- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 22, 2000

''If I want to hear the pitter-patter of little feet, I'll put shoes on the cat."

Bumper stickers like this one, found via the Childless by Choice Web site, may be the sign of the future.

Childlessness is growing in America, the Census Bureau stated in a report issued last month. In 1976, 10 percent of women in their 40s said they had not had a child. Two decades later, their number had nearly doubled to 19 percent.

The no-baby trend, which analysts say has no signs of declining, is welcomed by groups such as No Kidding!, whose Web site features a trio of grim-looking tots and the suggestion: "Got Norplant?" Then there's the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT), whose motto is, "May we live long and die out."

"Each time another one of us decides not to add another one of us to the burgeoning billions already squatting on this ravaged planet, another ray of hope shines through the gloom," said Les U. Knight, a VHEMT leader in Portland, Ore.

"Making fewer polluting consumers can only have a positive effect on the environment," said Jerry Steinberg, the "founding non-father" of No Kidding!, an international social club for singles and childless couples.

The Internet abounds with "child-free" Web sites for those who loathe "ankle biters," "crib lizards" and "unruly, ill-mannered yard apes."

Some analysts, however, see social upheaval ahead if childlessness continues to grow.

Italy, Japan and several other developed countries have average birth rates of slightly more than one child per couple, resulting nationally in dwindling populations, said Allan C. Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society in Rockford, Ill.

"These are aging populations, dying populations … and their welfare state systems will become increasingly difficult to sustain," he said.

It is likely that foreign workers will be brought in to do the necessary tasks, he said. But that changes the nature of the country, he added, and whether that's desirable or not "depends on your perspective."

Statistically, it takes 2.1 births per couple to naturally replace a nation's population.

The U.S. birth rate falls slightly below replacement levels, with 2.0 births per couple. Native-born Americans average fewer births 1.8 births than foreign-born women, who average 2.2 births.

Childlessness is expected to rise here, said Census Bureau analyst Amara Bachu, author of "Fertility of American Women: June 1998," issued in October.

Among U.S. women of childbearing age, 15 to 44, around 35 percent were childless in 1976, she said. By 1998, 42.2 percent of women in this age group were childless.

Maryland and Virginia have childless rates close to the 42.2 percent national average, but the District of Columbia leads the nation in childless women at 61.5 percent.

The reasons for the District's No. 1 ranking aren't completely clear, but they are probably linked to the following demographic characteristics, laid out in a 1999 paper by Ms. Bachu:

• White never-married women have the highest childless rates, compared with other ethnic groups.

• Women with high educational degrees, in managerial or professional jobs, or who come from wealthy families have the highest levels of childlessness.

• Women living in the Northeast and the West have the highest levels of childlessness, regardless of marital status.

Researchers who study childlessness divide people into three categories: those who want children but can't have them, those who expect to have children but are postponing it, and those who choose to forgo parenthood.

The third category the childless by choice has attracted a lot of attention because it used to be rare. During the 1970s, for instance, studies found that less than 3 percent of married women were voluntarily childless.

For many young women, getting an education and carving out a career take priority over getting married and having babies, said Mr. Carlson, a historian who follows family and fertility issues.

Once well-educated, trained women enter the workforce, they find it difficult to "stop their career and have and raise children," he said. "It's also harder than before for a married couple to get by on one income," thus discouraging childbearing, he said.

Studies find that parenthood can indeed be perilous, both to personal wealth and happiness. Working mothers carry enormous levels of stress, and they also earn less than their childless co-workers. Many married couples say they were happier before they had children.

Personal happiness, financial independence and concerns about overpopulation can all play significant roles in why women choose to be childless, said Terri Casey, who interviewed dozens of childless women for her 1998 book, "Pride & Joy: The Lives and Passions of Women Without Children."

But Janice Shaw Crouse, senior fellow at the Beverly LaHaye Institute, believes that a life without a husband or children is a "hidden cost" women may pay if they chase the " 'right' dreams at the wrong stage of life."

"Feminism sold women a dream of having it all," said Mrs. Crouse, "and there was no mention of the price tag they'd have to pay."

Mr. Carlson said that any reversal of the childlessness trend, let alone a return to big families, would take "a religious renewal."

In the meantime, he said, three policies that could help parents manage even a small family include a $1,000 tax credit for each child, a $2,500 dependent child care credit for each preschool child, which parents can use as they wish, and housing assistance for families.

However, pro-family incentives especially ones affecting the workplace may further agitate those who choose to be childless.

Childless workers "already feel there is all this preference in the workplace," with parents getting more flexible schedules and financial benefits, said Diane Crispell, a veteran trend watcher at the market-research firm, Roper Starch Worldwide.

"These tensions could rise" if the number of childless workers and the number of pro-family policies increase, she said.

Meanwhile, observers like Mrs. Casey, who is married and childless, offer a more sanguine view of streets with fewer strollers and back yards without swing sets.

American society, she wrote, has expected women to be mothers and depicted childless women as self-centered, immature, workaholic, unfeminine, materialistic, cold, neurotic and child-hating.

But many women who eschew motherhood are well-educated, independent high achievers who maintain high-status jobs with above-average salaries, wrote Mrs. Casey.

These childless women are available as aunts, teachers, doctors, volunteers and ministers to help the rest of "the village" raise the children, she said.

"What a huge pool of female talent and energy and experience is out there," she added. "What would it mean for our society if women without children were as valued and celebrated as mothers are?"

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