Notorious British officer "Bloody" Banastre Tarleton once dubbed Charlotte the Hornet's Nest because of the city's inexhaustible, pestering Revolutionary War-era troops. Today, the nickname is as relevant as ever -- only the hornets aren't soldiers this time.
To some Charlotteans, today's nuisances are even more inexhaustible and pestering than the flying, stinging variety. They're everywhere, seemingly inescapable: swarming through malls and coffee shops, buzzing by in those three-wheeled strollers that hog the sidewalks, popping up on every TV commercial, blocking your path at every turn, infecting your every move.
It's enough to make your blood run cold -- if you're childfree. Not childless, mind you, but childfree, meaning folks who have chosen never to have kids. They prefer the term to childless, which implies some sort of loss or incompleteness.
Deciding not to bear the fruit of your loins is nothing new, but within the last five years the childfree community has begun to band together, largely through online support groups. The more vocal members of the community have drawn headlines with their sometimes scathing diatribes against "ankle biters," yet the range of childfree people is as varied as the range of those who choose to parent. Childfree people run the gamut from caring, intelligent individuals to petty assholes.
Who are these people? What do they want? And what's a "crotch dropping"?
It's unclear when the term "childfree" came into being, but it gained popularity in the 1990s via the Childfree Network, one of the first organizations devoted to this growing segment of the population.
According to the Centers for Disease Control's 2002 survey, "Fertility, Family Planning and Reproductive Health of US," just saying no to kids is becoming a more popular option. Among the 61.6 million women aged 15 to 44 in 2002, 6.2 percent were voluntarily childless, up from 4.9 percent in 1982. Furthermore, the percentage of childless women who expect to have one child in their lifetimes (13 percent) was down by almost half what it was in 1995 (25 percent).
Reasons for choosing this lifestyle can range from personal to pecuniary. In a recent study conducted by economist Amalia Miller of the University of Virginia, a woman in her 20s can expect to increase her lifetime wages by 10 percent for each year she delays giving birth.
The Washington Post recently reported the results of a survey published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior which found parents across the board to be more depressed than childless adults, from parents with newborns all the way up to empty nesters.
Who are the voluntarily childless? Numerous research studies have revealed that most couples who choose not to reproduce are well-educated, are employed in a professional field, have high incomes, are generally white, live in urban areas and are less religious than their child-bearing counterparts.
Childfree couples, or DINKs (Double Income No Kids), say they endure severe pressure from friends, family and co-workers, and the wrath of "breeders" who often paint the childfree as selfish, irresponsible people; hedonistic party animals; or simply young people "going through a phase."
So, the childfree have banded together for mutual support. The Web has become a haven, providing a place for them to meet, vent and socialize. The word "childfree" nets more than 226,000 hits on Google, and there are dozens of childfree message boards and e-mail lists, from national to regional.
The Web site childfree.net states its mission right up front: "We choose to call ourselves 'childfree' rather than 'childless,' because we feel the term 'childless' implies that we're missing something we want -- and we aren't. We consider ourselves childfree -- free of the loss of personal freedom, money, time and energy that having children requires ... being childfree-by-choice is rather frowned upon by our kidcentric society, finding information (or links to information) is difficult.
"Most of us are almost afraid to ask someone who might know where we can find what we're looking for ... the disapproving stares and cries of 'How can you not want children?!' often send us into a form of 'hiding.' We feel like freaks and don't realize exactly how many of us and exactly how much information is actually out there. This site attempts to remedy that problem."
Another organization, No Kidding (nokidding.net), is a nationwide, nonprofit social club for childfree adults. Since its inception in 1984 in Vancouver, British Columbia, the group has grown to 92 chapters in 37 US states and five other countries, including Australia, the Ivory Coast and South Korea. The organization will hold an international convention in Toronto next June.
The idea to start No Kidding conventions came from the Charlotte chapter's founder, 39-year-old Candy Lake, of Indian Trail. She helped plan the first two conventions in the adult-friendly cities of Las Vegas and New Orleans.
