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Parenthood optional

Below the din of our parent-centric, kid-fixated, baby bump-patrolling culture, that shadowy faction known as the childless-by-choice (or "childfree" if you want to be PC about it) has been making throat-clearing noises. In the last year or so, we've seen a spate of articles and books on the subject of not wanting kids.

But the Aug. 12 issue of Time magazine has taken that gurgling sound and officially started a conversation. Its cover story, "The Childfree Life: When having it all means not having children," reports on the uptick in voluntary childlessness and the trend's precarious footing in a world that is arguably more obsessed with parenting now than at any time in modern history.

The conversation so far has been both lively and poignant. As the commentariat buzzes away, everyday people are also speaking up. CNN's website showcased an essay by a 27-year-old woman who wrote movingly about feeling ostracized by her peers in the Southern military town where she lives with her husband. Her lack of desire for children, she says, is something she's kept "in the closet."

FEEDBACK: To go childfree or not? No thanks for the advice

That analogy may be a bit problematic, since there's no legacy of the childfree getting beaten up in the streets (except perhaps in Park Slope, Brooklyn), but it has occurred to me more than once. Though I've offered hints in this column and elsewhere that motherhood is not exactly a priority for me, I've avoided coming right out and saying the truth, which is that I never wanted children, and even now in the twilight of my fecundity, I'm glad I haven't had them. I've waffled at times, sure, and I've pawed over my psyche trying to convince myself that I'd like motherhood if I tried it or that my disinclination toward it belied a longing so deep it eluded my very consciousness. But I always came back to the same place, which is that parenting is a momentous job that should be undertaken only by those who really want it. And, for whatever reason, I just never have.

As much clarity as I have on the issue, that's still a hard thing to say out loud. It's hard because it hurts people that I care about, including my husband, who has shared in this decision but not without some heartbreak that, in turn, breaks my heart even more. It's hard because even though my friends know me well enough to understand and respect where I'm coming from, the motherhood divide can sometimes feel like a concrete barrier. We may be roughly the same age but we're not entirely in the same life stage. And boy does my house have a lot of exposed electrical sockets.

So now I've said it. And part of the reason I'm putting myself out on this limb is to push the conversation past the stereotypes, the ones even the childfree sometimes play right into, namely that not having kids is a function of narcissism, materialism and, it goes without saying, selfishness. There's frequent talk of wanting to sleep late, take exotic vacations at the spur of the moment, and dote on "fur babies" (that would be pets) who don't talk back. Pronouncements like "My reason for not having kids is that Porsche sitting in my driveway" and "I can't even take care of myself!" are typical refrains.

This kind of talk always makes me cringe (ditto for the overpopulation lectures). Not because these reasons are never valid but because they reduce an important conversation to a series of punch lines. I cringe because knowing yourself well enough to realize you're not up for parenthood is the definition of taking care of yourself. Moreover, it's the definition of being a moral, ethical human being.

When I made my final reckoning with the decision not to have kids, I also decided that I would use at least some of my extra time to better the lives of kids who are already here. I became a court advocate in the foster care system, and it's added a fascinating and enriching (and occasionally exasperating) dimension to my life. Please understand I'm not suggesting that being childfree comes with a community service mandate. Offspring or no, there are infinite combinations for unlocking a meaningful life.

But just as my childhood was made better by teachers and other mentors whose unique perspectives were, in some cases, a direct result of not having their own kids, a lot of folks who work with young people recognize that the best thing they can do for future generations is to play a role other than parent — at least when they're not driving their Porsches and hitting the snooze button.

And that's why this whole childlessness discussion needs to be reframed. It's great that Time is moving in the direction of validating those who, by choice or circumstance, will never be parents. But the point is not simply that society should stop judging those of us who don't have children. It's that society actually needs us. Children need us.

It may take a village to raise a child, but not every villager needs to be a mom or dad. Some of us just need to be who we are. The children we never had would thank us. And so should you.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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