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MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Thu 12-Dec-13 14:37:50

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


Lead photo

One in five women aged 45 does not have children, according to the ONS

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.

By PaoloBuonadonna

Twitter: @peebi

realblueprint Thu 12-Dec-13 20:05:39

*an easy piece to write*

annieorangutan Thu 12-Dec-13 20:12:29

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?

caramelwaffle Thu 12-Dec-13 20:56:24

Money - a severe lack of.


Prosecco or pregnancy? hic

ShreddedHoops Thu 12-Dec-13 21:11:51

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.

caramelwaffle Thu 12-Dec-13 21:28:24

Yes, SH I agree: the mothering V parenting angle.

MoreBeta Thu 12-Dec-13 22:52:35

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?

legoplayingmumsunite Thu 12-Dec-13 23:02:53

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.

ShreddedHoops Thu 12-Dec-13 23:05:41

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?

CookieB Thu 12-Dec-13 23:27:07

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??

EBearhug Fri 13-Dec-13 03:07:10

Some of us have just never found anyone who wants to have children with us.

YoDiggity Fri 13-Dec-13 04:13:30

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 biscuit

BlousyMumsyTwat Fri 13-Dec-13 05:05:12

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!

ocelot41 Fri 13-Dec-13 07:35:26

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.

SteamWisher Fri 13-Dec-13 07:41:40

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??

Santaspelvicfloor Fri 13-Dec-13 07:56:24

I'd like to ask the OP if there was any trend in children's age for the mothers who had a negative experience?

BertieBowtiesAreCool Fri 13-Dec-13 09:45:11

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.

Bonsoir Fri 13-Dec-13 10:01:16

Because there are many competing things to spend your time and money on.

Parenthood competes with an awful lot of other hobbies these days.

ArgyMargy Fri 13-Dec-13 10:09:25

YoDiggity - yes, I am. grin

duchesse Fri 13-Dec-13 10:18:03

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.

duchesse Fri 13-Dec-13 10:21:46

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.

SilverApples Fri 13-Dec-13 10:22:21

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.

duchesse Fri 13-Dec-13 10:27:40

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!

Summerworld Fri 13-Dec-13 10:43:26

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.

purrtrillpadpadpad Fri 13-Dec-13 10:47:21

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.

SilverApples Fri 13-Dec-13 10:53:53

Yes, duchesse, the last post is hidden for me, and I find it irritating that the blog is repeated as an OP.

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