Elaine Lui was 29 years old and had been married for a year when she and her husband, Jacek Szenowicz, decided that they didn’t want children. “Before that, we didn’t give it a lot of thought,” says the Vancouver-based eTalk reporter who writes the popular celebrity gossip blog LaineyGossip.com. “It was just an assumption, ‘You get married, you have kids.’ ” Front-line exposure to a close relative’s three young children and the work they required provided a wake-up call, Lui says. “That killed it for us. We just looked at each other and said, ‘We don’t want them.’ ”
In the ensuing six years, the couple has been barraged with reasons why they should change their minds, from “Your life will have no value if you don’t” to “You’ll be so lonely when you get old” to Lui’s favourite: “Don’t you want to know what your children would look like?” “Any baby we’d have would be of mixed race,” she says. “So everyone says, ‘Oh, it would be so gorgeous!’ ” She laughs. “And I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s really going to make me want to change my whole life.’ ” It’s a life the couple enjoys: they work together on her website (he handles the business side), golf together, engage in community volunteer work, and dote on their dog, Marcus.
As baby refuseniks, Lui and Szenowicz belong to a tiny but growing minority challenging the final frontier of reproductive freedom: the right to say no to children without being labelled social misfits or selfish for something they don’t want.
“Are you planning to have children?” is a question Statistics Canada has asked since 1990. In 2006, 17.1 per cent of women aged 30 to 34 said “no,” as did 18.3 per cent of men in the same category. The U.S. National Center of Health Statistics reports that the number of American women of childbearing age who define themselves as “child-free” rose sharply in the past generation: 6.2 per cent of women in 2002 between the ages of 15 and 44 reported that they don’t expect to have children in their lifetime, up from 4.9 per cent in 1982.
Still, in a pro-natalist culture that celebrates the “yummy mummy,” and obsessively monitors baby bumps and the mini Jolie-Pitt entourage in magazines, saying “I don’t want kids” is akin to “There’s a bomb on the plane.” In the past, those who chose not to have children did so quietly, observes Toronto-based poet Molly Peacock, whose 1998 memoir Paradise, Piece by Piece was acclaimed a breakthrough for its candid recounting of her decision not to have children. “It has been an intense and underground conversation,” Peacock says, noting many childless women contacted her to say, “At last, someone is talking about what I’ve been living silently.”
Increasingly, though, the childless by choice are vocal about it. Laura and Vincent Ciaccio are spokespeople for No Kidding!, a social club for non-parents founded in Vancouver in 1984 that now boasts more than 40 chapters in five countries. Laura, a 31-year-old attorney in New York City, refers to children as a “calling,” one that she and Vincent, a Ph.D. candidate in social psychology at Rutgers University, have decided isn’t for them. “I didn’t want to make such a major lifestyle change just because it was something society expected of me,” she says. “Children should be something people have because they really want them.”
Speaking up on the subject can elicit a smackdown. Last February, the 37-year-old British journalist Polly Vernon wrote a defiant column in the Guardian enumerating the reasons she didn’t want children: “I’m appalled by the idea,” she wrote. “Both instinctually (‘Euuuw! You think I should do what to my body?’) and intellectually (‘And also to my career, my finances, my lifestyle and my independence?’).” The response was terrifying, she reports: “Emails and letters arrived, condemning me, expressing disgust. I was denounced as bitter, selﬁsh, un-sisterly, unnatural, evil. I’m now routinely referred to as ‘baby-hating journalist Polly Vernon.’ ”
Lui, who observes celebrity for a living, rejects what she sees as a pernicious retrograde swing back to the ’50s in which motherhood was celebrated as women’s highest calling. She points to actress Jennifer Garner remaining relevant in the celebrity press simply by being photographed with her two young daughters, and to Tori Spelling reclaiming her reputation after breaking up her current husband’s marriage by churning out bestsellers about motherhood. “Motherhood is the ultimate whitewash,” she says. “Steal someone’s husband, or be a drug addict, then become a mother and you’re redeemed.”