>An interview with Laura Carroll, conducted by Carol Dominy. First published in BellaOnline.com.
In the introduction to Families of Two: Interviews with Happily Married
Couples without Children by Choice, author Laura Carroll describes her role
as that of mid-wife, delivering the stories of the couples she interviewed to
the printed page. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Laura about her book,
the couples she interviewed, and childfree marriage.
What inspired you to write this book?
A couple of years ago my husband and I wanted to find out about couples who had made the same choice as we did, and who had been married for awhile. We wanted to learn about lifelong marriages that did not include parenthood. When I could not find a book that addressed this topic directly, as a writer I decided to go find the couples myself!
Why is this topic important now?
The number of childfree couples is increasing. An estimated 14% of couples do not have children today, and this number is expected to increase to 20%, or to 1 in 5 couples by the year 2010. In 1975, 1 in 10 women did not have children. Today it is 1 in 5. The Census researchers I have talked to indicate that although they do not directly track the choice factor, they believe the 1 in 5 today more often reflects the choice not to have children, given that medical technology is so good these days.
Although more people are making this choice, many people find it hard not to have children, given the social pressures that still exist today. The more people know that this choice is becoming less and less unusual, and believe that it is just fine not to want children, the more they will feel freer to make the decision that is truly best for them. The more having children is truly seen as a choice, the more society will be ready to accept the notion that there are many ways to live a meaningful life, and that raising children is but one way - not the only way to find fulfillment.
Who should read your book?
Families of Two provides insight for couples who are deciding whether to have children, and to friends and family of couples who have chosen or may choose not to have children. It is also for those of us who have chosen not to have children as a way to celebrate this choice and learn from others who have made the same decision.
How can couples currently deciding whether or not to have children benefit from reading Families of Two?
There is plenty to read about having children, how to raise them, etc. There is less out there that looks at both sides of the decision to have children. This book looks at the less looked at side from married couples' perspectives. It will help couples come to their decision individually and together, and assist them in coming to their answers to important questions regarding the decision to have children: Why do I want to have children? What experience do I want through having them? Can I get this experience another way? This book also helps couples look at what a fulfilling marriage means to them.
How can your book be used to explain the childfree choice to family and friends?
Each of the couples in the book answer specific questions about their childfree decision; how they reached that decision; their happiness and the quality of their lives without children, and how they deal with the many questions and pressures they face with family and friends. Their interviews can help others understand this decision, especially if it isn't one they have made themselves. It illustrates that childfree people come from all walks of life, and that they are not strange or lacking in any way.
How did you select the couples you interviewed? How did you decide which of those interviews to include?
I first advertised in my local newspaper, and in a few other cities. I put messages on internet message boards, chat rooms, and the network of contacts spread like wild fire! I ended up interviewing over 100 couples, conducting in depth in person interviews with about 40, then chose 15 for the book. It was very difficult to choose the couples - there are so many articulate, interesting couples out there. Ultimately, I chose couples that I believed best represented the array of lifestyles, backgrounds, and viewpoints of the larger group I interviewed.
What challenges did you face in finding ethnically and racially diverse couples to interview?
While researching the book, I found it difficult to get ad responses from African American and Hispanic couples. I advertised in print media with readership in these groups. Last decade Census data did indicate that the numbers of women without children in these groups were quite low. I hypothesized that I was either trying to locate them in the wrong ways, and/or there weren't many to be found. The criteria I was looking for narrowed the pool too: I wanted couples who had been married at least 10 years, would describe themselves as happily married, had no children from current or past relationships, and who had chosen not to have children. I did get responses from racially diverse couples who had been married less than 10 years, and who already had children from previous relationships. There is a lot of taboo surrounding having no children with people of different racial backgrounds and cultures. I did get lucky though - I found a wonderful Mexican American couple that agreed to be in the book who speak to many of the points I learned from couples of different races but did not include for one reason or another.
They are out there - A recent Census study reveals that 1 in 5 African American women between the ages of 40-44 do not have children. It is the same for Caucasian women today. Hispanic women in this age range continue to show lower levels of childlessness (this is the term studies still use) than these two groups.
How did you choose the photos used to illustrate the book?
I worked with a photographer to get individual photos and shots of the couple together "in" their lives. We chose the photos we liked the best, then got the ok from the couples to include them in the book.
What has been the reaction from others to your book?
I can't tell you how many childfree people I talked with who said, "Finally someone wants to hear from us!" The book has been well received by the media. The public is clearly ready to talk more about this topic. I have been on a number of television news and talk shows, including the CBS Early Show, on public radio, and syndicated radio shows. Callers on radio talk shows range from the adamant childfree to those who believe our purpose in life is to procreate. The topic definitely generates lots of discussion!
What factors do you believe have contributed to the success of your book?
People are ready to talk more openly about this topic, and I believe more and more childfree people want the misconceptions and myths about them and their choice put straight. And I have a great publicist!
Families of Two is currently #1 on Amazon's Silicon Valley Purchase Circle. Did you find some demographic groups or geographical areas more receptive to your book?
I wouldn't say one area or another was more receptive, but in locating couples, I did find that more couples who answered my advertisements tended to live on the coasts, e.g., New York, Pennsylvania, Washington state, Oregon, California. This is not to say I did not find couples in other areas. I watched where couples who responded clustered, and to make my research more cost effective, I went to those areas. In other words, rather than make one trip to St Louis to see two couples, I went to NYC/Washington DC/Penn. to interview a number of them. Finding couples on the coasts also lines up with recent research that indicates people without children tend to be found in more urban areas on the coasts.
