Married Without Children
Parenting isn't for everyone. Why are some couples opting out?
It’s easy to see why people tell Steve Hancock he would make a great dad. Friendly and relaxed, the sandy-haired 47-year-old has an easy laugh, even with strangers, and an obvious camaraderie with his wife, Sheri Nassikas, who jumps up to show off the photos of their beloved nieces and nephews on the bookshelves in their living room.
They seem like they’d make perfect parents. Educated and financially stable, they bought their upscale Clarendon townhouse in 2002 and got their dog, Lucy, in 2003. (Nassikas, who has her MBA, works as an account director at the consulting firm Towers Watson in Arlington; Hancock is the regional sales director for cable provider Comcast.) They smile broadly and clearly enjoy being together, adding onto each other’s comments and cracking jokes.
If anyone could survive the chaos of parenthood, you think, it would be these two. (Although their chrome-and-glass tables might not.)
But the couple, who have been married for nearly 16 years, have chosen to remain childless, even as friends and family have started and expanded their families. “I just never had an interest in having kids,” says Nassikas, 46. “I just never felt that pull.”
Neither did her husband. “As I got older, having kids just wasn’t as big of a priority, compared to our relationship,” Hancock adds, noting that their lives have been plenty full with trips abroad to places like Greece, Spain and Italy; and weekend escapes to their Rehoboth, Del., beach house.
In Falls Church, Linda and Bill Garvelink tell a similar story. Married in 1970, the two supported each other through college and graduate school, moving around the country and then to Bolivia after Bill became a Foreign Service officer in the 1980s.
“We were enjoying what we were doing,” says Bill, 64, who went on to become the American ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo. “We decided that maybe we’re just not going to have kids.”
These days, that decision isn’t so unusual. As recently as 30 years ago, only 10 percent of women between the ages of 40 and 44 had no children, according to U.S. Census data. Since then, the figure has nearly doubled, to 19 percent.
In Arlington, the traditional husband-wife family with young children accounts for only 15 percent of the population.
The choice not to have kids can be both liberating and awkward for couples.
“I was always comfortable with our decision. But in the past five years, I’ve become more comfortable about outwardly stating it,” says Nassikas, who has often worried about making others feel ill at ease. “With people that I know well, I just say, ‘It wasn’t for us.’ ”
She and her husband say it’s rare that they get pressed on the issue. “When people ask, ‘How many kids do you have?’, I usually say ‘We have a black Lab,’ and it doesn’t go any further,” Hancock explains. “They back off at that point.”
The unspoken assumption, of course, is that childless couples may not be that way by choice, but rather are dealing with emotionally devastating infertility issues. “I think people assume we’ve tried to have kids and can’t,” says Audrey, a married South Arlington lawyer in her 30s who is strongly leaning toward skipping motherhood, but feels uncomfortable discussing it with friends and family. (She declined to use her real name in print for that very reason.)
“I feel bad [that people might think there are fertility problems] because I don’t want them to feel sorry for us,” she says.
Her hunch about what her peers may be thinking could be spot-on. In our search for childless couples to interview for this story, numerous area residents told us that while they did have married friends without kids, they considered the topic too sensitive to broach—either because they knew those friends were dealing with medical issues, or because they were uncertain and didn’t want to cause unnecessary pain by asking.
Couldn’t intentionally childless couples just be more open about their choice? Sure, but the same tiptoe logic also works in the opposite direction: Many couples are reluctant to announce their decision for fear that they will make others uncomfortable, or that they will appear to be flaunting their freedom. “That seems like it could just put people on the defensive,” Hancock says.
It is a difficult tightrope to walk, acknowledges Laura S. Scott, founder of The Childless by Choice Project (www.childlessbychoiceproject.com). She has spent the past decade researching people’s decisions to be child free, producing a book, a documentary, a survey, and now an active Facebook page on the topic.
“We are at a time in our society where parenthood has moved from an assumption to a decision,” says Scott, who lives in Tampa, Fla.
