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There Goes the Neighborhood

Rage against the ‘breeders.’

Sep 13, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 48 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Like a puckish uncle determined to cause trouble at Thanksgiving dinner, the Washington Post periodically homes in on the existential conflicts that divide its readership. Earlier this summer, the Post Metro section headlined such a story “With City’s Baby Boom, Parental Guidance Suggested.” The article opened in Capitol Hill’s Lincoln Park, where a sudden outpouring of babies has caused altercations between parents, who bring their children, and childless adults, who bring their dogs, to play in the park.

There Goes the Neighborhood

The Lincoln Park neighborhood is gentrified and expensive—the median price for a rowhouse is in the $900,000s—and the dog owners there are annoyed at having to share space with human dependents. In an attempt to bring peace, a local pet coach who calls herself the Doggy Lama has been holding “dog citizen” workshops to help pet owners learn to deal peaceably with the interlopers. But it’s tough sledding. One dog owner interviewed by the Post said that she wished the kids could be confined to a fenced-in area of the park. “I find people with children to be tyrants,” she explained. “As someone who doesn’t have children, I think children are fine. I don’t think they own everything.”

The Post story detailed similar scuffles in other trendy Washington neighborhoods and generated 479 comments on the paper’s website before commenting was finally shut down. Readers ran about 60-to-40 against parents and children. Some sample entries: 

CAC2: keep your nasty little snotty kid away from me, PLEASE!!!! Do not let your stickly offspring rush up to me in Whole Foods and grab my $250 Ralph Lauren silk skirt with it’s grubby, crusty hands. One of the benefits of not having children is not having to wear the Mommy Wardrobe. Do not make those of us who are not forced into wash and wear to pay extra for the dry cleaner to remove child goo. Do not allow your offspring to lean over the seat of a restaurant and try to initiate “conversation” with me when I am enjoying a meal with friends

graylandgal: I won’t make any apologies: I hate kids, especially babies. If parents can’t afford or locate a sitter, then stay home. I am bloody sick of having my feet and Achilles tendon rammed by knobby-tired strollers the size of Smart Cars; I am bitter about extortion for baby showers, christening gift, etc., for droolers who won’t thank me now any more than they will when graduation extortions start; I am nauseated by the stench of dirty diapers changed in public areas because a lazy-ass parent won’t adjourn to a restroom I am tired of “friends” dragging their hyper-active germ-spreaders to my antiques- and breakable-filled home for events clearly meant for grown-ups because, gee, everybody thinks they’re SO cute; and I weary of replying “hi” 467 times to a toddler who hangs over the back of an adjoining restaurant booth because the parents won’t make it sit down and shut up. Bitter? You bet. .  .  . My parents did not inflict me on society until I developed continence, self-ambulation, and social skills.

Knowingly or not, the Post had wandered headlong into a movement that has become increasingly militant in recent years: the childfree.

The term refers to adults—many of them married or cohabiting couples—without children. These people differ from the merely “childless” in that they want the world to know that their situation is not an accident. A spinster or an infertile couple might be childless by bad luck. The childfree are childless by choice. 

As you already suspect, the childfree movement has its roots in the 1970s. After Paul Ehrlich’s (now discredited) Population Bomb became a sensation predicting hundreds of millions of deaths as the planet convulsed from overpopulation, clubs such as the National Organization for Non-Parents and No Kidding! sprang up. But what was once a hippy-crank affectation has in recent years become a wide-ranging attack on the societal machinery which supports and encourages baby-making.

The assault has been waged in large part through books, of which there are quite a few—people without children apparently have a lot of time to write. There’s Terri Casey’s earnest Pride and Joy: The Lives and Passion of Women without Children and Nicki Defago’s out-and-proud Childfree and Loving It! (Defago explains that “Choosing to be childfree brings with it a fantastic sense of freedom for which I feel grateful every day.”) There’s childfree self-help (Two Is Enough: A Couple’s Guide to Living Childless by Choice) as well as chin-tugging, childfree introspection (Bill McKibben’s Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families).

In 2007, Corinne Maier’s saucy No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not to Have Children became a sensation in Europe. It was translated for American audiences two years later, and Maier’s quips—“Breastfeeding is slavery,” “Motherhood or success: Pick one”—were just as welcome here. Maier’s book is meant to amuse, but her conclusion is serious: “No kids, thanks. It’s better that way.” She would know. Unlike most people in the childfree movement, Maier has two children of her own.

