Womanhood is not synonymous with motherhood, yet there’s still a societal expectation that women will have children.
The most recent government statistics on family size show that just 9% of women born in 1946 had no children. In comparison, 18% of women born in 1972 (age 45 years in 2017) have no children today.
Reports indicate that this trend shows no sign of slowing down, with the number of women without children predicted to rise. So isn’t it about time we stopped grilling women on their plans to become parents?
There are a plethora of reasons why a woman may not have children, ranging from personal choice to medical circumstance, and each one of these reasons is equally deserving of discretion and respect.
Here, seven women share their unique stories on living without children to make you think twice before you ask: “So, when are you going to have kids?”
Lizi Legge, social media manager and lifestyle blogger, 25
“I want to throw everything into my career.”
“I’ve been pretty set on not wanting children for most of my adult life. My reasoning is that having a child doesn’t fit with the lifestyle I want to lead. I want to throw everything into my career while I’m still young and taking a year out of a job at this stage - especially in a fast-moving industry - could be detrimental.
“I also don’t want to take a year out of paying into a pension, become financially reliant on a partner - as we all know how maternity pay is pretty rubbish - or be tied to a specific location because of schools.
“I’d also be concerned to have a child when the state of the NHS is so rocky as I definitely couldn’t afford private medical care or insurances for myself, let alone a child.
“I find it increasingly frustrating when people say ‘oh but you’ll change your mind’ as I’d never dream of telling someone who wants children that. I see friends and family members having children and while they love them to pieces, suddenly they’ve become very limited in their career aspirations.
“I’ve been told in the past that I’m ‘heartless’ and ‘lack maternal instinct’ but it’s more that I think having a child because of pressures of society is incredibly selfish and that it’s far better not to.”
Emma Sexton, Badass Women’s Hour presenter on talkRADIO, 41
“I am considering fostering.”
“I am 41 and have chosen to be child-free. I actually knew from the age of about 11 that I didn’t want children when I watched the first episode of ‘Home and Away’ and was mesmerised by Pippa and her foster family. For some reason, it really resonated with me. I have never imagined my future self with children, but I am considering fostering in the future.
“I love children and think that a positive happy childhood makes you a happy adult. I see so many children in this world who are having a really tough childhood through no fault of their own and I would like to give support and help to those who really need it. One other factor is an environmental one. I would be very concerned about bringing a child into this world right now when we have a population crisis - but no one wants to talk about this.
“As for having my own biological children, I just have never wanted a mini me. There is so much time and sacrifice into bringing up another human and the responsibility largely remains on the woman. I see the joy children bring to the world but I think there are so many other ways I can experience this without creating my own.
“At first this choice was very hard as there were hardly any role models for me of other women who had lives without children. I was constantly getting told I will ‘change my mind’ by well-meaning friends and family, but these comments left me in turmoil, especially in my early thirties. I even went through a phase of staring at babies to see if this would make me broody!
“I am now at peace with my decision (which I had alway been - just society hadn’t been!) and I think it is very important to show women there is another choice.”
Carly Ellen Lee, disability services coordinator and blogger, 29
‘I was diagnosed with PCOS.’
“I’ve always known from a very young age I wanted to have children. When I met my husband 13 years ago we were just 16 and 21, but one of our first conversations was about our want for children - it was a make or break conversation. It wasn’t something we wanted straight away, we were still very young, we had study, travel and careers to think about first, but it was an end goal.
“We started trying for a baby as soon as we were married, this was eight years ago. We spent 12 months trying naturally (the stated recommended time) before we went to our GP to investigate further. I was diagnosed with PCOS and it was discovered quickly that I don’t ovulate naturally.
“We did three cycles of clomid to induce ovulation through medication with no result, meaning this didn’t help me with ovulation. We were then referred to IVF. To start with, we did stimulated ovulation induction. We had four cycles of this with no luck. We then moved onto full IVF. And over the course of six years we have completed an additional seven cycles through a mixture of stimulated cycles and frozen embryo transfers. We have fallen pregnant twice in this time, however both times ended in early miscarriage.
