“I don’t want to have children.” It’s a phrase that is often seen as the defiance of nature, something that prompts disgust or even halts a conversation.
The idea of women having children is so ingrained in our social consciousness that any shift away from this may seem unthinkable. However, the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveal that the birth rate in England and Wales has reached its lowest level since records began in 1938, falling from 11.6 to 11.1 live births per 1,000 total population. In other terms, there were only 657,076 live births in 2018; a 3.2% decrease on the previous year and nearly a 10% decrease on the last peak in 2012.
This trend is not unique to the UK and Western Europe. According to data from the CIA World Factbook, 101 countries had a birth rate lower than 15 (live births per 1,000 population) in 2018. Many governments have resorted to using population control strategies in an attempt to reverse this, but it is unclear whether or not they have been completely successful.
During his election campaign in 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to invest $8.6 billion (£6.56bn) in programmes that encourage people to have children. This included mortgage subsidies and payments to new and growing families, but the birth rate is still fairly low at 10.7 live births per 1,000 population.
South Korea’s birth rate stood at 8.3 in 2018 and the National Assembly Research Service in Seoul predicted that at the current rate, native Korean’s would be extinct by 2750. The government previously invested $90 billion in several pro-natalist policies and introduced cash payouts to encourage people to have children.
In 2009, Japanese authorities introduced the Plus One Policy to assist and encourage young couples to have children by providing parent-friendly working conditions and 50,000 new childcare facilities. However, the birth rate still only stands at 7.5 live births per 1,000 population making Japan the country with the fourth-lowest birth rate in the world.
Global Birth Rates, 2018 (interactive map)
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Please note some countries have not yet been officially recognised by the International Standards Organisations. so they appear here with temporary country codes, including: XS: Kosovo; GY: Guyana; SS: South Sudan; CD: Democratic Republic of Congo; CG: Republic of the Congo. Data Source: CIA World Factbook.
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These figures highlight an increasing number of women who are choosing to be childfree. But what does this mean?
The term childfree is fairly new and was not coined in the English language until the late 20th century. Whilst childfree is defined as being without children, often by choice, it does not explicitly state that all those without children have decided not to have them. Childless, on the other hand, generally refers to a woman not able to conceive or carry a child to full term.
In previous years, academics dubbed women of childbearing age who did not intend to have children as ‘voluntarily childless’. This has been heavily criticised in recent years with some suggesting that ‘childless’ infers that children are an asset and that women who have chosen not to have them are at a loss. (It is for this reason that we use ‘childfree’ throughout this article.)
Women around the world have made astounding progress in recent years; the #MeToo campaign gave a voice to thousands of women who have been silenced by the stigma surrounding sexual harassment, the Women’s March triumphed in demanding political and social change, and most recently, after years of campaigning, abortion has finally been decriminalised in Northern Ireland.
Such movements have marked a new wave of female empowerment. But whilst the notion of being childfree may be a topic of enlightenment for some, many women are still criticised or made to feel inferior for taking control of their reproductive capabilities.
Rachel, who is married and childfree by choice, explained that whilst the: “majority of [her] friends and family have been mostly supportive, acknowledging that it is simply [her] life choice, which doesn’t impact on or hurt anybody else,” she has had several people asking “quite rude and personal” questions about her childfree status.
“One person asked if I didn’t want children because I simply didn’t want to get up early in the morning? As if my decision was based on something so mundane and ridiculous as not wanting to get fewer than eight hours of sleep,” she told us.
It could be argued that society’s perceptions are changing and that previous constructs are actively being challenged but for childfree women, this often isn’t the case. Growing up, women are constantly subjected to expectation; it’s always a question of when we will do something, rather than asking if we actually want to do it. Motherhood is a prime example of this.
Keilah Billings suggests that “whether we are consciously aware of them or not, gender roles are clearly defined in our society. The social construction of women, as portrayed in the media and acted out by the majority in society, reinforces the stereotype that they will become mothers, whether or not that is their main desire.”
“The healthiest and happiest population sub-group are women who never married or had children.”
Drawing from her own experience, she states: “It is socially accepted that as a woman, I should be nurturing, I should not only want children but should plan for them as much as I would for my next meal.”
And this still rings true, even in 2019. Sophie, a young woman from Leeds, said: “We are brought up being taught that we will become mothers one day. Nobody ever taught us that we might not.”
Similarly, Kimberley, a recent graduate from South Wales, explained how the expectation of motherhood has changed: “It’s gone from being a beautiful thing to being expected. As soon as women are of a certain age, we’re asked ‘when will you be having kids?’, ‘how will kids fit into this?’ or ‘what’s next, kids?’ No one seems to be very accepting, it’s been 10 years since I first told someone I didn’t want kids and nothing has changed.”
