"Who is going to take care of you when you are old?"
"You'll change your mind."
"If you don't have kids, you'll regret it."
Childless couples in Oklahoma have heard these comments on a never-ending carousel of judgment by way of advice, mostly from well-meaning people who seem to have the couples' familial interests at heart. Or do they?
Is Oklahoma, the shiniest buckle in the Bible Belt, open to coupling that doesn't result in procreation, especially if it's by choice? And does having children really make you happier, anyway?
While most childless couples Oklahoma Gazette contacted wouldn't go on the record, giving further credence to the shroud of secrecy behind the private decision, two couples shed light on the topic and what it's like living with that choice in the conservative, kid-obsessed heartland.
It's my lifeMarried five years and together 10, Edmond couple Rob Roff, 36, a software systems engineer, and his wife, Amy, 38, a program director, emphasize that they love children, especially their nieces, but made a conscious decision not to have any of their own, due to the numerous responsibilities that come with parenthood.
"Based on our experiences and discussions with many parents, we have found that once you have children, your life as you know it is no longer your own," said Rob Roff. "As a responsible parent, your life is dictated by the timetables and necessities of your offspring. As a couple, we are not willing to relinquish the chance to fulfill our dreams for the sake of replication. We would rather lead a life doing the things that we enjoy while we are still young, without having to overcome the challenges and responsibilities that child-rearing entails."
Amy Roff added that while having children may be the American dream for a lot of couples, it isn't necessary for emotional fulfillment for them. While friends and family have been supportive of their decision, the Roffs often get lectured by near-strangers who insist they must have children.
Engaged couple Erica Wanner, 26, and Ryan Shepherd, 29, who are both finishing their undergraduate degrees at the University of Central Oklahoma, hear it all the time, but they insist kids aren't in their long-term plans, no matter how much teasing or pressure they get.
"I've never wanted children," said Wanner, who served as a nanny for two big families when she was younger, giving her ample experience with child care. "In one house, the mother was just checked out. She spent all of her time in another room shopping online and wouldn't let me discipline the children. The parents were also going through a divorce, so it was a bad situation all around."
Wanner comes from a large, blended family herself and admitted her mother's sacrifices for her and her siblings, including home-schooling and never getting to do anything for herself, probably impacted her decision.
"I've told every guy I've ever dated upfront that I don't want kids, and if that's a problem, they need to let me know," she said.
Shepherd is completely onboard with the decision. He will be pursuing a master's degree in accounting while his fiancée plans to go to law school. They insist that if they accidentally got pregnant, they would go through with having the child and be happy with it, but that he plans on having a vasectomy in the future to alleviate that concern.
Like the Roffs, however, they relish their roles as aunt and uncle.
Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of New York Times best-selling memoirs "Eat, Pray, Love" and "Committed," writes frankly in both books about her decision not to have children, and encourages readers to the see the important impact that childless women have on society. They are teachers, nuns, executives, philanthropists and, quite often, aunts. In fact, she calls them the "Auntie Brigade" and discusses the important bond aunts have with their nieces and nephews.
Gilbert believes childless people are given a bum rap " a sentiment shared by the Roffs, Wanner and Shepherd. Instead of seeing the childless among us as greedy or selfish or uncaring, look at the contributions they make in other areas, and above all, respect their decision.
As Amy Roff pointed out, the propagation of the species isn't in danger, what with the overpopulation of the world. Yet the stigma remains. She believes people's discomfort has to do with evolutionary causes and society's norms.
"Parenthood " especially motherhood " is glorified in our modern society by both the media and by almost every social institution. When people are candid about not wanting to have kids and about the difficulties of raising kids, others become uncomfortable," she said. "Even though adultery and divorce are difficult topics, unfortunately, they are common societal ills, so they tend to be more at the forefront of our discussions. More people have kids than don't have kids, so the topic is not as prevalent."
Happy families?The percentage of voluntarily childless women in the United States sits at 6.2 percent, according to the National Survey of Family Growth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last surveyed in 2002. The survey defines "voluntarily childless" as women with fecundity (the ability to procreate), but choose not to. That's a jump from 4.9 percent of 1982, meaning more married women than ever are saying "no" to making babies.
The number may seem small next to the 33 percent of temporarily childless women who hope to have at least one or more children, but often, being childless is by chance. Twelve percent of women age 15-44 (or 7.3 million women) had impaired fecundity in 2002, which was an increase of about 2 percent from the levels in 1988 and 1995. About 15 percent of married women had impaired fecundity, representing 4.3 million women in 2002. In addition, 7.4 percent of married women, or about 2.1 million, were infertile.
According to the United States Census Bureau, more women pursue an education and career, marry later in life and, therefore, may put off trying to start a family until the waning years of their reproductive cycle. In a 2006 study, 20 percent of educated women between the ages of 40 and 44 were childless, which is twice as high as 30 years ago. Reports show that the more educated a woman is, the more likely she is to be childless.
Several Oklahoma couples in that boat wished to remain anonymous because of the difficulty in making their decision. They said they weren't necessarily childless by choice " at least, not at first. They had the option of highly expensive fertility treatments, which were no guarantee, or expensive adoptions. Opting not to pursue either resulted in the choice to remain childless.
One thirtysomething professional in Oklahoma City said she often answers the question, "Do you have kids?" with "We have dogs," which causes a laugh and usually puts the questioning to a halt.
But what of happiness? Conventional wisdom says having kids make us happier, but not so fast. Several happiness studies, such as one conducted by the Pew Research Center, show that happiness levels and what makes one happy do not change much among age groups.
Three key predictors of joy are good health, good friends and financial security, so don't feel bad for your great Aunt Wilma in the nursing home because she didn't have progeny of her own. If she's playing gin rummy with friends, is financially sound and feeling good, she's probably happy as a lark.
What we say and what science reports are two different things. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert in his 2006 book, "Stumbling on Happiness," found that marital satisfaction drops significantly after a child is born and increases only after the kids have left for college.
In a Newsweek article from 2008, "Having Kids Makes You Happy," Arthur C. Brooks, the author of "Gross National Happiness," reported that parents are about 7 percent less likely to report being happy than the childless.
Who's crying over spilled milk now?
Add to the equation the enormous cost of having children, and perhaps it's not pity or self-righteousness that leads parents to make snarky comments to the childless, but a bit of jealousy instead.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that it costs anywhere from $8,330 to $22,960 annually to raise a child, not counting school or college tuition.
Rob Roff advised couples who are still "in the closet" about not wanting to have children to "be open, honest and forthright. Remind them that you must follow your own compass and lead your own lives. Be understanding to your families' desires for grandchildren, nieces, nephews, etc. But don't succumb to any pressure from them and have kids because they want you to."
Shepherd added that it's important to "stand strong and stick to your guns. The more people see you might be shaky about it, the more pressure they will put on you."
Mostly, childless couples want to be afforded the same respect for their decision as they give those who choose to have kids.
"To each their own," said Wanner. "If that fulfills you, great. This fulfills us."
photo After Ryan Shepherd and Erica Wanner marry in June, don't watch for the stork. photo/Mark Hancock