More than ever before, women and couples are happily concluding that they, alone, are enough
Daniel O’Connell is in love with his wife, which is why he says their house will never hear the pit-a-pat of little feet. The East Vancouver substitute teacher, now working on a master’s in education, has done extensive research on parenthood; he’s convinced children are the death of marriages. “I started looking at all the things that can happen when you have kids, and it was frightening,” he says.
Free time is first to go: he’d rather devote the hours of child care each day to other pursuits, like relaxing over coffee on the Drive. “I see other teachers burned out, at wits’ end. Not because of their job, but they have to go home at day’s end to two kids. It’s tough.”
Then there’s the cost. Daniel and Andrea O’Connell, 33 and 31 respectively, have been together for a decade and both have jobs that pay well. Yet they live with her parents—like many millennials getting help in unaffordable Vancouver. In their case, they are saving for a down payment on a property, likely in Calgary, where wages are higher and housing cheaper. Their financial situation is a major reason they’ve decided against having children—that, and the fact O’Connell feels that his job is contribution enough to enriching young lives.
Is there a correlation between Vancouver’s status as the world’s second most unaffordable city and the province’s position at the bottom for Canadian birth rates? Andy Yan, UBC adjunct professor and a planner at Bing Thom Architects, thinks so. “The economic trade-offs that families need to make for the million-dollar-plus single-family home on the East Side may be that second or third child,” he says—especially when Canadians pay on average $670,000 to raise a child to age 18. (That figure includes lost income and investment opportunities, plus university tuition.)
The drop in birth rate isn’t simply a product of unaffordability, though. A cultural shift is underway: millennials and Gen Xers are deciding against the nuclear-family model. Their idea of happiness and fulfillment no longer depends on babies (or marriage).
Vancouver is one of the top child-free cities. So says Ellen Walker, a Bellingham-based clinical psychologist who wrote Complete Without Kids in 2011. “I think young women are realizing you don’t have to be a mother to have a really good life,” says Walker, 53, who was too busy with her career and life to think about having kids. “They’re viewing parenthood as a decision, whereas in my generation they didn’t question it.” That holds true around the globe. In Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands, one woman in five is waking up on her 45th birthday childless. In Italy, New Zealand, and Switzerland, it’s one in four. In Japan, one in three. The rate of childlessness has doubled in the U.S. since the 1970s, to 20 percent. Clearly, something major is going on, but as with the women’s movement and the gay-rights movement that followed, it’s taking society a while to catch up. That’s why Karen Malone Wright, a Cleveland-based marketer and blogger, is holding the first conference for women who don’t have children. The NotMom Summit, to be held this fall in Cleveland, features speakers like Melanie Notkin, whose book The Otherhood kicked open the door on the subject of social infertility—the phenomenon of women giving up on motherhood because they can’t find a partner. Malone Wright, 59 and married, started TheNotMom.com after attending a South by Southwest seminar on how brands connect with women. “I was one of the older folks in the room, and I said, ‘My complaint is that brands don’t even see me.’ ” When they do market to her, she says, it’s as an empty-nester or the mom of a teenager. “I’m not a mom. And I’m not infertile and sad. I can’t find myself. I’m just not there. It pisses me off.” Her story is typical. Malone Wright always planned to have kids. But as she became more educated and her career grew, her life filled with other options. “Maybe you were engaged to your high-school boyfriend,” she says. “I was. Then, by the time you’re out of college, he’s not meeting the new standard you’ve set for yourself. You get a job and want to get married and have babies, but you want that one more promotion first, and you wake up one day and it’s too late. Last but not least, you realize, ‘I like my life the way it is. I can sustain myself. I can do this by myself, if I want to.’ ” TheNotMom.com averages 6,700 visitors a month from around the world, and it’s not alone. British writer Jody Day has amassed a substantial following with her Gateway Women online community and best-selling Rocking the Life Unexpected, for women who are “childless by circumstance.” Last year, comic Jen Kirkman (from Chelsea Lately) shared her funny account of child-free existence with I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids. Yet despite the rise in profile, most people without kids still hear the slurs: they’re selfish, irresponsible, immature. They lack empathy. They have no respect for legacy or the future of the species. Some people forget that you don’t need a kid to be nurturing: if you’re female, odds are high you’ll wind up putting a diaper on somebody one day, whether it’s a child or an elderly parent. (Because my brother and I are childless, we were the principal caregivers and health advocates for our father in his final years.) “I would venture to say that the 20 percent of the population who don’t have children are probably doing a lot more of the volunteer work, helping out friends who are sick and neighbours who need favours because they are elderly,” says Walker. To forgo having children is a decision made over and over again. Getting there can take decades. Andrea Tam, 36, realized her biological clock wasn’t ticking because she didn’t even have one. In her 20s, she assumed she’d have kids one day. Then her friends started happily, eagerly having kids, and she found herself waiting for the same desire. And waiting. “It would be a lot easier if I had that want, but I don’t,” says Tam, who’s single and works in digital advertising. Easier, because she’d conform to expectations, particularly those of friends with kids. It doesn’t help that through the eyes of media, womanhood is so often synonymous with motherhood. Says Tam: “Motherhood is this whole new world that proves you’re officially, properly grown-up and validated as a human being.” She’s well-versed in the world outside that world. “You get the snarky comments like, ‘Oh, you just powered through six episodes of House of Cards? I don’t have that luxury because I have two kids.’ ” This sort of resentment toward the single and/or childless has spawned a backlash of books that aim to take ownership of the putdowns. American Meghan Daum released her collection of childfree-focused essays, Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed, in March, around the same time that equally acclaimed writer Kate Bolick published her ode to single life, Spinster. As these titles suggest, people get defensive when their life choices are questioned. But judgments aside, everyone agrees that it comes down to choosing happiness over convention. As O’Connell puts it: “Most people think it’s very selfish, but I don’t look at it that way. I love my wife so much and we have such a great relationship—I would hate to risk that.” Tam sees people five years younger than her, like her sister, who aren’t having kids, either. “People are making choices that work for them versus the traditional sense of what they should be doing.” Winyee Leung, 36, is an operations manager at a software company; she just purchased her first condo. Once she reached her 30s, the reality of having children couldn’t compare to the life she was living. “You are programmed at a very early age that the formula to happiness is you get a job, you get married, you have babies. And I did buy into that paradigm for a long time.” But there was just so much of the world to see. “This is the first time in history, really, when there is a contingent that doesn’t want to procreate and continue its lineage. My parents are cool with it, because they’re not very traditional Chinese parents. I’m grateful.” She does have the occasional pang of guilt, she concedes. They won’t have the glory of showing off pictures of grandchildren. But her resolve is buoyed by the fact that so many in her network of friends are non-parents. They talk about their decision often, comparing their lives to those of friends who’ve had kids. It only solidifies their choice to join the Notmoms, or the Otherhood, or whatever you choose to call this cohort. “My life is pretty dope. I’d like to keep it that way.”
When I tell people it’s a choice,” says O’Connell, “they cock their head like a dog and say, ‘Really? But you’re supposed to have kids.’ We put kids into sex ed and talk about how to get a child. But nobody talks about what it’s like. I’m an educated guy. I think it’s important to do something for a reason.”