Stylist speaks to seven women over 30 about their reasons for being childfree and the life lessons we can learn from them.
It’s a question every woman faces. Of course, you don’t have to answer it to anyone but yourself – having a child is perhaps the biggest and most personal decision a woman can make. But that doesn’t stop hopeful parents, inquisitive colleagues and total strangers at dinner parties from asking it. Women’s bodies are always up for a bit of light discussion in this patriarchal world, after all, especially when it comes to making babies.
Any woman who has recently crossed over into her 30s will confirm that the same inquiry is made more fiercely and frequently around this time (damn you, totally unfair biological clock). But there are so many reasons why women are childfree in their 30s and beyond. Some physically cannot get pregnant. Others simply aren’t in a financial position to even consider starting a family. There are those who just don’t want kids or don’t see it as a priority in life. And plenty of women are waiting for the right relationship.
But whatever the reason is for a woman being childfree, societal pressures mean that we’re always made to feel like something is wrong with us. It’s an observation that activist Gloria Steinem, who never had children, recently shared in a podcast interview, saying: “People assume I must be unhappy or unfulfilled… in a way that they wouldn’t assume about a man.”
It’s perhaps little wonder, then, that clinical psychologist and My Easy Therapy founder Dr Michaela Dunbar sees a lot of 30-something women talk about their confusion over the decision to have or not have a baby in her therapy room.
According to Michaela, they are very conscious of their “biological clocks” ticking away. For women who are certain they do want children, this worry about starting a family “before it’s too late” is somewhat understandable. But Michaela warns that this anxiety can lead to people choosing the wrong romantic partners, and she reminds clients that things are changing, women are delaying pregnancy and more choices are available.
And to the women who say they don’t want children, or aren’t sure if they want children, but feel pressured by society to have them, Michaela says: “Make sure everything you do is in line with your own personal values and no one else’s. If you spend your life living in line with another person’s values, you run the risk of never being truly happy. If you’re unclear about what those values are, sit down, have a think and write them down. Imagine you are at your 85th birthday and it’s your turn to give a speech – how would you want to be able to describe your life? Figure that out, then do that.”
Michaela also says the fear of “regretting” your decision shouldn’t rule your present life. “The idea of regret is a future-focused story that you can choose or choose not to give your attention to,” she says. “Trying to create certainty by thinking about the ‘what ifs’ takes away from the life you are actually living now. It can also make you act in ways that are actually more unhelpful for your wellbeing.
“Think about what it is that appeals to you about having children. If you think of something, then see if you can replicate that elsewhere. If you cannot think of anything but the fear of ‘regret’, then think about whether you want to live your life ruled by fear.”
If you’re still unsure about your childfree status, that’s OK. If you don’t have a maternal urge to start a family, that’s completely fine too. If you want to have a baby but can’t do it right now, don’t let the anxiety force you into making bad decisions that will seriously affect other areas of your life. It’s totally normal to question yourself and feel confused and unsure of what you want. But that pressure to have answers should only ever come from you and nobody else.
With all this in mind, Stylist spoke with seven childfree women who shared their very honest and open stories.
“My partner’s addiction recovery has put our family plans on hold”
Sally, 31, doesn’t have any children but she does want to have them in the future. However, her boyfriend is currently dealing with a gambling addiction, which means they have put family plans on hold.
“I do feel the pressure to be at a certain stage in my life, but right the most important thing to us is my partner’s recovery and my own recovery from the pain this addiction has caused. We have bought a puppy this week though! So it’s one step at a time.”
“People kept telling me I’d change my mind”
Laura is a 30-something who’s always known she didn’t want children, but she questioned her decision when people started telling her she’d “change her mind” during conversations throughout her 20s.
“It made me think there was something wrong with me and I was scared that I would wake up one day and want children after feeling so strongly that I don’t,” she recalls. “It made me doubt that I knew myself. It also upset me that people didn’t think my choice was a valid one, or one that I could be happy with.”
She adds: “I met my partner when I was 30 and he didn’t want to have children and I remember him telling me that and feeling relief that we were a good fit. When I turned 35, I noticed that people stopped asking me about whether or not I was going to change my mind.
“I’m really comfortable with my choice. I still seek out the stories of childfree-by-choice women, mostly because they often have very interesting lives, but I know that it is the right thing for me and that is what counts.”
“I did want children but I had to prioritise my health”
Joe, 41, was never particularly maternal (she preferred animals!) but she did find herself wanting to start a family when she got married. After three years of negative pregnancy tests and ensuring they were doing all they could, Joe and her partner Jon realised things weren’t going to happen naturally. However, it was at this time that Joe was diagnosed with myalgic encephalitis and fibromyalgia and Jon was diagnosed with Graves’ disease.
