Besides, we've never—not even for a heartbeat—envied parents. Our next-door neighbors have kids, and the amount of yelling, stress, and competition for day care, car pools, and a school with working metal detectors hardly seems worth it. As we head out for our after-work hike, followed by yellow curry in Thai Town and then an Arctic Monkeys concert, we wave goodbye and smile, pretending not to notice their faces frozen in exhaustion.
In the past, married couples in America had two choices: Have a child like everybody else or be shunned (or, worse, pitied) by the community. But today, regardless of where you live, you can connect with thousands of others who feel the same way. Type child-free into Google and more than 300 million pages appear, including Childfree by Choice, Childfree Clique, Childfree.net, Child-free.com, HappyChildfree.com, and TheChildfreeLife.com. They have regular meet-ups, dinners, white-water-rafting trips, roller-derby nights, and glassblowing classes—and no one needs a babysitter.
Founded in 1984, No Kidding! is one of the oldest of these organizations. It now has 49 chapters in three countries and has expanded its reach in the South and the Midwest. But membership is actually falling in some urban places, like New York City, where there are so many child-free couples that support groups are moot. Laura Ciaccio, 33, No Kidding!'s national media spokesperson, met her husband, Vincent, when both were freshmen at Iona College, in Westchester County, New York. They've been married since 2005. Unlike Nancy and me, the Ciaccios have always known they didn't want to conceive. Once, when she was briefly left alone with a toddler at a barbecue, Laura recalls, she was in a "constant state of heightened nervousness—that would probably be my life if I had a baby." Vincent had a vasectomy at 23, and if you think that's a tad premature, the couple had already agreed four years earlier that they didn't want children. "As a lifestyle choice, it's better-suited to our personalities," Vincent says. "There's not a single aspect of parenthood that I crave." On February 16, Vincent celebrated the 10th anniversary of the procedure, which he calls "the perpetual Valentine's Day gift."
You don't have to Netflix Children of Men to figure out that if everyone shirked his breeding responsibilities, humankind would die out. It takes an average of 2.1 kids per woman to keep a population stable. Fortunately, to pick up the slack, we have breeding machines like the Duggars (of the TLC show 19 and Counting), an Arkansas couple who have said they would welcome a 20th child, and the Bateses (featured on Nightline in January), a pair of Tennesseeans with 18 kids who want two more in order to even the gender ratio of their brood. Half a century ago, these families might have seemed less outrageous. Then again, half a century ago, we didn't have reality shows to parade them on.
"I'm actually kind of grateful to Octomom, because it's the first time in American culture we've said, 'Wait a second…We do have the right to judge these people,'" Laura Ciaccio says. "Because before, we had these strange attitudes about motherhood and parenthood and children and babies in our culture. That changed the national dialogue. We now feel we have the right to question whether it's a good idea."
For Heather McGhinnis, a married 35-year-old marketing specialist in Elgin, Illinois, motherhood is simply a lifestyle choice that's not for her. "The job of being a parent doesn't interest me," she explains. "Just like I don't want to be an accountant, I don't want to be a parent." According to Laura S. Scott, who surveyed 171 subjects for her book Two Is Enough: A Couple's Guide to Living Childless by Choice, that kind of attitude is linked to a specific personality component. "A lot of introverts, thinkers, judgers—these are people who think before they act," she says. "They're planners, and they're not the kind of people who can be easily led into a conventional life just because everyone else is doing it." Scott, whose documentary The Childless by Choice Project will come out this summer, claims that there are four types of child-free couples: Early Articulators, who made the decision early in life; Postponers, who perpetually put off having their baby; Acquiescers, one of whom accedes to the other's desire to be child-free; and Undecideds, who say they're still thinking about it.