“Do You Have Kids?”
What it’s like to live in the family-friendliest city in the country—without children
In today’s world, we talk freely about our fears and quirks and sexual desires, entanglements and addictions and credit card debt. It’s what we don’t talk about that’s most revealing.
And one of the last taboo topics is a woman’s decision not to have children.
Not that people don’t ask. It’s the third icebreaker at parties, right after what kind of work you do and where you live/went to high school. “Do you have kids?”
“You say no, and you can almost see them stop and reorganize their brain,” says Terrie Robbins, a marketing consultant (and former vice president at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch). “I think they want to say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ and they know that’s not the right thing, or maybe it is the right thing, and they want to know why, but they are nervous that it could be something that is tearing me apart. So the whole thing—” she makes the screech of an old tape rewinding. “‘How ’bout them Cardinals?’”
Some folks are so eager to compare notes on progeny, they can’t even muster up a new topic. That’s when you get what my friend Susan Harbaugh calls “The Look”—a complicated blend of sympathy, embarrassment, and a shocked wince that she translates as “Oh, you’re barren.” A word as harsh as the Arctic’s frozen desert. It means “Your womb is empty,” she continues. You are devoid of maternal instinct, a capacity to nurture natural to women and attained only by the kindest of men after valiant effort. You will have no access to the deepest lessons of love, the greatest fulfillment of life. You are what, in The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood called “an unwoman.”
“To say that you don’t want children is an extremely intimate thing to tell other people,” Toler notes, “because it’s seen as a condemnation of the entire way you were raised.”
It’s hard to know how to respond to The Look. There’s the noncommittal shrug—Can we move on? The wisecrack: “Oh, shit. We forgot!” Me, I babble nervously: “Well, see, first my husband had testicular cancer, and then we were afraid we didn’t have enough money, and then we were too old…”
Lindsay Toler, a communications director who is younger (30) and freer-spirited than I, tells people how happy she is not to have children. “Have you ever heard the song ‘Pregnant Women Are Smug?’” she asks me. “I feel smug. I have the time and energy to build the life I want.”
What she hears back, though, is “You’ll change your mind.” And, if she insists that she won’t, the dire warning we’ve all heard: “You’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” Sometimes people lobby: “But you two are so intelligent—you’re the sort of people who need to reproduce!” Or there’s a conspiratorial whisper: “Call me when you’re ready to adopt.”
As senior legislative attorney for Best Friends Animal Society, Ledy VanKavage travels a lot. When she’s trapped on a plane with a curious seatmate, she says, “I launch into some lobbying spiel about animals and trying to save them, and they shut up.”
Janine Adams, a professional organizer and genealogist, just shoots back, “‘No, I don’t care for kids.’ That kind of stops the conversation.”
Sharie Levingston Krueger, a senior account executive at KMOV-TV, once accompanied a friend to a fertility clinic for moral support. She was asked whether she wanted a group deal.
“To say that you don’t want children is an extremely intimate thing to tell other people,” Toler notes, “because it’s seen as a condemnation of the entire way you were raised.”
“It’s kind of like saying you don’t believe in God to someone who is deeply religious,” says Robbins. “You can’t argue it. But the stake is in the ground.”
For years, my husband and I tossed the question of adoption back and forth, like a hot potato we both wanted to keep in midair. We had a sneaking suspicion that if we had to think this hard—if we were this daunted by the responsibility, this terrified of the experience—we weren’t meant to be parents.
That it was a joint decision made it easier. But deep down, I always wondered what was wrong with me. Weren’t women supposed to beg for a baby? My mother pinned a holy medal—Our Lady of Perpetual Help—to the matrimonial mattress. My classmates knew how many kids they wanted when they were still kids themselves. College friends went off to the coasts but returned to St. Louis, punctual as spawning sea turtles, to start their families.
We live, after all, in one of the family-friendliest cities in the nation, chockfull of free fun and stocked with all manner of public, private, and faith-based schools; big, affordable brick houses; and greenspace in which to romp. St. Louis is anchored by old-fashioned small-town values and families who’ve lived here for generations yet offers the kiddos world-class chess, art, biotech, robotics…
And here we are, smiling politely as we wade through the street festivals, holding only our spouses’ hands.