Statistics suggest she may be right. According to the Pew Research Center, 19 percent of “Millennials” (Americans between the ages of 18 and 29) say they don’t want children.
But the expectations of friends and family don’t always match up with that reality. Friends want a “baby buddy” with whom they can share the experience of pregnancy and parenthood. “My sister would say, “Oh, let’s get pregnant together,’ and I would say, “Oh, let’s not,’ ” Nassikas laughs.
Aging parents want grandkids, both for their own enjoyment and for their sons and daughters. They worry that their adult children will change their minds about having kids too late and be filled with regret. They grieve that their child will miss out on the experiences that they cherished—holding an infant, teaching a preschooler how to ride a bike, watching an 18-year-old graduate from high school—and wonder if they are responsible.
“They ask, ‘What happened? What did we do so wrong to make you so resistant to parenthood?’ ” Scott observes.
Older couples whose adult kids have declined to go the parenting route shouldn’t take it personally, she says reassuringly. “Lots of people that I interviewed had really good childhoods and really good parents.”
Still, the root of that anxiety is understandable. “Parents [of adult children] are legitimately fearful that their children’s lives will not be happy,” she says. “You have to show the proof [that people who don’t have kids can have a good quality of life] because they doubt that you could be childless and happy.”
Countless studies have explored that question—whether people with kids are more or less happy than their childless counterparts—with conflicting results.
Some sociologists believe studies that correlate childlessness with greater happiness focus too much on short-term parenting stress and overlook the lifetime benefits of having kids. They point to research indicating that people who have children are more satisfied with their lives in the long run and feel a greater sense of purpose, compared with non-parents.
In their 2003 report, “Costs and Rewards of Children: The Effects of Becoming a Parent on Adults’ Lives,” University of Maryland researchers Kei M. Nomaguchi and Melissa A. Milkie found that married mothers were less prone to depression than their childless counterparts.
But other surveys suggest that parents are generally less happy than non-parents, for obvious financial and logistical reasons.
“Marital research always says the same thing—that with the arrival of the first child, marital satisfaction goes way down, and it doesn’t recover until the last kid is in high school,” says Elizabeth Sloan, a licensed marriage counselor with Caring Couples, Happy Lives in McLean. ”Having children is almost guaranteed to have a negative effect on the marriage in some way because the demands on time and energy and money are so great.”
Childless couples often bear witness to that phenomenon, as friends with kids disappear into the black hole of soccer practices, parent-teacher conferences, playdates, homework and limited budgets for babysitters. “In our 40s, Bill looked around and said, ‘What happened to all our friends?’ ” recalls Linda Garvelink. “That was a low point.”
The dynamics can get awkward. Parents planning their kid’s birthday party assume their childless friends won’t be interested in coming for the cake and ice cream, and leave them off the invite list. “But I wouldn’t mind being included,” says Audrey, the South Arlington attorney.
At the same time, childless friends can understandably grow weary of hearing about potty training and tantrums, or arranging to meet for dinner at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday night, only to have those plans unexpectedly dashed due to a no-show babysitter.
Beulah Levy, a licensed clinical social worker who works with couples in McLean, recalls one childless pair who struggled to maintain their relationships with friends who had kids, but just didn’t have much in common anymore. “They lost that connection,” says Levy. “That was very hard and very sad for them.”
Then again, Hancock points out, children don’t stay young forever.
“It comes full circle,” he says. “My parents are now empty-nesters with no kids at home and more time for friends.”
Why do certain couples choose not to have kids? Lots of reasons.
Scott’s research finds couples often professing a satisfaction with their life and relationship as is; an appreciation for their freedom and independence; and an unwillingness to assume the responsibility of raising a child.
Notably absent from the list of top reasons? Hating children.
“I love kids,” Audrey says, echoing the comments of others interviewed for this story. “I just don’t want to be responsible for them.”
