Women Who Don’t Want Children

Women Who Don’t Want Children

1995 – Published in Vogue

Neat piles of holiday photos taken on a motorcycle tour of the South of France are stacked carefully on a low coffee table, a long letter to a friend awaits completion, Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover, all ? pages of it lies half read on the creamy unmarked sofa. In Biddy Fisher’s Bloomsbury flat an atmosphere of peace, privacy, and, well, childlessness, prevails. It is in stark contrast to my own baby-bombed home, the desk barricaded by toys, the suspicious stains on the carpet, Mickey Mouse shrines and all.

Biddy, who is 42, has no regrets about her childless state, “I always knew that I would not be happy having children. For me it is overridingly the need for freedom and space. I have never wanted to take on the responsibility for anyone other than myself. Also I’m a perfectionist. If I had had children I would probably have done it terribly badly, they would never have had the attention I would have wanted to give them.” She articulates her feelings carefully, “I really don’t feel any sense of loss. I don’t feel I need to put forward any notions of compensation. ”
Biddy is a University librarian and spends half her time in London and half in Norwich, where her husband, John Tarrant, is deputy vice chancellor of the University. They are both dedicated motorcyclists and take every opportunity they can to zip on their leathers and cruise off together on a giant BMW, unencumbered by family parephenalia.

Women today no longer assume motherhood as their inevitable fate, and an increasing number are choosing to remain childless. After 30 years of the pill, and a dramatic improvement in the quality of life and prospects for many women, we are the first generation of women who can choose not to have children. For the first time in history children are an option, even perhaps a luxury, and no longer the raison d’etre for most people. Childless women are no longer merely objects of sympathy. Nevertheless for a woman to consciously buck the overwheming pressure to procreate is a major step, a conviction they must feel very strongly. Linda Grant, journalist and author of Sexing the Millenium is 42, single, childless and very happy to remain so. “I would rather win the Booker prize than have a baby,” she says, stressing her own need for space as a major reason for her choice, “I need chunks of time on my own, otherwise I find I get very stressed. And I cherish an element of spontaneity in my life, to just walk out of the door, go off to America, whatever. I just couldn’t do that with a child around.” She describes what was for her a decisive moment in her late 20s, “I remember sitting on a roof during the summertime and suddenly realising that we were the first generation of women who could still be sexual and not have children. I think before that I had still thought that it was somehow vaguely inevitable.”

The next millenium will be distinguished among many other things by a new generation of women who are healthy, educated, liberated, self-supporting and enjoying greater longevity than ever before, without children and grand-children to absorb the best of them. There could be great positive benefits for our society from women who are able to focus their creativity and energies on other things, from art, medicine and politics, to fell walking, shiatsu or growing giant marrows, developing potential that might otherwise remain dormant, and channelling energies that would traditionally be primarily absorbed by children.

Helen Taylor is 42 and a senior lecturer in American literature at the University of Warwick, “I’m very content not to have children. I’m happy to be in a partnership of two adults, with lots of space, and lots of time for myself. The benefit has clearly been that I have had a lot more time, and money and energy than most of the women I know.” Without children of her own she has been able to devote much more time to her academic career, and is particularly proud of spearheading the introduction of women’s studies into the academic world, “Women’s studies is still one of the main sites in the curriculum where women can make sense of their own lives. What could be more important than that?”

Contrary to the popular impression of a generation of older women desperately seeking infertility treatment and bemoaning the biological clock, (and feckless teenage mothers at the other end of the spectrum) there is growing evidence of a significant number of women today who prefer to remain childless. According to recent research by Bedfordshire GP, Dr Gina Johnson, the numbers of women actively choosing not to have children is greatly under-estimated. In her study of 474 women born in 1950, now aged 43, 12% have remained childless. Only one in 11 of these women were actually infertile, and Doctor Johnson concludes that 87% of the sample who were childless had decided positively against parenthood. In an earlier 1987 survey which compared this group with women born in 1935, Johnson concluded that “childlessness was considerably more common in the younger age group (14.3%) largely due to the remarkable increase in voluntary childlessness which we estimated to be the case in 11% of our 35 year olds.” Although surprisingly little research has been done into the subject, a US survey from the early 80s suggested that as many as 30% of young American women would never have children.