Lake decided to form a No Kidding chapter in Charlotte one night when she was out with her husband for a drink. She was sitting at the bar of the now-closed Rio Bravo on South Boulevard when a man walked in with a newborn baby. The patrons at the bar were engaging in appropriate behavior for the setting -- smoking, drinking and talking loudly -- but not for an infant. The man moseyed up to the watering hole and plopped the baby carrier (with the baby in it) on top of the bar.
"I felt terrible for the baby," Lake remembers. "You don't want to put it in this kind of environment. And certainly if I was a parent, I would not have it there."
Shortly thereafter, Lake found No Kidding online. She was surprised that Charlotte didn't have any vocal dissenters among the diaper-toting masses. She contacted No Kidding's founder in Canada and began the Charlotte-area chapter. "I just figured if there were clubs for lactating mothers, there was room enough for us in town," she says.
That was 2001, and since then the Charlotte chapter of No Kidding has grown to include more than 100 members. They gather twice a month for wine tastings, picnics and sporting events, and they keep in touch through an e-mail list. Lake says this area needed the group, because Charlotte is a major family-first city. "It seems everywhere you go in Charlotte there are kids there -- even when they're not supposed to be," she says.
Lake says tykes frequently make appearances at downtown Charlotte bars such as the Fox and Hound, but adds that the problem is even bigger in areas like Ballantyne. Given such intrusions, she says, a backlash from childless people was inevitable.
Almost every day Lake receives e-mails from people who want to join No Kidding. "We talk about everything but kids," she says of the group's events. "It just never comes up. You never have to worry about people asking you how many kids you have, because everyone already knows you don't have any."
Detroit member Darlene Johnson-Bignotti, 46, is married but her childfree status separates her from other married couples. "I have friends that I can't see anymore because my idea of a good time isn't going to Chuck E. Cheese," she says.
"The very first No Kidding event I attended, four years ago, it was really amazing, being in a room with a group of women who had something to talk about other than their children," says Johnson-Bignotti. "I didn't know that there were other people out there like me. It was such an experience to be around other women whose lives didn't revolve around the lives of children."
Lake agrees that finding like-minded people on the child issue has increased her index of close friends. Still, she has several friends who have children. "I just never see them. They don't have any time," she says.
"No one in our chapter militantly hates children," she adds. "They just prefer to be around adults."
Says Susan Mayer of the Detroit chapter of No Kidding: "We may not like to be around [kids] all the time, but there are lots of things people don't like to be around all the time. Like construction."
Diane Evans-Gleneski, 40, another Detroit member, has been married for two and a half years. She says society has been "totally brainwashed that producing a child is a must, that it's an obligation as opposed to a choice. If you don't [have kids], then you are an object of pity or scorn."
Childfree people also lament what they see as preferential treatment given to people with kids. Debra Mollen, an assistant professor of psychology at Texas Women's University, conducted an extensive study on childfree women. She found many of her subjects were expected to work longer hours than co-workers who were mothers.
"Pregnant women get preferential parking, those without children are expected to work longer hours, people with children get tax breaks," Mollen says. "There's social sanctioning for having children."
For something as seemingly innocuous as not wanting kids, many childfree are extremely gun-shy. Most interviewed for this article didn't want to be photographed. Some -- before agreeing to speak -- even demanded to know whether the author had kids. This may well be due to the sometimes biased and nasty treatment childfree people have gotten in the media. Kick a tame dog enough times and eventually it'll bite.
Some media have eagerly jumped on the more outspoken of the childfree set, the so-called hard-core contingent. These are the folks who refer to kids as "parasites," "larvae," "semen demons" and "crotch droppings," and to bad parents as "breeders" and "stupid moos." In online forums, they scathingly unleash their frustrations about dealing with badly behaved children.
Dennis Byrne of the Chicago Tribune recently wrote a column expressing his opinion of the childfree: "Aw, poor babies." The self-proclaimed "Primo Breeder" went on to say "having children is both a blessing and a great service to society, perhaps one of life's greatest. Raising children is vastly more important (and difficult) work than childless couples planning a wine tasting."
