No Kids, Please
They don't want to have children, they don't want to be bothered by children, and they'd just as soon not live near children. It's the child-free movement, and it's growing.
They don't appear to have much in common. Mike Crutcher plays bass in a Lowell band and teaches piano and guitar. Kathy Reboul is a social worker and, she reveals during dinner, allergic to peanuts. Lori Schneider is a former cop from Connecticut who's going back to school. Todd Larson of Allston writes about real estate for the Brookline Tab. They've gathered, along with 10 others, at Polcari's in Cambridge on a wintry Saturday night. They convene this way once a month, because that's what social clubs do. Except that while most clubs organize around something -- a model-train fixation, an interest in needlepoint, a love of good books or fine wines -- what this bunch has in common is what they don't have: kids.
And here's the point: They don't want them.
"Here, we know we don't have to listen to touching stories or about home schooling or what kind of diaper anyone is using," says Schneider, 40, a four-year member of the Boston chapter of No Kidding. She's here tonight with her husband, though he's still in the closet and declines to give his name. As a teacher in Framingham, he fears his anti-kid sentiment might cost him his job.
This is life for the child-free. In a culture often defined by breeders, those who dare not have children feel they must band together. They need support to help fend off parents who are desperate for grandchildren, or friends and co-workers who wonder how these seemingly productive members of society could be so selfish. They're not interested in hearing about the latest family-tested flick from Pixar. They're tired of hearing: "But you'd be a great parent." They don't need tips on using a Chinese adoption agency. They can have kids, they just don't want them. And they're fighting back.
Over the last decade, the movement's been growing. Today, there are numerous support groups such as No Kidding, which was launched in 1984 and has a fast-growing number of chapters in big cities in the United States and around the world. The Internet now has countless e-mail groups and Web pages -- www.childfree.net, www.overpopulation.org, to name two -- dedicated to people who don't have kids. There are even extreme political activists pushing a kid-free society, such as Somerville-based The Church of Euthanasia, launched in 1992 to try to persuade the world with guerrilla-style tactics to stop having babies.
There's also a cultural community spawned by the collective belief that breeding is bad. Filmmaker Nina Paley's edgy, anti-breeding short, The Stork -- part of a larger documentary she's working on called Thank You for Not Breeding -- got picked up by Sundance last year. And Wendy Tokunaga's 2000 novel, No Kidding, follows the exploits of a Silicon Valley woman who makes the very "unwomanly" choice not to procreate.
"I didn't see that kind of character in any books, on television, in plays, or anything," says Tokunaga, who is 50, child-free by choice, and lives with her husband in the San Francisco Bay Area. "I'm talking about the person who comes out and says, 'I don't want to have kids. This is something that's just not for me.' And if [she doesn't have kids], by the end of the story, the person has deep regrets or gets killed off or changes her mind."
The kid-free know that the decks are stacked. The government pays Americans to procreate in the form of a $3,000 federal tax deduction per child. Many workplaces offer a catalog of perks for parents -- maternity and paternity leave, flex time, the option to take paid days off if a child gets sick -- that child-free people generally feel they can't access. Not to mention that property values and any quality-of-life survey are weighted heavily by the quality of a community's school system.
Nevertheless, some persevere with their decision. Larson, the newspaper reporter, is 42 and handsome, with wavy hair and a neatly trimmed beard. "It's easy to be won over by the bundle of joy that comes out of the mother's womb, and 'Oh, how cute' and 'Oh, how nice,' but then not be prepared for the actual sacrifices that are going to have to be made," he tells me over coffee in Harvard Square, close to where he lives. "I know if I had kids, I would not be able to do the things I enjoy now. I would have to give up going to events with friends. I would have to give up part of my writing projects. I wouldn't be able to go out to concerts as much as I like, or go to museums, or take courses."
Sometimes, though, the pressure to give in gets to him, angers him even, and he struggles to square his decision with the consequences he has to face. For example, Larson is finding it difficult to attract a woman who will stay in the relationship once she finds out about his no-kids stance. He sometimes wonders what life will be like if he's alone when he gets old and infirm. He grew up as an only child in Boston, and so he knows he won't have immediate family to lean on. Also, he's just tired of the feeling that everyone else is having a conversation in which he can't participate. So he must, he says, constantly remind himself: "It's not the kind of thing I want to do. I don't think I would get pleasure out of it."
