male Sterilization, it could wind up being a good investment: The vasectomy business seems to be one of the few in America that is booming. In the past year, the Associates in Urology clinic in West Orange, New Jersey, has seen a 50 percent jump in the procedure. So you could stress over starting a college fund, or you could consider that you can get a vasectomy at Planned Parenthood for less than the cost of a Bugaboo Cameleon stroller. Unless you're among the less than 2 percent of Americans who farm for a living and might conceivably rely on offspring for free labor, children have gone from being an economic asset to an economic liability.
But for the child-free, the benefits go beyond dollars and cents. There's less guilt, less worry, less responsibility, more sleep, more free time, more disposable income, no awkward conversations about Teen Mom, no forced relationships with people just because your kids like their kids, no chauffeuring other people's kids in your minivan to soccer games you find less appealing than televised chess.
In his best-seller Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert writes, "Couples generally start out quite happy in their marriages and then become progressively less satisfied over the course of their lives together, getting close to their original levels of satisfaction only when their children leave home." No wonder so many are choosing to spend their entire marriages as empty-nesters. A 2009 University of Denver study found that 90 percent of couples experienced a decrease in marital bliss after the birth of their first child. And in a 2007 Pew survey, just 41 percent of adults stated that children were very important for a successful marriage, down from 65 percent in 1990. Meanwhile, nearly one in five American women now ends her reproductive years without children, up from one in ten in the 1970s.
This isn't just an American trend. Global birth rates dropped from six children per woman to 2.9 between 1972 and 2008 as people migrated to cities. One Italian mayor has resorted to bribery to restock his town, offering couples $15,000 for each child they produce. Germany's baby shortage results in an annual population loss of 100,000. And the sheep-to-human ratio in New Zealand, which currently stands at 10 to 1, seems sure to increase, since a staggering 18 percent of adult men there have elected to get vasectomies.
My wife, Nancy, and I have been married for nine years. By the time we tied the knot, everyone we knew was having children. Our individual philosophies on the subject fell somewhere between casual indifference and acute apathy. "You want kids?" "I don't know…do you?" "Um…not sure." "I'll have 'em if you want to. Do you?" "I don't know." "Wanna go see a movie?" "Sure!"
Since we were both pushing 40, we felt it was something we had to "go for." So we tried. And we got pregnant. And, truth be told, we weren't over the moon the way intentionally pregnant people are supposed to be. Then we (well, actually, she) miscarried and, as horrible as this sounds, we weren't as sad as we should've been.
Our (okay, her) gynecologist said that the miscarriage shouldn't keep us from trying again, because they're common (an estimated one in four pregnancies ends in one), while stressing that time was of the essence. Which meant we went from being indecisive to indecisive with a gun to our heads. In fact, we often looked at each other and said, "Gun to your head: Kid or no kid?" The answer, no matter who was asking, never changed: "I don't know. But please take the gun away from my head. I'm trying to change lanes, and it's rush hour." We halfheartedly discussed "another attempt," but we both knew we were just reciting the empty words society expected of us.