There is more, so much more. In 2006 David Benatar, a philosophy professor at the University of Cape Town wrote Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence—a book which argues that all births are harmful. “[T]he quality of even the best lives is very bad,” Benatar explained, “and considerably worse than most people recognize it to be. Although it is obviously too late to prevent our own existence, it is not too late to prevent the existence of future possible people.” 

In The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless, Elinor Burkett argues that the childfree are forced to work harder to compensate for their loafing, child-loving colleagues. The entire family-benefits system, she cries, is “affirmative action for mothers.” It’s a sign of how angry she is that Burkett—a liberal in excellent standing who almost certainly embraces actual, race-based preferences—would imprudently compare the unfair advantage mothers get from “the system” to affirmative action. Another sign: Burkett was the crazed woman who stormed the stage and hijacked an acceptance speech at this year’s Academy Awards.

It is a quirk of the movement that while the most committed childfree people tend to be women, being childfree is not primarily a feminist pose. In The Childless Revolution, Madelyn Cain describes three types of childfree women: “those who are positively childfree, those who are religiously childfree, and those who are environmentally childfree.” It is this last aspect that undergirds much of the movement, particularly at the policy level. 

There is, of course, a public policy component to the childfree lifestyle. Ever since The Population Bomb appeared in 1968, hostility to babies has been at the core of the environmental movement. The group Californians for Population Stabilization claims that “population growth [is] wildly out of control” and is causing “further degradation of America’s natural treasures.” The Dalai Lama in 2008 warned that overpopulation is “very serious—very, very serious.” A 2009 study at Oregon State University warned that children are terrible contributors to global warming. Dave Foreman, the cofounder of the group Earth First!, went so far as to say “The AIDS epidemic, rather than being a scourge, is a welcome development in the inevitable reduction of human population. .  .  . If [it] didn’t exist, radical environmentalists would have to invent [it].” In 2009, Canada’s Financial Post called fertility “the real inconvenient truth” and called for a “planetary law” limiting women to a single child in order to “reverse the disastrous global birthrate” which is responsible for climate change. 

It’s a credit to America’s childfree that they believe population control should begin at home. Though sometimes they are willing to go the extra mile. The environmentalist group Optimum Population Trust (OPT) has as its motto “fewer emitters, lower emissions.” OPT runs a program whereby environmentally conscious Westerners can purchase carbon-offsetting family-planning credits. In other words, concerned citizens give the OPT money to be used for funding birth control in developing countries. In case you’re curious, the OPT estimates that it takes $144.20 per year to keep enough of the great unwashed from reproducing to offset a typical American’s existence.

Yet for all the Malthusian worry-warting, at the street-level, being childfree is mostly about disdain for conservative traditionalists. Thus, the childfree refer to parents as “breeders” and mothers who breastfeed as “moomies” (as in cow). Those are the nicer terms. (The site cheerfully catalogues childfree slang.) The great joke, however, is that the childfree rarely bump up against actual conservative traditionalists. One of the motivating presumptions of the lifestyle is that being childfree lets you live the fabulous life in a glittering metropolis. But real breeders can’t afford hip urban living. So the type of childfree conflicts we see in the Post are really schisms in the great urban liberal order. Childfree liberals aren’t chafing against minivan-scale, Republican families. They’re chafing against neighboring liberals who choose to have one, or at most two, children. (The Post identified three District wards where a minor “baby boom” was producing parent/nonparent conflicts. Those wards went for Obama 83 percent to 16 percent; 97 percent to 3 percent, and 99 percent to 0.8 percent.)

Last January, Ken Archer posted an essay to the urban planning website Archer is chief technology officer at a local tech-company and lives in Georgetown with his wife and  child. In his piece, Archer noted that one of the D.C. bus lines had recently adopted a policy requiring baby strollers to be folded while on board, making it nearly impossible for parents with small children to ride the bus. Archer suggested that D.C. should follow European and Canadian transit models which make special allowances for strollers in order to (1) cut down on car use and (2) make city cores more accessible to families.

It’s hard to imagine a more politely liberal solution to a politely liberal problem.

But the comment board erupted in childfree rage. “Why do people with children always think that they should be catered to? Fold your damn giant stroller,” replied one typical correspondent. 

Archer attempted to sooth his critics by explaining that he wasn’t an entitled breeder and that he really just wanted to make sure that urban families could be carless and still do necessary trips, such as grocery shopping. But the mob was not mollified. “People should think about how they’re going to get their food once they have a child BEFORE they have a child,” said a perturbed reader. “Maybe have your neighbor watch your kid for an hour or two. .  .  . Maybe move closer to a store so you can walk. .  .  . Maybe don’t have kids.”

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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