There are many varied reasons cited for choosing not to rear children, from lack of a suitable partner to concern about environmental and social problems, or simple lack of interest in children, but an overwhelming factor is the desire for space and freedom to pursue other creative activities or concentrate on a career. Another recent survey, by the National Council of Women of Great Britain, showed that getting on in a job was more important than having children for nearly 80% of the women under 35 who were interviewed.

Gina Johnson explains her own initiative, “I became intrigued by the number of women coming into my surgery continuing to take the pill well into their 40s, and I discovered there was almost no research into why women were not having children.” Using recent figures from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, Johnson estimated that of all women born in England and Wales in 1950 42% were childless at age 25, and 15% at age 40. Of women born in 1965, 60% were still childless at 25. If this trend continues says Johnson, “There are important implications for society. It is pretty likely the birth rate will drop, and society and the structure of the family will have to adjust to childless couples. Moreover it raises fundamental questions about motherhood as the ultimate fulfillment for women.”

There is also the economic factor. Women without children have a lot more money to spend (estimates of the cost of rearing a child start from £125,000 over an 18 year period) Like the pink pound of gay spending power, the consumer profile of childless women could have a dramatic effect- one that the back-to-the-kitchen conservatives keen to stimulate the economy might consider. No doubt car manufacturers and coffee producers are already analysing the market.

Yet despite the apparent trend, childlessness today remains almost a taboo subject. People are always a little shocked when I confess to my own ambivalence. I have had one child quite late, I was 37 when he was born, and I have often found it very difficult to cope with the conflicting demands of work and child. Often it seems neither gets proper attention. Sometimes I feel as if I have a ball and chain round my ankle and I regret not the child but the life I had before. You can love your child without loving the lifestyle that goes with it. Indeed, a 1993 Mintel survey on Family Lifestyles suggested that a quarter of all the parents interviewed yearned for freedom from the responsibilities that children had brought.

I find myself both envying and admiring women who have made the choice to remain childless and resisted the pressures both internal and societal to fulfill the traditional maternal role. According to Helen Taylor, “It is going against the grain, I feel it does set me apart from other women. To put it bluntly I sometimes think my friends with children would find it easier to handle if I couldn’t have children.” It is as if it is almost indecent to suggest that women can be happy without children. 40 year old novelist Joan Smith, who has never wanted children, confirms this, “The cultural pressure to have children is absolutely enormous. Both men and women often seem very threatened by my choice, ” she says,” Someone once even suggested to me that I should pretend to look sad about it when I was asked why I didn’t have children! ” She explains, “Childbirth is still seen as the defining act of female identity. Childless but sexually active women carry the stigma of having refused to undertake the defining act of female sacrifice.” Once the rite of passage of childbirth has been enacted, it is even harder for women to admit any regrets or reservations about motherhood; Joan Smith finds it is often women who feel most ambivalent themselves who are especially hostile about the choice she has made. Once women, and sometimes especially men, become parents they seem to collude in encouraging everyone else to join them, rarely admitting to any negative experiences. Once they have two children they insist that two is definitely best…

But for women, despite significant advances in the last 30 years or so, it is still very difficult to combine child-rearing with high powered or creative work. (It is not easy to combine with low paid work either.) Women MPs constantly bemoan the male oriented parliamentary structure, tailor made to disrupt even the most highly organised domestic household. Of 60 women M.P.s 24 do not have children. Nicola Cutapan, chair of the 300 Group, the pressure group to put more women in parliament, is a prospective candidate herself and at 35 feels the dilemma of when and whether to have children acutely. “For women actively pursuing a political career it is well nigh impossible to have children,” she says. “It is a decision that a man facing a political career simply doesn’t have to make.”

