Last year the UK census revealed that 55% of ‘cohabiting families’ were child-free. In wider Europe, and America too, more women than ever are choosing not to have children.
Yet despite the stats, women who do make the choice to remain child-free - for any number of wide-ranging reasons – often find themselves under a harsh spotlight.
Hard lines of questioning are common, as is disbelief and disapproving tuts. There’s even a point blank refusal by some, to accept that these intelligent, professional women are capable of knowing their own minds, wants and needs, when it comes to the big baby question.
“You’ll change your mind when it’s yours.”
“You’ll regret it when you’re older.”
“It’s what your body was made to do.”
Any of those sound familiar?
A quick look at the way women from Jennifer Aniston to Cameron Diaz and Kim Cattrall are held up as ‘other’ by tabloid media, infers plenty about the way in which society views the child-free (even the semantics are judgemental: think of the widespread and emotionally-loaded term 'childless').
Motherhood is assumed for all of us, even from childhood, and breaking away from that narrative really does require bravery.
So in a bid to encourage more positive discourse around the topic, and to well and truly quash the 'too selfish' notion, we’ve asked three inspiring women to share their stories and experiences.
“In my heart of hearts, I don’t want a baby”
Jamie Klingler, 37, is the publishing manager here at Stylist. She says that as she gets older, the more she realises not having children really is the best choice for her.
I moved to London from America when I was 23, and guess I just always thought that I’d get to the point where I had kids, because it was just what everyone did. But the older I got, the less I wanted them.
I believe it takes a village, and although I have a great group of friends here, I don’t have the village that it would require. I can’t imagine raising a kid away from my family in America, but I don’t want to move back. Also, I don’t really have much interest in babies.
That isn’t to say I’m not the part of other people’s villages. I’ve got two godchildren in America, I’m an aunt to three kids and the unofficial auntie to about 15 of my friends’ children – two of whom are in London, and all of whom I love dearly. I see the two London munchkins regularly, we’re holidaying with one of them next month. I love seeing them, hanging out with them, playing with them and buying them presents, but I’ve never seen how I could do it - or how it would make me happy.
I’ve been with my partner for about four years, we’ve always been on the same page and talked about it numerous times. Many told me I would change my mind as I got older, but if anything, I’ve realised that it is the best choice for us.
Has it been an easy decision? Yes and no. I feel like I’ve betrayed my sex a bit by not taking the opportunity to reproduce. I’ve had a great career and I am with someone I'm in love with, so it seems textbook that that's what we do next. But in my heart of hearts, I don’t want a baby.
Yes, I’d be interested to see what my partner and I’s child would look like, and if they would be smart and funny, but not enough that I will actually create a mini-me. Actually, I feel like that would be the selfish bit – for me, having a baby just to see what they are like is the most ridiculous reason to do it. It’s also not been easy in that my mom has been ill for the past four years, and it saddens me that I have chosen not to give her a grandchild.
A lot of people that peripherally know me have have made comments about how maternal I am with McNulty, my seven-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and claim that she is my replacement baby. They like to tell me I’m just denying the fact that I want children, for my partner’s sake. But that isn’t the case. Having a dog has been hugely important to my life and I love and adore her dearly – but it isn’t a child.
My best friends all applaud my decision, and they quite like that I spoil their children without trying to be something I’m not. They tease me about how much time I have to travel, read and go to restaurants. As my best friend said, parenthood isn’t something you should enter into lightly. It’s absolutely hard and it infiltrates every aspect of your life. If you aren’t sure, why risk upending everything for something that other people think you should do?
Everyone who loves me knows that this hasn't been a quick decision, it’s not something I haven’t thought about – and they also realise that I won’t be announcing a baby at any point. When strangers pass judgement, I usually just correct them and move on.
Deciding whether to have children or not isn’t anyone’s business but your own. I don’t think women should do it for anyone else; not to improve a relationship or because some invisible checklist says that it's what you're ‘meant’ to do.
Being a loved auntie is great, it’s an important role and one that can be influential in the lives of the kids you love. It isn’t being a mother, but I don’t believe we are all meant or required to be one.
“Having a baby isn’t something you try out to see if it suits you”
It’s interesting how often child-free people are asked to give reasons for not wanting kids, as if wanting them is a universal desire and you must have cast-iron explanations for feeling otherwise. Nobody goes up to pregnant women and asks: ‘Why do you want one of those?’
Realistically, the reasons you want or don’t want something are complex and emotional, and trying to explain them to people usually means trying to guess at an answer they’ll accept, rather than giving real reasons.
I just don’t want kids, at all. I don’t want to be a mother. I don’t want to see what a mashup of me and my partner would look like. I don’t want to spend my evenings and weekends caring for a tiny person, I don’t want one of us to take time out of our careers, I don’t want to spend the time or money or energy. It’s a lot of work, and that’s only worth it if you really, really want a child, and I don’t even slightly want one.
I feel the same about having kids as I do about climbing up mountains. For some people, the effort and exertion is totally worth it for the view at the top. Me, I’m happier flying over in a helicopter.
For me, it has never been a choice. It's never been ‘do I want kids or don’t I?’, as much as ‘will I ever want them?’ When I was younger I assumed the desire would just appear one day, but it never has, and I've subsequently realised that’s because it’s not a part of who I am.
