September 24, 2017
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Why some Mainers choose to be child-free

By Meg Haskell, BDN Staff
Updated:

Ever since she was a small child, Terrie St. Clair knew that having kids was not for her.

“It was never something I was attracted to,” the 62-year-old Freeport resident said. She and her two sisters were raised in a loving, stable, two-parent home — “idyllic,” she said — but none of the three girls had any interest in becoming mothers themselves, and none of them did.

St. Clair credits her mother with encouraging them to follow their hearts on the issue of raising children, even if it meant bucking prevailing social attitudes that assumed young women would and should aspire to motherhood.

“Our mother raised us lovingly and intelligently,” she said. “But she never said to us, ‘This is the best thing you could do with your lives.’ She was very supportive of people making their own personal choices in life.”

St. Clair’s first marriage lasted five years and ended in divorce but not over the issue of having a family. “When we were dating, I told him I wasn’t interested in having children, and that was fine with him,” she said.

For the past 18 years, St. Clair has been happily married to her second husband, who is 10 years younger than she is. They’ve been a couple for more than 25 years, and it was not impossible, at the beginning of their relationship, that they could have had children, possibly through adoption. But she made it clear from the start that she was not interested.

“It was a little bit of an issue,” she said. “He came from a very loving, close family,” and there was some expectation that having children was part of normal family life. “But he was very career-focused, and he understood that if he had children, his partner would be raising them pretty much on her own,” she said.

With that deal clearly off the table, they’ve developed a deeply rewarding marriage, strong ties to extended family and a solid financial portfolio. They travel often for business and pleasure, enjoy a rich social life and are committed supporters of the arts and charitable efforts.

St. Clair has no regrets over her decision to remain child-free and doesn’t think about being criticized or judged. She and her husband have made long-term care arrangements for their old age and intend to leave the bulk of their estate to charitable causes.

“I am very aware of this as my choice to make,” she said. “We all deserve freedom of choice and respect for the decisions we make.”

Times change, but stigma persists

For women of St. Clair’s generation, a decision to not bear children was less acceptable than it is now, according to University of Maine professor of sociology Amy Blackstone, who lives in downtown Bangor with her husband, Lance.

She points to the experience of Marcia Drut-Davis, who in 1974 was fired from her teaching job and received death threats after stating on national television that she had no desire to have children. Drut-Davis is the author of the book “Confessions of a Childfree Woman: A Life Spent Swimming Against the Mainstream,” in which she details the painful aftermath of her public declaration and explores what the book’s back cover terms “our culture’s rampant pronatalism.”

“I don’t think Marcia’s experience would happen today,” Blackstone said. “But there’s definitely still a stigma.”

Blackstone, 44 and child-free, has been interviewing men and women who have decided not to become parents and is working on a book about her research. She and Lance also maintain a blog titled “We’re {not} having a baby! childfree adventures in a child-centric world.”

Outright condemnation is rare these days, but many people still feel free to offer unsolicited opinions and advice to child-free individuals and couples, she said, including assurances that they will change their minds or regret the decision; that people who don’t have children miss out on life’s true meaning; that it is somehow “selfish,” as Pope Francis said in 2015, to opt out of parenthood; or that childless adults inevitably will grow old and die alone.

Many onlookers assume their childless peers dislike children or that they had miserable upbringings. None of these generalizations, predictions or pronouncements are grounded in reality, Blackstone said, only in outdated societal fears and expectations.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey show that in 2014, 47.6 percent of women between age 15 and 44 had never had children, an increase from 46.5 percent in 2012. This represents the highest percentage of childless women since the census bureau started tracking this information in 1976.

In Maine, live births in recent years hit a high of 55.6 per 1,000 women of childbearing years in 2007. The rate in 2014 was 54.3. Lower birth rates among U.S. women are linked to higher levels of educational attainment, professional status and income, as well as access to reproductive planning services and other health care.

Blackstone credits the feminist movement of the previous generation with making it easier for women her age and younger to view motherhood as an option instead of an assumption.

But, she cautioned, that progress is not secure — especially as conservative political and religious forces seek to roll back access to family planning services.

“If we’re still having the conversation about whether women have the right to control their own fertility, we’re clearly still at risk,” she said.

Men can make the call, too

Women are not alone in making the decision to remain child-free.

“I was never really very interested in children,” Farahad Dastour, a lecturer in the school of biology and ecology at the University of Maine, said. “I’m an impatient person and didn’t think I had the patience to deal with them.”