Any work involving travel or unsocial hours is infinitely harder to combine with child-rearing. American travel photographer, Lyle Lawson, spends six months of the year on the road, “I realised early on that being a mother is hard work, and very time consuming if you are going to do it right. Anybody can be a mother, it’s 30 seconds of fun, and 18 years of hard labour. For me freedom is important, but it is most of all the hard work and commitment that was the main reason I didn’t have children. There is no way that anyone who is a loving caring mother could have my job.”

For many artists and writers full expression of their creativity would be impossible with children. It is often noted how few top ranking women artists and writers in the past had children; Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, Katherine Mansfield, Viriginia Woolf, George Eliot, Anaïs Nin, Jean Rhys, Eudora Welty, Iris Murdoch, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, Rosa Bonheur…In the debate about gender, culture and creativity, the question of “books versus babies” is pivotal. Whether this is because the two impulses, to create art and to create children are incompatible, or because traditionally women have been primarily responsible for children and have simply had no time or energy to devote to art, the fact is that it is incredibly hard for women to fully explore their creative potential and rear children.

Novelist Candia McWilliam was recently quoted as saying, “With the birth of each child you lose two novels.” Joan Smith, whose most recent novel is “What Men Say”, reflects that although she is pleased to see that some women writers do successfully combine books and children, “I just can’t imagine doing it. I think, certainly in the early years, there is a kind of turning in on the self and away from the world which is incompatible with the creative process.”

It is in part the problem that Virginia Woolf named, “the angel in the house,” the sense of responsibility most women feel to look after family, husband or household before their own concerns. Rebecca West commented poignantly in an interview just before she died, “I’ve always found I’ve had too many family duties to enable me to write enough. Oh men, whatever they say, don’t really have any barrier between them and their craft and certainly I had.”

Sylvia Plath’s experience of the conflicting demands of her poetry and her family was tragic. While still a student she wrote, “A woman has to sacrifice all claims to femininity and family to be a writer. ” She found it impossible to combine her work with the traditional role of wife and mother, and eventually tucked her children into bed for the last time and stuck her head in the gas oven. “Perfection is terrible. It cannot have children. It tamps the womb.” she wrote.

Novelist Alice Walker was once asked whether she thought women artists should have children; she replied vehemently, “Yes – but only one.” (It is interesting to note how many women do stop at one child when they realise the impact of motherhood.) The following poem is palpable evidence of Walker’s own ambivalence,

Now that the book is finished,

now that I know my characters will live,

I can love my child again.

She need sit no longer

at the back of my mind

the lonely sucking of her thumb

a giant stopper in my throat.

Virginia Woolf herself always saw the motherhood versus creativity question as central to her relationship with her sister, mother and artist Vanessa Bell, explored in Jane Dunn’s book, “A Very Close Conspiracy: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.” “You have the children,” Woolf wrote, “the fame by rights belongs to me.” She saw childlessness as an essential component of her creativity, “These efforts of mine to communicate with people are partly childlessness and the horror that sometimes overcomes me.”

Childless women also tend to have a refreshingly unsentimental view of the realities of child-rearing, as if they have assessed the process step by step before rejecting it. Biddy Fisher comments, “I sometimes think about waking up with a hangover and how awful it would be if there was a child waiting to be fed! I’m glad it’s not up to me to pack sandwiches, and make party dresses, expected to be the fount of all knowledge, draw pictures of tractors, make everything feel better.”

Helen Taylor remembers her mother’s life as a constant round of washing, “All I remember was total dedication to household duties, total exhaustion, it was all about housework, getting up early, going to bed late, and always having a pile of laundry. “In her case her mother always advised against parenthood, “That did influence me, and also relieved me, since so often the pressure for children does come from the mother.” There is a certain irony nevertheless in that without a family of her own Helen can now spend much more time caring for her mother as she gets older. She adds with dry humour, “The negative side of motherhood was possibly over-emphasised for me by years of consciousness raising groups- women with children saw it as a place to off load all their distress, so I listened to endless complaints about everything from childbirth to washing up!”

