Why are fewer women having children?
A recent report from the Office of National Statistics shows that the number of women without children is steadily increasing - one in five women aged 45 is childless today, compared to one in nine a generation ago.
Here Mumsnet Blogger Paola Buonadonna explains her decision not to have children - and asks whether we are doing enough to make motherhood attractive to the next generation.
Was the choice to have children (or not) a straightforward one for you? Will the number of women choosing to swerve motherhood only increase? Tell us what you think, on the thread below.
Posted on: Thu 12-Dec-13 14:37:50
(73 comments )
The number of women without children, we are told by the ONS, is steadily increasing. One in five women of my generation is hitting 45 without any signs of babies in the nursery.
The culture, from books, to films, to the tabloid media, loves this issue because - even more than the working/non-working mummy palaver, it allows them to whip up entirely artificial divisions among women. And if women who reproduce are under constant scrutiny (for having children out of wedlock, too many children, only one child, children with different fathers, children they cannot support, children they leave in the care of others in order to earn a living), childless women offer a whole new avenue for vivisection and chastisement.
They are blamed for being career obsessed, for leaving it ‘too late’, for being too picky in their choice of mate, for having youthful abortions that they’re made to tearfully renege on. They are pushy, selfish, self-obsessed. The only type of child free woman given any slack is the tearful, infertile one, particularly if she’s had the decency to ruin her heath, marriage and bank account by going through several rounds of painful IVF. This doesn’t mean she’s a proper woman. But she is tolerated and pitied. There is a script for her.
I belong to a difficult-to-quantify subspecies of female who is unabashedly child-free by choice. I’m certainly not alone - but there is still no script for us.
I first became aware of my predicament when, having kissed every available frog in both Italy and Britain, I finally met my wonderful husband at the age of 36 and realised that had no desire to reproduce at all. Or rather, if it had been a matter of handing over some genetic material and tell my partner to get on with it, I probably would have done it. I would have been a dad, at a pinch . But being a mother was an unpalatable proposition, once the possibility existed in practice.
From pregnancy to decisions about work, then childcare, then the juggling of the two, the running of the house and so on I knew with absolute certainly that, wonderful husband notwithstanding, having a life that could accommodate children in it (not even at the centre of it) would have been my problem to solve.
I don’t know how to explain it, other than to say that I felt none of the hormonal pull towards it, whilst at the same time experiencing these realisations:
1) I wanted my life to continue to be about me. The new fathers I knew seemed to have been able to add ‘children’ to their life’s CV, whilst their partners had gone from being women to being mothers. Motherhood described them and circumscribed their lives completely.
2) My mother and most of the mothers of friends my age all seemed, in different ways, to have felt cheated by motherhood, the very thing they were so desperate to sell us. Most seemed bitter and hypercritical. Many were depressed. These are older women I’m talking about, for whom the trials and tribulations of raising a family were firmly in the past. It struck me that they’d spent their lives expecting some special reward for all the selflessness they’d had to endure, and none was forthcoming. This, I thought to myself, is what happens when you live your life for someone else.
3) There was no structure 'there' to make motherhood happen like any other rite of passage, any other phase of life, other than my willingness and desire to put everything else on hold and go for it. From pregnancy to decisions about work, then childcare, then the juggling of the two, the running of the house and so on I knew with absolute certainly that, wonderful husband notwithstanding, having a life that could accommodate children in it (not even at the centre of it) would have been my problem to solve.
When strangers ask me about children I’ve adopted a shorthand response – we met too late but we have many nephews and nieces. My face and demeanour says: I know, I’m pitiful yet somehow I will manage to be strong. Inside I’m dancing the Samba , giddy at the thought that I’m allowed to get away with living my life for myself.
These are the things I love: I love my husband, working, writing, sleep, travel and time to read. I love living in London’s zone 2, in a minuscule house with a relatively tiny mortgage, I love the cultural events I can attend because I live there and disposable income I can spend on them. And I love lots of children, from my sister’s little Mouse to several friends’ offspring, many of whom I have somehow become a godmother to.
