‘Family is who you choose’: Stories from women who don’t want to have children

Tim Skillern
The Lookout

A troubled childhood—and the fear she’d inflict one on her own kids—influenced a major decision for Shanna Dayton: She would not have children.

The St. Louis household of her youth was “very volatile,” Dayton said. Her parents were alcoholics, and her dad was a binge eater who spent most of his time outside the home with his friends. When he was home, her parents had violent fights in which her mom would attack him, drawing blood with her fingernails. He’d throw things around the house and punch holes in the walls.

“We had front-row seats to our parents' out-of-control behavior,” Dayton said of the turmoil she shared with her younger sister.

The Dayton sisters were never injured. But the intensity of Dayton's experience—and another tragedy as an adult—compelled her decision to not bear children.

“The main reason ... was my fear of passing along my genetic predisposition for compulsive behavior,” Dayton, 33, wrote in a first-person account for Yahoo News.

Her parents fought into her college years, she explained. After graduation, Dayton, then 22, moved in with her future husband. She and her parents didn’t talk for seven years.

Dayton's husband had mental health issues and, in their fifth year of marriage, things began to fall apart. He suggested they try to save their relationship by having a child. It was the closest she’d come to considering having kids. “I did think about it,” Dayton said, “but decided a baby would only bring more stress to the relationship.”

He killed himself in 2009, and his death solidified her belief she’d made the right decision.

“I really don't think I would have survived the stress of his death while at the same time raising a child alone,” Dayton said.

Today, Dayton is repulsed by alcohol and refuses to drink—something she says ostracizes her in Milwaukee, where she lives now. But she’s inherited her dad’s binge-eating habit, which she fights daily. “I’m addicted to food,” she said.

There "is no way I am willingly going to pass along these mental health issues to an innocent child," Dayton added. She cited National Institutes of Health statistics that suggest there is a 50 to 60 percent chance children inherit their parents’ alcoholism.

“My family and friends tell me that if I meet the right man I'll change my mind, but the right man wouldn't want to change me,” she said. “He would accept and respect me for who I am.”

Others who shared their stories with Yahoo News this week offered their reasons for not wanting to have children: illness or tragedy. Some claimed it was avarice. Some chose their path willingly; others found it foisted on them.

Personal anecdotes aside, numbers highlight the benefits and drawbacks to having kids. The government pegs the cost of raising a child at $235,000, while the Wall Street Journal reports the figure could skyrocket past $1 million. Also, parents (including those who adopt) live longer than the childless, the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health reported in 2012.

According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, one in five American women finishes her childbearing years without giving birth. In the 1970s, it was one in 10.

Comfortable being the ‘cool aunt’

“Why don’t you have any children?”

Lisa Johnson Mandell’s stock answer to that question, which some consider ill-mannered: "Because I didn't want to subject my kids to being the 'ugly cousins.'"

Her sister’s six kids are “flawless," she said of the athletes and straight-A students who don’t smoke, drink, swear or fool around.

“They don’t even get zits,” she wrote in her account. “The chances of my reproducing in similar, impeccable fashion are practically nil. Why set up my own children to suffer from the inevitable inferiority complex?”

That’s a joke, of course. At least, it’s not the real reason Johnson Mandell doesn’t have children.

She said she’s childless because she never made the effort. Time slipped away. She filled her busy life, she explained, with “other things.”

Married and in her early 50s, Johnson Mandell is a journalist and lives in Los Angeles, a place “where it's possible to feel forever young and energetic," she said. She has traveled, purchased homes, written books and interviewed celebrities.

But she didn’t exactly choose that life over having children. “If anything, I was too busy trying to find the perfect father for those kids,” she said. “I'm of the old-fashioned belief that first you find your soul mate, and then you create a family together out of love and commitment. Bringing children into the world without having a loving spouse to help support and nurture them was just not something I cared to do.”

She admitted she'd been a wee bit picky: She dated hundreds of guys and fielded marriage proposals in the double digits. “But I just couldn't shake the feeling that they would make better husbands for someone else,” she said.

Johnson Mandell met her husband when she was 46. He was 57 with kids. By “the time we got married, the baby train had left the station," she said.

So now she’s the cool aunt. She’s also the best dog mom.

Still, she wonders how the “ugly cousins” would’ve turned out: “Would they have made an invaluable contribution to mankind?" she asked. "I guess I'll never know.”

Sometimes there's no choice

A benign tumor that “grew abnormally out of whack” cemented Michelle Bliss’s decision not to have children. Not that she had wanted them.

Bliss grew up in Utah in a community that believed it was a time-honored tradition to “bear as many children as possible," she wrote.

“The reasoning was that you were born female and not by chance; ergo, your purpose in life was to have children, support your husband emotionally, and raise a family that will grow up to share wholesome values,” Bliss said in her account.

That life didn’t suit her and now that she’s in her 30s and “all grown up,” she said, she feels zero regret for not wanting to have children, even when her friends proudly post pictures of theirs on Facebook.

“Am I a greedy feminist-capitalist pig living high-on-the-hog in the New York City area who has sacrificed all of the joys and rewards of motherhood ‘just’ for the sake of starting and operating my own business? Probably,” she said. “But I don't believe that I'm missing out when I constantly see families struggling day-in and day-out just to make ends meet and to feed their kids canned pasta.”

She also cited the rising expensive of raising a family and said it’s not fair to bring children into an unaffordable world. If there’s greed in not having children, there’s often selfishness and hubris in becoming a parent as well, she explained.

“My own experience has very clearly shown that the act and beauty of creation comes in various forms—the start and growth of a business, art, music, the printed and spoken word, or simply giving unselfishly of one's time and expertise to help a fellow human being," Bliss said.

At peace with not having children

Wish Generalissimo Geno a happy birthday. He recently turned 7 years old.

Geno, a Doberman-chow mix, is Wendy Lunko’s “kid.” He and 6-year-old Empress Cobaka, a husky-lab mix, are all the family Lunko and her husband, Mac, said they need.

The couple are DINKs—dual income, no kids—who decided kids weren’t in their future. But dogs were.

“We adopted both from a shelter so we celebrate their birthdays on their adoption day,” Lunko, 34, wrote in her account. “Yes, we do celebrate their birthdays. They dine on dog-safe cake and cooked meat of some sort.”

Lunko said she always thought she’d be a great mother and planned on having children. She changed her mind when Mac was stationed with the Marines in Yorktown, Va., and she discovered the Stork Club, a group of Marine wives who prepared dinners for expectant mothers.

She learned, she said, that she “was expected to stay home, cook [and] clean. I still feel a little queasy thinking about it.” She recalled one woman seemed perpetually pregnant “at every Christmas party we attended!”

Mac was 25. Wendy was 26. They figured they would postpone having a family. First, Mac would go to college. Then they’d buy a house. But after tackling both milestones, they said no to having kids.

“There are days that I wonder about what will happen when we are old, when there will be no children to look after us or care when we leave the earth,” Lunko said. “At those times, I remember that family is not always just related by blood. Family is who you choose.”

Read more first-person accounts:

Not every married woman has babies on the brain

My decision not to have children: Did I make the right choice?

No children and no regrets

Childless by choice and content