At Polcari's, Reboul, the social worker, flirts with Larson, who recently took a big step, he informs the group: He told his mother that he doesn't want children. As Reboul digs into a plate of spaghetti and shellfish, she admits that she could be persuaded to have kids someday. But she whispers it to me, so Larson can't hear. That's a deal breaker for him. "A group like this makes me feel more relaxed and open with people," Reboul confides. "On the one hand, I'm glad I don't have kids, but on the other hand, that always makes me feel left out."
THE NO-KID MOVEMENT WASN'T BORN yesterday. It's rooted in a sensibility that can be traced from the 1960s with writer Betty Friedan's musings that housewives, denied the chance to realize their potential, were prisoners of comfortable concentration camps. Then, in 1966, we had the Rolling Stones hit "Mother's Little Helper," about how moms need a "little yellow pill" to make it through their brain-dead days. Word was starting to get out: Married-with-children wasn't destiny. Sex could be for fun -- thank you, The Pill -- and liberated women could have thriving careers, too. Babies came later, or even not at all.
And the movement rolled on through the 1990s, when comedian Bill Hicks poked fun at parenthood on the club circuit. "If you have children, I am sorry to tell you this: They are not special," he would tell his audience. "You think your child is special because one out of 200 million sperm connected? Gee, what are the odds?"
The best, and perhaps harshest, anti-kid volley in the new millennium came from a computer programmer in Utah, whose acerbic take on parenthood -- "I am better than your kids" -- went up on his website late in 2002. On his site, George Ouzounian, known as "Maddox," grades a series of children's drawings. "If you work in an office with lots of people, chances are that you work with a person who hangs pictures up that their kids have drawn," he writes. "The pictures are always of some stupid flower or a tree with wheels."
Ouzounian's page -- at www.maddox.xmission.com/irule.html -- was forwarded on e-mail around the world. It scored him calls from people at MTV and Fox, looking to see if he'd be interested in writing scripts for television shows. His site also landed him an in-box of hate mail. He doesn't care; the breeders deserve his wrath."
It's the end of your life if you have a kid," the 25-year-old bachelor says in an interview. "You can't do anything, you can't go anywhere. People ruin their lives by having kids, and then they try to ruin ours in theaters, or by clogging up both lanes of traffic in front of schools. I don't feel that the rest of society should be punished because they want to have children."
It's an increasingly popular sentiment and part of a growing tension, particularly as the number of child-free adults grows. A report released last year by the Rutgers University National Marriage Project shows that fewer people -- just one-third of American households -- are choosing to have children. That's down from 80 percent in the mid-1800s and 50 percent in 1960. By 2010, the US Census Bureau projects, just one-quarter of all American households will have children living in them.
"This obviously means that adults are less likely to be living with children, that neighborhoods are less likely to contain children, and that children are less likely to be a consideration in daily life," the report notes. "It suggests that the needs and concerns of children -- especially young children -- gradually may be receding from our consciousness."
All this is profoundly troubling to Rutgers professor David Popenoe, who coauthored the study and co-directs the marriage project. He thinks the child-free are hitting enough of a critical mass to mobilize a culture war that pits them against people in more traditional families: mother, father, kids. "In public life in America, the shift has been away from child-centeredness," he says. "You already see this in zoning and the cases of building housing deliberately to discourage children and their effects on tax dollars. You have schools under attack more than ever before, turning down bond issues, and the feeling that if you have children, you should therefore pay for them and don't expect us to pay for them. I just think it would be a national tragedy if the culture war were extended to the issue of children versus no children," Popenoe says. "But it could well be a big issue in the future as you have more and more people who are single and childless."
n 2000, No Kidding's Schneider appeared on the ABC News television program 20/20 with other child-free people and writer Elinor Burkett, author of the book The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless. The topic was how the child-free are discriminated against in the workplace. This appearance did not win Schneider many friends at the office. The day after the show aired, she returned to her job at a large law firm in Boston and found several e-mails from colleagues. "You are a monster," one co-worker wrote. Another sent a note suggesting Schneider seek counseling. A third e-mail suggested she keep her feelings to herself.