I love them because I love their mothers. They are under no obligation to love me back or make me proud or happy or give me things to look forward to. They are little people I hope to know for the rest of my life (they are bound to become interesting any day now) but whose possible failure, unhappiness and neurosis won’t be pinnable on me.
Had the conditions for motherhood have been different would I have gone for it? Ah, now that is a question, and one our leaders might want to start asking themselves. You see, I’m sure a sizeable proportion of those 20pc of childless women have chosen not to go for it, at some level.
It seems to me if we want to stop women (at least those lacking the natural urge to reproduce) from opting out of parenthood we need to make motherhood more attractive: less of an often lonely, and always (it seems to me from the outside) superhuman, struggle to keep all the balls in the air, all the trains running on time, everybody else happy and safe. It should be an easier, lighter load, more equally shared in the personal and political sphere.
If you're so happy dancing the samba on your own, why do you feel there is a need to 'make motherhood more attractive' to women like you?
Presumably this means fewer men are having children too?
Also, lonely? Really??
I have an audience while I'm sat on the damn toilet.
Lonely I wish
I don't see why we need to have discussions like this? Does it matter if women do or don't have children, or why? Surely it's their own life and their own choice.
The decision of one woman not to have (or to have) children doesn't have to reflect the Whole Of Society Changing. I've never personally felt that my choices about when/if/how I form my family are of any interest to people outside my immediate circle, and certainly not representative of any zeitgeist.
To answer your question, DH and I haven't decided whether or not to have children yet. We're still fairly young, so don't feel in too much of a hurry yet, but whether we do or not it won't have been an easy decision. Neither of us have ever felt a strong 'natural' urge to reproduce, yet. But when we do decide, it will be a decision we've come to together and I don't have any sense that 'juggling' work and household stuff will be my problem, as the mother, to sort out.
I'm all for addressing systemic sexism in parenting.
But I am not clear why we need to make motherhood more appealing for women ambivalent about it. We don't have a population crisis.
Shouldn't we be making changes for those who actively want and have children and letting those who aren't sure make their own decisions without nudging them at parenthood?
How peculiar that a question like this can be phrased about women and yet no mention of men.
Some women want of have children, others don't. I really don't buy into the idea that society needs to in some way try and tempt those that don't want 'in' to rethink their decision. Everyone's different!
Well said. I love my children. I'm happy to have given them life. Has it made me happier? Probably not.
My sister, 51 and a scientist has never felt the need to justify never having children, if faked she simply says "I didn't want any" and people are happy with that response. Why is it so many people who like to write feel the need to over analyse every little aspect of life and feel they have the right to speak for every woman who has made the same choice?
**if asked...not if faked, lol
i know why
they cost too much and stop you from going to the pub
Why on earth would we want to stop women lacking the natural urge to reproduce from opting out of parenthood?
I'm broadly in favour of making motherhood easier, and definitely in favour of addressing systemic sexism in parenting. But "so that we can persuade women who don't really want children to have them" would be a seriously crap reason for doing it.
Great piece Paola. I'm child free and very happy about it currently, although I do have an occasional wobble. I absolutely love children - I work with them and I totally get all the stuff about how cute and funny they are and how they make you see the world in a new way.
However, from the outside, parenthood looks like thankless drudgery. It does look like living your life for other people's benefit, as Paola described. I share your very strong desire to be the most important person in my own life!
This is a very important issue to talk about. There is still a huge amount of blame and judgement aimed at women (but not men) who choose not to have children and it can feel like a very lonely choice.
I wonder (but can't be arsed to google, because I just don't care enough about other people's wombs or offspring tbh) what the statistics are for the number of say, one child families compared to larger families today cf a generation ago.
Because it's not that fewer children are being born, surely? They are all over the bloody place, pesky small things.
I find this blog really odd to be honest. Very Emperor's New Clothes.
Well, as you said, you want your life to be all about you. The legacy of Thatcher was to create the "me"
generation and deny the existence of society. We need children to survive as a society, not just materially but culturally. People are just happier to live selfish lives nowadays, I think.
