Deliberately, Delightfully Child-free

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Ken and Alissa Koven love kids-as long as they’re other people’s.

“We like to give them back when we’re done,” Ken said.

The Marina del Rey, California. couple have no intention of ever having children, a decision that may rankle bubbes everywhere but is just fine with them.

They’re not alone by any means. In 2008, nearly 20 percent of American women ended their child-bearing years without having kids, compared to 10 percent in 1976, according to a June 2010 report by the Pew Research Center that drew on U.S. Census Bureau data.

While some of those women may have put off having children because of work or education, Alissa decided at an early age that she would be childless by choice.

“I knew by the time I was 20 that I didn’t want children,” the 38-year-old said. “I spent many hours and years baby-sitting. I really enjoy spending time with children, but I like my nice, quiet, peaceful home. It was a very informed decision.”

Coming to an agreement about this subject with her husband was easy. Ken, an IT consultant who grew up in Thousand Oaks, was pushing 40 by the time they were married in 2003. At that point, having kids was not at the top of his list of priorities.

“I was on the fence. I was open to either way,” he said.

Now, at 46, he’s grateful they made the decision that they did. It allows them to lock up the house with little notice and travel the world as Ken’s job requires. (They recently returned from a year living in Australia.) They can be, in a word, spontaneous. Their mantra is that it only takes two to make a family.

“Our lives are complete,” Alissa said. “We don’t need kids to have a full life.”

Some relatives had a tough time being persuaded, however.

“Jewish parents want grandchildren,” Ken said. “My mother’s probably still holding out hope.”

Both of the Kovens, whose parents have other grandchildren, were raised Jewish but are not members of a synagogue.

“I do feel some Jewish guilt about not having children, because I do, or did, have the opportunity to increase the Jewish population by one or two and am not doing it,” said Alissa, who does freelance work in market research and as a copy editor.

Despite the divine commandment in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply,” fertility rates among Jewish women are lower than those for U.S. women in general and are not high enough to replace the current population, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey sponsored by United Jewish Communities and Jewish Federations.

The decision to have children in today’s world is about much more than creating life; it’s about quality of life, too.

“People don’t talk about the negatives of raising kids. It’s always about the positives,” Ken said. Some parents make it sound like having kids is all about baking cookies, tossing baseballs and sharing hugs, he said. What they tend to leave out is the exhaustion, worry and frustration, not to mention the expense.

The Kovens, who said conversations with others on the topic can sometimes be awkward and make them feel defensive, said they see both sides of the equation.

“We both knew what it would take—the amount of time and effort—in order to be a good parent, and we’re just not comfortable with that kind of commitment,” Ken said. “If you’re going to have kids, it has to become the center of your universe.”

They admit that there are inherent downsides to their choice: Alissa would love to be a grandmother someday, and she worries about what will happen when they get older.

“I see my friends taking care of their parents in nursing homes and dealing with issues of the elderly,” she said.

She also knows that she will never experience the special bond and unconditional love that parents have told her exists between them and their child, but she said she’s willing to miss out on that part of life.

And let’s be clear—not wanting kids isn’t the same as hating them. The Kovens spend plenty of time with little tykes. Many of their friends have children. “When I go see these kids, I’m all about fun,” Ken said. “I can just be this crazy person who roughhouses and gives piggyback rides—and leaves.”

They just don’t have as much in common with friends who are parents as they do with other child-free friends. With that in mind, the Kovens joined an organization called No Kidding! Founded in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1984, the international social club for childless singles and couples now has 44 chapters around the world and about 10,000 members.

Jerry Steinberg, who is the group’s “founding non-father emeritus,” said in an e-mail that there were two main reactions when he started the group.

“Most people were appalled that anyone would actually choose not to have children, and sure that anyone who would do so must be some kind of child-hating monster,” wrote Steinberg, who was born Jewish but said he does not subscribe to most tenets of the religion. “A much smaller minority were relieved to discover that they weren’t alone in their choice, and that there were some very intelligent, caring, fun people who had also chosen not to add more consuming polluters to our overpopulated planet.”

The majority’s reaction has softened since then.

In 1988, only 39 percent of adults disagreed with the statement that people without children “lead empty lives,” according to the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey. That figure rose to 59 percent by 2002. Likewise, nearly half of those surveyed in a 2009 Pew Research Center poll thought it didn’t matter that a growing share of women never want to have kids.

As the societal pressure to bear children diminishes, the message from couples like the Kovens is clear.

“We’re not evil people,” Ken said. “It’s OK to make this choice.”

About 125 people are members of the Southern California chapter of No Kidding!, which started in the San Fernando Valley and now is based in Long Beach, according to organizer Dominic Albert.

At first glance, there’s nothing inherently different between this social group and many others that get together to eat, chat and socialize. Dig a little deeper, though, and Ken points out a dead giveaway:

“Nobody needs to worry about finding a baby-sitter before they go out.”

This article was reprinted with permission from Jewishjournal.com.

About the Author

ryan-smith_bioPhotoRyan E. Smith
Ryan E. Smith is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist who frequently writes about Jewish issues. After spending 12 years covering breaking news, higher education, and arts and entertainment for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Toledo Blade newspaper in Ohio, he moved to the West Coast. A graduate of Yale University, his work has appeared in the Boston Globe, TVGuide.com, Reform Judaism, and the Los Angeles Daily News, and he is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and its monthly magazine, TRIBE. More of his published material can be found at www.readryansmith.com.

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