Josey Steed, a 34-year-old museum exhibit designer living in Oakland, Calif., is in many ways the quintessential contented baby boomer. She's happily married to a successful photographer, enjoys her job, has lots of friends and spends weekends cultivating native plants in her backyard garden. She has it all, it seems. Except she doesn't have children.
"Kids are fine," she says. "It's just that taking care of another human being is not what I want to be doing with my life for the next 20 years."
Ms. Steed isn't alone. More than 25 percent of women 30 to 34 years old were childless in 1990, compared to only 16 percent in 1976, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And fully 22 percent of women who were born between 1956 and 1972 will never have children, a higher rate than at any time in this country's history. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, most of them will be childless on purpose.
On purpose? What's wrong with these women? Don't they yearn to see their maternal reflection in the innocent eyes of their very own infants? Don't they know that infertile and even post-menopausal women are clamoring to become mothers at any cost?
"Baloney," says Leslie Lafayette, a teacher living near Sacramento, Calif., and one of a growing number of people who are fed up with what they see as a tyranny of parentism in this country. Instead of having children, Ms. Lafayette founded ChildFree Network, a nationwide support group of about 2,000 adults committed to the proposition that it's possible to have a perfectly fulfilling life even if you don't have children.
Ms. Lafayette is quick to emphasize that her organization has nothing against children in general. She just believes that most people with children, in their zeal to lure the unconverted down the garden path of parenthood, tend to downplay the ratio of thorns to roses.
"People see babies as a ticket to immortality, as proof of their virility or femininity, or as a way to achieve that Norman Rockwell sense of the perfect family," she says. "But what you really get is a completely dependent human being that you have to give everything to. It's very stressful, very demanding, and besides all that it's a genetic crap shoot. You may not especially like what you get."
Ms. Lafayette's viewpoint may sound unnecessarily pessimistic. Yet surprisingly, the child-free advocate has science on her side. Virtually every researcher ever to focus on the psychological benefits of parenthood has found that adults with a full nest are actually in worse psychological health than are those with no children.
During the past decade, researchers have interviewed thousands of adults with and without children and scored them for psychological well-being. Sociologists Walter Gove of Vanderbilt University, Debra Umberson of the University of Texas in Austin and a handful of others have analyzed the results over and over and have repeatedly come to the same conclusion: Couples raising children have higher levels of depression and agitation and lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction than those without children. The biggest worries among parents are that their kids might turn out badly and are costing too much.
Sociologist Catherine E. Ross of the University of Illinois at Urbana recently found that married women with children are significantly more depressed than women without children. They're also more depressed than their male partners.
Moms who hold jobs are especially depressed, she says, with the only exceptions being those who say they have easy access DTC to affordable child care and husbands who are equal partners in parenting.
The economic benefits of having children pretty much disappeared with the family farm, while the costs of everything from diapers to diplomas have soared. Money matters aside, children require huge investments of time and energy -- something most American couples have precious little of, given the near necessity of dual incomes these days and the shortage of affordable child care.
But don't write off parenthood as just another irresistible but foolish impulse. Consider what researchers find when they interview adults later in life: Older adults who never had children are less fulfilled than are those with grown children who have moved away from home. Older parents score higher than these childless adults on measures of happiness, life satisfaction and self-esteem, and they are more likely to report that their lives have meaning.
This is hardly surprising to parents, most of whom will laugh at any suggestion that children are more trouble than they're worth. What is surprising, though, is that many researchers whose findings have pointed to the drawbacks of parenting admit that even they don't believe parenthood is quite the drag their studies make it out to be. If nothing else, they say, the psychological wounds of being a parent seem to heal after the last child leaves home. Once the house empties out, child-rearing tensions subside, marriages improve, and the rewards of parenthood begin to outweigh the costs.
In trying to figure out whether it's worth having children, Mr. Gove says, researchers should focus less on measuring stress levels and more on the experiences that make for a rich and fulfilling life.