Living with Life Choices Childless Women of '90S Reflect on That Decision

Article excerpt

AT NEARLY 50, "Nancy" has a life many women might envy. In fact, a good number of her friends and associates do.

She owns a growing business in a prestigious district. She tools around Miami in a jaunty European convertible and takes exotic foreign vacations. One-of-a-kind art decorates her town home.

But when she goes to the supermarket, something fills her with regret.

"I'm jealous about the babies in grocery carts - I never think I'm not missing anything," says Nancy, who is divorced and had an abortion in her 20s. Like several others in this story, she asked that her real name not be used.

Before the 1970s, if women remained childless, it had less to do with choice than with biology or circumstance. It was assumed that they "couldn't" have kids.

In the '90s, American women in record numbers are electing to postpone or forgo childbearing.

They're amassing an unprecedented level of personal wealth (in 1990, women reported an average personal income of $12,200, up 30 percent from 1980), and enjoying a range of lifestyles their mothers never dreamed possible.

Yet even some who thought they'd closed the case on motherhood wonder whether some day - when it's a biologically moot issue - they'll conclude they made a terrible mistake.

Some of them, like Nancy, find themselves mocked by a maternal instinct that has overridden every one of the socioeconomic defenses so carefully arrayed against it.

"Tell me: Do you wake in the night and bemoan the unused magic of your aging bodies . . .?" journalist Anne Taylor Fleming wrote last year in "Motherhood Deferred: A Woman's Journey" about her grueling and ultimately futile regimen of infertility treatments during her 30s.

"What does it feel like to face the grave with none of your own DNA to leave behind? Do you tote up your accomplishments and throw them at the void?"

Where Nancy's married-with-kids friends see independence, she sees a void that neither professional success, personal mobility nor the companionship of two cats can fill.

"I did not have children in my 30s. I was moving from job to job, city to city, pursuing the corporate dream. But I was living in a total vacuum. Now I'm too old and too single even to adopt. I feel like I've been sold out."

The truth is, while there are plenty of Anne Taylor Flemings and Nancys at one end of the spectrum - there seem to be a great many Leslie Lafayettes at the other.

In 1991, Lafayette founded the California-based ChildFree Network, linked nationally by a newsletter, of men and women who choose not to become parents. It's not a bunch of child haters, says Lafayette, 49, but people who oppose "pro-natalism": the tendency of cultural, social, political, media and business institutions to favor adults with children.

"If parenthood is only incredibly wonderful," she writes in her 1995 book "Why Don't You Have Kids? Living a Full Life Without Parenthood" (Kensington Press), "if motherhood is the fulfillment of every woman's dream, and if the joys of parenting always outweigh the sorrows, how to explain the fabled Ann Landers survey of the 1970s, in which she asked her readers: `We know you love your children, but knowing what you know today, would you choose parenthood again?' The astounding response? Out of 10,000 postcards, 70 percent said no."

Lafayette says society resists acknowledging the less appealing aspects of child-rearing: "total exhaustion, despair over finding competent child care, sleepless nights due to teething or frantic worrying about paying the bills, lack of time for my writing, my reading, my animals or my music, and perhaps pulling out my hair over drugs, pregnancy, accidents."

Monique Lacroix, 51, a Miami-based United Airlines flight attendant and a member of ChildFree Network, decided three years into her first marriage, in her 20s, that motherhood wasn't for her. …