Did you find anything in your research that surprised you?
A number of things surprised me. A good number of the couples did not talk much about having children before they got married, and went into the marriage agreeing to let the decision evolve - a risky way to go! For some this worked, but for others it caused conflict down the road. I also learned that women are not necessarily more often the ones to drive the decision. I talked with many men who have very strong feelings about not having children before they get married.
I was also surprised how strong many of the misconceptions are about childfree people and their choice. The most common couples talk about in Families of Two include:
We are selfish, self absorbed people. As you see in the book, these couples have different takes on what selfishness means. After conducting interviews, I left feeling that these couples are anything but selfish. They often see far beyond themselves, and how their decisions impact others, their communities and our world. Many of them are out there contributing to children and to social, environmental and political causes. The classic "dink" (double income no kids) stereotype that portrays the materialistic yuppie couple with all of the trappings just does not stick for most of these folks!
We are irresponsible, or unwilling to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. I found the couples I interviewed to be quite responsible. As an example, many of them thought long and hard about their decision to have or not have children - how it would impact their financial situation, their relationship, etc. In my experience, this is unlike many people who do have children! On balance they are just like anybody else - they have jobs, mortgages, and all the rest of the kinds of responsibilities that go along with being adults in today's society.
We hate kids.
We had bad childhoods. The people I interviewed came from a range of family backgrounds - from great families to families with lots of problems. Research also indicates there is no correlation between troubled childhoods and likeliness not to have children. People from troubled backgrounds are just as likely to have children as not to have children. It is interesting, however, how some people from troubled backgrounds choose to have children because they want to "be the parents they never had," as a way to heal their early experiences. Others respond by not wanting children because they often feel they would not make good parents, given the role models they had.
The couples in this book help dispel these myths!
What was the most controversial finding in your book?
A few topics get more heated than others. Parents may very well react to the fact that many of the couples I interviewed think they have happier marriages than couples who bring children on to the scene. Some research supports this idea, and other research does not.
There are also different perspectives about the notion of the "biological urge." Do we truly have it, or is it more socially induced? There are differing views on this!
Some couples talked about how they asked friends who are parents, "If they could do it over again would they?" Couples consistently told me that half of those they asked this question candidly answered "no." Others who have asked this question of parents have received similar answers. For example, author of Why Don't You Have Kids?, Leslie LaFayette, asked callers to answer this question anonymously, and over 60% of them said they would not do it again. In promoting the book, parents I have talked with (who call in on radio shows, or who are the audience on talk shows) have gotten quite contentious about this - they just don't believe it is true. It is still very taboo to admit this sort of thing.
How does a childfree marriage differ from a more traditional marriage?
The couples with whom I talked spoke of how they get to spend lots of time together, and cultivate the relationship. As those of us who are married know, marriage is work! They have more time to work on issues that come up. Some couples commented how it is more difficult not to deal with issues because children are not in the picture. They talked about how parents have told them how children can be the great distracter, and can allow couples not to deal with issues between the two of them - they are busy with the kids!
Many of the couples I spoke with value egalitarianism in their marriage. Some marriages do not necessarily look traditional. For example, she may be the main breadwinner, he does the housework, or he handles the money and investments. A good number of them tend not to be locked into their gender roles.
What characteristics did you find are common among people who choose not to parent?
While they are a diverse group, I did see some trends. These people value their freedom. They are very independent people, and many speak to how they were raised this way. This is not to say that parents are not independent, but childfree people seem to be stronger on the scale. Like some of the research indicates, I found a good number of couples were oldest children, or only children in their families. Some women had untraditional female role models growing up. Some men talked about how they saw their dads struggle to provide for the family when they were growing up, and how they decided early in their lives that they did not want to grow up and have a life like this.
What advantages/disadvantages of their decision did the couples feel were most important?
Advantages: Freedom, more opportunity for personal growth, to cultivate their relationship, and to pursue goals that are important to them.
Disadvantages: They often feel misunderstood, left out, judged especially because they are not living up to others' expectations of them, and find it hard to maintain friendships with people who become parents.
What regrets, if any, were expressed by your interviewees?
The regrets they spoke of had more to do with those they would have had had they had children!
What did you find is the biggest reason happily married couples chose not to have children?
I found that it boils down to a lack of emotional desire. With a low or neutral desire, it is easier for concerns to kick in. Can we afford it? How will it affect our relationship? There are already too many people in the world already. These kinds of concerns sit secondary to what they feel in their heart. It works the other way too - if a couple really wants a child, do they find the money (or believe they will)? Will they be more likely to believe they will ultimately be able to keep their relationship strong? Will they rationalize why it is ok to bring one child into the world? Our desires can definitely color how we think about things.
Then the interesting question is why they lack the desire - this is an individual thing, and the couples in the book speak well to this.
What plans do you have to follow-up your research?
I would like to learn more from long time married childfree couples from different racial and cultural backgrounds. I am also interested in the next generation - are they deciding earlier not to have children? I know when my husband went in to get his vasectomy, there were two young men in the waiting room, in no more than their mid twenties, who were there to get vasectomies. They were very clear about not wanting children. I wonder - Is this a trend? Or is there more of a trend of one-parent children, e.g., women having a baby without a partner? I would like to learn more about what this generation is thinking and doing on the subject of children.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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