Choosing childlessness Lifestyle: Some couples decide to devote their energies to careers, travel and each other, rather than having kids.

June 07, 1998|By Scott Smith | Scott Smith,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

They're an unobtrusive bunch - a lot like you, me and the couple next door. They work and play and laugh and cry as they trudge along on life's everyday treadmill.

But these people are different. Not better, not worse. Just different.

They hear the voice. The visceral voice that whispers an eternal, personal truth: No babies, no maybes.

They are married couples who have chosen not to have children. And there are millions of them quietly living fulfilling lives - and millions more on the way as American society evolves and gradually expands the boundaries that define traditional families.

The U.S. Census Bureau and some childless-by-choice organizations and support groups estimate that as many as 19 percent of married couples choose not to have kids; a decade ago, that number was about 10 percent. But as more women have chosen careers over childbearing, and as birth-control options have become more efficient and accessible, more couples have confidently moved into the Kid-Free Zone.

These are people who volun-tarily paddle upstream in a world where children reside at the center of the familial galaxy. By con-sciously joining a minority group, they subject themselves to social stigma and scrutiny, and parental and peer pressure. Always, they hear the questions and unsolicited advice:

Do you have kids? Why not? You'll be sorry when you get older. You don't know what you're missing. That's a shame - you'd be such great parents. What? I'll never have grandkids? Who's going to take care of you when you're old? How can you be so selfish?

Why would healthy, happy, loving, fertile couples choose to omit children from their Great American Dream?

L "It's about freedom," says Abby Bohley. "Freedom of choice."

Bohley and her husband, Tom, are longtime DINKS (double income, no kids). They've been married for 34 years and decided early in the relationship to devote their personal energy to careers, traveling and each other. When Abby became physically unable to have kids about 10 years into their marriage, the couple revisited their choice, discussed adoption and confirmed their original feelings.

"I consider myself blessed," Abby Bohley says. "I've been able to do so many things that have enhanced my life, things that wouldn't have been possible if we'd had kids.

"As a couple, we are incredibly close. We invest a lot in our relationship, and we enjoy it. A lot of our contemporaries who are grandparents are always talking about how old they are. But frankly, I feel pretty damn young. I don't have kids or grandkids to determine how old I am - I don't feel stereotyped: 'Oh, you're a grandma.' "

That forever-young feeling is only one benefit mentioned by child-free couples. Among the pluses: Increased intimacy with their spouse. More money in the bank - simple math: It costs about $210,000 for a middle-income family to raise a child to age 17, according to a recent study by U.S. News & World Report. More spontaneity and flexibility. More time to spend on careers, hobbies and volunteer work. More sleep and less stress. And, topping the list for many couples: more travel, travel, travel.

For the Bohleys and other local childless-by-choice couples, travel means much more than a once-a-year foray to Grandma's house. It's a way of life. Andria and Mike Allen, who are in their 30s and have been married three years, climbed a dozen 14,000-foot mountains and went on three backpacking trips last summer; Andria says they spend every weekend skiing, hiking or climbing.

Abby Bohley says: "I can't tell you the number of people who watched as we were going to places like Morocco and South America, and they'd say, 'You're smarter than us.' They were in their 30s and had teen-agers and here we were, doing all these fun things."

However, choosing to remain childless is not without drawbacks.

Andria Allen says she thinks parenthood helps people become more tolerant, mellow and selfless, which means it's important for childless-by-choice couples to find other ways to grow and mature.

"But I think there are a lot of jobs and volunteer opportunities you can take advantage of. There are ways to keep in touch with what's going on in the world without being totally self-centered and maintain a sense of humility without having to have kids to do so," Allen says.

So who are these people who have chosen the childless path?

They are rarely misanthropes or misfits. They are merely folks who have chosen a simple lifestyle with relatively few moving parts, people who have found fulfillment in places other than cribs and strollers.

Most are too busy doing their own thing to proselytize, although a few zealots display bumper stickers that smugly proclaim, "No Babies on Board," or "THINKER: Two Healthy Incomes, No Kids, Early Retirement."

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