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.
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.
Whatever the personality type, it's fair to say that the non-breeders aren't necessarily forgoing kids because they don't like being around them. Leticia Perez, a 28-year-old fourth-grade teacher near Galveston, Texas, is a classic Early Articulator who says she decided against becoming a mom before she was a teenager—but that choice didn't conflict with her career path. "I see working with them as completely different from having my own child," she says. Her husband, Sam, a tutor who is also 28, concurs. "At the end of the day, you give 'em back."
Johanna Welcher, a 34-year-old middle-school teacher in Berlin, New Jersey, is a Postponer. She says that she and her husband, Bill, who've been married a decade, struggled with the decision for years. "We finally realized how much it would hold back our lives and prevent us from doing the things we wanted to do." Two years ago she got a tubal ligation. But she says she keeps her attitude about motherhood private at school. "I don't think people would necessarily 'get' how I could teach kids but then not have even one kid of my own," she explains.
I had a similar experience during two years as a volunteer basketball coach for 12- and 13-year-olds at the local Y. "Which kid is yours?" parents would ask. When I answered "None of 'em," they usually looked shocked (or suspicious). After all, why would anyone, other than a pedophile, want to spend time with other people's teenagers? For free?
But there are downsides to the easy-going lifestyle of the non-breeder. Once your friends start having kids, you see them less and less, and it doesn't take long for the great buddy who threw you that surprise 21st-birthday party to become someone who wishes you happy birthday on Facebook. Enter the replacement friends, often people who are at very different places in their lives than you are. "It makes you have a lot of friends who are younger," explains Tracie Smith, 35, an engineer in Houston. "A lot of our friends are 22, 25, and just haven't had kids yet. Or we have older friends whose kids are off at college."
Many assume that an eventual feeling of regret is another drawback of the choice to remain childless. What if you reach middle age and begin yearning for the family life you never had? Who's going to care for you when you're old? And yet, of the more than 60 people Laura Scott interviewed for Two Is Enough (some as old as 66), not one expressed qualms about his or her decision. Actually, regret is more common among the breeders. In a 2003 survey of more than 20,000 parents that Dr. Phil conducted for his show, 40 percent reported that they wouldn't have had kids if they'd realized the difficulties of raising a family.
My wife and I have plenty of friends whose complaints seem to corroborate the findings of that survey. "I have no time for myself!" they tell us. "I don't know who I am anymore!" "Thank God! Only 11 more years and he'll be out of the house!" "Only 17 years, 8 months, and 29 days and she'll be out of college! Hey, did my watch stop? 'Cause time's moving really fucking slowly!"
"I guess the point is that we feel that we're fulfilled," proclaims Heather McGhinnis. "There's no void. There's nothing missing. We're happy the way things are." So are my wife and I. As we back out of our driveway, cranking up the music to cover the nine-octave wails emanating from our neighbors' back yard, I think to myself, Maybe Laura Scott needs to add a fifth category for couples like us: Relieved Quitters.