Parenting in a high-cost area like Arlington, where even a small house with a yard can go for upwards of a half-million dollars and where child care for just one child quickly approaches $20,000 annually, is also daunting. “Having kids around here is like reading Martha Stewart Weddings when you are engaged,” Audrey adds. “You feel like you have to be the Sultan of Brunei to have a kid.”
Careers also influence the decision, especially in the highly ambitious and educated suburbs of Northern Virginia, where some are inclined to put work first. “They feel they just cannot do justice to a family,” says Sloan. “People who work in the State Department or the CIA can get a call in the middle of the night and have to leave. They don’t have the kinds of lives where they’re home at 6 p.m. and on weekends. They also love what they do, and they don’t want to give it up.”
That sounds a lot like Bill and Linda Garvelink.
Step into their Falls Church condo and you feel as though you’ve left Virginia and entered an exotic market halfway around the world. Carved wooden giraffes cluster around an entry table. Intricate silver Coptic crosses from Ethiopia and Eritrea hang on the walls. A tapestry depicts African women with elongated necks and colorful fabric dresses. Such are the trappings of a life spent working around the globe.
“It never entered my mind to join the Foreign Service,” says Bill, who grew up in Michigan and went to graduate school for Latin American studies at the University of Minnesota, intending to become a history professor. “I couldn’t have imagined a more interesting career.”
Today, he’s senior adviser for global strategy at the International Medical Corps, which provides medical help in conflict areas. His work has taken him to Burma, Nepal, El Salvador, Iran, South Africa and countless other countries.
Linda, who joined Bill in Congo during his ambassadorship and lived in Bolivia with him as well, has also been shaped by the experience of living and working abroad. A banking and finance specialist, she currently serves as president of the board for the Foreign Service Youth Foundation (www.fsyf.org), which helps Foreign Service kids prepare for living abroad, and readjust to life in America after their return. “And I don’t even have kids,” she says, laughing.
Both acknowledge that Bill’s work—providing humanitarian relief in conflict zones like the Balkans and Mogadishu, Somalia—could have been hard to reconcile with the demands of a family. “I knew his career, and I didn’t want to raise a child by myself,” Linda says matter-of-factly. “I also didn’t want to be responsible for keeping him from doing what he wanted to do.”
But they have no regrets.
“My mother always said, ‘You’re going to be sorry.’ Well, I’m 62 and I’m still not sorry,” Linda says.
“I was raised a Calvinist, so if God had wanted me to have kids, I would have had kids. I believe this was meant to be for my life.”
Research by Laura S. Scott, founder of The Childless by Choice Project, suggests that most couples who are intentionally childfree fall into one of four categories:
- Postponers, who “postpone” having kids until they reach certain life milestones, such as graduating from law school, buying a house, making a certain income, or achieving a professional goal, and then eventually decide they want to remain childless.
- Early articulators, who know very early that they don’t want kids, but whose beliefs often are not taken seriously by others.
- Acquiescers, who are ambivalent about having kids and defer to a partner who feels strongly about remaining childless.
- Undecided, who are unsure about having kids but haven’t committed to being child free.
Childless Among Us
The traditional family unit of a married couple with young children represents only a fraction of Arlington’s population.
- 55% – Nonfamily households
- 24.8% – Family households with no kids under 18
- 15.3% – Married couples with kids under 18
- 4.9% – Single parents with kids under 18
Source: Arlington County, based on 2011 American Community Survey estimates
- 19% – Percentage of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 who don’t want children
Source: Pew Research Center, 2010
Choosing not to have a child has become more common and more socially accepted in the United States.
Percentage of women ages 40 to 44 with no biological children:
- 10% – 1980
- 16% – 1990
- 19% – 2000
- 19% – 2010
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Percentage of people who disagreed with the statement “people who have never had children lead empty lives”:
- 39% – 1980
- 59% – 2002
Source: Pew Research Center
Alison Rice is a journalist in Arlington.