For many women, the dream of having children and a family starts at an early age. Gifted with dolls, miniature houses and toy kitchen utensils, motherhood is carefully and subtly presented as a goal all women should aspire to. But this is not every woman’s dream – neither is it a dream all women can fulfill. Whether by choice or whether by circumstance, more women than ever are living a life without children. Yet the taboo surrounding childless women persists. With few support networks and little public discussion, women without children can and do find themselves with nowhere to turn. Either pitied by their peers for their inability to have children or ridiculed for their choice not to, childless women find themselves on the fringes of society. One group of women, however, is fighting to change that.
Gateway Women is one of the largest global networks for childless women. Once a simple blog, it has now become a haven for childless women across the world, with more than 2 million women a part of the movement to take the stigma away from a life without children. Founder of the network, Jody Day, launched Gateway Women after experiencing first-hand the difficulties of coming to terms with a life without children. Following the break up of her marriage at 38, Day’s life took an unexpected turn. Suddenly and unexpectedly, she was a single and childless woman nearing the end of her fertile years. Saddened but not without hope, Day set her sights on meeting a partner and to eventually use IVF treatments to conceive. But it was not to be. By her mid-40s, Day was slowly coming to terms with living without children. Society, however, seemed to have not.
“It was just these endless miracle baby stories, and it was too late for me biologically,” Day says. Tired of hearing tales of infertile women who had discovered magical infertility cures, Day began a blog for other like-minded women in similar circumstances. “I was saying: ‘that’s not what I’m trying to talk about’,” Day explains. “I’m not asking for a solution. I’m trying to talk about how it feels to be single and childless in my mid-40s when that wasn’t the plan and how devastated I am.” Grief, as Day describes, is just one of the many emotions women who are unable to have children can experience – sometimes without even realising it. “I didn’t understand that what I was experiencing was grief because the grief of childlessness is what is called a ‘disenfranchised’ grief. It’s a grief that’s not socially acceptable and I wasn’t allowed to talk about it.”
Indeed, many women without children say the taboo surrounding the subject mean it’s rarely talked about. Research indicates this is arguably due to society’s perceptions of women without children. A recent study on the topic by an Indiana University found that a majority of participants felt ‘moral outrage’ towards strangers who had chosen not to have children. The study, which looked at the reactions of more than 200 college students to married couples without children, asked participants to rate the couples’ ‘psychological fulfilment’. Author of the study – Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, an associate professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis – says that childless couples were believed to be less psychologically fulfilled than those with children. “This effect,” Ashburn-Nardo explains, was driven by “feelings of moral outrage – anger, disapproval and disgust – toward the voluntarily childfree people.”
In a similar study from 2012, researchers at the University of Nebraska discovered child-free women (that is, women who have chosen not to have children) felt the most pressure to have children. Interestingly, however, these women were less likely to stress about it compared with those who were unable to conceive. The nationwide study, which surveyed nearly 1200 women of reproductive age without children, identified multiple reasons why women do not have kids. This includes medical reasons, situational barriers delaying pregnancy and those who simply do not want to be parents. As Jody Day notes, this type of research is crucial as there are many factors that contribute towards women not having children.
Generally, it is thought women without children are either childless by choice or circumstance. However, as Day explains, this isn’t always the case, and it is important to make the distinction between child-free and childless women. While child-free women (women who have intentionally decided not to have children) certainly exist, Day says this percentage is often misrepresented in discussions on the subject. For example, childless women (women who are unable to have children) are often believed to be in this position due to fertility reasons. However other factors, such as not being able to find a suitable partner, often come into play. Neither position, Day explains, is a particularly good one to be in.
“I would say child-free women, women who have chosen not to have children, on the whole, are treated more harshly. They are seen as unnatural women, whereas women who wanted to have children and it hasn’t happened are pitied. Neither of them are great experiences to be on the receiving end of, to be honest – either to be seen as not a real woman or as a bit of a sad case.”
