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
"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