Dastour, 51, said he grew up with an “absentee father,” who didn’t pay much attention to his children. He didn’t want to be that kind of parent himself.

His wife, Dastour added, also tends to be impatient with children and is not interested in experiencing the physical challenges of pregnancy or childbirth. Their agreement to forgo parenthood has been the source of ongoing tension with his Canadian family, whose ethnic roots are Indian. “There is strong cultural pressure to get married and have lots of children,” he said. “We’re the only people in both our families to go this route.”

They do enjoy spending time with their nieces and nephews and feel they have close relationships with them. And while many of their friends have chosen to become parents, they socialize more these days with other couples who don’t have children.

For Shawn Laatsch, 46, director of the Emeara Astronomy Center at UMaine, remaining child-free was an early priority. “I had strong feelings about it even before I met my wife,” he said — strong enough that he underwent a vasectomy when he was just 25, in part because the woman he was in a serious relationship with at the time had a medical condition that would have put her at risk had she become pregnant. His physician at the time expressed some reluctance to perform the semi-permanent procedure at Laatsch’s young age, but ultimately agreed it made sense under the circumstances, because it was not only potentially reversible but also simpler, safer and less expensive than a tubal ligation or other surgical intervention available to women.

But Laatsch, who also writes a blog about astronomy for the Bangor Daily News, said his decision also was guided in part by big-picture environmental concerns such as global overpopulation and the scarcity of water resources.

He also feels strongly that too many people enter into parenthood without understanding the enormity of the commitment or being prepared, emotionally and financially, to meet it.

“It’s really a lifestyle choice,” he said. “People should think about it more than they do. If you decide to have a child, that’s another person you’re responsible for feeding, clothing, educating and providing with all the different kinds of support they need to be a successful adult.”

Laatsch’s work at the planetarium brings him into frequent contact with groups of schoolchildren, and he enjoys the time he spends with them. His psychologist wife also works professionally with family groups. But that’s enough. The idea of picking kids up from day care or after-school activities, scrambling to fix a quick family supper and spending the evening shepherding youngsters through their homework holds no allure.

“At the end of the day I just want to come home and cook a nice meal and have a glass of wine,” Laatsch said.

No appeal for a hard-working business owner

For small business owner Summer Allen, 36, the decision to not have children is no big deal. “I’ve just never felt it was something I wanted to do,” she said. Allen said there is a still a lot of social expectation that young people — women in particular — will follow a predictable trajectory of “finishing college, getting married and having babies.” Too often, she said, it’s because they don’t know what else they want to do.

But Allen did know what she wanted to do. In 2011, drawing on her education and her family experience in running a shoe business — her parents own Winterport Boot Shop in Brewer — she opened Valentine Footwear on Main Street in Bangor.

Running the upscale women’s shoe store takes up a lot of her time and attention. She can’t imagine having much of either left over for children. “I’m not really a believer in the idea that women can have it all,” Allen said, matter-of-factly. “There’s only so many hours in the day.”

She’s also aware that paying off student loans, credit card debt and business loans leaves precious little money left over for extras, and she’s grateful she and her boyfriend are content with a fairly low-profile lifestyle that doesn’t involve pricey vacations, fancy restaurants or other expenses. He’s on board with her no-kids stance.

Might she change her mind?

“It’s possible, but I don’t think it’s likely,” she said. “It’s just not something I see happening to me.”

Allen is happy for her friends who are raising children and enjoys the opportunity to spend time with them. But she’s not wishing she could take part in conversations about the challenges of parenthood or worried she’s missing out on the latest wave of movies, books, toys and other elements of popular kid culture. “I am totally thankful for the ability to opt out of all that stuff,” she said. “It really doesn’t appeal to me at all.”

Researcher Blackstone notes that many people worry that not having children will become more burdensome with advancing age, when issues of health, safety and social interaction become more complex. It’s true that, in some families, adult children play an important role in caring for aging parents, she said, but that traditional arrangement is no longer the norm in American culture. Recent studies show that only about half of adult children with parents over 65 are actively involved in their care or decision-making, Blackstone said, and only about 14 percent actually help with daily care.

The good news is that people without children tend to develop broader social networks and be more engaged in their communities, she said, which can be an important source of support later in life. They may also be better able to save for retirement, assisted living and long-term care.

“There are a lot of questions we don’t have the answers to,” Blackstone said. But as more adults opt out of parenthood, those answers will, of necessity, emerge.

 


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