No kids, no problem: The choice against conceptionThe word “childless” isn’t a happy one. It brings to mind unhappy couples whose inability to conceive has left their lives, and egos, empty. That’s why Lee Dong-seok, 38, and his wife of seven years reject the label.
They call themselves “child-free,” and say it’s by choice.
“I did not want to follow the conventional way of life: going to college, getting married when the time comes and having a baby one day,” Mr. Lee says. “If I lived that way, I feel like I would actually lose myself.”
Mr. Lee and his wife are unofficial members of a growing club in Korea, married couples who decide that a baby is more time and trouble than it’s worth. The rising number of childless couples is partially responsible for the country’s low birth rate, which is lower than almost any other OECD member country. The average birth rate in Korea stood at 1.16 last year, compared with 3.02 in 1977. This is despite the fact that social pressure ― and these days, government pressure as well ― to have children is still strong.
Mr. Lee’s wife is not as much a convert to the child-free cause as her husband. A middle-school teacher, she likes children and probably feels that something is missing from her life, Mr. Lee admits.
In the United States, they are known teasingly as DINKs ― double income, no kids. In Korea, however, living the less-conventional life isn’t so easy. The government, desperate to raise the birth rate, has been practically begging couples to conceive. Parents, too, are anxious to become grandparents. At large family get-togethers, the couples will have to fend off questions about kids while they play with the children of their relatives. These incidents are both common and emotionally jarring.
Yet the advantages of DINK-hood can outweigh the problems, as the Lees know. On weekends, they go rollerblading, paragliding or water-skiiing. They aren’t the only ones to pass on having children in exchange for freedom.
“I didn’t want to sacrifice a part of my life by having children, or deal with the economic burden of bringing them up,” said Kim Seon-hwa, a 38-year-old interior designer. “The benefits [to kids] don’t seem to be so great when you are obliged to give up most of your time and money. These days, I travel around the country on weekends, sampling the local cuisine. It would be hard to imagine enjoying such freedom if I had a child.”
Ms. Kim and her husband got married after a 10-year relationship and vowed to never have children.
“Before our wedding we each declared to our parents that we would not have any children,” Ms. Kim says. “At first, they were angry and tried to convince us otherwise. They even tried to keep us from getting married. I guess they had their hearts set on having grandchildren. But in the end, they couldn’t break our resolve.”
Ms. Lee, 35 (not related), married a graduate student six years ago. The couple never strictly decided not to have children, but because her husband was studying and she was working full-time, they have avoided having a baby. After six years of being child-free, they openly question their ability to even raise a child.
“I have been working for 10 years now, and my husband is still studying,” Ms. Lee said. “We are not economically well off. We can’t afford to pay for tutoring for our children, and we don’t want our child to be demoralized by the fact that we don’t have enough money.”
Ms. Lee said their condition might improve when her husband finishes his studies, but they still wouldn’t be able to dedicate themselves to a child the way their parents did for them. Seeing the struggles that her friends endured when they raised kids hasn’t made the Lees eager to try for themselves.
“My parents still say ‘you should have a baby, or who will do funeral rites for you when you pass away?’” says Park Su-jin, a 36-year-old office worker. She and her husband agreed not to have any children. Ms. Park says her biggest concern was her career.
“When I see my friends end up quitting their jobs because there is no one looking after their children or lead suffocating lives due to the lack of adequate child-care,” Ms. Park said, “I feel certain that I have made the right decision.”
Though some criticize child-free couples, calling them selfish and self-centered, Ms. Park said that everyone deserves to be happy in their own way. “If we were to have children, it would be our duty to give them our utmost love and care,” she said. “But for us, the idea that a person has to have children is not a matter of course. We just think we would be happier without a child.”
In part, the emergence of child-free couples is tied to radical changes in society. Low-tech agrarian societies ― as Korea was, not so long ago ― have large families because the children must provide for the welfare of the elderly and help out with the enormous amount of labor required to run a farm. Fear of loneliness in old age also provided a reason to have many children. Industrial societies, however, provide much more services for the elderly, while office jobs, fortunately, don’t require one to get help from the kids.
“We are often told that subjects of conversation slowly disappear if we don’t have a child,” Mr. Lee says. “But I have a different opinion. We enjoy similar hobbies and lots to talk about. A meaningful life doesn’t necessarily come from having a child.”
“My husband and I plan to depend on our pensions, rather than children, when we retire,” Ms. Park says. “If we have some financial leeway, we would like to live in a silver town (an area designed for and populated by the elderly). So we put a considerable amount of our income into our pension and installment savings. On weekends we could do volunteer work, and even grow a little vegetable patch.”
The Kims are approaching their 10th wedding anniversary, and the couple says they still feel like they’re dating. They wear fashionable jeans and cartoon character T-shirts, which they say would be unacceptable if they were parents.
They aren’t entirely breaking from tradition. As the old Korean proverb goes, “No children means living in comfort.”
by Baik Sung-ho, Limb Jae-un