In 1976, only 10 percent of women in the U.S. reached their early forties without having borne a child. Today, that figure’s closer to 20 percent. Still, when you subtract women who are physically unable to conceive, can’t afford a child, or aren’t married and don’t want to be single moms, we’re just a sliver.
Do we just overthink it? Are we selfish, spoiled, unwomanly, hormonally unbalanced, consumed by other interests, influenced by spouses, worried about money, scared of babies, scared of parenting, unnerved by chaos, desperate for freedom, unwilling to juggle, overambitious, rebellious against societal norms? Am I overthinking this, too?
Maybe it’s time to ask the taboo question.
I start with a few friends, then skid to a halt. Not even I can figure out how to broach this topic with strangers. I try two degrees of separation, then three. Eventually I have 14 women of various races, careers, backgrounds, and belief systems, all married or as-good-as, with the resources to raise a child should they choose to.
The biggest common denominator is that not one of us ever felt an abiding, consuming, yearning, desperate ache for a baby.
“I waited and waited for the desire to have kids to come along,” says Adams, “and it never did.”
“It was just never—it was just never the right decision. Never the right time or place,” says Krueger. The lousy timing, she’s decided, was a clue: “I’m probably not supposed to be anybody’s mom. There are things in this world that I think I do very well, but I can’t imagine myself being a very consistent disciplinarian. I’m good at the fun stuff.”
“In high school, some girls would talk about planning their marriage and wanting to have X number of kids,” says Rachel*. “That was never my conversation.”
“A woman friend would have a baby,” recalls Robbins, “and she’d bring the baby around, and there was no immediate—” she gestures, and I know exactly what she means: that giddy eagerness to hold the baby, that cooing rapture I’ve felt only a handful of all the times I should have. “I was thrilled for her, but I was never that—it just wasn’t attractive to me. I thought I’d never have enough energy for it. And I also thought, aren’t you supposed to have some deep-seated desire?”
Krueger’s girlfriends sure did: “They all would share that they had this compelling desire to have a child, that they wanted that and, in some sets of circumstances, I think, they needed that.” Later, she’d listen to their chatter about private schools and buses. “There’s not one interesting element to that, for me,” she confesses. “That conversation comes up in a pile of girls and I’m, like, ‘Peace out.’”
So how early, I wonder, does the difference show up? Lisa Melandri, director of the Contemporary Art Museum, says she “wasn’t the baby doll type. I had an incredible dollhouse that I loved, but it was because we made everything.”
Harbaugh, a chief financial officer for a not-for-profit agency, is also a master naturalist. “My sister had all the dolls,” she says. “I was the one walking in the woods looking for animals, hoping I was going to get snorted at by a deer.”
Christine Harper, the doctoral candidacy specialist at Saint Louis University, remembers “dressing up my dolls, but I don’t think I played mommy to them.” Kim*, a business owner, says she “let all the dolls be friends—they were hangin’ out, saying, ‘What do you want to do?’”
Me, I loved only the dolls that were different from me: an African-American doll, a little Irish doll, a Japanese doll in a gorgeous kimono. The boring hard-plastic Caucasians got their hair shampooed into a Brillo pad, or I added anatomically correct details in colored pen. Sunny* describes her baby doll as “sadly neglected” and compares notes with a friend, also without kids. “Oh, I played with mine,” the friend says cheerfully. “Amputated arms, gave ’em Mohawks…”
I start to think I’m on to something. Maybe this is a matter of temperament? Not everyone’s an instinctive motherer, eager to feed and tend the little ones. If the impulse was missing so early in life…
Then I hesitate. The dolls might only seem significant in retrospect. Surely there are happy mothers out there who yanked the arms off a few dolls themselves? I probe a little further.