“I believe it’s an expectation of society for women to have children - upon meeting someone new, it is one of the very first questions I am asked. After replying ‘no’, sometimes, this is quickly followed up by ‘do you want children?’ This is a question I have really struggled with answering over the years.
“Infertility makes me feel inferior, guilty, sad, lonely, depressed, unstable, emotional, resilient, exhausted, heartbroken, incomplete, broken and unfulfilled.”
Sophie Thorne, CEO of Twisted Lingerie, 31
‘My husband doesn’t want children.’
“My husband doesn’t want children and I’ve made the choice to accept it. We’d been having the whole children chat for a couple of years and for a long time we both thought that he just wasn’t ready yet.
“Towards the end of last year it started to become clear that maybe he didn’t want kids at all. I think part of it is lifestyle - he loves his life the way it is and can’t imagine it changing - but the more we talked, the more we both realised that he actually just isn’t that paternal and has little desire to raise a child.
“When we had met in our 20s, having children seemed so far away, so I get the impression he didn’t really give it a huge amount of thought. It was only when it started to seem more “real” that he took a step back and questioned whether it was what he actually wanted.
“I wanted children before I met my husband and to be honest, in many ways I still do. I’m the eldest of four kids and family is super important to me. I was initially very sad when he told me, as was he, funnily enough. I think he was so aware how much I wanted them that it was very difficult for him to talk to me about it. Whilst I still get this FOMO feeling, I feel more at peace with the whole situation now and a sense of excitement at imagining a different kind of future to the one I used to dream about. I love my husband and I love the life we have created together. Effectively I’ve made the decision to commit to him and that life and whatever our future together holds and forgo kids to do so.
“I think that women without children are viewed as somehow abnormal or alien in our society. There’s a lot of judgement, in some cases pity and this perception that you don’t want to partake in family events because you can’t relate or don’t like children or something. And I don’t feel that men without children are treated the same way which, of course, makes the whole situation more frustrating.
“Initially, reaction from loved ones about my decision wasn’t great. Friends and family suggested I leave my husband or force him to have a child and I was repeatedly told that I was going to regret my decision. It was actually quite a lonely time - I was trying to process what my husband had told me and needed to talk to my loved ones, but because my family and friends were so aware that having children was something I had always wanted, I think they were very shocked and didn’t know what to say. I was also surprised how personally my loved ones felt it - one close friend told me she cried after I told her.
“For the most part, now that my loved ones have had time to process it, it’s no longer ‘a thing’ and while they may not agree with my decision, I do feel that they’re being and will continue to be supportive.”
Holly Brockwell, technology journalist, 31
“I was sterilised at the age of 30.”
“Like a lot of people, I didn’t want kids as a child, in my teens or my twenties. I just assumed I’d start wanting them later in life - everyone speaks of a ‘biological clock’ as if it’s a real, proven thing, but it turned out not to be. I have no innate drive to have kids whatsoever and although people are always trying to convince me I should, it just doesn’t interest me.
“I was sterilised at the age of 30 after a long and frustrating battle with the NHS. I wanted my tubes tied because I knew I would never want babies and hormonal contraception was causing me all sorts of problems, as it does for many women.
“I found it weird and creepy that doctors were so invested in safeguarding my fertility in opposition to my own desires - they seemed to think they knew what I wanted better than I did. I understand that some people change their minds, but not usually people who’ve written giant essays about it and waged a campaign to get their tubes tied so they can stop feeling ill on the pill. I was well informed and had a long history of asking about sterilisation. That it took four years and many GP visits is a disappointing waste of their time and mine.
“It’s kind of hilarious to me that the stereotypical childfree-by-choice woman is a selfish monster. I’ve asked again and again how I can be selfish for not having kids when I know I wouldn’t be a good parent - isn’t that less selfish than having them anyway, and not caring for them? Isn’t it less selfish to get your tubes tied than let yourself get pregnant with a baby you don’t want? I don’t understand the argument at all.