Argy, I actually don't want my life to be all about me. I said I want to be able to put myself first. I'm not interested in martyrdom, I've done that already and it sucks. I have a DP who I adore and fantastic friends - i dont know what i would do without them - and am a great friend to them in return. I get to spend virtually all my time with people I choose to spend time with. It feels good!
I was referring to the original piece, Lotta.
Surely for every woman who doesn't have a child now and might have liked to, there is another woman who would have reluctantly had one in the past out of lack of other options.
That's probably a good thing.
Do you really think that all the women who had children in 1813 or 1913 wanted to have them? It wasn't an option for them to stay childless by choice.
Now that science and society have made it both possible and acceptable for women to choose not to have them women are simply exercising that choice.
More children are indeed being born Sangria - we have a baby boom, but that's not because women are having more babies, it's because there are a whole lot of women of reproductive age in the UK population ATM, due to immigration and to the second generation wave of the baby boom. So there are indeed a whole bunch of anklesnappers and bugaboos cluttering up the place, but it is simultaneously true that individual women are having fewer babies.
I don't feel at all circumscribed by motherhood. I have a career I enjoy. My husband does as much childcare as I do. He is as much a father as I am a mother.
Lots of assumptions in your post, OP.
I liked the first couple of paragraphs. The rest, I just felt a bit, 'meh'.
It's an easy piece to right when you haven't the first clue of the amazing things you miss out on when you choose not to have children.
Sure, you've heard about the bad stuff, but you know nothing of how it feels to experience the good.
Its not as bad as you describe if your married as you can still work full time, have a social life and do what you want to do. I dont know why you think you cant?
Money - a severe lack of.
Prosecco or pregnancy? hic
I think Havant has hit the nail on the head - people didn't used to have the choice whether or not they became parents. Now people choose not to, it's just balancing out the way it should. And yy why the focus on women? It's very patriarchal, making children all about women and their decisions and life choices.
The more women who choose not to have children, the better IMO. It'll mean more women fully focussing on career, and it becoming normal to see women at high levels in all industries, at policy making level. Thus making it easier for those women who want to combine work and motherhood.
I hate the regular media handwringing over stuff that seems so obvious in relation to parenting.
And a plead to HQ - please when you have guest blogs can you request that they are if appropriate, about parenting rather than mothering? We don't need MN published material contributing to the reams already blaming mothers for everything wrong with the universe.
Yes, SH I agree: the mothering V parenting angle.
I get the feeling young men are also making choices about not having children as well as women making choices. Partly it is cost, impact on lifestyle, partly it is that men are now much more aware of the fact that they are going to be held responsible by the CSA and that are being a lot more careful as they can no longer walk away as easily?
Perhaps some women are just finding it harder to find a man who is willing to commit to have children with them?
I think it's reasonable to talk about a woman's decision to not have kids in terms of mothering because a) childless men are not vilified the way childless women are and b) as the OP wrote being a 'Dad' is generally accepted in our sexist world to be just a small part of a man's life whereas being a 'mother' is intrinsic to womanhood to the extent that women who aren't mothers are not considered grown ups.
I don't think we should be enouraging women who don't want to be mothers to have children, any more than we should encourage men who don't want to have kids to do it either. If anything we should have fewer children all round.
It's such a hard decision to make as it is and there is such a lot of pressure to reproduce as it is. I didn't have DD1 until I was 37 and i think that was old enough to know that there are good bits about life as a childless couple and as a couple with children. I wouldn't say life with kids is definitely better, different but not better. And unlike the women of older generations I've not had to give up my work or independence and I have a DH who shares the childcare and housework.
I find it hard to believe there has been no actual proper research into this. Apart from how it conveniently allows men and women to keep questioning and casting doubt on women's choices. That's in the vested interest of men. But really - a decent piece of research within the UK with a broad remit to analyse the numbers and reasons behind these poorly made conjectures, would be useful socially, politically and personally. Why hasn't it been done?
