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Examining Parenthood's Dilemma

Society * Couples in increasing numbers are opting not to have children, but face pressure from family members and issues in the workplace.


Barely four years into their marriage, friends and relatives of Angela and Jake Myers began posing the inevitable question: "So, when are you going to have kids?"

The Bel Air, Md., couple squirmed at the question, and after many heartfelt talks, they figured out why--neither of them wanted to have children. They thought friends and relatives would understand and respect their decision. Instead, people called them selfish and said things like, "You're too young to know what you want," "Are you having problems in your marriage?" and even, "Why did you bother getting married?"

"It surprises me how shocked people are by this decision," said Angela Myers, 26, a legal assistant. "A lot of people assume that we don't like children, but that is so far from the truth. . . . We are so happy, we have so much freedom in our lives right now, we're afraid of what bringing a child into the mix of things would do."

Unequal Treatment in the Workplace

The Myerses are part of a growing group in America that has chosen not to have children--or rather, remain "child-free," a term they prefer to "childless." In 1979, 9.8% of women between 40 and 44 that the U.S. Census Bureau surveyed reported that they never had children. By 1998, the figure had reached 19%.

The "child-free" movement is manifest on the Internet, where dozens of Web sites are devoted to groups that offer support. On one such Web Myers found kindred spirits in the Vancouver, B.C.-based international group, No Kidding. Last year, she formed a Baltimore chapter of the group that now has about 10 members who meet at least twice a month for movie nights, picnics or long dinners where conversation tends to revolve around politics and religion instead of preschools and potty training.

But the "child-free" movement is not just about social activities. People who choose not to have kids sometimes resent how family friendly workplaces have become in recent years. Jerry Steinberg, who refers to himself as the "Founding Non-Father" of No Kidding, said many members have vented frustrations over perceived preferential treatment given to employees with children over those without.

"Vacation date selection--parents are often given first dibs so they can be with their families; nonparents are often left the dregs," Steinberg said. " . . . Overtime--nonparents are often told to work overtime, while parents are allowed to go home to their families. Weekend and holiday work, as well as the less desirable shifts, are often assigned to child-frees, as is work that requires travel."

But Baltimore No Kidding members emphasize that the group tries not to dwell on these workplace issues and have made their primary focus to meet socially and offer one another support.

Support in a Child-Centric Society

Steinberg founded No Kidding in 1984 to meet other child-free people when his friends and relatives became too occupied with their children to go out socially. Steinberg's group is for people who don't have children either by choice or because they can't have them.

For the first 10 years after Steinberg founded No Kidding, his was the only chapter in Canada and the United States. But today, No Kidding lists 52 chapters on its Web site, which Steinberg attributes to people without children desperately seeking a support group in today's often child-centric society.

"When you can't have kids, you're engulfed in people's pity, but when you tell them you don't want kids, you are very often engulfed in their animosity," said Steinberg, 55, who teaches English as a second language. "People who have kids feel threatened, like their lifestyle is being questioned by us, but that's not the case. To me, parenthood is like a career, except it's a lifelong career. If you don't have what it takes to be a good and happy truck driver or lawyer or ballet dancer, well, for goodness' sake, look elsewhere. And the same goes for parenthood."

Angela Myers said her decision never to have children stemmed from a feeling even before marriage that parenthood wasn't for her. The feeling grew when she married Jake, a salesman, six years ago and they built a life full of hobbies such as fly-fishing, archery and travel.

Steve Pomponi, 32, and his wife Lynn came to their decision after five years of discussing the topic and rigorously questioning dozens of friends with and without children. He said several friends with children confided that if they could do it all over again, they probably would not have children.

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