“We knew we didn’t want to pass on any health issues, or risk being unable to look after a child ourselves if we had flare ups, so the idea of children faded into the background and we focused on our dogs, chickens and ducks instead! I know our parents have missed out on grandchildren and there are times I feel a pull on my heartstrings that we maybe were shortchanged by not having children but then we have been able to help people in our jobs and focus on improving our own health to enable us to continue working.
“We don’t dwell on what could have been, but it is something that grabs my attention on the odd occasion.”
“I was meant to be an aunt or a great babysitter”
Alison is 48 and childfree by choice. She has kidney disease but says that doesn’t even play a factor in her decision. When she married her husband 30 years ago, neither of them wanted children. However, they agreed that if one of them changed their mind, they should tell the other.
“We agreed that if we decided to be parents, it’s a full-time job, and that if we weren’t 100% happy with that then we shouldn’t bring another human being into the world,” she says. “Ultimately, I think that I’m just one of those people who was meant to be an aunt or a great babysitter. Leave your child with me for 24 hours and they’ll have a great time. But the best bit is handing the children back to their parents at the end of the day.
“Wanting to start a family of my own became all-encompassing”
Jen, 36, spent most of her 20s not being particularly fussed about having children, but her feelings changed in her early 30s when she separated from her husband and started to feel lonely.
“Wanting to start a family of my own became all-encompassing,” she says. “Hundreds of dates and a few failed relationships later, it was becoming increasingly clear that finding someone who could be a good partner and even better father would be a struggle. In many ways, I put up with more questionable behaviour than I should have to keep the dream of motherhood alive.”
But a recent pregnancy scare made Jen re-evaluate things.
A few months into the first lockdown, Jen met a guy who she started an intense relationship with. After a two-week holiday together when the travel restrictions lifted, it became clear they weren’t on the same page and he called things off. The reason he gave was Jen’s age, because she was “firmly in geriatric pregnancy territory” and he didn’t want to waste her time. But later, after feeling nauseous and sensitive for a while, Jen thought she was pregnant.
“While there is nothing that I wanted in the last half of the decade more than to have a child, at that point there was nothing I needed to see more than a ‘negative’ on the pregnancy test,” she says. “My approach had been wrong the entire time. I subscribed to what was expected of me as a woman and allowed myself to feel incomplete without versions of me running around in the world. I still don’t know if I had a miscarriage, a phantom pregnancy, or something else altogether, but I’m beyond grateful to move forward with my life with a new awareness. Being a parent doesn’t have to be my life, and not allowing my biological clock to define me and my choices has given me more freedom than I ever thought was possible.”
“I sometimes think I’d have an easier life if I said I wanted children”
Ali is a 39-year-old whose tokophobia – a fear of pregnancy – is the main reason she never wanted to have a baby. She has faced a lot of negative questions and comments such as “what are you going to do with your life?” and “you’ll never be fulfilled”. But Ali is now very secure with her choice and has even set up a Twitter account, @childfreebychoice, to help break the stigma around childfree women.
“If I am honest, I wish I actually wanted children,” she says. “As I feel I would be accepted by society and face less negative prejudices, I would ‘fit in’ with certain friendship groups and would not have lost some of my friends. But I am happy with my choice and recognise all the things I can do because I don’t have children and heck, I love my life!
“Over the years I have felt very alone in my childfree status, but more recently, I have connected with groups online and read several books and recognise that I am not alone in my childfree status and many of us share similar experiences.”
“I was born without a uterus”
Jean, 63, was tested at a hospital when she was 14-years-old because her periods hadn’t yet started. She was shocked to discover that she was born without a uterus, and was diagnosed with MRKH many years later. Although it seriously affected her self-esteem and self-worth as a teenager, she says that her outlook started to change over time, and she threw herself into building a successful career.
“The toughest thing in my life was feeling so alone with my condition – counselling at the time of diagnosis would have helped. I now help out as a peer counsellor for young girls who are recently diagnosed,” she says.
“And for any girl recently diagnosed I’d say you are not alone and there is masses of help available. Medical science has improved so much since when I was a girl and not only is there help now to deal with the emotional impact of not being able to bear children, but there are other solutions that weren’t available in my day, such as IVF and surrogacy.”
So, do you want to have children? It’s not always a simple yes or no answer, as the above stories prove. So many of us don’t even have an answer at all. And there’s no shame in that. In fact, it’s completely normal.