I Want a Leave, Too: Nonparents Seek Parental Rights

There is a place where a woman having a baby is sure that she will be able to stay at home for an entire year after the birth, receiving 90 percent of her salary. It is a place where mothers’ rights are so generous that women who are not mothers envy them. They are asking the same treatment — parental leave for nonparents.

The nonparental parental-leave movement is not a fantasy, but reality in the United Kingdom. Recently, a survey commissioned by Red Magazine found that three out of four British women agree that people who have no children should receive a six-month break from work, or even longer. In the United States, where the number of corporations that guarantee a paid maternal leave is decreasing, this seems not merely utopia, but almost a joke — and yet even here, in the post- “Sex and the City” society, a nonparents movement is growing. Groups like Child Free or No Kidding! want to have the same rights for which parents have fought for years,  including a recognition and respect they find lacking, as well as equal employee benefits.

Caroline Lee, 28, an anti-fraud consultant in Washington, D.C., is one of them. She likes children. She likes her two brothers’ children, her friends’, but the idea of having her own kids never entered her mind.  She is so sure that she ended her last two relationships for this reason. But after having been asked too many times, “So are you selfish? Are you lazy?” or “You don’t have children? Great, stay at work more,” she decided last August to look for people who share her feelings. She founded an online group on the Web site Meetup and named it “So, you don’t want kids either …”

Around 20 people out of the 152 members of the online community meet regularly for drinks, and to share their child-free philosophy. According to Lee, parental leave for nonparents is “a great idea.” “It is fair to me. Children enrich parents’ lives. Other people can enrich their lives in some other ways, with travels, hobby, community service,” she says.

Lee’s group is one of the many that are appearing in the virtual and in the real world, based on the model of the group No Kidding!, an international social club for child-free couples and singles founded in Vancouver, Canada, in 1984. Today the club has 45 chapters, in China, New Zealand and Spain, with most of the chapters, 37, in the United States.

In a period when the female employment rate is higher than the male one, the number of women who don’t want, or can’t, have children is rising — which means there are more working women, without children, who would like some time off. According to the most recent Census Bureau statistics, for 2006, 45 percent of the women between the ages of 15 and 44 were childless, up from 35 percent in 1976. Also, in the last 30 years, the number of childless women between the ages of 40 and 44 year has doubled, from 10 percent in 1976 to 20 percent in 2006.

The childless movement has started to organize, complete with its own icons, including Kim Cattrall, who plays Samantha in “Sex and the City,” Oprah Winfrey and their forerunner, Katharine Hepburn.  It has slogans, such as “Will Not Breed in Captivity,” printed on T-shirts on sale by the Web site Childless by Choice.

And there are experts. Back in 2002, the writer Elinor Burkett  argued against family-friendly policies in her book  “The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless.” “For decades we have paid more taxes every year to educate children we don’t have without complaint,” she wrote.

Today Burkett lives in Zimbabwe, where she recently wrote the 2010 Oscar-winner short documentary “Music by Prudence.” She is still a loud voice for the rights of nonparents. “The concept is that there should be equal pay for equal work,” she says. Parental leave, to her, means that a certain category of workers gets a special benefit, while the other employees have to work more to replace the absence. “People have complicated lives,” Burkett says. “One could need parental leave for children. One should need a leave to take care of aged parents, or just because one needs a break.”

At the moment, though, parental leave in the United States is not as prevalent as the British model. A 2008 report from the Families and Work Institute indicated that only 16 percent of companies with over 100 employees provided full pay during maternity leave, a decrease from 27 percent of such companies in 1998. In May 2008, the United States Census Bureau reported that 55 percent of first-time mothers were working six months after giving birth. Back in the ’70s, only 25 percent were back to work after the same amount of time.

This is one reason parents are nervous about nonparental leave; they worry about their benefit disappearing altogether. “I don’t understand. Maternity leave is not a holiday,” said Jenny Anderson, a journalist from New York City, while she was enjoying a winter day with her child in a snowy Central Park. “Everyone can ask a sabbatical, but unpaid” should be an option for childless people, according to her friend Charlie Kunzer, who recently took six months of parental leave. “It’s not like staying home eating chocolate.”

It’s that kind of response that upsets Kristen Bosset, a spokeswoman for No Kidding! Since 1993, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act has required companies with 50 or more employees to guarantee a 12-week unpaid leave, for birth or adoption or for  serious health conditions, personal, or in close relatives.  But Bosset found herself glad to be unemployed when both her parents fell ill last year – even though the manufacturing corporation she had worked for was large enough to fall under FMLA guidelines. She had grown tired of what she perceived as the unequal treatment of childless workers.

“If I had to leave early for a social occasion or for a doctor appointment, I was asked ‘Why you have to walk away? You don’t have kids to take care  of,’” said the 45-year-old graphic designer from New Jersey.

Ironically, working mothers have long talked about discrimination, and of being penalized for having parenting responsibilities, just as Bosset complains of being penalized for not having those responsibilities. A study by Cornell University’s Shelley J. Correll, Stephen Benard and In Paik, published in 2007 in the American Journal of Sociology, showed that mothers often received a lower recommended starting salary and were perceived as being less competent —  even though fathers were allowed to come to work late more often than their childless counterparts, and sometimes received a pay raise once they had a family.

But from the point of view of childless activists, all parents get preferential treatment, whether the issue is quantifiable benefits or a more supportive attitude. Bosset  joined No Kidding! with her husband of 23 years, Scott, four years ago. She thinks that parents and nonparents should be equal, from a legal point of view and a social perspective. “It’s not fair to exclude other people. Just because you are not a parent does not mean that you don’t have the same rights,” she says.

Nevertheless, a hard economy makes new workers’ rights seem more and more a utopia. “But if all the workers could have a leave you are creating jobs. When you are on leave someone has to do your work,” said Elinor Burkett. Right now the debate is growing, but the reality of a nonparent’s parental leave looks still far away.