The women who choose not to be mothers

One pregnant, one not (picture posed by models)

More women in the developed world are choosing not to have children. So why do friends, family, colleagues and even strangers think it's OK to question their decision?

We've come a long way, baby. Until a few decades ago, it was widely assumed that a woman would marry and, soon after, the stork would arrive with a special delivery.

Today, there are many more choices - or more openness. To have a baby out of wedlock. To have a baby without a father. To have a baby and return to work. To have a baby and give up work. To have fertility treatment, and then a baby (or not).

Find out more

  • Woman's Hour on Radio 4 had a child-free by choice special on Wednesday 28 July
  • And a phone-in on Thursday 29 July

But what about not becoming a mother at all? Studies in the UK, Europe and the United States show this is now the choice of significant numbers of women.

Once this was considered insane or unnatural. Even today, it is viewed with suspicion - women with no desire to procreate say they sometimes face awkward questions and disapproval.

"A woman at work was recently quite shocked by my saying I didn't want children. She said: 'You're a woman, you were born with a womb, God gave a womb so we could procreate'," Jenny Woolfson, aged 25, told BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour.

"My friends and I have occasionally likened coming out as child-free to coming out as a gay person 40 or 50 years ago. There's the same sense of shock - perhaps that's too strong a word. But it's a lifestyle people don't expect and it may challenge their world view," says 31-year-old Rhona Sweeting.

Sociologist Dr Catherine Hakim, of the London School of Economics, has studied voluntary childlessness in the UK and Europe for many years. She says this is a new social phenomenon, with women now open and positive about such a lifestyle choice.

"An early study in Canada years ago found roughly half of all the women who were childless in their 40s actually chose to be that way from a very early age.

"But very many of them didn't say so because of the social pressure they would get if they mentioned a preference for staying childless.

Maybe not baby

  • One in five UK women will not have children, many by choice
  • Among female graduates, this rises to one in three according to some studies
  • Teenage single mums are becoming biggest social group giving birth in the UK
  • Infertility affects 2-3% of women globally, says the UN
  • US Census Bureau says 36% of American women have no children

"The contraceptive revolution has completely changed perspectives. Whereas before having children just inevitably happened to all people who got married or had sex, now it's something you have to make a choice about."

And the disapproval some experience? "It's a question of generations and age. There was a stigma in the past."

But suspicion of childless women hasn't entirely disappeared.

Julia Wallace, at 40 a step-mother to three children who live elsewhere, says she is questioned about why she has no baby of her own.

"They say, 'you don't know what you're missing, you won't know until you've had a child that that's what you wanted to do'. That's a hypothetical question - if you've got no motivation to have a child in the first place, why would you do it? I wouldn't chose to become a nurse on the chance I might love the career once I get there."

Little girl in the street Forgotten something? Actually, no

Natalie Haynes, 35, has been with her partner for four years and has never dreamed of the pitter-patter of little feet. "My parents are very well trained [not to ask]. I worked hard at school and at college, then I ran away and became a comedian - that worked out, so they've already won the lottery. I think my mum might like grandchildren, but I have a brother and it's his problem."

But not everyone is as breezy about their decision as Natalie.

Beth Follini counsels women agonising over whether to reproduce. It's a decision she herself has struggled with. Until her early 30s, she hadn't wanted children and told her partner so. "Then I just started to feel this urge. I spent a year or two battling it out and in the end I decided I wanted a child. But I know that if I hadn't, I would have a very different but equally fulfilled life."

Many of her clients do not want children but feel pressurised. "Often this pressure comes from friends who have had children - 'you don't know what you're missing' or 'you'd make a great mum'. Or joking that you hate children. Sometimes it's from parents hoping for a grandchild."

But it can be the most passing of acquaintances who pass comment.

"Many people assume if you a single and child-free that you haven't met the right man yet. But if you are in a relationship, they ask 'when are you taking the next step?' A woman's fertility status is still very much considered public property. There are still assumptions about women's role in society, about families and about family size."

Mother on phone and holding crying girl To work or not? Mothers also find everyone has an opinion on their choices

Lisa Davies, 38, says the assumption is often that she cannot have a baby. "What I'm unhappy about is people looking at me and speaking to me - very often unashamedly - as if there is something wrong with me. As with other choices that you make, the key is it's not for everyone."