"Just because I don't want to have kids? I don't understand that," Schneider tells me on a Thursday in mid-December, her day off from school at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, where she's getting a bachelor's degree, her second, in biology.
She no longer works at that firm, but the mistreatment she suffered is still fresh in her mind. For one thing, she says, she had to sign up for the most expensive family health plan so her husband would be covered; nothing in the benefits package was priced for just the two of them. She was bothered that her colleagues could take maternity leave and flex time. And then, there were less obvious but equally aggravating truisms: "If you don't have kids, you can work overtime, you can come in early, you can stay late, you can come in weekends, you can work holidays because you don't have a family," says Schneider of the expectations. "You may be married, but you don't have a 'family' -- because 'family' means a child or children."
Burkett, 57, who "never had a kid and was never interested in having a kid," says Schneider's experience is typical in the American workplace and reveals a basic disregard for the principle of equal pay for equal work. As an example, she mentions the tension that simmers when a parent has to leave at 5 to pick up a baby at day care. Or when a parent gets a call from the school nurse that a child is sick. "Working parents with young children are working five to seven hours a month less than people without children," she says. Not to mention that it's generally the child-free people who pick up the slack.
In fact, Burkett wrote her book in direct response to the 1998 book The War Against Parents: What We Can Do for America's Beleaguered Moms and Dads, co-written by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West. She thought the premise, that big business has waged war against parents, was ridiculous. "I had been curious about it," Burkett says. "But I would not have written my book if I hadn't gotten so mad."
John Challenger, a Chicago-based authority on trends in the workplace, says that this problem is not new and that, until lately, complaining about it has been taboo: "You can't knock motherhood." But he senses a change afoot. The ranks of the child-free are growing. That means they will be talking -- and complaining. They will start mobilizing.
Burkett sees it, too. She has already started watching the courts for evidence of discrimination cases brought against employers. "I think people just have to get to the point of being willing to come out of the closet," she says. "And they will. I never underestimate the ability of American working people to demand their due. This will happen. I know it is happening."
t's already starting. The rise of the child-free, that is. They may put on a sorry face, networking through the Internet, bellyaching that they're the minority, rolling their eyes at the first mention of diaper rash. But in communities increasingly short on resources, the no-kid crowd is being shown the welcome mat. "In general, people like kids, but they don't like the infrastructure associated with them," says Edward J. Blakely, professor of urban policy at New School University in New York and author of the book Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States. "People see children as a burden," Blakely says. "It's OK for them to be nice, squeezeable, huggable, and so forth, but it's not so OK for them to take up space, time, and money. And when you look at these numbers -- what is it, $40 million, $50 million for a school? -- this is mind-boggling to people."
This isn't China, with its single-kid quota. And federal discrimination laws prohibit developers from establishing "kid-free" buildings unless they're designated to sell only to people 55 or older. So developers, spurred on by cash-crunched community officials, have a new plan: go into suburban towns and build one- and two-bedroom units that are too small for families but too expensive for recent college grads.
Lest anyone think the child-free nature of these developments is a coincidence, consider the pet name given to the phenomenon: "vasectomy housing." Last August, the Boston-based nonprofit Citizens' Housing and Planning Association published a paper about this form of childproofing. "We find that most of the commonwealth's new multifamily developments have generated little if any impact on public schools because with rare exception, they were designed to be childproof," the report says.
"It's awful. That's all I can say, it's just awful," says Aaron Gornstein, the group's executive director. "This amounts to blatant attempts by municipal officials to outright exclude families with children from their communities. When a developer comes in and proposes three-bedroom homes, we often hear the town officials saying, 'Well, if we have to do it, we want you to limit it to one and two bedrooms only.' It's very discouraging."
Gornstein isn't just angry about the practice, which he calls rampant in Massachusetts. Through the association, he's gathering the necessary bullets, including his study, to go to battle. His plans include enlisting the attorney general's office in a lawsuit on the grounds that towns and cities pushing only "adult" and one- or two-bedroom complexes are discriminating against families with children.
hat does it feel like inside a "vasectomy housing" building on a Saturday morning? Quiet.
