America's champion of the cot-free zone wants the same rights parents have.
Build a palace and they will come; in America, build a soap box and someone will listen. Leslie Lafayette is the author of Why Don't You Have Kids? - Living a Full Life Without Parenthood and the founder of the Child-Free Network, an organisation designed to give voice to the childless "by chance or choice".

It claims only 2,000 paid-up members, but Ms Lafayette's complaint that childless people are virtual non-citizens in America has earned her plenty of air time, including the biggest chat shows: Oprah, Geraldo, Good Morning America. "If you people are as baby-happy as this culture," she begins, "then you could use a little slap in the face."

She promises a rousing interview and, sure enough, she delivers, blaming breeding families for everything from overcrowded national parks to nasty scenes in restaurants. Ms Lafayette demands not to be confused with a "crotchety old witch that hates kids". But it is plain she loves nothing better than stirring it up. For three-quarters of an hour, she sings the virtues of a child-free life in a country where the raising of children is virtually a religious act, and "family" is the cornerstone of morality.

At one point, she compares children to "other people's litter". If the human race ended tomorrow, she says, the world would still keep turning. Most parents she has heard from say they would "never do it again", she says earnestly. They find parenting "quite difficult, frustrating, very demanding and very expensive".

A schoolteacher for 17 years, Ms Lafayette found her calling during the election campaign of 1992, when everyone from Dan Quayle to Bill Clinton was expounding on family values. "It was really just too much to stomach. If you didn't have kids, you were completely invisible. I paid taxes; I was a home-owner; I had made a contribution, and no one cared about my needs at all."

The family-values bandwagon did not stop with the 1992 election. The first piece of legislation Bill Clinton signed as President was the Family Leave Bill, establishing a three-month leave of absence for births or family emergencies. As his first four-year term ended, several senior cabinet members resigned to spend more time with spouses and children. It led a spokeswoman for New York's Families and Work Institute to observe, proudly, that Family with a capital F had "become an important value, even compared to being at the centre of power in the most powerful country in the world".

In response, Ms Lafayette has championed the cause of childless people in the American workplace against a corporate culture that boasts of being increasingly family-friendly. It's an issue that has struck home. A serious grievance among childless adults, it appears, is that parents get the pick of vacation time, flexible hours and sick leave, not to mention in- house nurseries, and medical benefits, and shelter from tough assignments or arduous travel. Statistics show that in America 66 per cent of employees at any time are not rearing children under 18. And nearly half, in one poll, said parents received more support from employers than non-parents.

Some companies have been adjusting their policies to redress the balance. Eastman Kodak, for example, which Ms Lafayette holds up as a glowing example, now offers employees a three-month leave of absence for a "personal unique opportunity", the alternative to family leave. Others, of course, have extended pensions and benefits to "domestic partners", gay or heterosexual.

Work aside, the tax law encourages people to have children, Ms Lafayette complains. Under US law, it is even illegal to have adults-only housing, except in a retirement community where everyone is over 55. "My question is, why are we rewarding people for having children in a situation in which we are downsizing, we have pollution problems, the market is shrinking? I don't think it's any special deal that needs to be rewarded."

Ms Lafayette, 52, divorced and a resident of Sacramento, state capital of California, had a miscarriage in her early forties that was "quite devastating", but her marriage was not a strong one and she wanted a child for the wrong reasons, she says. She runs a cafe serving breakfast and lunch where there are, yes, booster seats and crayons are supplied. "I can't tell people not to bring kids; that would be against the law. And I personally don't think it would be the right thing to do."

But I see the TV producers' dream: stick her on a talk show opposite anyone from the "God and Family" crowd. "There are so many incredible people who were childless, starting with Jesus himself," she says. "I think he was very busy doing his work. Florence Nightingale, Beethoven, the Wright Brothers, Mother Teresa, Jane Austen - they don't have to be objects of pity and scorn."