In the United States, New Yorker Melanie Notkin, founder of the Savvy Auntie website, wants a national day to celebrate child-free women who are loving aunts or godmothers.

"It would be a chance for these women to feel whole, for everything that they are, instead of having to focus on all the things they're not - ie mothers."

She says modern families need extra hands. "Mothers and fathers are working overtime. So an aunt who is able to give quality time to the family, especially to the children, is very welcome."

Research by Paola Buonadonna and Vibeke Venema, compiled by Megan Lane.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I don't mind what choice someone makes regarding having children. What bothers me is when non-parents criticise parents for being selfish, and vice versa. Yes, there is overpopulation to worry about, and some non-parents object to their taxes being used to provide free education, but there is also an ageing population who will rely on support from the next generation whether they realise it or not.

Kaylie, Runcorn, UK

At 29, married for more than 3 years and belonging to a very traditional South Asian family, the 'baby' question is a regular (almost daily) occurrence in my life. From friends to family, from my mother to complete strangers, everyone believes they have a right to question my decision of not wanting a child just yet. I was even told by one very wise distant relative that if I delayed the decision for too long, I would be punished by not being able to have a child any more. I am enjoying my life and career and think it will be unfair to my child if I bring him/her into this world without wanting to spend time raising it.

NS, England

At last a well balanced piece on the joy of not having children. Nope I do not hate children either but I have just chosen not to have any. I do watch other women when they go all broody over a baby and I do wonder why I do not feel like that. I have friends who have had "the female snip" because they have lost relationships as the men thought they would simply just change their mind about having children. I do still get the same old "but you will feel different when it is your own". Hang on, what if I don't? I can't take the baby back and ask for a refund now can I?

Kate, Bedford

It's interesting that nobody's asking why motherhood seems so unattractive to certain women in this day and age. Perhaps it's the lack of status that comes with it and the lack of real choices - usually full-time work and exhorbitant child care or stay at home dependency/poverty. Concerning career, most employers prefer to pay lip service to family friendly policies and flexible working hours. Perhaps it's the fact that that most women who choose to have children will see a sharp dip in their earnings from pregnancy onward. Women who've made the choice not to have children are choosing not to become the second class citizens society usually deems them once they procreate. The choice is a social rather than a biological one.

Jillian, Glasgow

I'm pregnant and can assure you this is just the other side of the coin that says everyone has the right to comment on your pregnancy symptoms, bump size and shape, birth choices, weight, parenting decisions. For some reason, every woman's fertility and whether she chooses to or is able to have children are open season for comment. It's not singling anyone out because they don't have children, it's just the same busybodies sticking their oar in, but I can see why it feels like it. Believe me, making the 'expected' choice doesn't get you off the hook.

Alex, London

Ms Notkin's idea is wonderful. Maiden aunts used to be an important and active force in children's lives - look at Jane Austen and her sister with their brothers' offspring. Contrary to popular myth, one in four women of their generation never married (and were therefore childless, of course). Yes, there were storybook figures of mad, baby-eating old spinsters, but somehow the small, post-industrial nuclear family seems to actually treat a milder form of that figure as actually existing.

Lindsay, Buxton, Derbyshire

I was told at the age of 30 I might never have children, something my husband and I chose not to share with the world. We decided that if we were blessed then we were lucky. However we had comments from people that we were selfish for not having children, people that didn't know or even think that the decision may have been taken out off our hands. I'm a loving aunty and would have loved my own children but at 35 was diagnosed with cancer and now know I never will. However after having a bad childhood I've come to realise there is more to being a Mum, especially a good one, than giving birth, and am hoping to adopt at some point. However at the moment my husband and I are enjoying living life. It's an individuals choice whether to have children or not and because someones decision not to must be respected the same as someones decision to have a child.

Jo, Manchester, UK

At the age of 27 I made the decision to get sterilised as I had never wanted children. It was the best decision for me and I have never regretted it since. What is annoying is the constant assumption I will regret it and end up going for a reversal. Nothing could be further from the truth and what does amuse me is when people ask me if I have any children and I answer "no, I can't have them" and then seeing the immediate pity look smile and say "oh, by choice of course".

