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Childfree in America 

Oh, baby! Is this a fast-growing, misunderstood movement that has taken root in Charlotte -- or just a bunch of mean ol' kid haters spreading their vitriol?

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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.

Fight! Fight!

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."

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