Shortly after Ellen Peck and her husband, William, a 38-year-old advertising executive, moved into an apartment in Baltimore, a neighbor’s 4-year-old child wandered into their kitchen. Gazing at the miniskirted Mrs. Peck with a puzzled expression, the boy asked, “Are you a teenager or a mommy?” Peck is neither, but at 33 she is an expert on both. A former junior high school teacher, she wrote the humorous How to Get a Teenage Boy and What to Do With Him When You Get Him in 1969. Two years later, she followed with a best-selling attack on America’s obsession with motherhood called The Baby Trap. “I thought I explained it all then,” says Peck, “but five years later I find I’m still explaining.” Founder and chairperson of NON (National Organization for Non-Parents), Peck has since coedited Pronatalism: The Myth of Mom and Apple Pie and written A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Equality. Married 11 years and an avowed nonparent, Peck recently discussed her point of view with Christopher P. Andersen of PEOPLE.
What’s wrong with having children?
Absolutely nothing, as long as you know exactly what you’re doing. I’m not going around saying people shouldn’t have children. I’m saying people should not automatically assume they should have children. Parenthood is something to be considered very, very carefully—for the parents’ sake as well as the child’s. Being a parent today is a complex and constantly changing job. It should be thought of as a specialized occupation, not as a universal role.
But don’t humans have maternal or paternal instincts?
No. An instinct has to exist throughout the species, and about one of every seven couples between 25 and 29—prime childbearing years—have declared their intention not to have children. It’s amazing how people use the words “family” and “children” interchangeably, as in “When are you going to start a family?” As far as I’m concerned, a husband and a wife are already a family.
What are the pressures brought to bear on people to have children?
People leave you alone until you’ve been married two years. Then your friends and co-workers with children begin to ask when—not if—you intend to join them. People say you’re selfish, that you’re denying your maternal instinct, that “You’ll be sorry when you’re old.” Most childless couples are made to feel guilty.
What are the roles played by in-laws and parents?
The in-laws do their part too. After all, children are the investment and grandchildren the dividend. I know of one case where the parents of a young couple told them, “Thanks for visiting us this Christmas, but don’t bother coming back without a child.” It doesn’t stop there. Once you have a child, there is more pressure to give it a sibling.
Why do friends try coercion?
In many cases, they are simply envious of your freedom. They are stuck with the kids and the diapers, and they think you should be too.
What other pressures are exerted?
There are economic pressures. A married executive without children, for instance, is viewed as a slightly less regular guy than the one with framed photos of wife and kids displayed prominently on the desk. A young married woman is told that she cannot be put in a position of real responsibility because she is of childbearing age and will probably leave the company to have a child. She may deny this, but she winds up being slotted away in an unchallenging position anyway. After a while, she becomes so bored that she decides that having babies is probably better than her work. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What about the government’s attitude?
The government is not neutral. In addition to the $750 per child exemption allowed by the Internal Revenue Service, the federal government implicitly subsidizes childbearing through welfare, social security and housing policies. The standard argument goes, “It’s for the sake of the children.” Doesn’t it make sense to make not having children just as acceptable?
What is the cost of having children?
The cost of raising a middle-class child and sending him through college is about $100,000. The cost to society in terms of social services and resources has never been measured.
Is there any evidence that parents are happier than people who choose not to have children?
Harold Feldman, a professor of family studies at Cornell, found in a survey of 850 couples that those without children had significantly happier marriages. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say diapers mean divorce.
Why do most people have children?
For all kinds of wrong reasons. First of all, it’s the greatest ego trip there is. You get to see your own marvelous features re-created. And the child will look up to you. Those who feel the least sense of personal power tend to have children for this reason. If nobody else respects them, at least their child will—or at least that’s what they think.
What are other “wrong reasons”?
You can have children to show your mother that while she couldn’t raise children and keep her husband at the same time, you can. Children also make great weapons. You can use them to tie down a husband, or to keep a woman from pursuing a career. Among educated, upper-middle-class couples, we see the phenomenon of the child as social experiment. Their attitude is, “I am going to conduct and control this experiment in child rearing.” These parents view the child as something less than a human being.
What about people who want children simply because they like them?
Whenever a woman tells me she wants children because she “loves babies,” I say, “Terrific, but how do you feel about 4-year-olds and 10-year-olds and adolescents?” Once you’ve had a child, you will never again not be a parent.
What is the right reason for having a child?
If, after giving long, hard thought to the realities of child rearing, a man and a woman decide they meet their own high standards as parents, fine. Whatever your reason, know it and examine it. What we at NON are seeking is hesitation. Having a child should be a responsibility, not an obligation.
How is the motherhood-and-apple-pie image kept alive?
The beatific mother with golden hair in the shampoo ad may look young, but she is really 10,000 years old. She was born as Isis, goddess of fertility, when the only hope of improving the human lot lay in her continued fertility. Centuries later, her image was appropriated for commercial purposes. Mary moved to Madison Avenue. In one paper diaper commercial, a child says, “I’m going to tell my mommy that I want a new baby brother.” One wonders what is being sold. When pregnancy and parenthood are used as vehicles to sell products, aren’t pregnancy and parenthood sold with the product?
What role do women’s magazines play?
Many of them are a never-never land of pronatalism and romanticized motherhood. Having babies is portrayed as the ideal.
What about the entertainment industry?
There are some who feel that the recent increase in teenage illegitimacy is related in part to songs like Paul Anka’s Having My Baby. In the movie Blume in Love, George Segal’s broken marriage is mended when his estranged wife becomes pregnant. Somehow, Barbra Streisand, in Up the Sandbox, stops worrying about her role as a housewife when she has her third child. Television is a cornucopia of pronatalism. Prime-time series like The Waltons, The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family present large families in a very, very unrealistic way. And on the daytime soap operas just about every woman has had, is having, or soon will have a baby.
What effect do you think the women’s movement is having on would-be mothers?
A recent feminist-approved children’s book is titled Mommies at Work. The feminists seem to be treating children like something that can somehow be squeezed into the liberated woman’s life.
What will you do if you change your mind about not having children?
Well, if I change my mind, I change my mind. There’s always adoption. But what does the young mother do if she changes her mind? There are trial marriages, but there is no such thing as a trial child. Parenthood is permanent.