From not feeling maternal to fear of climate catastrophe, Stylist meets four women choosing to go child-free.
It’s official: the birth rate is falling. Recent figures from the Office of National Statistics show a decline of 4.3% between 2012 and 2013,and another 2.5% between 2016 and 2017. Historically, lowered birth rates are associated (and not always positively) with fertility problems, or women “putting their careers first” – but the world is changing, and so are our reasons for remaining child-free.
We often compare modern families to previous generations, so what about those of us who choose the child-free path? Because, in 2019, that’s also not so black and white. We’ve come a long way from reproducing being a built-in assumption. Today, conversations about having or not having kids are more nuanced and varied; they range from the personal and political to the financial and environmental.
It’s why we talked to four deliberately child-free women – and discovered their motivations are far more complex than the damning career woman or biology rhetoric we’re often sold. These are their stories:
Daisy Buchanan, 34, journalist and author, Kent
I won’t be having children – mainly because I simply can’t afford to. I’m a self-employed writer, and my husband is freelance, too. Although we’re saving up to buy a house, our precarious employment means any savings double as a security blanket. Recently, I lost a lot of regular work – and was owed a great deal of money – and ended up dipping into our house savings in desperation. The only good thing to have come out of this is that I didn’t have any children depending on me, too.
If my husband and I had kids, we’d need to shell out for a bigger house, more food and other expenses. Then we’d enter that economic conundrum so many of my parent friends seem to face, where most of the money we earned would be spent on the childcare we needed while we worked. On the flip-side, neither of us would be able to afford to stop working in order to cut childcare costs.
It might be different if we lived in, for example, Scandinavia where mothers and fathers receive well-paid parental leave and heavily subsidised childcare as standard. But for every working mother I know here, the hobbling cost of childcare is a real challenge, and the cause of much worry.
I spent my 20s barely earning anything, and experiencing constant anxiety about money. I’m lucky that my career has progressed in my 30s and, when I found myself not-completely-broke for the first time in my life, I realised I could choose between having a family and never not being broke, or staying child-free and having a bit of financial security.
Some people tell me, “You’ll regret it!”, but how can anyone know that? Every now and then I feel disappointed in myself for failing to want the thing that society has drummed into my head that I, as a woman, am supposed to want. But that’s when I have to remind myself it is a choice – and mine is not inherently better or worse than anyone else’s.
Kavita Russo*, 47, business analyst, London
When I was younger, I always had a baby on my hip at family gatherings and worked as an au pair in France during my gap year. I adored the kids I looked after, and yet somehow I think I knew even then that having children of my own simply didn’t interest me.
By the time I met the man who’s now my husband, Pete, in my first year of university, the idea to be child-free had solidified. And it turned out Pete had no particular yearning to pass on his genes either.
We’re both keen travellers, we eat out lots, and I love throwing myself into my hobbies and getting lost in a good book – things that, as parent friends tell me, can become compromised when you have kids. Having children just didn’t fit into how I envisaged my life. I wanted the freedom that being child-free would bring – a higher disposable income, and the option to make spontaneous life-changes, like recently buying a house in Monmouthshire.
We’ve never regretted our child-free decision but after we got married, I (more than Pete) got the usual patronising bullshit about how I’d change my mind once my body-clock kicked in – as though humans haven’t evolved beyond making decisions based solely on our animal instincts. People also assumed that I hated children, or was scared of them – once, I was even asked if I was a sociopath.
I’m second-generation British Indian, and I found that Indian relatives in particular couldn’t fathom my decision. They kept asking if I was having trouble conceiving – a question I felt was particularly inappropriate, because if I had been having fertility problems, this would have been enormously painful to discuss. While my parents may secretly have hoped for grandchildren, they never placed that burden of expectation on me, for which I’m grateful.
I still get a bit of aggression from people who insist that having children was the only way to “understand love” or find their “true purpose”. Comments like this affect me less and less as I get older – I put it down to narrowmindedness. They’re unable to accept that some of us find love, purpose and happiness in other ways. A few friends sadly ‘dropped’ me once they had children, but Pete and I enjoy great relationships with the much-loved children who are already in our lives; our nieces and nephews, the children of our good friends, and extended family. We’ve never regretted deciding against having children, and this year we’ll celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.
Clare Phipps, 30, researcher, London
I joined the BirthStrike movement – a community which supports people who choose not to reproduce due to climate change – because I feel strongly that I shouldn’t bring a child into our current society.
I love kids, but I’m also very concerned about the climate crisis. While I believe governments and large corporations should shoulder the responsibility for tackling this crisis, as an individual I try to do what I can: I’ve been vegetarian for most of my life, and try to eat vegan. I don’t drive, I buy secondhand when I can, and restrict how much I fly. So it seems logical for me, personally, to not double my emissions by having a child and adding another over-consumer to the population.
More than that, if I did have a child, I just don’t know how I’d explain why the world they were living in was being threatened with serious environmental catastrophe – especially as I don’t know how much worse the situation would be by the time they were my age. Even if they were shielded from the worst of climate change because they lived in the west, they’d still have to watch their fellow humans being killed by flash floods and extreme weather events across the globe. And all because the generations before them couldn’t get their act together.
That’s why it’s important for me to belong to BirthStrike, and be part of a group of people who have come to the conclusion that the challenges we will be facing as our climate breaks down is the reason they do not want to have more, or any children. Of course, I respect someone else’s decision to have children, but I’m happy living with my partner, Matt – and our two house rabbits.
Lisa Kovac**, 29, commercial copywriter, London
I have had emetophobia – an intense, overwhelming anxiety about vomiting – for most of my adult life. When I was a teenager I had severe OCD, would never eat out and only ate from my list of “safe” foods. Since then, I’ve had various forms of therapy, recovered from OCD, and managed to travel the world, live abroad and develop a passion for food.
However, the emetophobia still lingers in the background. If someone is sick near me, the anxiety that I might have caught something will last for days. An outbreak of norovirus feels, to me, like a zombie apocalypse, and I can only get by with a carefully executed system of handwashing and avoiding anyone who looks peaky.
I fear having children would push my anxiety over the edge. Not just because of the thought of pregnancy (being out of control of my body) and getting morning sickness or the possibility of throwing up during birth, but I just don’t know if I could look after my child if they were vomiting. Even if an understanding partner was there to deal with all the sick for me, the anxiety about when it would happen might be too much.
I actually prefer not to talk about my phobia as I feel it legitimises it, so not many people know that I don’t want children. Some friends are aware I’m not a big ‘baby person’ – and the fact that I’m single probably helps with expectations, as there’s no obvious ‘next step’. However, I have found dating difficult in the past as the men I’ve met generally do want children.
When I was younger, I assumed that having children would be something to worry about way in the future. But by my mid-20s, I still felt terrified at the thought of making that decision. Plus, I didn’t want children enough. Now that I’ve actively decided not to have kids, I feel as though I have more control over my life, and my mental health has improved as a result. Some people might find my situation a little sad, or even extreme, but I think these days it’s more acceptable for a woman to be child-free.
*Surname has been changed
** Name has been changed
Images: Getty, supplied