Here is a very popular – though admittedly, a bit unusual – degree choice. It is unique because it takes around two decades to complete, with the possibility of a few more years of post-course certification. It is full-time and very costly, notwithstanding a meagre government bursary. It mainly consists of a single independent thesis (though some students choose to work on multiple over the same period) that is reviewed and graded intermittently, by various public institutions.
It is never considered ‘finished’ in the traditional sense. It is on the whole a practical course with little academic rationale. Once enrolled, students are not permitted to abandon it. It sounds horrible, and perhaps it is, but still, a notable proportion of the students claim to find it enriching, satisfying, fun. Is it attractive to employers? Not particularly. Good for social life? Not particularly. Students often make tight cliques at the exclusion of those not taking the course. They are too exhausted to maintain friendships, finding their thesis has become their identity.
This, of course, is not a degree you can enrol on at a university. There are also no entry requirements. But while most women, past and present, have at some point felt it incumbent on them to choose it, the alternative has slowly become more acceptable.
A woman’s choice not to have children was, and is, as radical and hard fought for as the right to vote, to have an education and a career. Even with female equality enshrined in many of our laws, and the wide-acceptance of the Pill (which has been equally significant in bringing about female equality) there is a persistent cultural tension surrounding deliberate childlessness. This is not an issue exclusive to women, of course, but the expectation is disproportionately weighted on them, not just to have kids, but to be the primary caregivers, the ones who must sacrifice the most.
This issue is embedded in the current parental leave laws – traditional maternity leave is still far more financially viable that shared parental leave. As a consequence of this cultural and legal bias (that also discriminates against fathers in a different way) many companies are reluctant to hire or promote women in their thirties, whether or not they have stated that they intend on having kids – which, you might say, is none of the employer’s business anyway.
The other aspect to this expectation is the negative response (in some cases, of contempt and derision) levelled at those clear in their resolve not to have children. It is painfully commonplace for women to be asked if, even when, they are having kids, largely by other women, often by relatives, and also, often inappropriately, by doctors. Worse still, the question is loaded: women will often not receive a warm response in saying they don’t wish to have children. The typical response is a variation on ‘you’ll change your mind’, or the more probing ‘you’ll regret it’, ‘what will you do instead?’.
The last one is particularly preposterous: is our societal view of woman that reductive? Even when we allow the possibility that she might be career-driven, I still think there is something regressive in this assumption, since it suggests that, if a woman does not wish to fit into a traditionally feminine role, then she must be trying to supplant the male one.
But the reality is often more nuanced then we would care to admit. There are many reasons that a woman might choose to be childfree, as I want to explore, and some of them utterly banal. These are not readily accepted as valid reasons, though. For some, giving birth and rearing children is a moral obligation – to choose differently, a dangerous subversion that could not possibly lead to happiness.
‘Childfree’ is a label that has the potential to be empowering, that distinguishes from the childless, who are infertile, or otherwise cannot have children due to factors out of their control (a group that nonetheless endures the weight of female expectations). ‘Childfree’ suggests bodily autonomy, another facet of the key feminist concerns of our time: the right to an abortion, the right to not be harassed, the right to respect in the workplace and to equity at home.
Yet I would be hesitant to label its prevalence as part of a wave of feminist subversion of the expectations of women. There are as diverse an array of reasons for not having kids as there are for having them. But let’s start with the economic reality.
Like a degree, children are a big investment. Unlike a degree, you are expected to pay for them upfront. In the UK we are fortunate to not have to directly pay for their delivery, or any other associated costs of childbirth. Unfortunately, this does not make having them any more financially viable for the majority of people. The full cost of bringing up a child (up to the age of 18) is estimated to be
It should surprise no-one that children are costly (unfortunately, it often does). But now, in an age of rising living costs and against the backdrop of a housing crisis that is unlikely to subside any time soon, many are now seeing through the romantic ideal they are fed, that children are priceless, an endless source of wonder happiness, that it doesn’t matter what they cost or how practical they are. They are seeing that not only will children weaken their financial stability, but that they may struggle to provide them the life they deserve. This latter point explains why even those who want kids are forgoing them.
