Since the 2008 recession, birth rates have been falling in Western countries. The birth rate dropping with the decline of the economy was no surprise or cause for concern to experts. However, they may have expected the birth rate would follow the economy’s lead when things picked up again in 2016. Yet in 2018, USA birth rates were reported at a record low of 1.76 births per woman, with the EU at 1.6. It means the idea of an average family unit with 2.4 children seems to be changing. We already know more people are living alone than ever before challenging traditional lifestyle choices. But what may be surprising to some is living without children is also more commonplace than one may think.
Birth rates have fallen below ‘replacement rates’ – nearly half of British women who turned 30 in 2016 did not have children. Law lecturer Seth Barrett Tillman attributes this to a wider trend of marrying later in life, having children later or leaving it until it’s biologically too late. While for a lot of women not having children is a product of a range of circumstances, it’s also proving to be a deliberate choice for many others. There has certainly been a movement towards men and women choosing a ‘childfree’ lifestyle.
But why are more people choosing not to have children?
As was demonstrated by the fall in the birth rate during the recession, money concerns can be a big factor. Feeling neither financially stable or ready can influence the choice of when and whether or not to have children. For instance, difficulties around housing, as young people are predicted to be priced out of the housing market may affect peoples’ choices. The problems with getting onto the housing ladder may impact decisions around having a family, with the potential for choosing not to have children at all.
Living without a partner
Although there are ways and means for women to have children without a partner, this may not be the ideal. Not having met the right person can be a significant factor, especially for those who imagined having children could only happen in terms of being in a loving relationship. With one in five women in the US and UK born in 1960 living without children, it’s not unfair to make a connection between the rise of middle-agers living childfree and as a consequence, also living alone.
Others choose not to have children because it does not fit with their career aspirations. Susie Ambrose is a successful businesswoman who is childfree with no regrets. For her, the decision not to have children was because she knew her career would suffer for it and she would not be able to devote the same time or energy to her work.
Other women cite concerns about the environment as influential in their decision. For many, overpopulation comes hand in hand with overconsumption which is where the impact on the environment lies. As having children or indeed to not have children is a deeply personal choice, it could be considered controversial to suggest people stop having a family. However, it is clear that some environmentally conscious are now making the decision not to have children as a result.
“The world is already overpopulated as we all know, and we need to consider how we use the planet’s resources more carefully. I’m not sure how I would cope as a parent having to watch my children growing up in a world so messed up,” says lifestyle blogger Jenny Mustard.
Some people just do not want children
But others simply do not want children, for no reason other than that. Holly Brockwell does not feel the need to give reasons for being childfree: “I just don’t want kids, at all. I don’t want to be a mother. I don’t want to see what a mashup of me and my partner would look like. I don’t want to spend my evenings and weekends caring for a tiny person, I don’t want one of us to take time out of our careers, I don’t want to spend the time or money or energy. It’s a lot of work, and that’s only worth it if you really, really want a child, and I don’t even slightly want one.”
The important theme behind each woman’s reasons certainly seems to be, choice. It is increasingly apparent women are exercising choice when deciding whether or not children is something they want from life. We are free to find fulfilment how we see fit. Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley says this is now possible for women – “Parenting is not so desperately attractive.”
Despite this, it’s not easy for women living a childfree life. They face frequent interrogation because people remain disbelieving a woman would choose not to reproduce. Often, people will say they do not know their own feelings: that they will change their mind, will feel differently about their own child, or regret it once it’s too late.
We are now free to make our own choice about bearing children. But unfortunately, it is presupposed that a desire for motherhood is programmed within each woman, whether it happens for them or not. It is often said that women have a built-in maternal instinct often kickstarted when being around babies or at the point of falling pregnant. But there are a growing number of women for which this isn’t the case. They simply do not feel maternal in any way, even around other children in the family. Dare we say it, but it has been controversially said there is no scientific evidence to suggest the maternal instinct exists.
This assumption is apparent in the way much of the media treats famous, successful women who do not have children. Perhaps one of the most notable examples is Jennifer Aniston. Throughout her career, tabloids have obsessively speculated on the status of her womb and have been patronisingly pitying of her lack of children. So much so that Aniston, who until then did not respond publicly, finally addressed the constant speculation in a personally penned op-ed for the Huffington Post in 2016.
She writes the media’s obsession with her maternal status “points to the perpetuation of this notion that women are somehow incomplete, unsuccessful, or unhappy if they’re not married with children.”
But attitudes are changing. Two of the most powerful women in politics, Theresa May and Angela Merkel, are childless and are rarely questioned on it. Interestingly, there was the scandal during the 2016 Conservative leadership election when Andrea Leadsom said she would make a better prime minister because she has children. The subsequent criticism she faced forced an apology for her comments and subsequently, she withdrew her leadership bid.
There remains work to be done if we are to change attitudes towards childfree women. Jody Day, author of Living the Life Unexpected, advocates for including discussions around this topic in the sex education curriculum within schools in order “to destigmatise the way we look at adults without children so that whether you arrive at non-parenthood by choice or not, you are not considered to be in some way less ‘adult’ and more ‘selfish’ than parents.”
One thing we can do to change attitudes and destigmatise women without children is to address the language used to describe it. To look at the issue through a new lens. Let’s stop talking about women without children as ‘childless’. It implies having no agency in the decision, or their existence is somehow lesser because of the lack of offspring.
Acknowledging living without children is not a personal choice for all women; but for them, as well as for those who certainly do make it a positive lifestyle choice – this rhetoric can shame them, their experiences, circumstances and ultimately their decisions. Women without children should be able to feel comfortable, able to come to terms with a different life if they need to and lead otherwise fulfilled lives free from onlooker judgement.
The term childfree is more inclusive, encouraging and less judgemental suggesting whether a life without children was borne through choice or not; a fulfilled, meaningful and purposeful life can still be achieved. It helps put stop to perpetual notions that a woman without a child is anything less than a woman with a child. Because as Jennifer Aniston puts it, “We don’t need to be married or mothers to be complete. We get to determine our own ‘happily ever after’ for ourselves.”