Where are all the childless women?

Just a quick one BUT… over the past few weeks I’ve been seeing a lot in the papers that references the fact that for women of my generation, having children isn’t necessarily a given – and far more so than in any previous generation. In a piece in The Times (talking about politicians and parenting – it’s very good, do read it), Janice Turner said:

Liz Kendall is no outlier. Of women like her, born in the 1970s, one in four will not have children.

That’s me. A woman. Born in the 1970s. One in four of us won’t have children.

And in another piece, this time in the New Statesman, on a similar subject, Helen Lewis said:

Roughly 20 per cent of women in the UK aged 45 do not have any children, according to the Office for National Statistics, up from one in nine of their mothers’ generation: not having children is far from rare.

I’m not going to get into the reasons WHY these women don’t have children – suffice it to say, I imagine their reasons are multiple and diverse, and not as the right wing press would have you believe, because they all spent so much time concentrating on their careers that they ran out of time. (Which, incidentally, always reminds me of this Roy Lichtenstein cartoon…)

But I want to know where these women are. I want to know WHO they are. Because although they’re a minority, it’s a pretty large minority — between 20 and 25 percent, depending on whether you’re looking at me and my peers, or the people who are a bit older than me — that’s one in every four or five women. Because I’m not seeing them.

The very fact that these childless female politicians are being talked about — Helen Lewis namechecks Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, Stella Creasy, Caroline Flint, Angela Eagle, Theresa May, Kezia Dugdale, Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson and Angela Merkel and notes that, with the exception of Yvette Cooper and Caroline Flint, all of them are childless — means that it’s seen as something to be remarked upon. And maybe this is the beginning of these women becoming more visible.

But we’ve still got quite a way to go, both in accepting that a large proportion of women don’t have children. And that some of them might have made an active decision not to, as Camilla Long pointed out on Twitter. And do look at the replies. I liked this one from Leonie Thomas:

I get asked regularly why I’m not married with kids. What a bizarre question to ask someone.

And it is, it’s a totally fucking mental question to ask someone. For all sorts of reasons. Not least because it’s a bit like asking a train driver why they’re not a shoe salesman or something like that. But until people stop asking that question, and until this sizeable minority start to become more visible to the extent that they’re actually unremarkable, I’m going to carry on feeling the way I did, when I wrote this post about not being entirely sure that I wanted a baby…

Maybe I’d feel differently if society – and specifically my group of friends – was a little more diverse. The only templates I have are of couples (whether or not they stay together) having kids. Which makes it hard to know whether you want that because everyone else wants it and that’s what you’re expected to want, or whether that’s what you really do want.

And actually, that’s not strictly true. I have a handful of wonderful female friends in their 40s and 50s who aren’t married, don’t have children and live fabulous, full lives that are exactly the lives I would want to live if I don’t end up getting married or having a child. But that’s a handful of women, countable on the fingers of about half a hand, out of all the people I know. That’s not a quarter of the women I know, it’s not even a fifth. And sure, I and my friends aren’t necessarily representative, but you know what I mean…

I realise I’m hankering after a bit of a Catch 22, as in I want to see more childless women but I don’t want the fact that they’re childless to be remarkable, but if someone didn’t remark on the fact that they were childless, then how would you know that you were seeing more childless women? If you see what I mean.

Maybe actually what I really want is for everyone to be defined by something other than their fertility or their relationships to other people. (And we could start by getting rid of every Twitter bio that includes the words “…wife, mother…”)


One thought on “Where are all the childless women?

  1. Pingback: PS Brilliant women writing | Egged On

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