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Breeding Dissension

The campaign against privileges for parents

12:00 AM, May 22, 2000 • By DANIELLE CRITTENDEN
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Just when you thought every conceivable group with a grievance had already mobilized itself and rented offices on K Street, a new one is threatening to rumble.


Its members come in every color and every size. They are not poor -- indeed, they probably have more money than most people. In fact, according to journalist Elinor Burkett, in whom they have at last found a sympathetic voice, they can be described as "the walking embodiment of strong and invincible." So what's their complaint?


They don't have children -- and they don't want them. They're tired of being made to feel that they should want and have them. They're resentful of having to pinch-hit on the job for those who do. And they'd like some of the parental pork for themselves.


In her new book, The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless, Burkett tells the poignant story of a woman named Cheryl. Cheryl is a forty-year-old concrete inspector who has endured many slights over the years. She has uncomplainingly worked extra hours when her co-workers pleaded child-care problems for "the umpteenth time," although none of them have ever returned the favor so that she could pursue her hobby of cutting stained glass. She has politely deflected the meaningful looks from friends and relatives hoping for happy news. She swallowed her fury while calculating the taxes she'd save if she could claim some "kiddie credits" -- credits that she bitterly reckoned would give her the money to buy "antique glass at thirty dollars a square foot."


But the final straw landed on her back at a video store. It had been a hard week in the concrete-inspection business and she wanted to relax with a movie. But when she parked her truck at an empty spot at the mall, she was confronted with what she calls "The Sign": The space was reserved for expectant mothers and parents of infants. As if that weren't enough, the clerk let a mother with an empty infant carrier jump to the front of the queue.


"Does not having kids make me a second-class citizen, unworthy of the most basic consideration?" Cheryl erupts to Burkett. "When does it get to be my turn to have my interests respected and honored in America?"


People like Cheryl, Burkett claims, form the heart of an increasingly defiant and vocal movement: the child-free (a name that sounds like some new brand of aerosol child repellent for old ladies protective of their furniture). Burkett, who is child-free herself, regards the group's plight as analogous to that of blacks in the segregated South. This will probably strike some as a rather off-putting comparison, but then, The Baby Boon is a rather off-putting book. It's full of characters who talk like Sandy Graf, a 37-year-old designer who is "childless by choice": "Breeders get so much time off to tend to the emergency sicknesses or the accidents or the school this and that. Who covers for them, who works more hours? The non-breeders, that's who. And no one notices. We are punished for not squirting out spawn."


Yet despite its wince-making crudity, Baby Boon is a curiously interesting book. The child-free may be resentful, embittered, and whiney. But to uphold their cause, Burkett -- a self-described liberal feminist -- has backed herself into the same position as the social conservatives she dislikes nearly as much as she dislikes babies. A dogged reporter, Burkett has tracked down and calculated the cost of every one of the benefits parents and children receive, from the "family-friendly" workplaces at companies like IBM to the boondoggles and pork rolls buried in government policy. And she points out that nearly all these benefits are wasted.


Companies may claim their costly day-care facilities help attract women workers. But, as Burkett wonders:


How can turnover and absenteeism drop so precipitously in response to child-care assistance, family leaves, and scholarships for employees' kids when, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only one-third of the workforce has children at home under the age of eighteen? How can day-care centers account for 50 percent reductions in turnover when only 8 percent of women workers have kids under the age of six? How can a company like Chase Manhattan Bank spend seven-hundred thousand dollars a year to run a day-care center in Brooklyn for 110 children and justify the expenditures by citing 'return-on-investment' analyses showing savings of $ 1.5 million in avoided absenteeism alone? Were the parents of those 110 children missing that much work?