To bear or not to bear?

July 10, 1998

Women who forgo having children are portrayed as having chosen career over family. A new study suggests a more complex picture, says Alison Utley

Statistics tell us that the proportion of women who will never have children is growing. But the story behind that trend - to what extent does it indicate a voluntary rejection of parenthood? - has been a mystery until now.

It is now expected that as many as one fifth of women born in 1975 and later will remain childless. This figure is twice as high as that from the 1945 birth cohort. Women who choose not to become mothers are often characterised as inevitable consequences of a feminist world. But research published this week by the Family Policy Study Centre casts doubt on the stereotype of the middle-class career woman whose chooses her job over a family life.

The picture emerging is one of complex "must have it all" lives that often result in women delaying birth and then finding they have "left it too late". The reason may be infertility problems associated with older women, the breakdown of relationships or economic instability. But the research finds that postponing the decision to have children is part of a general trend that also takes in the tendency of cohabitation to replace marriage and its perceived instability. Other factors are the rise in divorce rates and the increased use of birth control. Add women's greater propensity to follow careers, as well as aspirations for consumer goods, and you start to get the fuller picture.

"What is differentI is the role played by choice, deliberate or unwitting," the report says. "The lack of marriageable partners may no longer be an obstacle to childbearing, but the pursuit of other immediate goals may preclude this choice until later. What may matter more than a desire to avoid childbearing in determining childlessness are motivations that delay the decision to start a family or give it a low priority. The decision may not be faced until it is too late."

Previous studies of childlessness have used "informal recruitment" methods, mostly advertising in newspapers, which is self-selecting and biased towards the middle classes. The study by researchers Fiona McAllister and Lynda Clarke used British Social Attitudes Surveys of 1994/5 to devise a sample that crossed socioeconomic boundaries. Initial contact with the 176 women identified as childless was by "carefully worded" letter, which asked respondents to consider themselves eligible if they had no children and no intentions of having them.

The methodology combined qualitative techniques as a way of understanding the respondents' life experiences and decision-making processes with a quantitative analysis of the statistics. Respondents were grouped in several categories. There are the people who are certain that they never want children. Then there are those who are certain now that they do not want children. Next are those who accept childlessness happily; then those who are ambivalent. Last are those who felt the decision was taken for them.

"Voluntarily childless women have often been portrayed as the ultimate feminists, choosing to live free from patriarchal influences and centring their lives on achievement in the workplace," the report says. "Our study reveals a more complex pictureI challenging the stereotypes."

In particular, career identity did not emerge as central to personal fulfilment for most of the voluntary childless. Neither were childless people atomised and self-centred. In fact there was little evidence that the rejection of parenthood was the outcome of alternative values as many of the respondents expressed conventional views about parenthood. "Rather than radically reframing the social face of womanhood and motherhood, the voluntary childless in this study emerged as thoughtful and responsible about what parenting might mean."

Choosing Childlessness by Fiona McAllister with Lynda Clarke is available from The Family Policy Studies Institute, 9 Tavistock Place, London WC1.

WHY WILL ONE IN FIVE YOUNG WOMEN STAY CHILDLESS?

'I've felt very strongly that unless you're willing to give time to a child, you shouldn't have a child'

'I'm not saying we haven't talked about it, obviously, but because we've been together for so long it's difficult to remember, really. It's a sort of mutual understanding that neither of us wants children'

'I actually sat down and said, statistically, my chances of finding a man who I want to be with and have a child with in the biological time frame is somewhat remote'

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