Seven of us, it turns out, were only children, and two more grew up as only children because their siblings were so much older. Nine of 14? OK, it’s a small sample; still, it’s interesting. We were rarely exposed to little kids, clueless as to how to care for them. When I babysat an infant, I made my mom come over, lest I stick a pin in the wrong place and pop the baby. Harper spent her teens in Mexico and Puerto Rico and never babysat at all; nor did Rachel; nor did Kim, who decided early on that “kids were overrated.” VanKavage babysat—once. “I came back and told my mother I didn’t need the money that badly.”
She shudders when she remembers the big family across the street: “Eleven kids, and their life was total chaos. Tom, who was a year older than me, came over one day and said, ‘They took my pillow. I don’t have a pillow anymore.’ There were always fights—it was Lord of the Flies. Their bunk beds were four-up.”
When you’re used to peace, quiet, and the unchallenged possession of your own pillow, it’s hard to imagine how all those competing desires can coexist. We were acclimated to a civilized, adult world. As a girl, Deb Godwin, now senior director of development at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, loved going to business dinners for her dad’s company. “I was never gung-ho about ‘I can’t wait to have kids,’” she says. “It sort of felt like it was more interesting to be a part of the world.”
You’d think women wary of motherhood would have had miserable childhoods, but only two mention any conflict. “I get shivers at the thought of being a parent in the way I was parented,” Liz* says—and leaves it at that. Sunny says, “I love my mother, but when I was a teenager we butted heads hard. When I got a little older and knew myself better, I was able to see the same thing happening all over again, with me in Mom’s position, and I didn’t want that.”
Harper confides that her mother “wasn’t into kids at all—it’s surprising she even had me! Before marriage, she was a nun; she went into the convent at 14.” She must have been devout, I remark. Why leave? “I don’t even think she was especially religious. She just wanted to be someplace safe. Her older sister had died of a botched abortion.” Harper looks up, startled. She’s never strung all that together before.
For as long as Kim can remember, her mom was taking care of someone—first her father, who was sick, and after his death, other people’s kids: “She’s an amazingly strong, smart person, but part of me feels sad, because I feel like she’s given so much to other people, and she’s never focused on herself.”
Toler’s mother quit work when she had kids: “She was the PTA president, and she’d organize the Cinco de Mayo luncheons and the Bible studies… But even being a 24-hour mom, you still don’t have time to raise four children.” She leaned hard on her eldest daughter for childcare, and Toler grew up “a young soccer mom.” Now she’s trying to fill in the carefree years she missed, and she feels no further need for children.
Other women report childhoods so soaked with love and attention, it raised the bar too high. Subconsciously, Rachel thinks she wondered, “Could I even give a child what my parents were able to give me? It’s so much harder now.”
My mother possessed a serene, fearless confidence when it came to childrearing. The fifth of seven, she took tender care of her baby brother and wanted a dozen kids of her own, but my dad dropped dead before she could manage it.
Godwin’s mother adored children, too; she would have been a pediatric nurse, but after her older sisters went off to college, the Great Depression hit and there was no more tuition money. “Her emphasis to me,” Godwin recalls, “was always on work, career.”
VanKavage’s mom also “really wanted a kid. She didn’t work until I was in third grade. She was driving me crazy!” Meanwhile, VanKavage’s Lithuanian grandmother was urging, “Get an education. No one can take that away from you.”
“She really drilled it in,” VanKavage says. “Nobody drilled in ‘Have kids.’”
When Gary Godwin got the urge to quit his law practice and become an art dealer, he and Deb realized that it was time to decide: Did they want a conventional life, or an alternative one? “We came to the conclusion that, yes, it was going to be somewhat different, and we were OK with that,” she says. “Our life was going to revolve around art and require a lot of travel, and for several years we might not have steady incomes.” It wouldn’t be fair to a child, but it sounded like heaven to Deb, who’d always been determined not to fall into lockstep, do “the Catholic thing,” hang out with all the same people, talk about the same topics…
They have no regrets.
Liz says she aches for a child every once in a while, but “the longings feel 99 percent hormonal.” At other times she’s swept by a wildly grateful relief that they don’t have children. And when she thinks about the loss, it’s more about her husband: “There is a curiosity that’s entirely about him—though he has zero interest in having children. What would our kids have looked like? What would we be like as parents? What would he be like as a dad?”
