Childfree and Happy

Members of the Eugene Childfree by Choice group cheer during a weekly bowling meet-up.

By Taylor Brown

Photos by Hannah Neill

“You’ll change your mind one day.” Check.

“Well, it’s different when it’s your child.” Check.

“Who’s going to take care of you when you get older?” Check.

“But you’d be such a great parent!” Check.

And just like that, you have a BINGO.

For those who are childfree—people who make the choice to forego parenthood for various reasons—being “BINGO-ed” is a common occurrence. Bobbie and Brady Esplin, a married childfree couple in their mid-30s and living in Sweet Home, say they’ve experienced these responses from others—including their former doctor—who don’t agree with their choice to opt out of parenthood. Brady says, “You can sit there and have a conversation and be like, I’ve been BINGO-ed! It’s amazing how people are so concerned with your reproductive behavior.”

But despite being ostracized by some, the Esplins have found a judgment-free community on Meetup.com, a social organizing platform of other “childfree” adults with whom they can hang out and socialize. The group created BINGO sheets with each square representing responses they receive when they reveal they don’t want kids.

More and more young couples like the Esplins are choosing to be childfree. Although one-in-five women in the United States today will enter menopause without having a childcompared with one-in-10 in the 1970sthe stigma of choosing to be childfree remains dominant.

Sweet Home, where the Esplins live, is a small town of predominantly traditional families that usually include a few kids. Their neighbors don’t know about their childfree choice. Instead, when people ask when they’re going to start having babies, Bobbie and Brady politely say they’re thinking about it. They’ve thought about it a lot throughout their lives. They almost had kids at the beginning of their marriage four years ago and even had names picked out just in case, feeling pressured by what they thought they “should do.”

Similar pressures exist well before marriage. Ashley Wilson, a senior at the University of Oregon, is studying to become a social worker and says she loves children. “I’ve volunteered and worked with them for years. They bring so much happiness to my life. But I don’t want to lose myself in being a mother. I want to stay ‘me,’” Wilson says.

“I know I have a choice, but at the same time it’s assumed that I’m going to have [kids] one day,” Wilson says. “I wish the choice was more of an actual choice, and less of a judgment if I decide to say no in the end.”

 

Bobbie and Brady Esplin share a kiss on a children’s swingset.

The Choice to be Childfree

For the Esplins, one of the main reasons for not having children was the memories of their own childhood. For Bobbie, 35, the experience of raising her newborn sister at the age of 12 during her parents’ divorce forced her to be “parent-ified” at a young age. She’s been a caregiver and doesn’t wish to do it again.  

For Brady, 33, he says his experiences growing up in what he called a conservative Christian cult and suffering mental, physical and sexual abuse have inflicted lasting scars, including struggles with PTSD and depression. As Brady was growing up, his family took in foster children who often had severe special needs, and he, like Bobbie, was forced into an early parental role.

The pair found each other on OkCupid. Bobbie’s dating profile helped weed out people who wanted children in the future. She wrote in her bio: “don’t waste my time if you want children.”

Later in their relationship, they each decided to undergo surgical sterilization. Brady looked into a vasectomy; Bobbie went in to see her doctor for a tubal ligation. While Brady’s procedure was quick, simple and unobtrusive, Bobbie says she was asked a series of probing questions by the first doctor from whom she sought the treatment. The doctor insisted that Bobbie would eventually change her mind and regret the procedure. Bobbie says she tried to convince the doctor that this wasn’t the case, and that her husband had already been sterilized himself. “Well, you might change your mind about him too,” the doctor responded, according to Bobbie.

After deciding to leave that doctor because Bobbie felt uncomfortable, Bobbie and Brady “rehearsed” their argument before meeting with another doctor. They thought of every question the doctor would ask Bobbie: Are you sure? Is this what you really want? Don’t you like children? Won’t you regret this when you’re older?  This time, they were ready. After another round of questioning, the second doctor relented.

However, after undergoing an MRI, the hospital told Bobbie that she had severe scarring of her uterus from a car accident a decade before. The likelihood of being able to carry a baby full-term would have been incredibly small. Brady says, “We made the choice, but we found out we didn’t have a choice to begin with.”  

Bobbie and Brady Esplin’s tattoos serve as a reminder of their wedding date.

Nurturing Dreams

Without kids, Bobbie and Brady have time to cultivate their goal of running what they call a “sustainability exhibition.” In the future they hope to live off-the-grid growing their own food, building a bed-and-breakfast with sustainable resources, utilizing hydroponics and documenting every step of the process so others can do the same. “That’s our dream,” Brady says. “That’s what keeps us going.”

As they work toward their goal of focusing on what matters to them, the couple realizes how much more difficult it would be if they’d chosen to have children. They are candid in their belief that the stress of being parents would have broken them up by now. Research shows that the rate of decline in relationship satisfaction is almost twice as steep for parents than for couples without children. Further, Brady says he also feels that his history of mental illness and natural introversion would have most likely made him a bad father. In the darkest points of his life—dealing with childhood trauma and the often-horrific memories during his time in the military—he says the demands of parenthood may well have broken him.

