The XX Factor

Where Are They Now: Do the Child-Free Change Their Minds?

As you may have noticed, we’ve been publishing essays all week from readers who made the choice not to have kids. Combing through the nearly 300 submissions, a constant refrain jumps out: People with kids do not believe people without kids when they say they will never have kids.

It’s like a reflex, or a tic: If anyone under 40 tells a parent they are most definitely not having kids, the adult-with-child thinks: There’s still some wiggle room. (Part of this skepticism must stem from how a lot of us decide to have kids: We never make a conscious decision to not have them. So it’s hard to imagine anyone in their 20s being so certain about what they want, and don’t want, in life.)

With this in mind, we went looking for the subjects of Lisa Belkin’s 2000 New York Times Magazine piece, “Your Kids Are Their Problem,” which detailed the growing child-free movement and the cultural divide between those who have children and those who don’t. We wanted to know if the men and women in Belkin’s piece—some of whom were fairly militant about their no-kids policy, and others who had simply come to realize that they didn’t want to be parents—stuck to their decision as they moved through their 20s and 30s.

More on that in a sec, but first, it’s useful to look back on Belkin’s 12-year-old piece because, oh, my, how times have not changed. Belkin hung out with Jason Gill, a 31-year-old San Diego software engineer looking for a new place to live after his current neighborhood had been overtaken by young families with chalk-wielding children. She writes:

As the mother of two young sons and as a writer on work-life issues, here’s what I see when I look at the world: parents who are stressed. Workplace policies that try to ease that stress but can go only so far. Airplane attendants who used to be nicer to children than they are now. The cost of child care and summer camp and orthodontics, which makes it tough to save for tomorrow’s cost of college. Drivers who don’t slow down on side streets. Louts who wear obscene T-shirts that my kids can read and curse at baseball games where my kids can hear.

Here’s what Jason Gill sees when he looks at that same world: colleagues who are stressed, yes, but only because they choose to have children. Employers who expect people like him to work longer hours so that employees who are parents can balance their lives. Benefits packages full of maternity leave, pregnancy coverage, dependent health insurance and other benefits that mean parents effectively earn more than nonparents. Infants who cry during R-rated movies. The pharmacist who won’t hand over a vial with an easy-to-open cap unless Gill signs a release form swearing that he’ll take full responsibility if the contents kill a child.

Her point: The child-free and the child-full view the world in distinctly different ways, except that we all see ourselves as the slighted ones and each other as the slighters. Or, put another way: My maternity leave means more work for you. And your work hours mean I miss my kid’s bedtime.

So, yes, we’ve come so far. Now what about Belkin’s subjects? Did the wiggle room get to them?

Monica Ricci, who was 34 at the time of the magazine story, explained her no-kids stance to Belkin thusly: “I remember being in my early 20s and thinking, I don’t really want to have kids, but I’m going to have to do it and I’m going to hate it but I’m going to have to do it. Then, slowly, I realized, No, I’m not.” And she didn’t.

“Yes I am still child-free,” she wrote in an email, “and I’ve discovered that my instinct to forgo having children when I was very young was right on. In fact, it is stronger now than ever.”

Monica Lightner, 25, just married and newly tube-tied when Belkin talked to her, also continues to be child-free. (There is a procedure to reverse a tubal, though its success rate isn’t great, and of course there’s always adoption or surrogacy—Lightner says she never considered any of these options.) As for tying her tubes young: “It has allowed me not to be directly impacted by all of the political attacks on reproductive rights for women that have taken place in the past 12 years.”  

When I reached Gill on the phone, he preferred not to talk. But I did get him to tell me one thing: He does not have kids.