Rent and other living costs have outpaced wages, so that even dual incomes are not enough to provide for families of two adults and a child in certain areas. Cost of childcare is so high that it is cheaper for mothers not to have a job. While cultural norms have long encouraged the proliferation of offspring, social policies have become increasingly hostile towards children not born into wealthy families and areas. Services for children and comprehensives are routinely underfunded, while public schools continue to give a staggering advantage to those children whose families can pay for them. Meanwhile, the next generations must grow up in a world of bludgeoning costs and loans, with the prospect of homeownership – previously available to many – taken off the menu, unless they are fortunate enough to inherit a property.
That is not to say that going childless guarantees a life of opulence and the freedom to travel constantly, or not work at all. But many women, particularly of a younger generation, are becoming attuned to the idea that they can have more of their lives to themselves, that they can spend their money on any number of worthwhile pursuits that aren’t overpriced toys and nappies. Is this selfish? No. We owe it to ourselves to explore our own interests – and for that matter, identities.Though growing up remains difficult, even considering the privileges of living where and how we do, girls and women have nonetheless been presented with a broadening horizon of potential. It is a dramatic sign of progress that women now outnumber men at university in many developed nations, that, to examine the roots of this, boys are falling behind in the education system but girls are more often succeeding. The prevalence of women with degrees may not necessarily translate into high-paying corporate positions, and it is certainly arguable that even women who are ardently career-focused face bias that their male counterparts don’t, yet it nonetheless signals a significant change in
This is not just about education and careers, though. The idea of independence, not just from children, but high-maintenance male partners, has inspired the imaginations of many young women. Many have witnessed their mothers slave away at home while their fathers evaded household responsibilities, bringing back with them their exhaustion and angst from a long day at the office. This is not the only model for married relationships, of course, but I think this sort of scenario has pushed women to seek more democratic, and equal-standing relationships. The freedom from a maternal role is conducive to many more freedoms in this vein.
Previously, the unmarried, unpartnered woman was a ‘spinster’, with its connotations of being past the sell-by date, unwanted, unfulfilled. But now there is a greater acceptance of women choosing to be single, in part, I think, due to other cultural changes and the increased visibility of independent female role models. The term has begun to be phased out of the general lexicon, because it is an idea about women that is outdated, just as the feudalistic functions of marriage have been rejected.
Many women feel peer-pressured into relationships, even when they are, to some extent, seeking them, and into a certain kind of relationship. When they hit their thirties that relationship is assumed to be a precursor to marriage and children. They feel that this is the sort of thing they are ‘supposed to do’, whether or not it is logical, whether or not it aligns with their aspirations. In a change that is both extraordinary yet thoroughly undramatic, it is more widely felt that women should have less of an obligation to do anything beyond the comparatively banal (if not straightforward) duties of men.
It is not that young people are completely fatalistic about the future, but we are now facing an unprecedented global crisis that means there are additional ethical concerns to consider when having children. I know I am not the only one who doesn’t feel reassured about the results of the latest climate summit, nor the actions of politicians within my own country. To have children is a vote for hope of the future. Unfortunately, things are looking pretty uncertain. Is it fair to leave the next generation the mess we have made? This is a question we all should be asking – ‘the next generation’, after all, is already here and won’t have to wait long to inherit the bulk of the responsibility.
This is not to say that we should let the human race die off, though I’m sure this idea isn’t at the centre of many couples’ minds when they decided whether or not to have children. It is, and should remain, the most personal of choices – we cannot be responsible for everything that happens in the world, but we can choose whether or not our offspring experience it.
There is more to it, something a bit more rudimentary than the ecological standpoint, though. Although there are women who could never imagine not wanting children, there are also many who don’t feel entirely set on it, but have them nonetheless. The decision is haunted by the ultimate Fear Of Missing Out; while they may not be desperate to have them, this is easily outweighed by the intense regret they may experience if they don’t. At the very least, it is easier to conform to standards than to part from them, even when there is potential misery either way.
But thankfully, standards are changing, if only gradually. The childless tribe (though to be honest many are disparate) have decided the greater FOMO is that of not experiencing the rest of their lives as free entities, able to develop their interests and maintain a less-restrictive career and social life.
To have this desire while bringing up a child is fair on neither parties. ‘Human beings are not to be gambled with’ says Christen Reighter, in her powerful TED talk about her choice to get sterilised. I struggle to believe that those who insist that a woman’s main function is as a mother really thinks it is worse for a child to not exist, than to be unwanted. And for that matter, we gamble with women’s lives when we insist they have children when they are only lukewarm about the idea.
Well, ‘lukewarm’ is generous. Some women – lets face it – just don’t like kids. And that is completely fine.