Since 1990, the Statistics Canada General Social Survey has been asking men and women how many children they plan to have. Initially, 15 percent of women (and only 10 percent of men) said they had no desire to have children. By 2011, the share of women who didn’t want kids had risen to 23 percent. The share of men was up to 19 percent, but the difference held: More men than women reported wanting children.
Melandri’s partner is younger than she, “and he’s really good with kids, kind of a kid whisperer. You always wonder, are we really on the same page—and will we be? But we have been very happy and settled in this decision for 13 years.” Sunny double-checks regularly, afraid that her husband “has really wanted kids all this time and just never told me.”
Robbins remembers when she and her husband, Arnie Robbins (retired editor of the Post) “were both on the fence, and it was getting to be time to decide. He probably 60 percent wanted a baby, and I was like 80 or 90 against it. Arnie said, ‘OK, let’s not.’ I said, ‘OK.’ A few days later I said, ‘What am I, chopped liver? You don’t want to have kids with me?’”
They laughed, but later she asked Arnie whether he’d feel bad without someone to carry on his name. “Yeah,” he admitted, “that feels kind of sad.”
My worst moment came when, at 50, I was packing for a trip to Haiti and my husband said, “Bring us back a baby.” He’d decided he now had enough patience to be a father.
Send in the clowns. I wasn’t even feeling patient with him—how dare he spring this on me when I was gearing up to cover a cholera epidemic? I peered into the Haitian neonatal ICU and saw a preemie with her intestines barnacled outside her body. Others were malnourished, brain-damaged. I didn’t have it in me to give them the care they needed, and I knew it.
One doesn’t speak of men as “childless,” at least not in the same way. Lord knows, they could’ve fathered children they don’t even know about. So when my husband worried about not having enough patience or making enough money, that was a sign of his maturity, self-awareness, conscientiousness. When I didn’t bring home a baby, it felt heartless.
There have always been other archetypes for women without children: Greek goddesses, who seldom have toddlers clinging to their lean thighs; wise and good witches, saints and martyrs; writerly Jo in Little Women…
They just don’t get mentioned much.
What we’re offered instead is the Cold, Cerebral Careerist. And now that women can have babies later in life, even that stereotype’s shattering. Fertility rates are dropping overall, but for middle-aged women in high-powered jobs, they’ve shot up: A 2015 study by Pew Social Trends found that only 20 percent of women ages 40–44 with graduate degrees had no children, down from 30 percent in 1994.
On this topic, all 14 of us speak in unison: We’ve never once felt cold or unwomanly or overambitious.
But we’ve all felt judged as such.
“Am I selfish? Sometimes I struggle with that a little bit,” Harbaugh says. “Is the freedom to do what you want selfish, or is it simply having time to enjoy life, not let it go by at Mach speed?
“I’d say maybe half of all the women in the world are suited to be mothers,” Kim ventures, “and if men were the child-bearers, the population would have died off by now!” She chuckles, then turns serious. “People ask me what’s wrong with me, meaning physically. It has to be that, they assume. And if not, they think I must be spoiled, and I must be selfish.”
Rachel says that with men, especially, “it’s like they just can’t understand what went wrong, like maybe I’m flawed in some way.” Toler says strangers seem to think she’s “a defective woman,” and if she’s not, her partner—who’s never wanted kids himself—must have coerced her. Liz has often felt “dismissed. As if I couldn’t possibly know or understand because I don’t have kids.” I nod like a bobblehead, thinking of all the times people have interrupted themselves midsentence to ask me, “D’you have kids?”—as though that was the only way I could possibly understand what they were about to tell me.
Sociologists at the University of Maine have found that parents are perceived as warmer than non-parents and that couples who are viewed as unlikely to have children are regarded more negatively than those seen as likely to become parents.
Being in the Midwest sharpens the judgment: “Your experience of life not as a mother can be greatly impacted by geography,” remarks Karen Malone Wright, who founded a national organization called TheNotMom. “If you live in Manhattan, you’re going to trip over a woman without kids every few minutes. If you live in Cleveland, not so much.”
