Even in the '90s, it's all right not to have children

October 16, 1992|By San Francisco Chronicle

Leslie Lafayette, 47 and single, has been through the "Oh, my God, I forgot to have kids" syndrome.

She's been married. She's had a miscarriage. She's looked into adoption. She even had a birth mother lined up until she realized what it would mean to be a single mom -- no social life, no money, among other things.

She opted out. It wasn't easy. If you're childless and a grown-up, people wonder.

They wonder if you're selfish. They suggest you get a puppy. They look at you strangely, as if you are strange. You can end up wondering if they are right.

"If you don't have a baby in the '90s you're missing a major accessory of life," says Ms. Lafayette, a high school teacher. "You're just out of style.

"Look at Murphy Brown. Why did they have to give her a baby? Was it that she wasn't complete without one? I think they ought to do a follow-up called 'Son of Murphy Brown.' Seeing her dealing with a 17-year-old boy, that's not going to be funny."

Ms. Lafayette, who lives near Sacramento, Calif., started the Childfree Network to link childless people with one another nationwide.

The network is one of a new crop of support groups, workshops, books and newsletters about the touchy topic of childlessness and what has been called "the infertility epidemic" -- baby boomers are twice as likely as their mothers not to have kids.

Across the country, there are as many support groups for those who want children as there are types of families: for infertile men, for egg donors, for single women who don't want kids, for gays and lesbians who do, even for infertile couples who share the same doctor.

Resolve, the national infertility group, has grown from 16,000 to 25,000 members in four years. It has gotten so busy that it expanded its staffing of a national telephone help line from four days to five.

Ms. Lafayette has been busy, too. In two months, at least 500 people across the country have inquired about her organization. The first newsletter is due out this month.

Look at it this way, she says -- many Americans seem to think more about buying a car than about having a child.

There ought to be less emphasis on getting pregnant and more emphasis on responsible parenting. More than 2.5 million reports of child abuse and more than 1,200 abuse-related deaths were reported in 1990, a more than 30 percent increase in both since 1985.

Some 39 out of every 1,000 American children were reported for mistreatment, and at least three children died every day from abuse.

"I just want people who don't have kids to feel OK about it," says Ms. Lafayette, "and I don't think a lot of them do."

Attitudes are changing, but they've got a ways to go.

"You get off that bandwagon and you are excluded," says Gary Cook of Menlo Park, treasurer of Northern California Resolve. "All of a sudden you're middle-aged, your friends are off at soccer games and birthday parties and you're at home wondering what happened."

What happened with Mr. Cook, 43, and his wife, Janet, 41, is that they expected to have kids, they tried and they couldn't.

For five years they felt depressed. She got pregnant three times and miscarried. Each time she'd get her period, he says, was like "a little death."

"You lose direction, your life focus gets blurred -- then either the pain gets too great or you wake up and make a decision," says Mr. Cook, a developer who lost his job because of the recession.

He wanted to get it over with and adopt. His wife, a research coordinator at a pharmaceutical company, wanted to try in-vitro, or test-tube, fertilization. She wanted the birth experience and the genetic link.

But he balked at the price -- $6,000 to $10,000 a try -- and the low success rate. Couples end up mortgaging their homes, borrowing from relatives, even using their credit cards to pay for procedures like this one, which is successful only 10 to 12.5 percent of the time.

With help from the book "Sweet Grapes," about Jean and Mike Carter's unsuccessful struggle to have children, they embraced a "child-free" lifestyle. Child-free is the new, upbeat term for appreciating life without children. "Childless sounds forlorn," says Ms. Lafayette.

Mr. Cook turned to volunteering. He led workshops for infertile couples. He worked on political campaigns. He got involved with Resolve.

For those women who are still trying to make their peace with wanting children and not having them, therapist Linda Hunt Anton has written "Never to Be a Mother."

The book is a guide for women who wanted children, interwoven with women's stories from all over the country.

Ms. Anton, 51, wanted children, but her first husband was ambivalent. Her second husband wanted them, but she couldn't get pregnant. She decided against adoption.

"After almost 15 years of sadness, I was so tired of the ups and downs, hopes and disappointments. I really needed an end to it."

The pain of giving up your dream of a child is like the pain of the death of someone close, says Ms. Anton, who lost a sister to breast cancer about 12 years ago.

The twinge came again a few weeks ago in church. Children were walking down the aisle for story time when Ms. Anton turned around and saw the little blond girl who could have been hers.

"She looked like my 'Jenny' would have looked," says Ms. Anton, who had always imagined her child as little blond girl. It felt, she said, like a "piercing in the heart." Then it was gone.

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