A woman’s chances of going through life without having children have almost doubled in the last three decades, new figures from the office of national statistics have found. Here Healthista editor Anna Magee wonders if her decision not to have children is the right one
I made a decision about five years ago not to have children. I like them, they’re cute and cuddly and a great idea for other people. I just don’t want my own. My mum, dad and traditionalist 87 year-old grandmother all accepted that. Of course, they would. It’s the 21st century. But since then, I’ve been surprised by the reactions from other people, colleagues, acquaintances, even strangers I’ve just met at parties.
First there’s ‘Oh that’s okay,’ after which I take a deep sigh and come off my insomnia medication thanking my lucky stars that I have their approval. Second are the more common stock responses: a) ‘Only children will complete your life’, b) ‘You’ll regret it,’ or c) ‘You’ll regret it’. I’ve heard that last one so many times I’m starting to believe it myself.
Now, as my friends have their second and third children, I can’t help wondering whether I have made the right decision. Will I be a lonely old woman in a Bethnal Green bedsit with nothing but my yoga-toned limbs for company? At 44, I am probably in the well-past-it café of my fertility anyway so there’s little point in such musings, but I can’t help it. If late-onset biological longing kicks in anytime soon, I could be desperately touring Estonian fertility clinics in my mid-50s.
I have never experienced the overwhelming longing that glassy-eyed girlfriends refer to as maternal instinct and, according to psychotherapist Lucy Beresford, I may never. ‘Not every woman experiences maternal urges,’ says Beresford who spent ten years interviewing women – with and without children – researching the question, ‘Is there a mother in every woman?’ for her novel, Something I’m Not (Duckworth £7.99). ‘Overall, the answer was a resounding ‘no’’, she says.
In fact, the need not to reproduce for me could be just as biological as any maternal urge in my girlfriends. Geneticists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge have demonstrated in mice that mutations in a certain gene a can cause mothers to neglect their offspring and that gene exists in humans. I think I have it.
‘For some women, longing to become a parent, to hold a child, to reproduce is primitive and undeniable,’ says Beresford. ‘But women who don’t feel that are dealing with immense confusion because they’re faced with an expectation – from family, society, even strangers – that all women will at some p
oint feel the biological urge. If they haven’t felt it, women often ask me, ‘Why haven’t I got the thing I am told everyone else gets?’ Such women probably wanted to high-five the actress Cameron Diaz when she recently commented: ‘I think women are afraid to say they don’t want children because they’re going to get shunned.’ I know I did.
‘Geneticists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge have demonstrated in mice that mutations in a certain gene a can cause mothers to neglect their offspring and that gene exists in humans. I think I have it’
Despite the enduring cultural assumption that all women want to become mothers, research from the recent Family Trends survey by the Family and Parenting Institute has found the proportion of childless women by the age of 35 has more than doubled in the last half century. One study even found that 41 per cent of women who, like me, were born in 1969, chose to remain childless.
Of course, a good proportion of that will be down to fertility problems or not finding the right man. But one in five of us will have found the right guy, the right job and the right house – or at least think we have – and still not want a child. Look at Dame Helen Mirren who has all that and an Oscar, yet has admitted: ‘I didn’t have that desire to be a mother and I don’t think a lot of women do. A lot are pressured into it and they’re miserable.’
When I married my husband Kevin 15 years ago, one of the first things I said to him was ‘You are aware I may never want children.’ Thankfully he responded with ‘That’s good because I don’t want them either.’
But six years ago I changed the goal posts. Working in a busy magazine office at the time, surrounded by procreating thirty-somethings rarely a day went by without mentions of feeding, birth plans, scheduled sex, child-friendly holidays, fertility drugs and toddler tantrums. I had no interest and nothing to say.
My mind projected forward to imaginary heart-to-hearts with girlfriends in five, ten, 20 years time. Comprehensive V Public, GCSE results, curfews, groundings, 21st birthdays, graduations, weddings, gruesome daughter-in-laws. It seemed I’d be left a childless interloper on the sidelines of every conversation from then on in.
I bullied Kevin into ‘trying,’ for a baby. I can still remember revelling in a delicious sense of shared conspiracy at ‘confessing’ this to a girlfriend. Pathetic, I know. But only two weeks later I woke up one Saturday morning and thought ‘I am about to do some yoga and then go back to my Sarah Waters paperback in bed. Ballet, football, violin classes mean I may never be able to do this again.’ That moment, I realised that no child deserved to be brought into the world with ambivalence like mine, and just so it’s mother would have something to talk about on a Friday night.
Back on the Pill, I returned to being resolutely ‘childfree’ as I began to call it. My poster girl was the novelist Lionel Shriver. Though famously childless today at 52, ten years ago during the writing of her bestselling novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, Shriver was battling with the same questions as I am now.