In conservative parts of the country, Wright says, “the assumption is that you’re selfish, and that can be defined in many ways. You are denying the planet. You are denying your mother, who wanted a grandchild. You will change your mind later, and your bitterness will ruin everyone around you.” The most popular page on TheNotMom.com is a list of celebrities who’ve never had kids: Helen Mirren, Betty White, Sarah Silverman, Dolly Parton, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor… The list is long and deeply reassuring. Yet “it will be a long time before we get a first lady who’s never had a child,” Wright predicts. “People are freakin’ out because President Trump doesn’t have a dog, for God’s sake!”
Children are our emoji; their presence proves that we have a heart.
I worried that these interviews would have a bitter tinge, steeped in resentment of the “breeders” who dominate the zeitgeist. Instead, we all bubbled over with admiration. “I am consistently impressed by what women do, period,” says Melandri, “by their capacity to double down and triple down and to do it all with great care and thoughtfulness.”
“This running, running, running—soccer and guitar and after-school clubs—my God,” Harbaugh says fervently. “It’s not achievable to live!”
“They’re juggling all the time,” marvels Krueger. “I would be out of my ever-lovin’ mind. I’ve just got a husband and a dog, and some days I feel like I’m barely keeping my nose above water!”
“When I see moms with one in the stroller and one by the hand, my heart is like, ‘Wow. How does she even go to the grocery store?’” says Kim. “But for them it’s just like breathing; it’s no big deal.”
Or it is a big deal, harder than we realize.
People joke that cars with 99.1 FM bumper stickers are piloted by lousy drivers, Toler says, “but I think it’s because they all have kids, and they are sleep-deprived, and they had Chicken McNuggets for lunch—not because they are Christian and blaring Jars of Clay.” She grew up with evangelical Christianity’s family values herself, and she admits to getting a little judgy when she watches women trying to juggle career and children: “Things are never going perfectly, and from my lofty seat, where I am well rested and well fed, it’s easy for me to see how they are not giving their kids enough attention.”
Yet she also sees their endless patience with the repeated simple tasks, the litany of reminders and routines and admonitions that to her seem “super boring.” Mothers have to crank their brains up to a hypervigilant state, one she learned as a kid and has been trying to shed ever since.
I ask my sources how they define “maternal instinct”—does it exist as a separate category? “Yeah, and I don’t have it,” Harbaugh flashes back. Then she hesitates: “Or do I? I even worry about the rabbits and bunnies in the yard…”
“I think it exists,” Adams says. “Mine’s satisfied by our dogs. They don’t ever steal your car keys, and they are less challenging; less can go wrong.”
“Survival is the strongest instinct we have, and I bet maternal instinct supersedes that,” muses Robbins. “It’s wired in. And I think we have to have less of it.”
But Melandri thinks “maternal instinct is writ large anytime you care about the other person, wishing someone not just to be safe and fed but also to feel good and to thrive. It’s human care for one another. Either you have it or you don’t. But it doesn’t have to be gendered, and it doesn’t have to be tied to motherhood.” She tilts her head. “Wouldn’t it be great if we thought of that instinct as something inherent in all our relationships? And as a blanket way to think about care of our young people, who are our future?”
The common assumption is that women who don’t have kids don’t like kids. And, yeah, a few of the women I talked to strenuously avoid family-friendly events. “Kids are loud, they’re demanding, they get in your way,” says Adams. “I like some individual children, but as a group, I prefer them to be older.” She waits a beat. “Like, in their twenties.”
Melandri, though, loves childhood’s “fresh and unfettered perspective. Kids have this pure creativity. They’re not yet squelched by the world.” Being “an auntie” is “a different kind of relationship,” she adds: It’s all about joy, and it’s a little subversive, “and that is really, really fun, for them and for you.”
One after another, women tell me about their affection for the kids in their lives. “I have found so much pure happiness in getting to know other people’s children,” Liz says. One of Krueger’s young relatives is graduating “and has Down syndrome,” she says, “and one is autistic. They are going to need a hand, and we’re happy to step in.”