Childfree Web designer Brenda Smith, 26, says of such criticism, "Sometimes it's easier to go with 'childhater' rather than someone who decides this as a choice. It's something to get people angry about, which makes a better story."
Sarah Smalheer, 32, adds, "It's always the most unsavory bits that make the best story. Everybody loves to hear about how we call people with kids all these mean names. But like any group, there's a very outspoken minority and a more mellow majority."
A small segment of the childfree community does, in fact, loathe and detest all children, but many more childfree people say that's not the case. "I have a 13-year-old nephew who's like a son to me," Johnson-Bignotti says. "Few of us who call ourselves childfree are completely free of children in our lives -- we just choose not to parent."
Parents sometimes invade online childfree communities to lecture or insult the denizens, causing white-hot flame wars. In turn, many childfree boards post stories about neglected or abused children as proof that not all parents are such selfless angels.
"Having children is a selfish act," says Mark Smigielski, 41. "There are tons of kids out there in adoption centers, and there's plenty of hungry kids out there." Smigielski says he donates some of his extra income to charities and local church organizations. And by not reproducing, he says, "I'm protecting the environment and ecology."
Charlotte's No Kidders are also more altruistic than the average person. "There's a lot of people in our club that volunteer, especially for children's causes. They have more time to do things for other people," says Lake.
Why all the hatin'? And why do so many "breeders" get so pissed off at the childfree? It's not just the nasty names. Brenda Smith, who's currently earning her master's degree in religious studies, says the idea of not bearing children is in direct conflict with the Bible.
"There's the whole idea of 'be fruitful and multiply,'" Smith says. "Mary was a mother, and that's the ideal for a Christian woman. Undermining and disagreeing with that can throw that all into a tailspin."
Psychologist Mollen: "Many parents get upset because they internalize the criticism, and feel like their choice, the choice to parent, is negated. But most childfree people are simply saying, 'This is what works for us.'"
Given our country's current sociopolitical climate, being childfree is a strong political statement, whether intended or not. It spits in the face of "family values" (despite the fact that many childfree couples have deeply loving, healthy, long-term relationships) and the omnipotent Christian right-wing political machine that seems to color every facet of our lives these days.
"When they say family, they mean a white Christian couple with one or more minor children in a household," says Johnson-Bignotti. "That's who the political climate is catering to right now."
Being childfree touches on hotbed issues: race, class, gender, religion. Pope John Paul II condemned married couples who choose not to reproduce, and "anti-childfree" is gaining momentum. As such, the British have founded Kidding Aside (kiddingaside.net), an organization devoted to improving the political representation of childfree citizens. Although there's been talk of starting a similar organization in this country, none has taken shape as of yet.
But the barbs aren't traded only among the childfree and the breeders. There's some nasty infighting within the childfree community. Brianne Nurse, 22, of Windsor, Canada, sums it up neatly: "It's a very personal issue and there are a lot of gray areas -- when you try to make it a black-and-white issue, that's when the fighting starts."
Sarah Smalheer has experienced plenty of the backlash. Although she steadfastly considers herself childfree, she's been told by many that she has no right to refer to herself by that term because she's a stepmother. Smalheer says she decided she was childfree when just 12 years old, but five years ago she fell in love with a man who had a child from a previous marriage. They married last year, and her husband has joint custody of the 9-year-old boy.
"I still consider myself childfree because I've never had any of my own, and never will," Smalheer says. "You can't choose who you fall in love with.
"There's an ongoing argument that pops up on nearly every childfree online community," she adds. "It becomes a game of one-upmanship: I'm more childfree than you because of 'blank.' That blank can be filled with all kinds of things, like 'I've been sterilized' or 'I'd never even date someone with kids.' People like me, who've become involved with someone with kids, are seen as betraying the cause, having sold out, going over to the dark side."
Some of the Charlotte-area No Kidding members say they don't intend to stay childfree forever. Lake says the group is also for "people who want to enjoy their adult lives before they have to go to McDonald's for the rest of their lives."
