At a distance, I’ve always been fascinated by motherhood. On the one hand, it’s our most natural, biological function as women. It’s what our bodies are built for. On the other, after spending the past 20 years watching and witnessing dozens of my friends get pregnant, give birth and raise children, I feel all the more sure I made the right decision in my 20s that motherhood wasn’t for me.
It’s true; I didn’t grow up dreaming of marriage or babies. For me, I’d always envisioned my life as more unconventional than that—travel, writing, great love affairs and grand adventures. Throughout my 20s and 30s, whenever friends or family members would ask about my desire to have children, I’d jokingly reply, “I’m missing the Mom Gene.”
“But you have the perfect birthing hips,” my mother would frequently argue, never realizing that her benign comment about my pear-shaped body actually contributed to my own body image struggles, one of the earliest reasons I never wanted to have children. The fear of what having my own baby would do to my body was among my top reasons not to have kids.
Over the years, my reasons multiplied. As a freelance writer, I’d long ago discovered that personal freedom and financial independence were core values intrinsically linked to my happiness and fulfillment. Maybe, in my estimation, it was simple: Being child-free afforded me choices. Choosing to have children limited those choices. Case in point: At the age of 33, I made the bold decision to leave my corporate job, the only steady, stable paycheck I’d ever had. After five years working for someone else, I simply wanted to explore new and exciting adventures beyond the confines of a cubicle.
On my last day of work, I watched with fascination as a parade of married-with-children coworkers stopped by my cube, a look of envy in their eyes. “You’re so lucky you get to do this,” they whispered. I was lucky. I didn’t have another gig lined up. But with my single-gal salary, I’d managed to sock away plenty of savings so that I could walk away without a plan.
Having no dependents to depend on me—and no spouse to get permission from—afforded me the luxury of leaving that steady job to explore the great unknown. A freelance writing career and published books followed. So did those great love affairs and globetrotting adventures I imagined in my youth. As my 30s progressed, I became all the more committed to my choice to remain child-free.
I’m not alone. Plenty of women have come before me and traveled this same path. Plenty more are following. Perhaps Stevie Nicks best summed up my point of view in an interview with InStyle magazine in 2002: “Do you want to be an artist and a writer, or a wife and a lover? With kids, your focus changes. I don’t want to go to PTA meetings.” Or more recently, Mindy Kaling lead the charge, telling Us Weekly, “I don’t need marriage. I don’t need anyone to take care of all my needs and desires. I can take care of them myself now.”
These famous women illustrate a growing trend among women nationwide. According to the most recent U.S. Census, one in five women between the ages of 40 and 45 don’t have children. In 1970, that number was one in ten. According to an article published on The Huffington Post, a 2011 study by the Center for Work-Life Policy finds that 43 percent of Gen-X women and 32 percent of Gen-X men do not have kids. And they’re not the only ones.
“No babies,” I heard myself say over margaritas and Mexican food on my second date with my now-husband. “I just don’t know any couples who have kids and are still happy.” In my experience in the world of relationships—both as someone who stumbled and bumbled through them as well as someone who wrote about them online and in books—it had become clear to me that the biggest issues couples with kids fought about were child-rearing, money, household chores, a lack of sex and a lack of free time.
“By not having kids, we keep our money, hire a cleaning lady, have plenty of sex, and tons of free time.” This was and still is my Child-Free By Choice life motto. So the irony isn’t lost on me that life intervened three years ago with a hysterical phone call from my mother-in-law to my husband: “Your sister’s been arrested. The baby’s in foster care.”
My husband and I may have been child-free by choice, but the thought of our then-13-month-old niece living with strangers in an overcrowded and underserved system while my sister-in-law and her baby daddy sorted out their legal issues from jail was unacceptable. So we temporarily changed our choice from DINKs by design to DINKs with diapers. DINKs means “Dual Income, No Kids.” While most parents-to-be have nine months to prepare for a baby, my husband and I had exactly nine days to petition a judge for custody and then transform our home, our work schedules and our lives to take care of this baby.
The following 10 months were filled with some of the hardest, most heartbreaking moments of my life. In raising a child, I almost lost my mind, left my marriage and broke my business. But along the way, I also discovered a new “me” emerging—one who slowly but surely fell in love with being a mom, who discovered a deeper relationship with my husband and who actually enjoyed being part of a family of my own.
Sure, like most parents, our sex life suffered. We lost countless hours of sleep. Our finances strained. Our house became a disaster zone. And time became a constant negotiation: “You can go to your networking event on Wednesday if I can get my hair done Friday afternoon.”
So, is the grass really greener?
After initially resenting the tradeoffs, I slowly but surely learned to love them. Today, my niece is 4, and every day she’s a more fun, interesting, smart, amazing human being. She’s living with her mother, who has made every attempt to get her life back on track. As for my husband and I, we now straddle an unusual line between being child-free and co-parenting a preschooler. We pick my niece up every Saturday and spend the day together. During the week, we talk to her on the phone multiple times.
While there’s been a proliferation of major media headlines in recent years from the likes of CNN and Time magazine as well as major studies conducted at Princeton, Stony Brook University and the Open University in England debating who’s happier—parents, or couples who choose to remain child-free—until now, no one has been able to conclusively answer the debate because no one has lived both lives.
As one half of a DINKs with Diapers couple, I can unequivocally say that the advantages of being a DINK far outweigh the advantages of being a parent. You have more money at your disposal, regardless of income bracket. You also have more free time, allowing for more sex, more sleep, more travel and more life enjoyment. Just as the Princeton/Stony Brook study found, as a DINK, your happiness is steadier throughout your life versus the higher highs and lower lows experienced by couples with kids. But, as that same study found, as a DINK, you will never know the extraordinary highs of watching your child become their best self.
Yes, there are the low lows to contend with–things like dealing with unexpected tantrums in the grocery store, catching countless colds from your kid and spending more of your disposable income than you might want on kid necessities like nannies, day care, school supplies, clothes, a car and college tuition. But there are also the irreplaceable emotional experiences of loving and raising a child that DINKs will never know or understand. My father used to lovingly tell me, “You just won’t know unless you have a child of your own.” To which I used to snarkily reply, “I’ll just have to take your word for it.” As usual, my father was right.
So who’s happier overall, parents or DINKs? Now that I’ve experienced both sides of the debate, I recognize that no amount of steady DINK happiness can trump those amazing moments shared with a child you love and who loves you unconditionally. Having said that, the beauty of the debate is that there is no one absolute answer. It’s really all about what’s right for you.