Most mothers seem bitter? I hardly think so. I didn't intend to have kids but I have two very happy accidents. Not bitter in the least! If anything they have enriched my life & made me strive to become a better person. Maybe u confused bitter with better??
Some of us have just never found anyone who wants to have children with us.
Argy Are you seriously suggesting that Thatcher is to blame for the OP not wanting children? I've heard her blamed for some pretty tenuous stuff in my time but that takes the
If all your friends feel "cheated" by motherhood then tbh you're friends with a bunch of selfish "me me me" twats. The problem is you seem to have put motherhood on some bizarre pedestal where motherhood equates to martyrdom. Too much black & white in your life m'dear!
I think remaining child free is a totally valid option, and I also think its a pretty rubbish idea to have to 'persuade' anyone to have kids who doesn't want to. Other than anything else - the planet doesn't need oodles and oodles more people - quite the opposite! I also think you are right that the load falls disproportionately on women, and that it circumscribes our lives to a degree which is not always healthy. The inequality involved in such deep socialisation can also open up serious and deep rifts in your partnership which are painful, unexpected, and require years of re/negotiation to sort out. Do I love my DC more than my life? Yes. Is it totally fine to choose a different way of living and loving? Yes.
I think this post is more telling about the OP than society at large. All this talk of women who are bitter about having children etc. ask a different question and I bet many do not regret actually having the children just that the burden is mainly on them.
People don't want to have kids because it is a life changing event and it means you cannot be wholly selfish. It is an incredibly personal decision. Society has also moved on where women aren't expected to be housewives - careers are now an option unlike 50 years ago.
However that comes at a cost and results in a clash. It's not easy to have kids and a fulfilling career. Well not for me anyway. But do I regret having my two beautiful children? Never! Who cares if I don't make chief executive as I wanted to when I was younger??
I'd like to ask the OP if there was any trend in children's age for the mothers who had a negative experience?
I think it's probably a GOOD thing. The decision to have children or not shouldn't be taken lightly, I think if it is more socially acceptable to choose not to, then people are more likely to think about what they actually want rather than assuming that children are what they want.
Because there are many competing things to spend your time and money on.
Parenthood competes with an awful lot of other hobbies these days.
Why are women choosing not to have children?
Because they have the choice.
Because they have a life that does not involve motherhood.
Because they are economically active and have made a life that suits them.
For exactly the same reasons that men don't want children.
50 years ago those choices, economically and practically, were very much lower. Now, women have equal access to the workplace and a fairly equal place in it if they don't have children. If you didn't want them, there is no earthly reason to upset a perfectly good career and lifestyle.
I have many Oxbridge graduate friends of both sexes who have happily remained without children and are now mid-40s. Cannot see the slightest problem with it tbh.
I just wanted to add that I'd feel sorry my friends without children only if they actually wanted them and couldn't. I think we should respect each other's life choices. It's great that people who don't want to have any, actually have the choice.
I agree with Bonsoir, and I also feel it's a good thing that women are no longer made to feel that their only status comes through their ability to attract a mate and their breeding prowess.
I'd love all children to be parented by people who actively chose to be a parent and who love and care for their children. I have far more respect and admiration for those who choose not to have children than those that have children and resent and abuse them.
Does anybody else have this problem I have with the Blog part of the site, that they can't actually see the last posting because it's hidden under a re-iteration of the OP? I've had to post this just to see Silverapple's post!
the poster got quite a few things right about parenting here, the drudgery, living your life for your family (applies to the husband, too), non-existence of "me" time and the relentlessness of demands on you (fathers fell that way, too). These are the obvious bits which can be seen with a naked eye. BUT. There are also aspects of parenting which are not always apparent to the outsider, the good bits. Seeing your child sweetly curled up in bed, your child drawing pictures and dedicating them to Mommy and Daddy, your child coming to you and giving you a hug when you are least expecting it, wolving down the dinner you have cooked and saying how yummy and tasty it is, making you proud with their achievements etc. etc. etc. These are the bits which are hidden and out-of sight, but it is those that make parenthood, the drudgery and all worth it.
