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The adventures and complications of a child-free life in Maria Coffey's 'Instead'

(Malte Mueller/Getty Images)
(Malte Mueller/Getty Images)

More Americans are saying they don’t want to have children. But what does life without children really look like?

“My husband and I havecreated this very adventurous life,” author Maria Coffey says. “We’ve traveled around the world and have gone on really wild expeditions.”

Coffey says she’s been able to travel, explore and lead a fulfilling life. In part, because she long ago chose never to have children.

But she says it wasn’t a selfish decision.

“This is something that you have to decide for yourself,” she says. “You can’t make the decision because of somebody else’s desires. I think that’s a huge mistake.”

Today, On Point: The adventures and complications of a child-free life in Maria Coffey’s ‘Instead.’

Stay with us.


Maria Coffey, author of the book “Instead: Navigating the Adventures of a Childfree Life.”

Book Excerpt


Excerpt from “Instead: Navigating the Adventures of a Childfree Life” by Maria Coffey. All rights reserved. Not to be republished without permission of the publisher.


Part I

GAVIN LARSEN: In my family I have become defined as the single childless person. And I’m fine with that.

JOSH LOY: It’s allowed us some freedom and some flexibility. She’s been able to change careers. We’ve been able to move. Finally making that decision just felt like a huge relief.

KATHRYN KOZAK: Life is really rich. I’ve achieved many of the goals I envisioned earlier on. I earned a PhD. I ran the Boston Marathon. And I’m leaving this message from my home in Germany, where I dreamed about living for a long time.

BECKY SANCHEZ: I believe I would be a good mother. I just don’t want to put somebody else’s needs and wants in front of my own.

ELLEN: Those who have consciously chosen not to have children are the minority of the childless. Often, it’s not a choice, such as those who are physically unable to have children. Many others, like myself, just didn’t find a suitable partner and didn’t want to raise a child alone.

COLEEN HANNA: I did get married. I do have stepchildren and step grandchildren, which I really enjoy a lot, but I’m not responsible for them. I didn’t raise them. So I feel like I really have the best of both worlds.

ANNA PORTER: I’m 30 years old and I still don’t know what I want to do. Sometimes I think, absolutely not. And sometimes I think, I could do that.

STEPHEN CAMPBELL: I really didn’t want to be a parent. Honestly, I didn’t believe that I would be a good one. And after 30 years, I can say that I I think I made the right choice.

LINDA BESSE: I would say that being months shy of our 40th wedding anniversary hardly a week goes by that we are not grateful for our decision.

MARY: I have no kids. I never wanted kids. I am blissfully happy without the responsibility.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: So Maria, does any of that sound familiar to you?

MARIA COFFEY: It certainly does.


COFFEY: There are a whole load of different responses there from trying to make a decision at 30 and to being very happy later in life, knowing that you’ve made the right decision. I think that’s the spectrum for me, that I never really wanted children, for a number of reasons, but then I fell in love with a man who did want a child.

So then we had to negotiate that. So, and then through my 40s, there were a lot of different pressures on me in different ways, as I was coming to the end of my childbearing, possible childbearing years.

And now, of course, later in life, I’m looking back at that decision. So yeah, I could definitely relate to all of those.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) For folks who don’t already know, this is On Point, I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. And you’re listening today to Maria Coffey. She’s a world traveler and adventurer and has just published a new book called “Instead: Navigating the Adventures of a Childfree Life.”

And Maria, those voices that we featured just a moment ago are but a drop in the ocean of responses from listeners that we got when we said that we were going to be talking to you and wanted to hear stories about their decisions not to have children, if that indeed was a decision they made. Some of those listeners included, I should just honor them by telling us their names.

They are Mary, Linda Besse, Stephen Campbell, Anna Porter, Coleen Hanna, Ellen, Becky Sanchez, Kathryn Kozak, Josh Loy, and Gavin Larsen from Oregon, Washington, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, New York, Germany and Canada. And we will hear from many more people as the hour progresses.

But before we get to the decisions or the instances in your life that led you to the road of not having children, can you tell me, Maria, what are one or two of the things that you have been able to do in the decades and years past that sort of you look back and say, “Yes, it was worth not having children because I got to do that instead.”

COFFEY: I don’t know how long you’ve got.


COFFEY: I’ve had a very full life. So let’s just say I always wanted a very adventurous life, an unconventional life. I wanted to travel the world. I wanted a life full of surprises. And that’s what I’ve done with my husband, Doug. We became a writer-photographer team.

