Kids R Not Us

Katherine Seligman, San Francisco Chronicle, March 4, 2007

It was time for the “Childfree Landslide News.” Christine Fisher leaned forward and announced this in a soft voice that would sound surprisingly strong when it aired as part of her weekly (at least on Mars, she says, where weeks are 13 days) online show, the “Adult Space Child Free Podcast.” She had just put in a day at the pharmaceutical company where she works and was home in her Newark apartment, shoes off, with her husband flopped on a sofa reading in the next room and her two cats roaming underfoot.

She started the podcast, a medley of commentary, news and personal narrative, to reach an audience outside “diaperland” about a year ago. Fisher knew as early as third grade that she did not want children. She had no interest in games that involved playing house or cooing over babies. In the world of childfree men and women, she is what’s known as an “early articulator.” Now 32, she has had her share of friends who became temporarily unavailable or disappeared when they had kids. Even in the Bay Area, which Fisher finds one of the better places for childfree mingling because of its cultural diversity—San Francisco has one of the lowest ratios of kids of any U.S. city—it can be hard for the childfree to connect.

Her listeners are a far-flung demographic, with a few hundred of various ages mostly in the United States, but also scattered as far away as the United Arab Emirates, Norway and Uruguay. The topics are almost as varied. On this winter Tuesday, Fisher reviewed medical news (part of the landslide) about hospital admissions from unsafe abortions in developing countries and hormone-related skin cancer risk, responded to listener feedback (someone named Snerdie wanted to know whether strollers are really allowed in casinos), listed her New Year’s resolutions, and gave a “shout-out” to a friend who was ill. Then, in what’s become her signature end to the show, she leaned into the microphone and said, “This is Chris the Fixed Kitty saying, ‘Keep from breeding!’ ”

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Childfree organizations have been around for a few decades, but new social groups, books, an online magazine, unscripted: the childfree life, and myriad Web sites (Childfree by Choice alone links to 20 other resources) have sprung up in the past few years, their visibility fueled by the Internet but also by changing attitudes. In the 1950s, there was an assumption that everyone would get married, then have children. Family life “proceeded in lockstep,” said Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College in Washington and director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families. As many as 80 percent of people thought that staying single and childless was “deviant or abnormal,” she said. But in the 1970s, amid turbulent social change, the availability of the birth control pill and public debate about population growth, those assumptions were challenged. These days, the “vast majority” of people think it is acceptable not to have kids or marry, said Coontz.

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Even so, the stigma remains. “We’re seen as threatening institutions,” said Teri Tith, an East Bay woman with a Web site called Purple Women & Friends. Jennifer L. Shawne, author of the 2005 tongue-in-cheek book “Baby Not on Board,” was inundated with responses from readers—and people who just heard about it. Many but not all thanked her, said Shawne, who lives in San Francisco. To some, a decision not to have kids is tantamount to a stand against religious or American values. “I did a lot of radio call-in shows where I was called names,” she said. “One man in Beaumont, Texas, said my husband and I deserved to die alone.”

Several people interviewed for this story wanted to be known by a first name only or not identified at all because they were not, as one woman put it, “out.” The woman said she was worried about her boyfriend, who is still uncertain about fatherhood. Would her feelings be a deal-breaker? It has happened before.

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Some statistics suggest more women now are childless by choice, but it’s hard to come up with a firm estimate because women, on average, are having children older, and demographers don’t usually ask why they don’t have them. The National Center for Health Statistics confirms that 6.6 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 44 called themselves voluntarily childless in 1995, up from 2.4 percent in 1982. And according to 1998 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, 19 percent of women 40 to 44 were childless, compared with 10 percent in that age group in 1976.

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In one survey of childfree couples, most ranked independence, marital satisfaction and the lack of desire to have kids as top reasons not to have them. To them, the decision was not a “lifestyle” choice, said Laura Scott, a Virginia writer who’s surveyed more than 170 childfree couples about their decision for a project on the subject. Being able to travel or sleep late were benefits, not motivations, for most, she said.

Attitudes about kids also vary. There are childfree people who are annoyed by what they see as a kidcentric society, where they are constantly forced to listen to people talk about their children’s schools, precious achievements or poop. They resent employee benefits that are offered only to parents, or what they see as the burden of doing more than their share of work while people with kids rush off to pick them up. “Work-family benefits?” writes AlphaGirl. “Yeah, right. Lactation rooms in the workplace? Oh, please.” She once confronted the human resources department at the large bank where she worked to demand the same flexibility given her co-workers who were parents. The bank didn’t make a policy change, and Elaine said she is disappointed in the lack of progress toward treating all employees equally. “I don’t think one group should come before any other,” she said.

Many childfree people want to spend time around children, the kind who can be handed back. They just want to find a social universe that doesn’t revolve around children.

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Tith joined No Kidding!, a social club founded by a Toronto teacher in 1984, after moving from the Bay Area to Canada because of her husband’s job. Through No Kidding! she joined a poker group, worked on the organization’s annual convention and made friends who didn’t have kids. When she returned to live in a rural East Bay town, she co-founded the San Francisco Bay Area Childfree Meetup, a group that gets together for dinner and winetasting, and started her blog, where she posts her own comments and links to other childfree bloggers—even some who are not, including a Silicon Valley moms group, that also links to her. (“They found my blog to be an even and reasonable voice, and I was terribly flattered,” she says of the moms group).

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“I just never realized I did want kids,” said Valerie Francescato, the group’s founder, who works for a furniture manufacturer. What stops the rude questions, she said, is to say she can’t have kids.

“I had a hysterectomy, but that’s not related to why I don’t want kids,” said another woman, who is from Australia, where she felt as if being childfree wasn’t such an issue. After moving to the Bay Area, she said, she finds it hard to socialize with people in her apartment building because they all have kids and they leave her and her husband out of their social plans.

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An Iranian American woman who is a financial analyst said she’d been asked if she didn’t want kids because she’d been abused or neglected. “They assume something is wrong with me,” she said. “I’m 35. I won’t change my mind. I hang out with a lot of Europeans who are a lot more accepting of it. Why do I have to explain myself? It happens so much I’m angry.”

“Your best friends disappear. They fall off the end of the earth when they have kids,” said Rick, a scientist whose best friend moved to Palo Alto to be closer to work, then became unavailable.

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Chris Fisher first got involved in the childfree world as a college student in Toledo, Ohio, by joining a mailing list. She was too busy in graduate school—a stint in medical school before finding her way to a graduate program in biology—to look for other childfree people. But she was settled enough in her decision by her mid-20s to undergo a tubal ligation.

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Fisher recently scaled back to part-time work so she’d have more time for other pursuits—photography, writing, podcasting, reading (especially science fiction and horror) and spending time with her husband, who arrived home one Tuesday as she was podcasting and sat in the next room reading. He sometimes makes sound effects, but leaves the content to her. It was while talking to him one day that she came up with the nickname Fixed Kitty. “We were talking about some comment and I said, ‘That’s why I’m not a parent. I’m fixed. I’m a fixed kitty.’”

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A cat does not a child make.

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