This is something that Rachel experienced too, and something that no doubt other women will face in the future. She recalled a memorable occasion when she was questioned by someone completely dumbfounded by her choice to be childfree: “A friend of a friend simply kept repeating, ‘but you will have children at some point in the future? But you will in the future, won’t you? No, but, you will in the future, right?’ said in the same incredulity as if I’d just told her that I planned never to wear clothes again for the rest of my life.”
This questioning and disbelief often undermines our stature as women and implies that motherhood is a defining quality of feminine identity. Evelyn Nakano Glenn, professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, states: “Dominant mothering ideology suggests that mothering is an essentially selfless act,” which insinuates that the decision not to be a mother must be selfish.”When ideologies such as this have even been disseminated by Pope Francis, the prospect of being childfree becomes even more problematic: “These ideologies serve as lenses that filter, and to varying degrees, distort our experience and understanding,” Glenn adds.
Rachel experienced the effects of this first hand: “I’ve had friends who stayed silent when I’ve discussed the topic online, but then when I’ve expressed an opinion on something child-related, told me that I have no right to as I don’t have children. Another few have described the childfree as ‘selfish’. Selfish to whom? Well, it isn’t clear.”
Unfortunately, Kimberley had a similar experience. She remembers feeling “belittled” and recalls that it made it seem like having children was her “sole role as a woman.” She added: “Mums are incredible and everything they do for their kids is great, but having kids is not all that women are capable of doing, there’s so much more we bring to the world than birthing children.”
Luckily, not everyone is as narrow-minded. Sophie explained that her parents: “understand the financial and demanding strain [mothering] can put on your life. They’re happy I can make more choices that will suit me rather than a person I have to look after. I can make decisions for myself and myself only.”
When asked how this made her feel, she said: “It made me feel supported. And not pressured into the “norm” in society.” A stark contrast from the experiences of Rachel and Kimberley, and something that hopefully more women will experience in the future.
When considering the changing perceptions of motherhood are shared by many younger members of society, Sophie said: “Most of my friends agree with me and also don’t want children. We regularly discuss and plan girly holidays that we are going to have every year, even when we reach our 50s!”
So why are women choosing not to have children? Maura Kelly, associate professor of Sociology at Portland State University, suggests: “The demographic shift toward increasing childlessness reflects a variety of social trends, these include access to contraception and abortion, women’s increased opportunity for education and labour force participation, and changing attitudes towards mothering.”
More women are working than ever before. According to the ONS Labour Market Overview, more than two thirds (72.1%) of women aged 16-64 are employed. This is the highest percentage of female workers since the ONS started recording this data in 1971.
While the gender pay gap is slowly decreasing, falling to 17.3% this year (ONS Gender Pay Gap in the UK), the fact that women still only make 80% of men’s median hourly wage could be a deterrent for starting a family.
This becomes more clear when combined with the ever-increasing costs of raising a child. A 2014 study by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) found that the average cost of raising a child from birth to the age 21 is nearly £230,000. Parents’ outgoings for the first year of a child’s life saw the biggest increase, rising by almost 4% compared to the previous year.This is largely due to the surge in childcare costs and expenses associated with education. The study found that 71% of parents had been forced to make cuts to meet the financial demands of raising a family.
On top of this, children really aren’t that great for the environment. A study by IOP Science in Sweden recommended four “widely applicable high-action” approaches and having one fewer child per family came out on top. They reported that doing so would save an equivalent of 58.6 tonnes of CO₂ per year, compared to just 2.4 tonnes saved by living car-free, 1.6 tonnes saved by avoiding travel by plane and 0.8 tonnes saved by having a plant-based diet.
Population Matters, a UK-based charity whose patrons include Sir David Attenborough and Jane Goodall, suggest that “biodiversity loss, climate change, pollution, deforestation, water and food shortage are all exacerbated by our huge and ever-increasing numbers.” They also advise that having fewer children is the most effective way to reduce our environmental impact.
It took until the 1800s for our global population to reach one billion, but since then it has increased exponentially. Perhaps one of the starkest revelations is that in the 1970s, not all that long ago, the world’s population was roughly half what it is today. And according to the latest projections estimated by the United Nations (UN), our global population is set to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050.The UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs note that whilst the population is continually growing, there are huge regional variations. They estimate that just nine countries, including India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Ethiopia, will make up more than half of the projected population growth between now and 2050.
Such rapid growth and changes in distribution are likely to have an impact on the success of the Sustainable Development Goals – in particular, eradicating poverty, combating hunger and malnutrition, strengthening the coverage and quality of health and education systems, and achieving greater equality.
At a time when our population is proliferating, perhaps we should be making more conscious decisions about human reproduction. But is motherhood really such a clear-cut and definitive choice?