For Helen and many of her generation the women’s movement came just in time. She acknowledges that had she been born a few years earlier she may well have followed the traditional path of marriage and motherhood. But she went to America for two years after leaving university at the end of the Sixties,”It was a time of high energy, it radicalised me and I came back a feminist. I felt I had been born at the right time. It made me feel that whatever I did it wasn’t going to be getting married and having children.”

Until there is genuinely shared responsibility for child rearing, for most women their creativity will continue to be dissipated by the demands of motherhood. As Rebecca West complained, it is a question that simply does not arise for men. Nobody ever asks whether a man can be a creative writer and a father. Often indeed it is a wife’s role to make it possible.

Men do also have a choice about parenthood, but it is not a choice they have to make consciously all the time. If a woman does not make a conscious decision to avoid it, she will almost certainly find herself pregnant. Women can’t just ignore the issue as men can. And for men the possibility of fatherhood always remains, however old they get. Moreover while women are stigmatised for not having children, men are not. There is often even a sense that they have some how been canny enough to escape the fate of fatherhood.

It is sad that one of the most common criticisms levelled at childless women is that they are selfish and lack the capacity for intimacy. But childless relationships or marriages can be especially tender, as the partners “parent” each other. “It is true,” says Helen Taylor, “We do parent each other. My partner is very nurturing, he does all the cooking, he cooks nice things for me to cheer me up. I massage him and drive around.” (She has recently, I note, found time to learn shiatsu massage.) And for many women their friendships with other women in particular provide a profound and cherished level of intimacy.

Developing significant connections with other people’s children can be important too. Linda Grant stresses, “I do have a strong relationship with my nephew. I put a lot of effort into it. I think it is very important that I am there as a buffer between him and his parents. Often we don’t agree, and I can take his side.” She adds, with feeling, that she thinks parenting ought to be taught as part of the education system. In her awareness of the challenge of parenthood Grant is typical of many voluntarily childless women.

Until there is genuinely shared responsibility for child rearing, for most women their creativity will continue to be dissipated by the demands of motherhood. As Rebecca West complained, it is a question that simply does not arise for men. Nobody ever asks whether a man can be a creative writer and a father. Often indeed it is a wife’s role to make it possible.

Men do also have a choice about parenthood, but it is not a choice they have to make consciously all the time. If a woman does not make a conscious decision to avoid it, she will almost certainly find herself pregnant. Women can’t just ignore the issue as men can. And for men the possibility of fatherhood always remains, however old they get. Moreover while women are stigmatised for not having children, men are not. There is often even a sense that they have some how been canny enough to escape the fate of fatherhood.

It is sad that one of the most common criticisms levelled at childless women is that they are selfish and lack the capacity for intimacy. But childless relationships or marriages can be especially tender, as the partners “parent” each other. Until there is genuinely shared responsibility for child rearing, for most women their creativity will continue to be dissipated by the demands of motherhood. As Rebecca West complained, it is a question that simply does not arise for men. Nobody ever asks whether a man can be a creative writer and a father. Often indeed it is a wife’s role to make it possible.

Men do also have a choice about parenthood, but it is not a choice they have to make consciously all the time. If a woman does not make a conscious decision to avoid it, she will almost certainly find herself pregnant. Women can’t just ignore the issue as men can. And for men the possibility of fatherhood always remains, however old they get. Moreover while women are stigmatised for not having children, men are not. There is often even a sense that they have some how been canny enough to escape the fate of fatherhood.
It is sad that one of the most common criticisms levelled at childless women is that they are selfish and lack the capacity for intimacy. But childless relationships or marriages can be especially tender, as the partners “parent” each other. As Joan Smith pertinently expresses it, “It is not a failure of heart.”