“I would not be here today if we’d had kids, and we wouldn’t be together,” he says. “The main reaction I get from people is that I’d be such a good dad. And I give that impression because I’m not a dad. I don’t want a child to go through what I did.”

As of now, they’re nurturing a different kind of dream and working towards sustainable living in baby steps. He dehydrates food while she makes bread, their backyard is a leafy compost pile and almost every piece of furniture in their home is hand-made.

For Bobbie, their lifestyle reflects a conversation the two had while they were dating. Brady had asked her to think of the time when the she’d last done something that mattered to her. Bobbie recalled, “When I was a kid my mother grew corn one year and my entire family sat on the front porch shucking corn. And it was just what we had to do. It felt like we actually did something because I’d helped my mom plant it, weed, feed, water and help it grow. And to shuck it and eat it the next day for dinner was—it was everything.”

A kid-free community

The stigmas associated with being childfree are some of the reasons Carley Boyce, a high school counselor and childfree woman in her mid-30s, decided to create the Eugene Childfree by Choice social group. The group has quickly expanded and offers a place for childfree adults to attend trivia nights, concerts, wine tastings and more with people who don’t talk about their child’s baseball practices or their new baby’s potty-training schedule. The events Boyce plans are designed to celebrate the freedom and spontaneity of being an adult without children.  

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey from 2014, 48 percent of women between 15 and 44 had never had children—the highest since the data was first collected in 1976 and up from 47 percent in 2012. The general U.S. fertility rate in 2016 was also at an all-time low.

However, as women make the choice to postpone or forego motherhood, a Pew Research Study from 2009 found that 38 percent of Americans say this trend is bad for society, up from 29 percent in 2007. Critics of the childfree lifestyle see it as self-serving and wasteful. For them, not bringing a child into the world when a person has the means to is selfish. Further, childfree Americans are often portrayed as living egocentric lives. Stereotypical images of an adult without kids sprawled on the beach without a care are often used to criticize people who simply choose not to bring more children into the world.

Boyce’s main reason for being childfree was the realization that just because she could have kids, didn’t mean she should. Boyce organized the Childfree by Choice group after multiple failed relationships, including a divorce with a storyline much like the others: her partner wanted kids, but she didn’t. It was the third relationship that had ended because of the childfree decision she’d made at 18. She’s never regretted the choice and has spent her adult life reflecting on if she should—or even could—take on the role of mother.

But for Boyce, the answer was always no. She recognized that she wouldn’t be able to masterfully multitask 40+ hour work weeks, maintain a home and raise a family while also caring for herself. She feels like she’d have to compromise parts of her life: traveling, going on spontaneous adventures, getting a full night’s sleep and practicing self-care.

The choice has proven difficult to maintain in her relationships. She recalls a previous broken engagement to a partner, saying, “[I was] just trying to push through it and fake it until I made it. Promising a wedding, babies and a house in the future. I loved him so much. I really tried to force my internal feelings on the matter to fit with him, and with society.” She says the temptation of giving someone she loves a child has been there, but she also knows that sometimes it’s a short-term source of happiness before resentment, divorce and custody battles ensue. She’s experienced the fallout that can occur after a breakup and says, “If I can avoid the pain it would cause everyone, most importantly [a] baby, then that is what I’ll do. I wish I could be what society wants me to be and what I see on TV, but reality is that just isn’t me and I’m accepting that.”

She turned to the internet for affirmation about her choice because even talking about it with her friends was uncomfortable; they’d often say things straight off the childfree BINGO card. She felt alone with the lingering thought that something was wrong with her because she’d never wanted something that defines so many people’s lives. But what she found online were people who were just like her—and they weren’t ashamed. Boyce felt validated. Before this, she could count the number of times on one hand in which someone had told her they’d never wanted kids. She says, “My head would always snap right up and I would stare at them in awe. It was like finding a unicorn.” After seeing social groups for childfree people in other cities, she created a public page for Eugene-area “no-kidders” to connect.

Boyce sees the moniker of being “selfish” as the biggest misconception about her childfree choice. At her job as a counselor, she has seen hundreds of high school students through graduation, and because she has the time at home to rest, recharge and practice self-care without the stress and labor of her own children, she says she has the energy to provide support to students going through tough times in their own lives. She says she feels like Charlotte from “Charlotte’s Web, with all the little spiders that fly off to their futures after their short time with her.

Boyce is looking forward to the day when she finds a partner who accepts her childfree choice. She says, “I now know to the core that I need to find someone who is okay with just me. I’ve never known a relationship like that, where the pressure to do something I simply cannot isn’t there. What must that kind of love be like? Unconditional.”

 

Carley Boyce and her dog, Bella, atop Spencer’s Butte.