I agree with ShreddedHoops.
On a separate note, I used to think it was the older generation and the media that were intrusively interested in the activity (or otherwise) of my womb. The older generation, and I'm massively generalising but basing this on experience, wanted to know when I'd be producing babies because they were taught to believe that women have babies, to the exclusion of everything else. As we now know, women can do many things with the choices available to us, and yet there are some out there still vehemently determined to focus entirely on the activity (or otherwise) of our wombs. As if it is anyone else's business.
We are not having a population growth crisis. There are bloody millions of us. We are the one species on this planet you absolutely do not have to worry about the survival of. So all this posturing and whimsy about the child free and the not child free and the women, always the full beam shone on the faces of women everywhere, is just filling up time and space that could have been used for something that is actually IMPORTANT.
Like infertility. Like inequality. Like wiping out racism and homophobia. Wiping out cancer.
I know what the blogger is trying to say, as an afterthought, in order to make this piece palatable to MN: that we need to do more for mothers. Well, yeah. No shit. And what we, the mothers, one seething mass of Busy Mums <vomits>, do not need, is all this garbage about why women are choosing or not choosing to become mothers. It's not important. Don't make that the issue. That is not the issue. You are making the fact that women have a choice these days into the issue. You are so focusing on the wrong thing entirely I could blindfold you and spin you round fifty times and you wouldn't be any the wiser.
Yes, duchesse, the last post is hidden for me, and I find it irritating that the blog is repeated as an OP.
in my experience, childless people in the 30-40s are often very happy with their choice to be child-free. From anecdotal evidence, it is not until they hit mid-50s and 60s, they start questioning their life-choices and wondering what if? should I have? Personally, I know quite a few people (men and women) who regret not having children when they were younger, and of course, they cannot turn the time back. I am yet to meet a parent in their 60s who said I wish I did not have children and lived my life for myself.
But regardless of all that, it is fantastic that women are more in control of their reproduction than they ever used to be.
Wanting a child is not a guarantee that motherhood will be plain-sailing. There are mothers who wanted children terribly and then suffer with PND when motherhood hits them and vice versa, mothers who had unplanned pregancies and will not change their suprise child for the world now. There are no hard and fast rules.
Do what you like, but you can't judge what parenthood is like from the outside.
I have 3 children, a career and a husband who does 50% of the childcare. It is a rich and worthwhile life, I'm not living for other people. I'm not a sad victim who has made a bad choice.
Good post purrtrill
'I'm not a sad victim who has made a bad choice.'
Neither are the childless .
And can I just add- having a child does NOT automatically make you less 'selfish'. (In fact, I'd like to ban the S word). If every woman really found motherhood to be a life affirming experience where she was able to subjugate her own ego to that of the dependant child- where have the all the fked up adults come from?
As Alan Bennett said- every life has its losses, every life has its consolations.
Is the blogger not going to contribute to the discussion?
I think every person has the right to choose whether or not they wish to have children without social opprobrium. I think this blog post is attempting to argue this, but in my opinion it fails. It's another opinion piece that talks about women and mothers as the people who make the choice about children (little mention of men's choices in the matter) and at its core is just yet another judgement piece on women's choices.
You don't want kids and are content with your choice? I am happy for you. Well done you, with your zone 2 house, disposable income and travel. Really. Does the blogger feel such pieces contribute to women's liberation from oppression?
So I can read the lovely Buffy.
I don't judge the childless for their choice, it is entirely up to them. I don't like being judged for my choices though.
Of course there is a structure for parenthood, what are maternity leave, health visitors, child benefit, nurseries, christenings, pre-school etc etc etc if not parts of a structure?
And, OP if making decisions about how to fit children into your life would have been your job, then maybe your husband isn't so 'wonderful' after all.
bump, so i can read Procrastinating...
I am not quite sure why so many of you are hostile to this blog. The blogger is speaking about her personal experience and the whole point that people shouldn't be judged by their choices. She's not judging mothers. It seems that her having a strong opinion about this issue has got some of your heckles up.
