Inside the Orlando suburb where they reside, Dawn and Peter Chuley might appear to be square pegs in a round community hole.
As most neighbors watch tots frolic after school, Dawn, 39, studies for her master's degree, tends house or volunteers with social service groups. Peter, 41, a businessman, works.
The Chuleys, who have been together for 17 years and married for five, don't have children. What's more, they like it that way. Dawn, who likes kids, simply had goals in life that she figured children would derail.
"We both talked about it almost immediately after we started to date," said Dawn. "I have known all my life that I didn't want to be a (parent). Peter felt the same way. For us, it's always been a non-issue."
But the knowledge that a married couple is child-free often seems to stick in the craw of friends, family and acquaintances.
"I've been to parties where total strangers have come up to me and said, 'So when are you going to have some children?' Innocuously, I say very blandly that, 'I have chosen not to have children.' They have gotten very angry, challenging . . . I can't understand how my decision affects their lives," Dawn said.
Even when well-meaning, the pressure on childless couples to procreate can be overwhelming, but childless-by-choice advocates say comrades can weather the storm with an umbrella of honesty, self-confidence and knowledge.
The perception is that "the person who decides not to have kids is a spinster or strange-O who doesn't come out of his house," said Jay Bender, who along with his wife, Carin Smith, founded Childless by Choice, a national support network based in Leavenworth, Wash. "We think people ought to think about whether to have kids at least as much as they do with their choice of automobile," he said. "Our definition of family includes people without children."
Of course, potential grandparents, friends who are parents and even acquaintances are likely to question that definition of a family without children.
Amara Bachu, a U.S. Census Bureau demographer, says the number of childless women has increased since 1976. The numbers take in all women, including those who are childless by choice. For women ages 30 to 34, 15.6 percent of all women were childless in 1976 compared with 26.1 percent in 1992. For women in the 35 to 39 age group, the figures were 10.5 percent in 1976 vs. 18.8 percent in 1992.
Contrary to popular belief, couples who are childless by choice can be happy without kids, according to research conducted by Jay Belsky, a professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University.
Despite facing scorn from family and friends -- especially women, who frequently aren't viewed as entirely "whole" without kids -- these couples realize the effort involved in rearing children, Mr. Belsky concluded.
Still, childless-by-choice couples often are castigated as selfish and characterized as living an alternative lifestyle. Here are some tips to handle most waves of resistance:
* Prepare a set of standard responses. "In our society, asking 'Do you have children?' is a very natural question," said Linda Hunt Anton, author of "Never to be a Mother: A Guide for All Women Who Didn't -- or Couldn't -- Have Children."
"It's not meant to be intrusive or rude. It's to get acquainted. I do recommend that people get some kind of answer prepared ahead of time. It eases the situation," she said.
* Be honest. Often, family members, particularly with new marriages, will ask, "So when are you going to have some rug rats?" If the desired response -- "Soon" -- is not given, they likely will press the issue again. In those cases, it's going to take more than the prepared answer to halt the badgering.
"I would explain that is a personal decision and say I would appreciate you accepting this," says Ms. Smith of Childless By Choice.
* Stand firm. Once your decision is revealed, there still can be a tremendous amount of pressure on many fronts. It is often well-intended and convincing.
Leslie Lafayette, founder of the Childfree Network, a national support organization in Citrus Heights, Calif., gives this advice: "Know what you want. Nobody can make decisions for you. If you give in to outside pressure, you'll always resent it. They need to be told politely but firmly to butt out."