Hansen: On choosing a childless (or is it child-free?) life

Kacie Gerard

Kacie Gerard can pinpoint the one fleeting moment when she wanted to be a mother.

She was in her 20s, working a slow afternoon at the front desk of the YMCA.

A mom came in to pick up her little girl from the day care. As they exited the lobby, the mother looked down at the little girl, and the little girl looked up at the mother, and they each broke into a smile so bright and hot and fueled by silent love that Kacie could feel the glow.

Her stomach jumped into her throat like she was riding in a car that had just popped over a hill.

“What is that?” Kacie thought. “Maybe I want that!”

Ten minutes later she stuck her head into the day care. Some kids were fighting. Other kids were crying. And Kacie felt the moment pass as quickly as it had come.

“I just thought, 'Nahhhhhhh,' ” says Kacie, now 33.

More and more Omahans — more and more Americans — feel the same way Kacie does.

We are still falling in love. Though we delay it for years, we are still walking down the aisle into marriage.

But the last line of that old playground taunt rings increasingly hollow: More and more, there is, in fact, no baby in the baby carriage.

Twenty percent of American women between the ages of 40 and 44 have never given birth. That percentage has doubled — that's right, doubled — since 1976, even though medicine has improved the science of fertility and made it much easier to get pregnant during Barack Obama's presidency than it was during Jimmy Carter's.

Increasingly, we see children as a choice. And increasingly, we're marking the X on “No.”

“Everybody would always say 'You will change your mind, you will change your mind,' ” says Kacie, who is now an outreach coordinator at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and married to Matt Baum, drummer in the famed Omaha rock band Desaparecidos. “But I haven't. I don't know what it is. It just feels like something inside my body. Like other people have this feeling, and I just … don't.”

The conversation about Americans choosing not to have children exploded earlier this month when Time magazine devoted a cover story to the topic. The blogosphere lit up, and the loudest screams oh-so-predictably drowned out most of the nuance on kids vs. no kids.

So on the recommendation of my life editor — my wife, Sarah — I sought out three Omahans who live at various stages of the child-free (or is it childless?) existence.

I asked them each dozens of variations on the most basic and baffling of questions: Why?

This wasn't a wholly journalistic pursuit. Sarah is 35, and I am 33, and we have more cars (two) and cats (one) than children (zero).

So as Kacie Gerard, Elizabeth Hunter and Gary Bren talked about what they had gained and lost by living sans offspring, I found myself nodding my head.

They were telling their stories. They were telling mine, too.

“A child is a way of sending a message forward into the future,” says Gary, a vice president of Turner & Associates, a west Omaha technology company.

“But when we made my internal decision (to not have kids), it forced me to think about what I wanted out of life and what I wanted to leave behind. To me the real question here isn't children or not. It's ultimately this: 'What do our lives mean?' ”

That's maybe the most basic and most baffling question, but the truth is that living as a married person without children often means dreading the second question you get at dinner parties.

Gary has no problem handling the first one, which is, “What do you do?”

He helped to start and now helps to run a successful local company that upgrades businesses' computer and phone systems.

Then the second one: “So, you have kids?”

“No,” Gary says. In the uncomfortable silence that follows, he sometimes explains that he and his wife tried and failed to have children for several years in their 30s. Maybe, if he feels like it, he throws in a well-worn joke about his infertility.

He doesn't usually explain the rest: That he and his wife eventually decided against in-vitro fertilization or adoption or any of the other avenues that child-hungry couples take.

That his wife, especially, realized that she never necessarily wanted children at all. And that eventually he realized he was comfortable skipping parenthood, too.

Dreading the second question is one way to illustrate that even in 2013 — even in the Age of Oversharing — talking about not choosing children still feels a little like speeding down a side street covered in potholes.

We tend to speak of going child-free (or is it childless?) in hushed tones, mainly to people who we suspect may share our point of view.

We speak quietly about a choice that is cutting across ethnic, racial and educational boundaries. While white women still choose to go childless slightly more than black, Hispanic and Asian women, that gap has narrowed significantly in the past two decades. And while a woman who holds an advanced degree is still more likely to forgo children than a woman who has a high school diploma, that gap has narrowed significantly, too. (In fact, the only groups choosing to have children more often than they did in 1992 are women with advanced degrees such as a master's or a Ph.D.)

Maybe we speak quietly because we were raised in a different country, one in which a family was understood to be a large part of living the American Dream. A country in which we pitied childless married couples because the only reason people didn't have kids was because they couldn't.

Maybe it's because we are worried that the 80 percent of people who do become parents — our co-workers, our friends, our loved ones — are judging us.

What's wrong with them? Why are they doing it wrong?

And maybe it's because we are in fact judging ourselves.

Is something wrong with us? Are we doing this wrong?

Both Kacie and Elizabeth felt relieved when their siblings or siblings-in-law had children, because it lessened the pressure, either real or perceived, from their elder relatives.