We went on long expeditions on our own, taking a double kayak with us, a folding double kayak. We explored wild parts of the world. We kayaked down the River Ganges. We spent months in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. We paddle the length of Lake Malawi. When Vietnam opened up to tourism in the early, in the mid-nineties, we explored its whole coastline by local boats and on old bikes that we bought there.

We Founded an adventure travel company to feed our addiction to travel. My husband’s a veterinarian and we ended up doing a lot of work with elephants on elephant welfare and elephant conservation, all of it, Asia and Africa. So yeah, we’ve been very free and light on our feet and able to move and make decisions quickly and change direction when a new opportunity comes up.

So I think if we’d had children, that would have been, we wouldn’t have been able to do a fraction of those things.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So hold that thought, Maria, because I want to come back to it and maybe gently nudge you to tell me more, to convince me that you couldn’t have done those things if you had children.

COFFEY: (LAUGHS) Okay I can do that.

CHAKRABARTI: But again, as I said, so many people called in. Because I think we, it’s not often heard in American society, let alone the media, about the affirmative decision that people make when they choose not to have children. So the flood of people who wanted to talk about it was quite impressive.

So here’s a few more. This is Linda Besse from Mead, Washington. And here’s what she said.

LINDA: While dating, my husband and I discussed that neither of us were interested in having kids. We married in 1984. Our parents were okay with our decision. It was our peers that were more disapproving, and I would say that being months shy of our 40th wedding anniversary, hardly a week goes by that we are not grateful for our decision.

We adore our nieces and nephews and enjoy traveling with them. But being childless has kept us able to travel, take more chances with work, and I’ve traveled to over 45 countries and was able to turn a very favorite hobby into a profession.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s Linda Besse. Very interesting to hear her say that not having children has allowed her to take more chances with work.

Oh, I want to come back to that too. Here’s Allison Jones from Portland, Oregon. And she says she loves her life without children and just with her partner. Travel comes up so often, Maria, in these comments. She also says she gets to eat out more, buy nicer furniture. I can relate to that, Allison. I have two offsprings myself, and we’re still surviving with our IKEA sofa. (LAUGHS)

But Allison also said this.

ALLISON: I guess the one downfall of it would be that a lot of folks my age, now that I’m in my 40s, have kids, so it does limit the friend pool a bit in terms of activities, like mutually shared activities. But I don’t know if I would be happy going to playdates of small children.

I guess it’s one cost that I’m okay with, is not a few friends or extended network of friends, have the life that I want to live.

CHAKRABARTI: Maria, what comes up often is people saying, or they told us, here’s the life that I’ve lived. And then I look at my friends and I can see some of the positives of being a parent, but I see a lot of what they consider to be drawbacks.

Did you have that same experience with your circle of friends and acquaintances?

COFFEY: Not so much, but I think we were traveling so much. We, our pattern was we have a base in Canada, and we would be traveling the world on our expeditions or running trips once we had our travel company.

And we would parachute back into our base and have great big parties and invite all our friends. They’d come over for several days and they’d bring their kids. The kids were small then. And I think, so, that kind of all just melded in, I think if we’d, I think if we’d had a more settled life, as the listener said, and it maybe would have felt a little bit more difficult to maintain friendships.

But as it was, we were just these people that kind of, as I said, parachuted in and had big parties and get togethers. But of course, I wasn’t around for most of those kids growing up as well.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. What I’d love to understand more deeply, when we come to the next segment, we’re going to hear your story about how you came to this decision.

But before we do that, you hinted that part of the reason why you wrote this book is because you wanted to look back and do an honest assessment of the decisions that you’d made. What triggered you to want to look back in that way?

COFFEY: I actually started to write a book about getting old, getting older.

I’m 71 now. And I started writing this a few years ago when I was 68. 68, 69. And I think not having children allows you to forget, in my case, forget that you’re getting older, because you don’t have children to mark the passage of time. And it hit me really hard when I was about 66 that people were starting to see me as elderly.

I decided to start writing about that and look back into my past to see if I could find lessons when I’d faced other difficult situations, how would I get through those? How would I navigate, how would I navigate difficult terrain in the past? And how would I navigate this emotional terrain heading into old age?

And I found, as I started writing, that I was constantly writing about my decision to be child-free. And that’s what the book became. Looking back, I’ve always written, I’ve always written to make sense of my life, I think. Make sense of different parts of my life. And this was very interesting because I hadn’t really thought about this so deeply. About why I decided not to have children, how it impacted me, my relationship with my mother.

I think that was really what caused me to really delve deep into this subject.

CHAKRABARTI: It’s so interesting because from what I hear you saying, it sounds like even though you hadn’t thought about it, there’s something about that decision that since you kept coming back to him, you felt must have defined you, or continues to define you.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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