“The only child-free women you see in films and TV are either terribly sad would-be mothers, or creepy witches with sinister motives. Some of us just don’t want babies, and that’s as valid as having five.
“It’s surprising how often the subject of whether I have kids comes up, it’s considered small talk - but that’s got to be devastating for people going through IVF or struggling to conceive. People’s childrearing plans are absolutely none of anyone’s business. I’ve been tempted to lie to people who’ve asked me about ‘my kids’, assuming I’ve got some, because I’ve seen the benevolent smile crumble into judgmental distaste when they find out I “squandered” my fertility too many times. But I tell the truth, look them in the eye, and challenge their ill thought-out arguments. Because people who ask these questions and judge the answers need to learn and if I challenge them, maybe they won’t ask the next woman who just had a miscarriage.”
Louise*, self employed caterer, 37
“I would want to be in a relationship if I was going to have children.”
“I would have been in my mid to late twenties when I decided that I didn’t want to have children. Having suffered with mental health issues since I was a child, it seemed hugely unfair that I could pass my mental health problems down to them, either inherited, through learned behaviour or just with them dealing with my problems.
“Throughout the years I’ve suffered with anxiety, panic attacks, loneliness, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, psychosis, depression, drug, alcohol and other addictions. I come from a family where mental heath issues are prevalent. It seemed that any child I had would be doomed to follow in my foot steps in some respect and it seemed very unfair that the person that I would ultimately love the most would suffer as I have done.
“I’ve now managed to resolve all my mental health problems through therapy and changes to my diet, but as it stands I’m not in a relationship. That’s fine for me right now - I’m happy in myself, so anything extra is a bonus. I would want to be in a relationship if I was going to have children. I was raised in a single parent family and understand how difficult it is for both the parent and the child. I have the utmost respect for people that do this but it isn’t a choice I would willingly make myself. If I meet someone and it’s right, then fine, but if I don’t then I don’t. I’ve had my share of tears over this in the past, but life is what it is.
“There seems to be this view that having children is what all women want, or that they are able to. Because I look young for my age I always get the comment ‘ooh you’ve got ages to settle down and have a family’...There’s no consideration about if I want to or if I can.
“I have friends who are childless who are devastated and others who are ok about it. It’s seen as pretty much the be-all and end-all of female identity a lot of the time.”
Charlotte Moore, Smoothie PR business owner, 42
“Women don’t understand why I don’t want a baby.”
“I was around 11 or 12 years old when I first told my parents that I never wanted children of my own. This was a bit of a shock to my mum as she’s really maternal and would have loved to have more than the three of us. Even at that age, I felt there were more things I wanted to do in my adult life that would give me as much satisfaction. I have a natural affinity with children and loved working as a teaching assistant for five years after leaving college, but I was always happy to have my freedom back at the end of the day.
“I’ve always been totally upfront with any potential partners as I would never want to take that choice away from them if it was part of their life plan. I’ve been with my current partner for 12 years and when I asked how he felt, he said he’d always assumed he’d end up getting married and having kids just because that’s what most people do. However, he’s as happy as I am with our life choices because he’s never really sure what to do around babies or children, prefers our holidays in California in an adults-only hotel and would always choose to eat in a restaurant without children. He would really like to get a dog though.
“Throughout my entire life, other women have always told me that I’ll change my mind as I get older. It’s a natural presumption on their part that a family is created when you add children to the mix. I just smile and nod as I’ve learned that many women don’t understand why I don’t want a baby.
“Although I’ve always been open to changing my mind, I’ve just never felt the desire to structure my life around children. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve met other women who feel the same way and that creates an instant bond between us. We’ve gone through our whole lives being (usually) silently judged on our conscious decision, yet I suspect this has been mixed with a little bit of envy as they see my partner and I lead the free and happy family we love.”
Names marked * have been changed to protect anonymity at the speaker’s request. All images are posed by models.