“It’s not hard for me to find a baby to hug,” Toler says, “and I have a 13-year-old friend, and she needs me so much more than anybody else. My time would be so much better spent talking to her about her life that already exists rather than trying to create another one.”
Much depends on how you conceive of a child: as a blessing; as in Michel Houellebecq’s deliberately provocative phrase, “a sort of vicious dwarf, innately cruel”; as a normal and natural fulfillment; as a sacred trust that you could easily screw up.
“To have responsibility for somebody 24/7, 365, for 20 years and beyond was the daunting part,” Harbaugh says.
My mother spoke tenderly of kids as “little sponges soaking up everything you tell and show them.” The prospect terrified me. I was too absent-minded, too laissez-faire. I’d screw up; I knew it. And then there was money; there never seemed enough to guarantee our child round-the-clock care and safety and health and a good education…
“When I had insane biological urges to have a baby, around age 30, I was single and making $9,000 a year,” Liz recalls.
In addition to dreading the responsibility of another human life, there’s feeling responsible for the whole damned planet. VanKavage read The Population Bomb in high school, and she’s never shaken off its portent: “The more people on earth, the more strapped we are for resources.” That resonates with Sunny, too: “We’re on track for extinction as it is, thanks to our plundering of the planet and our refusal to change our ways. What’s so special about me that I have the right to add to Mother Earth’s burden?”
Yet the words for failure to procreate are awful: “barren,” “sterile,” “infertile.” “Through motherhood,” writes poet Adrienne Rich, “every woman has been defined from outside herself: mother, matriarch, matron, spinster, barren, old maid—listen to the history of emotional timbre that hangs around each of these words.” The decision not to be a mother is automatically, by definition, a negation: You are child-less.
“It feels like a complete denial of my existence,” says Toler. “All women have an internal mother—we have no choice but to have some relationship with the idea of mothering. But there are a million other identities inside us, and this is the only one that is ever valued.” She prefers the term “child-free,” but that one makes Liz gag. “‘Childless sounds like you are lacking, and ‘child-free’ sounds anti-child,” Adams points out.
“I don’t feel any particular way toward any particular term,” Kim says. “Childless? Yeah. It’s a fact.”
“Whatever you want to call it is fine,” agrees VanKavage. “Childless. Child-free. Free.”
You are free from worry, noise, chaos, need, demands on your time. “If I feel upset, I get to embrace that,” says Toler. “I’m not on anybody else’s emotional schedule ever. And after 18 years of being on five other people’s emotional schedules, I value that freedom fully.”
Without children, there are more chances for solitude, concentration, creativity. There’s time to pay attention to, and enjoy, one’s spouse. There’s the joy of meeting kids on their own terms, not as a fretting parent or giddy grandparent but rather as a fellow human whose ego is not imperiled by their behavior.
Not having a child can also be a ticket to the next socioeconomic class. One study surveyed women without children in the U.S. and found, to the researchers’ surprise, that 75 percent of the participants described themselves as coming from poor or working-class backgrounds. Many linked their upward mobility to their choice not to have kids. Rachel brings this up: “I have more options financially.”
Sunny savors “not having to deal with the financial stresses of raising and educating children,” but she’s even more relieved not to be worrying “about how kids will turn out. Am I capable of caring lovingly for a severely handicapped child over the long haul? A mentally ill child? A criminal child? A bully? A snotty, too-smart-for-her-own-good child? And parenting is a crapshoot: You can do everything right and still raise a serial killer.”
Plus, she adds, if she’d had kids, “there would almost certainly be no horses, which are the only thing I’ve ever wanted with utter certainty since childhood.” This freedom to pursue a passion comes up again and again. Somebody wrote in VanKavage’s high school yearbook, “Ledy will have cubs, not kids.” Since then she’s gotten more than 20 humane bills passed and saved countless animals from suffering or death. “That feels like my calling,” she says. “And Cliff [Froehlich, her husband, the executive director of Cinema St. Louis] is fine if I’m working late or need to hop on a plane.”
