You know that couple down the street from you, they go on daily runs together, travel frequently and are always out working in their yard? Maybe you’ve felt bad for them, because they don’t have any kids to fill up their home and play in the lawn sprinklers. Maybe you’ve thought they must have an infertility problem, and you’ve wondered which one of them has the faulty plumbing.
Well, guess what. That happy couple may not want your pity. Because they may have made the choice to be child-free without mitigating health factors. In the U.S., a couple choosing not to have children is not the strange notion that it was as recently as 15 or 20 years ago. The most recent U.S. census data does not differentiate between couples who haven’t had kids yet, who can’t have kids and who can but choose not to. Nor does it differentiate between couples who’ve never had children and those whose grown children no longer live with their parents. So while the available data is sketchy, reasonable estimates suggest that about 20-25% of U.S. married couples choose not to have kids. As our survey of a small sampling of couples suggests, some make a very conscious decision not to procreate while other just never seemed to get around to it.
BARBARA & RICK (NEW YORK CITY) • TOGETHER FOR 29 YEARS & MARRIED FOR 15
Barbara is a graphic designer and her husband is an illustrator. For them, she says, there was never a conscious decision not to have kids, “it just never seemed like the ‘right time.’” Barbara says it was not something they agreed upon, or even really discussed before they committed to one another. But after settling into life in Manhattan, they saw little need to add to their family of two. “We just acknowledged early on that we have it really good,” she says. “We enjoy our lives. Plus, we both have witnessed children raised by imperfect or unhappy parents, so maybe that made an impression on us.”
For this couple the lack of guilt and relative simplicity of line are just two of the benefits of not having kids. “We enjoy our work and our freedom,” says Barbara. “We can work late without feeling guilty. We can sleep in. We can go out to eat whenever we want. Our worries are few. Life is simple. We can be kids forever.”
SARA & TOMASSO (ROME) • TOGETHER FOR 9 YEARS
Just as some women seem to know they’re destined to be mothers, others feel just as strongly that it’s not for them. “I’ve known since I was four years old I never wanted to have kids,” says Sara, “so the decision was made long ago.” Tomasso never expressed a desire for kids, though he told Sara he’d like to have them with her. But since she was 100% against the idea, “he said ‘Okay, no problem.’ Case closed.”
Sara’s reasons for not wanting children are plenty. “I don’t want to work that hard, worry that much, feel resentful towards my mate, or run the risk of losing a child (accidents, disease, kidnapping, etc.),” she explains. “The bottom line for me is that I like simplicity and having kids is the opposite of simplicity. I can travel, I can quit my job when or if needed; I can change careers or even not work for a while and live cheaply if need be. I have alone time, quiet time, and few to no arguments with my mate.”
She says she has no regrets about her decision, but instead plenty of confirmations that she made the right choice. “I may sound like the Antichrist of children and childbearing, but I’m not. I enjoy spending time around kids who have decent parents who raise them like we were raised in the 60s and 70s—with discipline, threats for bad behavior and consequences when the threats don’t work, instead of referring to ‘how-to’ books every step of the way. And I love being an auntie!”
CATHY & CLAY (DALLAS) • MARRIED FOR 30 YEARS
For this couple who run an urban art gallery, to have or not have kids was never a burning question. “We left it to fate,” says Cathy, “and then never felt the need to find out why we weren’t pregnant. We didn’t feel pressure from anyone, and neither of us felt the need or the urge to have kids.” The couple lived in Washington DC in their 20s and 30s, where, Cathy recalls, “Our friends were all making art, not children. Our close friends didn’t have children and still don’t.”
Cathy does share that when the couple briefly lived in a small Texas town in their 40s, their lack of children was viewed as unusual. “Every time we’d meet new people, one of the first things they’d ask is if we had children. I remember when I told one woman that we didn’t have kids, she said, ‘I’m sorry,’ and I replied, ‘I’m not!’ It was really the first time I realized that people thought there was something wrong with us.”
When asked if she ever had second thoughts or regretted the decision not to have children, Cathy recalls a dream she had this year. “I was hugging our son; he was about 10 years old and blond and blue-eyed and really sweet. It was a nice feeling, but I don’t know what it was supposed to mean. We now have nieces and a nephew and they are sweet and fun and I like being an aunt. I like buying them presents and holding and playing with them for a little while, but I am always ready to give them back. I still don’t feel a desire to have my own—I just don’t feel motherly.”
MAUREEN & JOHN (SAN FRANCISCO, CA) • TOGETHER FOR 22 YEARS, MARRIED FOR 16
“We never had the baby discussion while we were dating or living together,” recalls Maureen. “It didn’t occur to either of us that it would be a problem. We both hadn’t made up our minds definitively—we just knew it wasn’t something we wanted at the moment.”
Maureen remembers getting pressure from John’s mother, who dropped hints that she suspected her daughter-in-law had fertility problems. “She’d say, ‘You know you can always adopt.’ At 38 I went off the pill for good to see if it would affect my non-ticking biological clock. Would it suddenly start ticking?” says Maureen. “But no, no ticking. Maybe if one of had a very strong desire, we might now be parents. However, both of us were content in our life without children. If there’s no real desire for that role, then why do it?”
Maureen recalls a favorite aunt who served as a role model for her. “When I was young, I always liked the movie Auntie Mame, because I thought how great it would be to be the cool aunt—I had no thought of being the cool mom. I was lucky to have a great-aunt who was very much in the Auntie Mame tradition. She whisked me off to London for a week as a high school graduation present. I hope when I am 70 I will be as high spirited as she was! I have two nephews and a niece who I will try to fulfill that role for.”
Life without kids comes with no regrets for Maureen and John, though she says she does wonder some days what it would have been like. “Once in great while I feel a slight wistfulness…because I think my husband is very handsome man, I wonder what a child of ours would have looked like? But no kids is what we’re used to and it has perks. We have the luxury of more time to explore our interests: reading, listening to music, making art, trying out all kinds of cuisines, yoga, traveling when we want to and just having personal quiet time when we need it.
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TARA & BILL (SANTA FE, NM) • TOGETHER FOR 23 YEARS, MARRIED FOR 16
Tara recalls that when she and Bill met in college, they discussed the possibility of “someday” having kids. “But personally, I never had any baby desires, ever, and I was religious about birth control! I would rather have a dog,” she says. “So ‘someday’ came and went, with no regrets. Now more than ever we are happy child free.”
For the two of them, to have or not have kids was just never a big issue. “I think in total of over 23 years, we spent maybe eight hours talking about the possibility, with a lot of question marks floating around,” says Tara. “Without an innate desire, why do it? Besides, neither one of us came from good parenting, so we both had our doubts about if we could be good parents. So in some ways I think that predisposition might have weighed on us more than we thought.”
Tara expresses the same concerns that several other couples shared with us: bringing more children into an overpopulated world that is at risk of environmental collapse. “Why bring a seedling to a possible bonfire?” She also didn’t ever want a child of theirs to feel pressured to take care of her or Bill in their old age. “Kids shouldn’t be an insurance policy for later in life. If you chose to have kids, your old age and infirmity shouldn’t be their problem.”
“I really am actually quite uninterested in parenting as a lifestyle,” says Tara, “so that’s a big relief for me. I see my family and friends with kids and I don’t feel anything but glad that I get to go home to a clean, quiet house…well, if the dogs are behaving like they should!”