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.
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.
'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?
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.
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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