Research suggests that women’s reasons for not having children are complex and multi-faceted. However, Rachel’s explanation is simple: “I just have no desire, emotionally, physically, hormonally, maternally, to become a mother. It’s like asking somebody why they are straight or gay, why do you identify as a woman. They just are.”
Similarly, both Sophie and Kimberley feel like they have always known that they do not want to have children. “I’ve never had the desire to have children. I’ve always been very independent and enjoy my own company,” Sophie explains. “The thought of having someone else to look after for 18 years minimum does not appeal to me. I like being free to do what I want when I want.”
Kimberley would rather travel and work on her career: “The option is always there but I wouldn’t actively choose to have kids, especially right now.”
So perhaps motherhood is more of a feeling and the idea that it is a choice is one that should be quashed. Rachel describes her decision to be childfree as more of a realisation: “It wasn’t a decision I came to in the same way that you would weigh up any other life choice, like moving house, getting married [or] taking a new job.
“It is quite a feat to be so closed-minded to other ways of life, preferences, orientations, and cultures.”
“I guess what I’m trying to illustrate with that is that it wasn’t a conscious decision, one that I’ve agonised over, [and] weighed up the pros and cons,” she says.
Entering into motherhood and having a child is historically considered to be one of life’s greatest gifts and for a lot of women and parents alike, this is true. “I’ve had many people with children tell me about the joy that their [children] bring to their life, and I am genuinely delighted for them – everyone needs and deserves happiness,” Rachel says.
However, she has: “also had people with children tell [her] that if they could rewind the clock, they wouldn’t have chosen to become parents.”
A study published in the American Journal of Sociology in 2016 looked at the happiness of families in 22 countries. Researchers found that having children makes people significantly less happy compared to those who don’t have children; something they labelled the “parenting happiness gap.”
This is something that is becoming increasingly prominent in literature. Paul Dolan, professor of Behavioural Sciences at LSE and author of Happy Ever After, told the Hay Festival recently: “The healthiest and happiest population sub-group are women who never married or had children.”
He said that whilst having children is “an amazing experience, for a lot of people it isn’t, and the idea that we can’t talk openly about why that might be, is a problem.”
So what needs to change? When speaking about how other peoples’ reactions have made her feel, Rachel explained that she has: “come to the realisation that many people simply cannot, or will not, see how anybody else could choose a life without having children of their own.
“It is quite a feat to be so closed-minded to other ways of life, preferences, orientations, and cultures. I wonder what other judgements they are making against others, for other life choices? What is going on in their head to ‘pitch’ their decisions against mine?”
It’s clear that many women are up against it and that it can be incredibly hard to combat pre-existing ideologies within society. Sophie expressed that changing such views would be a start: “As women, we shouldn’t have to feel bad for wanting to be ‘selfish’. I’d like to change the view that it’s ‘weird’ to not want children and it’s ‘wrong’ to want to be happy alone.”
Having one fewer child would save an equivalent of 58.6 tonnes of CO2 per year.
Again, when talking about change, Kimberley’s focus was on people’s attitudes and expectations: “The age-old attitude of ‘you’ll change your mind’ is awful and presumptive,” and she thinks people should “let women do what women wanna do.”
Women should be able to be women in their own right and having or not having a child should do nothing to change that. Maura Kelly notes that: “voluntary childlessness [being childfree] may serve as one way to actively challenge the centrality of motherhood to feminine identity. This challenge need not reject mothering but rather should seek to distance female identity from mothering in a way benefits all women.”
Considering the future and moving forward, we asked Rachel what advice she could give Kimberley, Sophie and other young women who are weighing up their options concerning motherhood: “If you don’t feel that you want children, in the same in that way that I feel, just don’t have them. Don’t do it because you feel pressure from others, your partner, family or otherwise.
“Most other life choices are reversible to an extent: you can have a divorce, sell your house, get a new job. You can’t un-have a child. If you’re not sure and are weighing it up, all I can say is: if you really feel that, when it comes down to it, you want to have children then you will find a way to make it happen.”
This is an important message and one that we should all consider. Ultimately, it is OK to want to have children, it is OK to not want to have children and it is OK to be unsure. No woman is right or wrong for feeling any of these things.
Rachel noted that the most important discussion she ever had on this subject was the one she had with her husband: “Thankfully he is very much childfree just like me, with no desire whatsoever to have children. I wouldn’t have been able to marry him otherwise, despite the fact that we love each other very much. It would simply be too much of a deal-breaker.”
Womanhood isn’t just about choosing whether or not to become a mother, it’s about women supporting women; it’s about starting a conversation.
Women can, will and absolutely have the right to make their own choices when it comes to having children. At a time when women all over the world are making astounding progress, let us celebrate each other for our own existence rather than questioning the future of our bloodlines.
Edited by Franziska Eberlein.