Modern contraception has finally made parenthood an option for people, something they can freely choose…or has it? "It's true in a technical sense, of course, that people can decide not to have children, but in a deeper sense one can only really make a free choice in an unprejudiced social context," says author Ellen Peck. "And we don't have that today. Everything in our society—from the tax laws to television shows to women's magazines to the most casual conversation—is oriented toward parenthood. It's very difficult to even consider whether you shouldn't have children when everyone is pressuring you to 'have kids and find out what you're missing.'"
Ms. Peck knows whereof she speaks. Some years ago she and her husband decided not to have children. "Our childless state seemed to make us a bit freakish by the standards of the more 'normal' people we knew," she recalls. "The question 'Are you going to have any children?' was never asked. Always it was 'When are you going to have children?' and too often, as our marriage progressed on a happy note, the questioning got a bit hostile." At the time, advice columnist Peck was researching a book on "fun marriages," but the questioning led her to focus more on the issue of parenthood and its disadvantages. The result was the publication of her bestselling second book, The Baby Trap, in 1971, setting forth the case for a "childfree" lifestyle.
Even in the liberated 1970's, one does not question the institution of Motherhood with impunity. Reaction to the book—both pro and con—was immediate. The influential Los Angeles Times cancelled Peck's column of advice to teenagers shortly after the book came out. Other papers gradually followed suit, and the column folded in 1974. But the book also unleashed a flood of congratulatory letters from young married couples (and some singles, as well) who were delighted to find someone stating in print what they privately believed. Many suggested that Peck start an organization to help explain and publicize the nonparent alternative. "Many people who don't want children get conned into the trap simply because people with similar attitudes are relatively rare," one reader wrote. "Minority outlooks without some form of group support have a notoriously low survival rate." The idea for a group took hold and in early 1972 Peck and two friends, Norman Fleischman of Planned Parenthood (a father of five) and Sherwood Wallace of the Financial Relations Board (single) incorporated the National Organization for Nonparents (NON). Today, with thousands of members and 53 chapters, NON works "to make the childfree lifestyle a realistic and socially acceptable option." It has attracted to its Board of Sponsors such well-known figures as Jessie Bernard, Jim Bouton, Hugh Downs, Shirley MacLaine, Stewart Mott, Anthony Newley, and Alvin Toffler. NON publishes a bimonthly newsletter, reprints and distributes material supporting its viewpoint, lobbies to remove "pronatalist" biases embedded in American laws (such as tax deductions for having children), and carries out such publicity events as an annual awards ceremony for a man and woman selected as Nonparents of the Year.
NON also carries out research projects. A study of TV soap operas revealed substantial pronatalist orientation (11 of 16 shows featured pregnancy themes). "If all pronatalist glory-of-motherhood-and-reproductive function comments were to be combined and presented to the FCC Fairness Doctrine Committee, daytime TV would owe Zero Population Growth, NON, and other similar organizations 18,200 minutes of 'equal time' for the past year's shows alone," Peck reports. Another study looked into the true cost of parenthood. To raise one middle-class child through college costs between $80,000 and $150,000, not counting the value of the mother's time. If she stays out of the labor market for 18 years, she loses something on the order of $250,000, making the total cost of having a child around $350,000. NON also publicizes research by others, such as a survey by the University of Michigan's Institute of Social Research revealing that childfree couples scored highest of all groups in life satisfaction.
The young woman who started all of this was born 33 years ago. She majored in education at Illinois State University and spent several years as a teacher, before writing a book of advice for teenagers, which led to her syndicated column on the same subject. She married public relations executive William Peck 12 years ago, and the two remain happy advocates of the advantages of a childfree marriage. They get involved in environmental causes, pursue a joint interest in art, and take what they call "open-ended" vacations—meaning ones with no definite return date.
In addition to traveling for NON, appearing on talk shows (in the United States, Canada, England, and Ireland so far), and attending conferences both here and abroad, Peck has continued to write books. Besides The Baby Trap her books include Sex and Birth Control and her newest, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Equality. With Judith Senderowitz she has edited Pronatalism: The Myth of Mom & Apple Pie, a collection of essays.
The theme underlying Ellen Peck's endeavors is freedom: freedom from both pronatalist laws and pronatalist social pressures. "We are the first generation that can choose to live as free individuals, not simply nurturers of our genetic copies," she says. "It is a joyous choice."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Ellen Peck".