I’ve had so much nasty feedback about the fact that I don’t want kids. This is partly because I’ve written about it in the press, but also just from people I’ve spoken to in real life. People have called me selfish, stupid, naïve, in need of mental help, and they’ve made all kinds of judgments about my parents.
Well, my three siblings were raised the same way as me, and they all want kids. What do you say to that, Mr. Armchair Psychologist?
I honestly can’t wrap my head around why anyone would be angry about someone else’s decision. If I had kids when I didn’t want them, and raised them badly, I’d understand it. But choosing not to have something I don’t want is sensible, surely? It doesn’t mean I think that you were wrong to have kids. It simply means that I don’t want them myself.
In a lot of ways, the reactions to child-free people reminds me of the way some people respond to legalising gay marriage. Even though it’s a decision taken by consenting, informed adults and does not affect them in any way at all, they want to interfere and impose their own life choices on someone else.
Newsflash: me not having kids doesn’t mean you were wrong to, or that I hate your kids. It means I, personally, do not want a child. Big deal.
When people try to persuade me to have kids, I usually ask them why they feel the need to do that. They say something about how amazing it is, as if they need to spread the word to the uninformed about how fulfilling it is to have children. Well, I grew up with tiny siblings, I know what the reality of raising babies is.
It’s incredibly hard. It’s relentless, it’s exhausting, and I have endless respect for the people who do it. But to endure all that – and do it well – you have to want that child so much. Would you honestly have got through the sleepless nights, the tears and the stress if you weren’t 100% sure that you wanted the baby? I think that would be very hard.
There’s a popular narrative in society that everyone who has kids is happy, fulfilled and doesn’t regret their choice. It’s very, very taboo to admit you regret having a child, because people take it to mean you don’t love the kid you have. But what you don’t have, you don’t miss – and I’ve had a tonne of emails from people who weren’t sure about becoming a parent, and feel they made the wrong call.
Ultimately, the people trying to persuade you won’t be there at 3am when the baby’s crying and you haven’t slept for days. At that point, it’s too late to back out. Personally, I’d rather be on the fence than on the wrong side of it.
Strangely, people often tell me that ‘accidents happen’ or ‘it’ll be different when it’s your own’, or that ‘you won’t know until you’ve tried it.’ But having a baby isn’t something you try out to see if it suits you. That’s a human life you’re talking about.
Personally, I respect life enough not to create it on a whim.
“Watching One Born Every Minute has sealed the deal for me”
Kim Johnstone, 32, is a training manager. She says that having a child has never factored into her thoughts, or been a part of her general life plan.
I've quite simply never felt maternal. As a child I was more inclined to play post office than play with baby dolls. I'm not very comfortable around small children. I can appreciate that they're often cute, I also find red pandas cute – yet I wouldn't want to keep one forever.
In my early teens, I remember my friends taking the babies on our street for a walk in their prams, but I just wasn't interested. I had a really, really happy childhood and I'm very close to my parents and brother. I have just never felt like I would want children of my own.
I don't think 'oh if I had a child I’d have to take time away from work' or 'I couldn't do certain things if I had a baby now' – it just doesn't factor in my thoughts. I suppose it's similar to the way in which backpacking around the world wouldn't ever be a consideration for some people (myself included). Having a child simply isn't a consideration for me. And no, I don't like cats either.
It’s been a very easy choice for me, and watching One Born Every Minute has sealed the deal. Someone did say to me recently: ‘You have to think about who'll look after you when you're old', and I must admit, I did stop and think. Who will be there for me in 30 years time? I'm close to my parents and want to be there for them, but isn’t that a terrible reason to bring a child into the world? To maybe take care of me when I’m old? I laughed to myself afterwards, and then looked into Saga cruises for retirement.
Many child-free women say they’ve experienced negativity, but I’m not sure that’s the correct word. Pity, condescension, laughter and 'Silly girl, you'll change your mind soon’, is probably more what I've experienced. I've learned to not let it get to me, but I don't understand why people get so upset about something that has zero impact on them.
My parents have never pressured me about having children, and I've never had a partner who's pressured me. My friends would never dream of it either, and frankly, no one else's opinion matters. As with anything in this life, you stand by your convictions – and if you change your mind, well that's fine too.
The most common thing I hear about my being child-free by choice, is that it's because I'm 'too selfish' to have children. I ignore that now, because why get into a discussion that's irrelevant to me?
I do always think to myself though, isn't it more selfish to bring another life into the world, just because you want someone to look after you in old age? Or to be able to say you have the 2.4 children? Or have something to dress up and show off? How many band-aid babies have been brought into unhappy relationships, only for that child to experience unhappiness? To me, that is more selfish.
I find it sad that, as women, we still feel we have to justify our choices. Because, at the end of the day, that's all it is - a choice. Nobody should judge women like me who choose not to procreate, in exactly the same way nobody should judge a mum who chooses to stay at home, a mum who works full time, or a man who wants to give up work to look after his kids.
I live with the naive hope that one day we'll all stop judging, and just focus on women being happy and fulfilled with their families, whatever that family may look like.
What do you think? Have you chosen to be child-free and received negative reactions from other people because of your decision? Why is it that it's still such a contentious issue - and why, in the 21st Century, is motherhood still considered the default option for women? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section, below.