Claire Warburton, Sandbach, United Kingdom

In Africa, to be unmarried places a question mark on you as a woman but to be without a child means you are not a woman. It doesn't matter whether the child is out of wedlock, being a mother is considered the passage rite to womanhood. If you decide against being a mother pray your partner agrees, else you've lost him. In fact, a woman would need a lot of courage to go through with this plan because the pressure would come from every side.

Theo, Ghana

I'm 40 and for as long as I can remember, the thought of having children has been my absolute worst nightmare. I've never made a secret of the fact, I relish my freedom, and I can honestly say that I have never experienced a single negative reaction from anyone. My sister is exactly the same. Whenever I read yet another article about these alleged "social pressures" to breed, I always wonder if I'm living on a different planet. Maybe these women just need to assert themselves and stop seeing themselves as victims...?

Sue, London

I hardly think you can liken the shock of telling friends that you do not want to have children to that of coming out as gay 40 - 50 years ago, or today for that matter. I'm sure thoughts of being attacked or told that your friendship means nothing, or the fear family members will disown you because of a lifestyle decision ever crosses the mind of a woman who doesn't want to have a child. How ridiculous.

Paul D, London

I got married last year and in the months prior to and just after the wedding I got asked several times a week if I was pregnant yet with a cheerful wink. Now a year and a half later the same people are giving me a sympathetic and pity-fillled smile when the subject of families come up. We just decided to enjoy our years of freedom a big longer, but everyone seems to have made their own judgement about our situation. I definitely feel pressured to procreate.

Susie, Oslo, Norway

I am 56 and have never wanted children. Having married at 19 it was assumed I was either pregnant or soon to be. A second marriage at age 40 is also child free from choice. And to the writer who said "it's my brother's job" - my Mum took great delight in her first grandchild but ruined my joy in the event by telling me that it wasn't the same as if her own daughter had given birth. Once upon a time 56 would have been to old to be bothered by such matters but medical advances; now means that some still tell me "it's not too late".

Sharyn Farnaby, Exeter, England

Will there be a second article called "The men who choose not to be fathers"? Women aren't the only people who can choose not to have children. The article treats an issue that is not limited to women in a rather old fashioned, sexist manner.

Pete Birkinshaw, Manchester

Well Pete, are men now able to get pregnant and give birth? If so, then there would be a second article on the topic. The issue resolves around a woman's choice to put HER body through pregnancy, or not. And if a woman should be pressurised to do so. So the article is not being sexist at all; it's about women being liberated and making their own choices.

Linda, London

I particularly dislike the way in which women without children in sitcoms always have to be "ditzy" - Liz Lemon, Miranda Hart, Allie McBeale, etc. Why? Is it an alternative personality to "mother"? It's just rubbish. Where are the "ditzy" single men?

Steve Hurley, Tooting, London, UK

Steve - Joey in Friends, Jeff in Coupling... there are loads more.

Barry Gale, Blackfriars, UK

A good number of people are simply curious about why a woman would choose to be child-free, at least I am. I don't presume that a woman who is child-free is any different from a woman who has children - they have both exercised the right to choose. However it's most unfair to label parents as selfish simply because they chose to have children. The aging generation will at some point need to be replaced so, while parents help by producing a younger generation, child-free women help to balance out the resultant population explosion.

Lara, Lagos, Nigeria

Due to my petite stature, I was medically advised not to have children, not because the actual birth would cause problems, but carrying a baby could give me health problems. When I married, I was told it wasn't a true marriage until "there was a baby in the house." My husband told the person who made the remark that my health came first, and was told we shouldn't have married if we were not going to have a family. The person concerned went away with a flea in her ear. Whether a couple have a child or not is their business and nobody else's.

Carole Weston, Leicester UK

The assumptions people make about childless women are hard to take. I'm 44 and only married for the first time last year. Everyone presumes I made the "choice" not to have children. I would have loved to be a mother, but the right time and man didn't come along until it was too late. I didn't choose to be childless, that choice was made for me.

Val, Birmingham

At last, an article which confronts the truth of many women's choice. Hard work through school and university mean different life choices for lots of women. How many who have children wish they could turn the clock back? This may be the source of the 'incredulity' that greets those who simply do no want to have children and are happy to admit it. Why would anyone ask or comment on such a personal decision?