After Christmas, I head to The Parkview in Winchester, one of the developments highlighted in Gornstein's report. This development isn't new; it was built in 1969. But it offers a case study for what's happening with the thousands of childproof units like it going up around the state. On this morning, I wander the hallways of the 640-tenant building and try to hear a kid screaming for his parents to get out of bed. I listen hard for episodes of Arthur pumped up to 10. I hear nothing.
Children aren't illegal here. They're just hard to find, with only about 15 kids in the entire complex of 318 condos. Anahi Pari-Di-Monriva, who teaches Italian in the Medford schools, has one of them, renting a two-bedroom apartment for $1,050 a month. She moved in because she couldn't afford a single-family home in Winchester on her $39,000-a-year salary. But she's starting to realize it was a mistake, because she wants her 22-month-old daughter, Alessia, to be around more children.
"The few people I see here with children tend to be single people," she says, or there are "children with divorced fathers." Her daughter isn't allowed to play on the grounds. Kids are barred from the halls, too. Tenants are given a 20-page booklet when they move in, stipulating such things as no riding bikes in the courtyard or no toys visible on the balconies. Parents are given a warning if a rule is broken once and fined $10 or more, depending on the level of disturbance, every time thereafter.
The powers that be are careful to stress that they're not trying to keep children out. Except they are. "There is an incentive from the point of view of municipalities supporting this kind of development, because they have a greater valuation they can assess for the amount of services they have to provide," says state Senator David O. Magnani, a Framingham Democrat. In other words, high taxes without burdening the schools.
He's the one who coined the term "vasectomy zoning" in discussions about a proposed development in suburban Ashland, where there's a lack of affordable single-family homes. "I was talking to a reporter about the fact that along the 495 corridor, we're having a significant housing shortage for young families who want to work at the companies there," he remembers. "And there was discussion that a development in Ashland should have one-bedroom apartments so they wouldn't get any children. Ashland hasn't been getting enough state aid, so they have an understandable resistance to bearing the costs of new schools."
In the wealthy western suburb of Southborough, about 100 three-or-more-bedroom houses -- which almost always contain kids -- have been built in the last few years, compared with nearly 200 empty-nest condos for people 55 and older. And another 36-unit complex of one and two bedrooms was just proposed off Route 9. The market-rate units will sell for $425,000 and without an age restriction, though nobody expects families with children to move in.
"You can build a really dense development, you're getting taxes from really high-valued properties, but you're not sending any kids to school," says Southborough town planner Vera Kolias. "It's a win from the town perspective. It's a cash cow. I just don't know where a family of four goes," she says, pausing. "Where do they go?"
They don't go to Coachmans Ridge, a posh new complex of 80 condos in Andover. A recent ad in the real estate section of The Boston Sunday Globe alludes to the target market, noting "features that provide freedom desired by today's young professionals and active adult home buyers."
Melissa Kimball, sales manager for the Pulte Homes project, which is similar to a 270-unit complex the company is building in Grafton, says children are not forbidden, of course. But "the draw is not large families here. I'm sure we'll have a few children mixed in, and I'm sure there will be grandchildren visiting. We don't discourage it," she says. "But it's just not something appealing to that particular group. They're not going to have to build an extra school because of us."
Which is fine with Neal McGovern, a 61-year-old recently retired bank employee who just sold his four-bedroom Colonial in an Andover subdivision to move with his wife, Ann, into a two-bedroom unit at Coachmans. "I think, naturally, as you grow older, you want things to be a little more quiet," says McGovern. "The way this is set up, it causes people to self-select. Families wouldn't be choosing this. There wouldn't be enough room to grow."
He and his wife are not against kids. How could they be, with three of their own? But the children are grown now, out of the house. So why not find a place with some peace and quiet, a place all to themselves? No 4-year-olds racing down the hallways, no tricycles to trip over, no drool.
Little do they realize that there's a rising tide of couples who feel the same way -- except they're still of breeding age.
Carlene Hempel is a freelance writer in Arlington.