Text by Jenny Mugridge
For many young women, the decision of whether or not to have a child is an increasingly difficult one. Where once the best a woman could hope for was control over the when, how and with whom, she is now given more opportunities to reject the lifestyle of motherhood out of hand: although this doesn’t come without societal repercussions. For those who won’t read in full, but will take offence, know this: I am not making a moral argument for not having children, nor casting aspersions on people that do choose to procreate. What I am doing is suggesting that the feminist tenant of bodily autonomy ought to be respected in the case of having or not having children, for the good of the woman, her child, and for society. So why is such a simple idea still so difficult to enact?
The Way Things Have Always Been
Growing up, girls are told “when you’re a mother”, not “if”. They’re given babies and prams to play with, asked what they’ll name their future children, and encouraged to hold babies once old enough. Even when they’re honest about their dislike of children, women are more likely to be asked to hold a baby than their male counterparts. There are pressures from parents to provide grandchildren and from the tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines that constantly pity or judge childless women.
Women are also expected to meet spousal expectations. Anti-childfree agents love to push the idea that a woman’s selfish willfulness to be “childless” is a major proponent of divorce – after all, how dare a woman refuse to have a baby, failing at her wifely duties. The accusation is that she doesn’t really love her husband; an assumption that harkens back to the times of Henry VII. Are we not more evolved now?
Girls’ toys are far more likely to encourage domestic and caring skills while boys tend to encourage physical and mental challenges. We like to think that we’re better than that now, but strangely enough, toys are more gendered now than they were in the seventies; a Sears catalogue from 1975 had just 2% explicitly gendered toys, but twenty years later that number had risen to 50%.
This encourages what Betty Friedan calls “the feminine mystique”, where girls form their identity around their domestic roles – describing themselves in relation to another, someone’s mother, or wife. With these kinds of toys, young girls are expected to enact the role of mother and the child is influenced by the patriarchal standards of what it is to be a “true woman”.
Despite these pressures, and the assumption that all girls want to be mothers, the numbers present an interesting dilemma. The average age of a girl’s first period is 12.9 years in the UK: fertility peaks around the mid twenties, and while there’s a lot of debate around the upper ends of fertility it does appear to drop off in the early thirties. In an age where women aren’t expected to have children least before 16, that gives roughly fifteen to twenty years for peak fertility, with the following eighteen years dedicated to sheltering, protecting and nurturing a human being: in which time they are also expected to learn and build a career.
That’s not a large percentage of a lifetime to achieve so much, is it?
It’s easy to dismiss this as “the way things have always been”, and it’s true that women today have considerably more control over their fertility than any generation before them. Throughout history, children have been a necessary side effect of the biological imperative to have sex. To not have children meant to abstain entirely, and we know how poorly that works! Of course there have been rudimentary birth control methods, although women only gained access to control over their own reproduction with the advent of the birth control pill in the 1960s.
It’s noticeable from horror movies of the time how this affected how people viewed children – instead of angelic accessories they became a terrifying side-effect, an unwanted life choice that has been forced upon women who did their best not to take it. For the first time women had real control over when and how they were able to procreate – although “if” was still often ignored.
Making The Decision
When I was a kid, I was sure I knew how my life would go.
School, then college, then university. I generously gave myself a year to find a full time job, which gave me about three years to earn before having a baby. I felt like it was expected of me – not necessarily within those time frames but with the same milestones.
It sounds ridiculous, but it never occurred to me that it was anything but inevitable until I met women who actively didn’t want to have children.
I’m not sure if there’s a word to explain that it’s impossible to make a choice when it’s never been presented to you as one, but hopefully it’s a German one. David Benatar talked about a similar idea in Debating Procreation named the “framing effect”, where different decisions are made depending on the context of the information: surely it’s safe to assume that if the information isn’t given within the context of a decision, it can’t be treated as one.
Humans take their cues for standards of living from the world around them. These can be overt standards – your parents telling you that they desperately want grandchildren – or more subtle, in terms of representation. We’re inspired by the real and fictional people we see in our lives, and hold them up as role-models – we then want to imitate their behaviour.
In most families, the decision not to have children simply isn’t accepted. It’s a mistake, you’ll regret it, and the concept of an older, childless woman is one of pity: we assume she couldn’t have children, or never had the chance. And while it’s easy to feel sorry for these people for failing their womanly duties, you will almost never be told “she just doesn’t want them”.
But women are increasingly choosing not to have children. It’s thought that 25% of Britain’s women of childbearing age will never have a baby – double the figure held in the 90s. Some number of these women will have decided to adopt instead, an admirable cause, and some will try for a child and fail, but the number will only have gotten so much bigger through actively making the decision not to breed.
So, why would a woman not want to breed?
