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?
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!
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.
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