They sometimes dread those annual trips to the gynecologist, where they wade through a lobby filled with children's toys toward their appointment with a well-meaning doctor who quizzes them about why they aren't having kids, and when they are going to start.

“It's not friends. It's strangers,” says Kacie. “It's this nagging sense that people are wondering. But I don't know. Maybe I'm making that whole thing up. Maybe it's inside my head.”

A different thought is inside of Elizabeth's head when she and her husband wake up on a Saturday morning. Maybe they are going camping. Maybe they are going hiking. Maybe they are driving to nowhere in particular.

Elizabeth looks out the car window as they whiz past a youth soccer field. And the thought in her head is thus: “Thank gosh I'm not there.”

The childless adults I interviewed all think they have gained something from that decision.

Elizabeth is a civil engineer for Leo Daly who for the past five years has worked on a massive project that is located in 60 spots around the world.

Between February and September she's on a plane every week. Puerto Rico. Hawaii. Nearly every part of Alaska.

She knows she couldn't do this with children.

Gary spent years working crazy hours as Turner & Associates got off the ground. He's the first one to volunteer for committees, serve on boards, give his free time to nonprofits.

He wonders if he would have done all this if he had children.

Kacie's husband, Matt, is in a band that tours all over the country. Their house is filled with cymbals and lots of knives, because Matt is a chef at the French Bulldog, too.

She doubts they could live this life with children.

While reporting this story I talked to maybe a dozen parents, both friends and strangers, and asked them all what they thought childless couples had that they did not.

More sleep, they said. More money. And most of all: More freedom. More freedom to travel or stay out late or change their minds at a moment's notice.

But, to varying degrees, the childless can also see the flip side of their decision.

They know what they may have gained, but they worry that they may have lost something, too.

Elizabeth recently attended her 25-year class reunion, and noted that every single person she was friends with in high school now is a parent.

That movement toward parenthood — that movement away from the decision to remain child-free — can feel a little like going to a great party and then watching the other guests file out two-by-two.

Hey, everybody, come back!

“Like at a wedding, we are saying 'Hey, let's stay out later!' And everyone else is saying 'No, we have to take our kids home.' And we're, like, 'Oh yeah,' ” Kacie says.

The child-free (or is it childless?) couples can and do adapt to changing social calendars, but there is another, thornier issue to contend with as they hit middle age.

Without procreation, what's the point?

A child, after all, is also a way to pass on experience. He or she is a way to ensure that some of our thoughts and our ideas — some genetic part of ourselves — will live on after we shuffle off this mortal coil.

A child is many things, but one of those things is a living, breathing legacy. A family heirloom wearing diapers.

“People who have done a great job raising children, they have created another life that has vibrancy,” Gary says. “They have added something valuable to the world. That's pretty amazing.”

Kacie worries how she will feel about her decision when she's 80. She thinks “Who will take care of me?” and tries to quickly discard the thought.

“Isn't that thought selfish?” she asks. “When I'm 80, I hope to have girlfriends and go to bingo and have a cocktail. I think it will be OK … but there's always a little part of you that thinks 'Maybe I'm missing out on something.' ”

Elizabeth, the most stridently anti-kid of the three, admits she keeps the idea of adoption alive in the back of her mind, “in case I start feeling too guilty.”

The 57-year-old Gary has spent the most time thinking about the idea of leaving something besides children behind.

He participated in the lives of his nieces and nephews when they were young, and now he hosts a once-a-week game night with two of his nephew's sons.

He has served as chairman of a Rotary Club committee that gives out scholarships to kids who need them, and he works with the Red Cross and has donated time and money to causes that fight childhood cancers.

His wife, Gretchen Bren, took a new job as the Omaha Downtown Rotary Club's director. In the past five years she has gone to Africa four times and helped to administer polio vaccinations in places where the disease hasn't been eradicated.

After he tells me about this, I finally screw up the courage to ask him the question I've been dying to ask him.

Did he and Gretchen make the right call?

“There is still a part of me that occasionally misses having been a dad,” he says. “You get these moments where you see something and it echoes. … I think that's natural.”

I am interviewing him, but it doesn't feel like an interview anymore. It feels like he is speaking directly to me.

“At the same time, I really looked at what my life is. I made some intentional decisions about the value of my own life. And I think that's so important.”

I'm still taking notes, but mostly I am listening to the wisdom of a man who has taken this pothole-filled road before me, the wisdom of a man who knows the route.

“I feel pretty good about the decision at this point. I have a wonderful wife, I live a life that I think makes a difference, and there is not much I could ask for beyond that.”

And finally, I understand what Gary is trying to say. There is no right box to check — not for everyone. Maybe not for me.

There is only the belief that, no matter what you choose, you should own that choice, live it fully and in a way that is both self-satisfying and selfless.

In this moment, I'm living proof that Gary Bren doesn't have to have kids to pass on a part of himself. That, in his own way, a tiny part of him is still a dad.

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