Johnson-Bignotti doesn't agree with such liberal definitions of childfree. She compares those who use them to those who identify themselves as gay and then later become straight.
"In that case, you were never gay in the first place," she says. "Same thing with childfree. People who go on to have kids, or aren't sure, they shouldn't identify themselves as childfree. They should identify themselves as fence-sitters. A childfree person who's had kids or married into it, they've ruined it for me because of what it says to other people: That person changed their mind, you will too."
It's an interesting analogy. The friction between some childfree people is similar to the conflicts that sometimes arise between gays and bisexuals -- the notion that bisexuals are "cheating," "having it all" or are just fence-sitters.
Childfree by birth
The analogy goes further. One idea that's beginning to gain strength and popularity in the childfree realm is that childfree is an inherent psychological imprint, a trait you are born with, like homosexuality. The idea that you're genetically wired to be childfree is supported by those who claim they knew as kids that they never wanted to have one.
"My mother knew something was 'wrong' with me when I played Barbies with my friend, and her Barbie married Ken and they had five kids," Evans-Gleneski says. "My Barbie was president of an oil company, drove a Corvette and lived by herself in a townhouse."
Most people interviewed for this article claim they've known from a very young age that they were childfree. Lake says she knew when she was 9. She witnessed her mother struggling to control her three-year-old sister. The constant battle didn't seem worth it.
Mayer says she knew when she was 6. Those in their 40s have been childfree for decades, all the while being told they'd eventually change their minds.
Smith, 26, says her mother's finally realized that -- pardon the pun -- she's not kidding. When her mother's friends or relatives say that Smith will eventually come around, Mom knows better.
"She'll say, 'Nope, you don't know Brenda. It's not a phase.'"
Although she's still young, Nurse believes she's childfree for life: "My mom says that as far back as 7 years old, I was saying I didn't want kids. I made the formal decision at 18, and then at 19 or 20 I discovered the childfree community online.
"I never rule anything out completely. There is a chance I may change my mind one day, but it's not a big chance and I don't see it happening."
At the root of much of the childfree debate is the issue of bratty kids. Children misbehaving in public has been a hot topic in recent years, with newspaper columnists mourning the days of true discipline, lamenting the lack of manners displayed by kids these days. And it accounts for the popularity of shows like Supernanny.
This all bubbled to a media froth recently when the owner of a Chicago café posted a sign in his store warning that "Children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices." What was intended as a simple plea to parents to keep their kids in line turned into another big childfree debate, sparking stories in the New York Times and dozens of outraged opinion columns on both sides of the issue.
The issue was not just kids, but also bad parenting; Johnson-Bignotti says not all parents are "breeders."
"A breeder is like the stray dog down the street, having babies because it doesn't know any better. A parent is someone who actually takes responsibility for their child," she says.
And plenty of -- gasp -- nonchildfree people are in agreement: The occasional, and unavoidable, tantrum aside, kids should be taught to behave well in public. Even Gary Glenn of the American Family Association sides with the childfree on this issue. "I have children, and I find it extremely annoying to have to sit in a restaurant with parents who are incapable or unwilling to discipline their children," he says.
Glenn says of the childfree, "If that's somebody's choice, that's certainly their prerogative," but then quickly adds, "I'm sure they're more than happy to collect the Social Security benefits from couples who do have children who grow up to be contributing members of society."
What do childfree people want? For one, they want you to mind your own business. Two, they want your kids to be quiet. Other than that, they're mostly content to live their own childfree lives in peace.
But some want to take it to the next level still; nonsmoking bars and restaurants are everywhere these days, so why not apply the same strictures to kids? Childfree restaurants, coffee shops, hotels, resorts ...
"When I'm in a nice restaurant paying $20 for a steak, I want that baby to be quiet," Mayer says. "There are certain places where there just should not be strollers."
Sarah Klein is the culture editor of the Detroit Metro Times. Creative Loafing staff writer Jared Neumark contributed to this story.