It's simple, we should all be allowed to make the choices we want and she is right that women are often judged by these choices, whether they choose to have children or not.
I have two children who I adore but I can quite easily see how someone would prefer another sort of lifestyle. As amazing as children are, having them does not suit everybody and surely if you are self aware enough to know it doesn't suit you, you don't only have the right to make that choice but you also have the right to speak about it without being bashed over the head!
The blog post irks me because it seems to promote a double standard: the OP is arguing that her choices shouldn't be judged by saying how wonderful her choices are for her.
I think it would be better for all women if we a) focused more on men's choices in relation to children and childcare rather than the automatic assumption that this is a 'woman's issue' and b) stopped defending our choices, because that implies that there is something that needs defending.
This disingenuity probably isn't intentional. I just think we need to change the terms of the debate.
Maybe I should contribute a blog post. It will say "did I choose to have children or not? None of your damn business, why do you care?"
She is justifying her choices by telling me my choices look crap from where she is standing.
Buffy is right, nothing need defending here.
My blog post would be 'Do I look like a bitter martyr pushing this pushchair or what?'
I'm probably a shit mother, because I'm not a bitter martyr at all. My children are amusing (mostly) intelligent creatures whose company I enjoy. Clearly I am not selfless enough.
BuffytheElfSquisher - fair enough but as it is the focus is still on women's choices. You're right we could try and shift the debate but the debate out there in the media is all about women and their choices, hardly anything about men. So perhaps women who make the choice not to have children feel undermined even though as she says her choice was great for her which I don't think she is implying it's a great choice for everyone. She makes it clear that she loves children but doesn't want to have her own.
And you are right we should stop defending our choices but you must admit it is hard to do so in a media environment that favours one set of choices -be it for men or women- over others.
'As Alan Bennett said- every life has its losses, every life has its consolations'
That's a lovely quote Still and very true. No-one has it perfect.
Procrastinating and Buffy - also I think the point about bitterness is relating to women of an older generation (her mother and her mother's friends) and I do recognise that in some women of that generation and I suspect it is because that generation simply didn't have the power to make choice that she has.
She does make it clear that she likes children but doesn't want any of her own. I am more than cool with that. So cool that I don't really even need to know her reasons, I'd just as soon as respect that she has reasons and that they're probably good ones but mostly that they're nobodies business but her's and her partner's.
It's hard to change the terms of this debate. Personally, I think that the way to do it is a) write blogs and opinion pieces about parenthood, not motherhood and b) refuse to defend one's own private decisions about whether or not to have children.
That's just me though.
Personally, I think that the way to do it is a) write blogs and opinion pieces about parenthood, not motherhood and b) refuse to defend one's own private decisions about whether or not to have children
Absolutely agree with that ^ Buffy.
I know this is just my experience, but outside of the media I haven't seen that many people being judged harshly for not having children. Quite a few of the women in my family have chosen not to have them and have got to their 60s and 70s just living their lives and doing their thing. Most of the time, no one in real life actually cares whether or not you've reproduced.
Which is why I think articles agonising over 'motherhood' don't really help. I find it strange that the blog post on one hand suggests that mothers need more help (and of course they often do, from employers and government and fathers). But, on the other hand, the blogger seems to have swallowed wholesale the idea that women have to be the ones responsible for childcare and 'running the household' - which shouldn't be the case if you have children with an unselfish, unsexist partner.
If I am honest with myself, given the knowledge and experience I now have with being a mum of one, I probably should not have considered parenthood.
On the other hand, I wouldn't have known what a great person my child would turn out to be.
Women are having less children or none at all, and that is their considered choice. But then I know one female colleague, who said, God didn't bless me with children so in addition to women choosing not to have kids, some simply can't.
Before Little Mole came along I was considered weird for debating my desire to be a parent. My older cousin never wanted kids, and my aunt was hurt by her decision! She liked her life and didn't want it to change to accommodate a child.
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