Dawn, Michigan, US

I am such a woman who has decided not to have children. I'm very happy in my long-term relationship (my boyfriend has a son from a previous relationship and I get along fabulously with him when he stays with us). I am a loving and doting Aunt with three nieces, three nephews, one great-niece and three great-nephews (is it any wonder I chose not to have any of my own?). I do not hate children - in fact I get comments about how good I am with children and how I'd make a good mum. Although it is easier to be good with children that you can GIVE BACK!

Claire Wilkins, Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire

I often find the opposite is also true. I have childless friends who take great pleasure in showing me their latest gadgets and informing how much they enjoy their 'freedom' without kids. It seems OK for them to tell me that I am missing out, but I would never dream of suggesting they are missing out on the joy of having children.

Mark, Dartford Kent

There is always someone somewhere who has to pass comment. I for many years decided not to have children, but fell pregnant age 40, and don't regret it at all, quite the contrary. However those same people who repeatedly ask you when are you going to have ONE are now asking when the NEXT one is coming along...

Clare G, Worcester, UK

I am 40 and have been trying unsuccessfully for a baby for several years. It has been very inspiring to read this article and see these viewpoints as it effectively reiterates that women who are "child free", either willingly or unwillingly, are not actually an alien species. I get so tired of people telling me how great motherhood is and I'll spare you my reaction to one particular comment about "only feeling complete as a woman after giving birth". Last time I looked I had all the relevant components. Voluntarily or involuntarily, we are where we are and should be free to live our lives without feeling judged or coming under pressure to contribute to the gene pool.

Hilary Murgatroyd, Swindon, Wiltshire

I turned 40 this year and have never had any desire at all to have a baby, not even the slightest urge. I wouldn't know anything about feeling maternal, it has simply never happened to me. My sister and a couple of my friends of a similar age are the same as me. I have been in a long-term relationship since my teens and my partner feels the same. We enjoy our life as it is, free to do what we went, when we want. I would have hated a baby to come along and change all this. IF I had ever wanted a baby, I would have wanted to adopt, I wouldn't have liked pregnancy at all. But I have never come across anyone who questions my decision, nobody has ever told me that I should.

Lynda, Edinburgh

It's so refreshing to read this article and know I'm not alone. I am always told "oh, you'll change your mind when you get older" but people don't realise that I'm fast approaching 30. Children are simply not on my agenda; I have so many dreams and aspirations and it would be impossible to fulfil these if I procreated. I appreciate that things may change for me in the future and I may eventually want to have a child however this is my business and I wish that the people around me would respect that.

Kelly, Bournemouth

It works the other way too. If I say I would like to settle down, have a family and not pursue a career people look at me like I'm crazy. "Why did you go to university if you're just going to look after kids and do housework?" I think it's a shame that people can't accept other people's personal decisions.

Becky, Freiburg, Germany

The figures speak for themselves. When women are educated and emancipated, a significant number chose not to have children. Given that women are still often the main carer for children, an increasing number are recognising that this is an arduous task, along with working and doing the bulk of the housework. Of course this will cause some people concern, as it means women are chosing to opt out of the "traditional" role of mother & wife. It's not just children that women have to clean up after and care for: it's no coincidence that, on average, single women have longer lifespans than single men, and married women have shorter lifespans than married men. By the way, I prefer the term 'child-free' as 'childless' implies something is missing.

Vic Milbourne, Cumbria

I'm often amazed by people who ask these personal questions to women, often who are not even close to them, about whether or not they plan to have children etc. I would never ask such questions because (a) it may be that they are unable to have children and this is upsetting for them and (b) it's none of my business.

Sarah J, London

I don't have children, and have never felt the 'maternal' urge. I do however have three wonderful step-children and am (step)Granny to three beautiful girls thanks to my second marriage. I was once berated by a man, who told me that it was selfish of me not to have children. My response was that I felt it was a more selfish act to have a child, than not to, with the financial costs involved today, much of it falling on the state. I do find people are less surprised these days now I'm in my 40s. When I was first married (first husband) and in my early 20s, I got a much stronger reaction when telling people that I was not going to have children.

Hayley O'Shea, Bristol

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