In most cases the answer is a simple “because I don’t want to”, but more satisfactory answers are often demanded. “Legitimate” excuses might include not wanting to pass on a mental or physical illness, not wanting to add to the world’s over-population crisis, or focussing on a career that benefits humanity in some way by sacrificing their chance at a complete life.
The most frustrating thing for many childfree by choice women is that they’re expected to have an answer at all. Pregnant women are seldom asked why they chose to have a baby, even though it’s just as major a life decision. Having a baby in more-or-less any circumstance is still generally considered to be of long-term benefit to mankind,even when the pregnancy is unplanned and unwanted, and will have a negative effect on the mother or child.
One of the common responses that a woman who dares to declare herself childfree will hear is “you’ll regret it” – but for most women, this isn’t a motivator. To them it seems irresponsible to bring an entirely new human into the world just because of FOMO; there are a thousand things you could regret in old age, and the opportunities that a childfree life offers could also be among them.
It’s become more common of late for female celebrities to speak out about their childfree state. For some women like Stevie Nicks, Oprah and Betty White, having children would either inhibit their careers or the children themselves would be neglected; others like Katherine Hepburn felt that they’d be too selfish to be good parents. Some, like Lily Tomlin, believe there are already too many people in the world and that unless you have a strong emotional drive to procreate, you probably shouldn’t; Portia de Rossi and Ellen Degeneres have publicly discussed that while they might be good parents, they just aren’t motivated enough.
And finally, there are the few who just don’t like children and don’t have a maternal bone in their bodies. The myth that all women feel broody when holding a baby is just that, a myth, and while it is still frowned upon there are increasingly women who can admit to what men have been allowed to say for years – that they’re not fans of kids and don’t want to be anywhere near them, let alone be solely responsible for one.
There are many reasons why people have children, but the choice to abstain is often seen as a personal attack upon those who do. So why are we so ready to accept that breeding is a woman’s necessarily lot in life?
Firstly, the myth that all women are maternal causes major problems. The logic goes that if women are maternal (replace maternal with feminine, stupid, creative and you have the same problem) then surely someone who isn’t maternal isn’t a real woman? It’s horrible to think that in the 21st century there are still people who consider this to be the case, denying the existence of a wide variety of “types of woman”.
Women more than men are likely to be considered selfish if they choose a career over having children – which is even more unfair when you consider that they would instantly be considered the carer for any children they did have. But this leads to yet another frustrating assumption: that if you aren’t entirely career-focused then all you are is selfish, hedonistic, even vain – because you aren’t contributing to society as either a breeder or big-earner.
Rags like The Daily Mail take great pleasure in demonising women who don’t have children as selfish, hedonistic, abnormal threats to marital stability, society and the health service. One particularly vicious tirade against child-free women, written by a mother, claims that childless women have no “essential humanity”; that they’re poor employees, incomplete, and just plain weird. Even in politics, where feigning masculinity has been a commonly accepted tactic for women, childlessness has been used as a weapon: just last year Andrea Ledsom tried to sabotage Theresa May’s chances of becoming Prime Minister by suggesting that May’s childlessness meant she had no vested interest in the future of the country.
Out of the many celebrity women who have been pestered about their lack of children, Jennifer Aniston has perhaps had it the worst. Desperate to sell copies, tabloid magazines continually fomented the story that her unwillingness to have children was what drove Brad Pitt into Angelina Jolie’s arms. They’ve taken photos of awkward sitting positions and just-had-a-muffin stomach bulges, speculating over the current occupation status of her womb.
And while some like to posture that women need their children, that they’re incomplete without them, Aniston reminds us that it’s possible to mother (i.e. care for, protect) people and pets that you haven’t given birth to.
These awful articles like to posit the idea that childless adults will have no one to look after them once they get older, neglecting to address the fact that very few elderly people are looked after by their children and grandchildren. Unfortunately, it’s also likely that you’ll procreate but still be left to fend for yourself when you’re older; the advantage the childfree have is that they will have had more chance to save for these years.
Ultimately, trying to rationalise a woman’s need to breed is a futile task. It’s more frequently a combination of personal instinct, core values and serious thought but despite the repercussions, remaining childfree is ethically the least risky path to take. Certainly more so than procreating solely to please others, to fix problems, or to fulfil some perceived notion of womanly and wifely responsibility.
If the human race was dwindling, or on the peak of extinction, then perhaps the decision not to have children would be a selfish one: but right now, in a world which has more than enough human beings to go around and as the concept of family broadens, it seems only fair that women receive the right to bodily autonomy in respect to not just how and when, but if they have children.So the next time a woman tells you she doesn’t want children, don’t ask her why – don’t try to change her mind, even if you think having children is the bee’s knees. Breeding is a life choice, not an obligation: not to you, the world, or anyone else.