“When we want to pick up and go, we go,” Krueger says. “We eat spaghetti for breakfast sometimes; we don’t change out of our jammies some Saturdays.”
Kim once saw a family out to dinner: five girls, stair-step. “You can’t make me believe there is ever any quiet time in that house!” she laughs, half awed.
“Arnie and I are very close, but some Sundays we don’t even see each other in the house,” says Robbins. They soak up the quiet in separate reading nooks. “How do people manage without that?”
“I always thought one really good reason to have kids,” Melandri jokes, “was that particularly in their young years, when they have no recourse, you can dress them up in your favorite sports team’s regalia so they can become the billboard for your passions.”
There’s a serious version of that: Kids give you a chance to instill your beliefs and values, your hard-won wisdom. Sometimes they even live the life you wanted and missed. And if they’re your biological children, there are the flashes of recognition, seeing yourself or your partner or a parent in your child’s face. The constant miracle of knowing that you helped make them.
Without children, other relationships deepen instead. Family can be created in many, many ways. But along with missing the late-night feedings and scary dreams and bouts of flu and broken limbs, you miss a lot of shared tenderness and fun. There’s a thinness to our life as an adult couple, it seems to me; we are entwined and sufficient, but there’s no texture, no amplification.
“My mom and I were very, very close,” Krueger says. “The last few years of her life, I spent a lot of time with her. With that came an intimate knowledge of everything in her house, where it came from.” She pauses. “Nobody will know me like that. Nobody will take care of me that way.”
We all feel this absence, in varying degrees, yet not one of us regrets the choice. It is both a loss and a luxury. And in today’s world—with women still doing most of the child care and working full time—it’s an acknowledgment that “having it all” is a myth and everything is a tradeoff.
Still, I think of those little bursts of gratification when a child snuggles up—as though I have definitively proven myself lovable by winning the trust of some fey, feral creature, and not just a small human who wants a cookie. I envy people whose lives are mud-spattered and rowdy, full of laughter and fresh discoveries. Sure, there’s a lot of noise and drama in a house full of kids, but there’s also a lot of illogical, irrepressible hope.
People attached to children have a constant, worthwhile focus. They can relive life’s exciting milestones vicariously, seeing them wisely and generously, not in stupid panic. Alain de Botton writes, “We will—in our role as parents—be terrified, exhausted, resentful, enchanted but forever spared the slightest doubt as to our significance or role on the earth.”
Before I can sigh, Harper slices through the quote with bracing cynicism: “The idea that older people need grandkids to give them a purpose in life—or that all someone has to do is breed to have had a meaningful life—that, to me, is sad. And annoying.”
We watch, at a remove, how parents bond when they’re sharing a funny or catastrophic kid story. “I can’t chime in,” says Rachel, “any more than I can when I’m invited to a baby shower and everybody has a story. And I may never fully understand what it’s like when people say, ‘I never knew I could love someone that much.’”
We’re quiet for a minute. For me, this is the clincher, the only real reason to second-guess.
Early in my twenties, after learning of some minor female-plumbing issue that could interfere with a future pregnancy, I emerged, shaken, from the gynecologist’s office. “Mommy!” a toddler cried, running over to throw her arms around my legs. She was so eager to be reunited, she’d chosen the wrong woman. I burst into tears and ran from the waiting room.
But once that sting faded, even my hysterical I will never bear a child! didn’t feel like the end of the world.
Toler was once told that having a child could make a serious medical condition worse. “But when I found out it was a misdiagnosis,” she says, “it wasn’t like a barrier lifted.”
Maybe those are the most reliable signs—the lack of yearning, the absence of elation at the opportunity. “I’ve thought about this all my life,” says Robbins, “and I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s because I wasn’t around them when I was little; if it’s biological and some part of my brain didn’t develop; if it’s that I had other priorities—but that sounds like an ugly answer…”
When she and Arnie were finalizing their decision, she quizzed a psychotherapist to make sure she was doing the right thing. “Have a baby,” the psychotherapist surprised her by saying—which, it turned out, was the best possible way to crystallize her decision not to.
