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Not a parent? Playdates and podcasts for childless couples

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Childless by choice, Edie Sellers enjoys a moment clowning around with her best friend's youngest son, Ian, during a visit to Idaho. (Courtesy of Kevin Sellers)

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After many of his friends and his first wife left to have children of their own, Jerry Steinberg founded No Kidding, an international social group for childless adults. (Courtesy of R. Lighthall)

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Edie and Kevin Sellers say being child free allows them greater freedom to travel together to places like Tulum, Mexico. (Coutesy of Kevin Sellers)

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Jerry Steinberg, the founding non-father of No Kidding, a social group for childless adults, says the club boasts about 10,000 members in six countries. (Courtesy of R. Lighthall)

Edie Sellers’ marriage was just a few hours old when relatives started asking the couple when they were going to start a family. Sellers, a resident of Point Richmond, Calif., remembers the astonished looks on her relatives faces when she said her marriage would be childless.

“Their heads kind of tilt to the side," Sellers said, "and they get this little look like, ‘I’m trying to compute this but it doesn’t work. It’s not an equation I understand. How could you not want children?’”

This disconnect often isolates childless couples from their childbearing friends. As a remedy, many couples who have proudly adopted the term “child free” are joining a growing community of like-minded people. One such couple in the San Francisco Bay Area has started an Internet podcast devoted to child-free issues. Many couples say these outlets help them handle the pressure from family members who expect children and the loss of friends who have gone off to start families of their own.

This perception that childless-by-choice couples are rare persists despite the fact that their ranks are growing. In 2002, 6.2 percent of women age 15 to 44 said they were voluntarily childless, up from 4.9 percent in 1982, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Christine Fisher started the Adult Space Childfree Podcast in March 2006 to reach out to this growing community. Fisher, known as “The Fixed Kitty” to her listeners, says she’s known since the third grade that she didn’t want to be a mother.

"I never felt the urge to play with dolls," she said. "My Barbies went spelunking and scuba diving. They had sword fights."

The Fixed Kitty and her co-host and husband, Henry, post their podcasts on their Web site (gettingby.net/blog/nfblog/) about once a week. The programs include listener comments, news on issues like birth control, interviews with leaders of child-free groups and experts on child-free sociology, rants from The Fixed Kitty on the hassles of choosing to remain childless (she says she’s been asked if she was abused as a child) and a segment called “happy stuff” that highlights the joys of existence without children.

Sellers, 40, says that she and her husband, Kevin, 37, have enjoyed greater freedom to socialize and travel because of their decision not to have children. She adds that she doesn't think she's the mothering type.

"If every fertile female would make a great mom, we would not have any screwed up kids," she said. "Obviously some people don’t make great moms."

As comfortable as the Sellers are with their decision, it can stir up strong reactions in other people. Edie Sellers has been accused of ripping off Social Security because she’s not creating children to help sustain her retirement. One man tried to change her mind by calling her selfish.

"He didn’t understand that I came to that conclusion and that’s why I’m not having kids," she said. "He thought that it was going to be some kind of elucidation to me that I’m selfish and I would go, ‘Oh my gosh, you know you’re right. I’d better go out and have sex.’"

The most difficult part, childless couples say, is the strain that often occurs in their relationships with friends who have become parents.

“You become more and more marginalized by your own friends,” Sellers said. “Essentially you’re shunted off in the corner.”

The decision to remain childless can also put a strain on family relationships. Missy Andeel, 36, of Prairie Village, Kan., says she and her husband, Mark Orr, also 36, have had difficulty reconciling their decision with their family’s hope that they would have children. Although she understands the desire of her parents and in-laws to become grandparents, Andeel says the conflict has at times been painful.

"Maybe a couple years ago we were certainly experiencing anxiety when we would go home to a family holiday just wondering what questions we’d get," Andeel said. Now, she says, she has learned tips from a large online community of like-minded couples. "I just try and listen to them and acknowledge that they’re allowed to have their feelings," she said, "and that I understand."

Before joining an online social network for childless couples a year ago, she and Mark knew only one other child-free couple. Now, as a member of No Kidding (nokidding.net), she can communicate with 10,000 other members who are childless by choice. The group, which has 79 chapters in six countries, including the United States and Canada, has helped Andeel come to terms with her decision.

"We had bought a crib. We had named our kids. We had done everything that I could think of to try and get that old maternal instinct to kick in," she recalled, "and it didn’t kick in. And so for a good six or eight months I thought there was something really wrong with me."

Jerry Steinberg, who calls himself the “founding non-father” of No Kidding, opened the group's first chapter in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1983 because he saw his social circle shrinking as friends married and had children. He had also recently split with his first wife because she wanted children and he didn’t.

“We were able to find a compromise on every issue that arose, but the issue of parenthood has no compromise," Steinberg said. "You can’t have half a kid.”

Steinberg, who met his current wife through No Kidding, has seen the organization grow steadily over the past 24 years. In early April, new chapters were about to open in Manning, S.C., Huntsville, Ala., and Las Vegas. The individual chapters run their own monthly social events and meet at an annual national convention.

Steinberg is adamant that No Kidding remain purely social and not become a political advocacy group. But the Fixed Kitty has no such qualms: She closes each of her shows by urging listeners to “keep from breeding.”

E-mail: dcf2110@columbia.edu