They once were known as childless, and even though their lack of progeny was intentional, their fate generally was regarded as unfortunate in a culture that counted children as blessings.
Today, things are different. The preferred term for men and women who purposely reject parenthood is "child-free." The stigma attached to their choice is fading. And their non-multiplying ranks are, well, multiplying.
A new Pew Research Center report has found that the proportion of American women who end their childbearing years without having children has soared in recent decades, from one in 10 women in the 1970s to nearly one in five today. Childlessness has risen for all racial and ethnic groups and most education levels.
Behind those numbers lies a burgeoning movement of adults forming parents-not-allowed social groups like "No Kidding" and the "The Non-Moms Club," gathering online at websites with such names as "Happily Childfree" and "Childfree by Choice," and sporting T-shirts that say "Why would I want children? I'm ENJOYING my life" and "The only whine I want is aged and served with cheese."
Polls show that the views of these proud non-parents are on the ascendancy. The Pew report noted that most Americans now disagree that childless people lead less fulfilling lives, only a minority regard children as very important for a successful marriage and fewer than four in 10 believe that the trend toward intentional childlessness hurts society.
Such statistics can comfort infertile couples weary of impertinent strangers hounding them about their failure to be fruitful and multiply. But the "child-free" movement and its increasing acceptance in American culture portend something more serious than a relaxation of social pressure to procreate. They signal a serious shift in the way we think about child rearing, from regarding children and the sacrifices they entail as a natural part of life to seeing them as extraordinary, even unreasonable burdens.
It's a subtle shift, not easily detected amid our pop culture's self-conscious celebration of children. The childless-by-choice crowd complains that we live in a "baby-crazed" and "kid-centric" society, and in some ways, that's true. Pictures of Brangelina's newborn twins fetch $14 million. Reality TV shows like "19 Kids & Counting" score ratings gold. Parents spend themselves into debt to give their children everything from designer baby clothes and exclusive sports camp experiences to the latest tech gadgets. Parenthood today is an expensive, exhausting and angst-ridden enterprise, perhaps more than ever before. Surely we must love children if we focus this much money and mental energy on the project of parenthood.
Or maybe that's the problem. In a consumerist culture that urges us never to settle for second best, children have become the ultimate commodity and parenthood has become an idealized experience for which fewer and fewer adults feel adequately prepared. We have convinced ourselves that having children only makes sense if they fit perfectly into the script of our perfectly planned lives by arriving at the perfect time, in perfect condition, equipped with the perfect gear to achieve perfect outcomes and bring us perfect fulfillment.
Given the nature of real life and real children, this perfect parenthood experience eludes even the most prepared among us. Yet the expectation endures, alongside our cultural assumption that fulfillment lies in maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. The result is a growing number of adults for whom the perfect time to have children never arrives.
Childless adults miss the drudgery of parenting: the 3 a.m. wake-up calls, the terrible twos, the tantrums in stores, diaper disasters and teenage angst. They also miss those breathtaking moments that sneak up on parents amid the daily grind: the surprise of that first smile, the thrill of those first steps, the wonder of realizing that this little person has captured your heart in a way that will leave you forever changed, and that despite the trail of chaos he has cut through your once-orderly existence, you cannot fathom life without him.
Those moments sound trite to skeptics and count for little in a cost-benefit analysis. But for those who trade their fantasies of perfect parenthood for the messy reality of life with little people, the mystery unveiled in those moments — that genuine joy springs from sacrifice — makes it all worthwhile.
Colleen Carroll Campbell is a St. Louis-based author, former presidential speechwriter and television and radio host of "Faith & Culture" on EWTN. Her website is www.colleen-campbell.com.