I ask what she’d tell a woman who was wondering whether she was making the right decision.
“I’d say, ‘Why do you ask the question?’”
“Even middle- and upper-class people still have kids because it’s expected,” notes VanKavage. “Or to keep ‘the line’ going.”
“Lineage, continuity—I never missed that,” Godwin says cheerfully.
Melandri’s only regret is the relationship her children could have had with her parents. “They have a huge capacity for love and care, and they are both so good with kids—if we’d had children, oh my God, I think they would have really loved it. What’s interesting is, I have no sense of a regret or remorse on their side. I think we’re enough.”
Life rearranges itself, though, when a line—which, in high school geometry, sounded infinite—comes to an end.
“I would assume that as I get older, my relationship with my things will change, because there isn’t the idea of passing something along,” Melandri says. “What is a family heirloom if the next generation isn’t there? It probably keeps us very honest about not getting too attached to the stuff and thinking of it as more important than it really is.”
Sunny finds it sobering, “this realization that in 100 years, no one will remember me or care who I was.” Rachel felt a little desolate when her financial planner urged long-term care insurance, because she won’t have anyone to come look after her.
Historically, older adults without children were more likely to wind up in a nursing home. That’s changing, though. And when researchers at USC compared people over 75 with and without children, they found no difference in their sense of well-being or the amount of care they were receiving.
“Gary and I laugh about ‘Oops, there’s nobody to take care of us when we get older!’” says Godwin, but she doesn’t sound worried. Neither do the Robbinses, who joke about tasks they will not perform for each other in old age. “When I was younger, people used to say, ‘But who’s going to take care of you when you’re older?’” Terrie recalls. “Like their kids will be in town?”
Harbaugh thinks having someone to take care of you is “the most ridiculous reason I’ve ever heard of for having children. I’ll figure it out.” Adams guesses that her husband, who’s nine years older than she, will die first, “so I’ll be old and alone. But I have lots of friends.”
Melandri’s noticed that kind of late-life friendship as a recurring topic among friends without children. “It’s a different structure for aging,” she says. “A version of the home where everyone you know in it you have curated into it.”
As I’m finishing this story, a friend about 15 years older asks what I’m working on. I describe the women’s various lives, their reasons for not having children. An odd expression crosses her face—first startled, then wry—and she murmurs, “I never knew that was an option.”
It’s not sarcasm. In the sweep of history, “Why didn’t you have kids?” is a fairly new question.
“For my mother’s generation, childbearing was a risky business,” notes Godwin, “so their attitude was different. Motherhood was hard, but they didn’t question doing it: A, it was necessary, and B, there weren’t ways to avoid it.”
Besides, motherhood was often their best and fastest route to creativity, authority, power, efficacy, and meaning. Today, there are so many options, we need sat-nav.
“I definitely got the message—at school, at home, in advertising, in literature, with Olympic Barbie—that birth control and abortion were available,” Liz recalls. “You can do All These Things now, so don’t have a baby, don’t have a baby, don’t have a baby. I know more than a few women my age who reached 40 and were like, wait—when was I supposed to not not have a baby?”
I remember blurting, “If only somebody would just leave one on our doorstep!” We knew we’d probably manage just fine. Yet we didn’t feel compelled to go find ourselves a baby.
And even after all these interviews, I’m no closer to answering the taboo question of why not. Temperament, birth order, parents, partners, hormones, money, lousy timing, existential dread... There are as many reasons not to have children as there are to have them. And the answer is different for each of us.
“The worst thing we can ever do to each other,” says Melandri, “is make any kind of assumption about what any life decision means—because you never know.” What drives her crazy isn’t being judged for her choices; it’s being judged by someone else’s definition of the right way to live. “‘Family’ and ‘love’ are pretty limitless in how you can define them,” she says. “We each have a path that makes sense for us.”
*Four women interviewed for the story asked that their names be withheld; they are identified as Kim, Rachel, Sunny, and Liz.
Opening photo by John Fedele / Talent: Sutton Laster, West Model Management / Scooter: Flying Tiger Motorcycles