‘I made the decision not to have children at the age of eight,’ says Shriver, ‘but I have continued to make it over the course of my life. The closest I came to wavering was during the writing of her bestselling book We Need To Talk About Kevin (Serpent’s Tail £7.99).
‘I was 42 and there wasn’t much more time for me to have children. I wanted to be sure, before it was too late. Much of what I wrote at the beginning of the book had to do with what I went through myself – wanting more things to matter in my life, more people to love and yes, more things to talk about with friends’.
That might seem trivial but it’s not, Shriver insists. ‘What you talk about is what you think about, what you care about. For me, having children would have meant more emotional content in my life. But at the same time I didn’t feel sufficiently generous.’
Has she felt any regret? ‘In all honesty, it was the right decision for me. I don’t ever feel envious of parents, I am happy if they are happy but I never feel, ‘I wish that were I.’
‘Who will take care of you?’ people ask me. Indeed, having a miserably unpeopled old age haunts me relentlessly as I wonder in the wee hours whether I have done the right thing in not having kids.
But according to one study from the University of Florida conducted on women and men aged between 50 and 84, similar wellbeing levels were found among parents and those without children in their later years. When I think about it, I know plenty of lonely old women with children and grandchildren and many without who are surrounded by love and friendship.
‘For years we have heard warnings that if you don’t have children, you will regret it later,’ said Tanya Koropeckyj-Cox, a sociology professor who conducted the study. ‘But beliefs about childlessness leading to a lonely old age are not supported by our study.’
One reason is that some people without children are able to maintain social ties throughout their lives that may substitute for what children would have given them, Koropeckyj-Cox said. ‘They may do this with friends, work relationships or the younger generation.’
For actress-turned-therapist Christine Webber, ‘multi-generational’ living – that is, having friends of all ages – has helped her build a rich, fulfilled life without children.
‘I always thought I would have children,’ says Webber,now in her late 50s and the author of Too Young To Get Old (Piatkus £11.99). ‘But my first husband wasn’t paternal and by the time I had met my second husband, I was already 39 and he had grown children and had had a vasectomy. I knew he was absolutely the one for me, but if I went for the relationship, I would have to draw a line under my plans for motherhood. I chose the relationship.
‘I don’t believe you can only feel fulfilled with younger people if you have given birth yourself,’ she continues. ‘I have a close relationship with my niece and plenty of young friends, some still in their 20s. To them I am a cross between a fond aunt and a god-parent and I don’t think I would have had time for these relationships, had I had children of my own.’
Was it the right decision? ‘I do feel pangs of regret occasionally at not having had children,’ says Webber. ‘I might see the odd engaging toddler and think ‘Oh what would mine have turned out like?’ But it’s only ever fleeting’.
For Webber it’s not having children or not having them that makes people happy – it’s making a choice that suits you. ‘I felt such relief at having decided, ‘Right motherhood isn’t going to happen for me’. I’m sure the reason I feel ultimately fulfilled now is because I made the decision to not have children and adjusted my life accordingly.
‘Making the choice one way or another is what brings relief and a sense of contentment,’ she says. ‘An awful lot of women come to me for therapy grappling with the idea that they think they may never want children. But having that ‘I’m-not-sure-if-I-want-them’ question dangling over your head for years is an enormous emotional burden, especially for many women who feel they can’t talk to baby-obsessed girlfriends about it.’
Beth Follini from Tick Tock Coaching specialises in mentoring women who are trying to decide whether or not to have a child. ‘I have sometimes discovered that a woman who says she is undecided actually doesn’t want children,’ she says, ‘but is worried about how she will be perceived.’
For me, a post on Mumsnet I read years ago has stayed with and haunted me. It brought home the terrifying flipside to all this – that of having children when it’s not what you really want.
‘Does anyone else regret having your child? My husband really wanted a child and I put it off for so long knowing it wasn’t my calling…I gave in after so many rows. It has been a lonely and desperate struggle. I still do not feel like a mother. It just feels so hollow. It’s not me. I just feel like walking out and leaving my husband and son.’
I read it over and over again, tears stinging my eyes.
If only there were a simple litmus test to know if you’ve made the right decision, I ask Follini. ‘The decision to have kids needs to come from a positive, pro-active place such as simply wanting to be someone’s mother,’ says Follini. ‘It shouldn’t come from a fear based place, such as not wanting to be left alone’.
It makes sense. I have an my adorable niece, Jamie who is eight; my little soulmate and a godchild, Eleni who is 23 and a source of such joy and pride. But I have to admit I have never, ever wanted to be their – or anyone else’s – mother. Ever. Becoming one would be lying to myself and to any potential child. If that changes, there is always Estonia.
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