Whatever the reasons for living a life without children, being unable to find a suitable partner seems to be a common theme among childless women. Like Day and many others, Susan Kennedy* from Auckland, didn’t expect to lead a life without children. Now 53, Kennedy accepts that motherhood perhaps was “just not meant to be”. While a number of her college friends went on to get married and have children, Kennedy spent her young adult life travelling to Australia and London. Following the end of her first serious relationship of three years, Kennedy relocated back to New Zealand in her early 30s. But it wouldn’t be until her mid-40s that she would enter into another long-term relationship.
“I didn’t make a conscious decision not to have children,” Kennedy explains. “I didn’t actively seek out a life partner, or a partner to have children with. My current partner and I have often said it is a shame we met later in life, too late to consider having children.” Although Kennedy says she does experience regret from time to time, she also says she has been fortunate enough to be exposed to motherhood through the relationships she has with her nieces, nephews and step-children.
Despite having many children in her life, the Aucklander hasn’t been spared the questioning so many women without children of their own experience – but she says her immediate family and friends have never criticised her because of it. “I feel [attitudes towards women without children] have changed now, but certainly when I was in my late teens, there were often remarks such as: ‘Why don’t you have a boyfriend?’ and ‘When are you going to find a husband and have children?’ ”
Having no children of her own has, at times, also led to uncomfortable social interactions. “I have been part of a group of women that got together monthly and did use to notice the conversation would at times be about their children. It was not always something I could offer a view on, not having had my own children. I feel that it should be OK to be able to say to other friends, ‘OK, no conversations about children this time’.”
While Kennedy does have a circle of friends and colleagues without children she has talked to about her experience, the discussions have not been in depth. Never being one to seek out support groups like Gateway Women herself, Kennedy has not been exposed to the conversations Day is hoping to make more commonplace. But Kennedy still says she is eager to hear the inner thoughts and opinions of fellow childless women.
One woman who is more than eager to share her inner thoughts and opinions on living a life without children is Holly Brockwell. The 31-year-old English journalist made international headlines in 2016 after speaking publicly about her struggle to find a doctor who would perform a sterilisation operation on her. For four years, Brockwell asked doctors for the procedure but was consistently turned away due to her age, with medical professionals only ever offering to sterilise her partner.
Despite being one of the most common methods of contraception in the United States (according to Obstetrics & Gynecology), the sterilisation Brockwell asked for is also one of the most controversial. Commonly referred to as ‘getting your tubes tied’, or tubal ligation, around 700,000 women undergo the procedure in the United States each year. While not as prevalent in New Zealand, tubal ligation is still a popular contraceptive choice for women. A recent study from the New Zealand Medical Journal, which interviewed 904 women, showed 22 percent of women surveyed had undergone the procedure.
While many sterilisations take place within a short period after giving birth, young women are now becoming interested in being sterilised before ever becoming pregnant. Although there is no age limit on sterilisation procedures in New Zealand, the Family Planning website warns young women who may be interested in the procedure that: “some surgeons are reluctant to carry out sterilisation if you are young and have not had any children.” This is said to be because tubal ligation is permanent and many doctors feel young patients might come to regret their decision.
For Brockwell, however, the reason has more to do with outdated beliefs than it does with concern for patients. “Many, many people have suggested that I shouldn’t have sex if I’m not intending to reproduce, which is an opinion so old that I can see the cobwebs,” explains the journalist in an interview with The Independent in 2016. “Yes, the men’s operation is cheaper and more reversible, but that’s no excuse for the judgmental comments women receive when they ask about sterilisation.”
Although Brockwell admits the procedure is not for every woman who does not want kids, she says doctors who refuse to talk about the procedure with patients is patronising and harmful. “Refusing to even discuss it – which was my experience – is damaging and can cause women to not speak up again for a procedure that might be best for them,” Brockwell says in a separate interview with Broadly. “We don’t take women who don’t want children seriously.”
Fortunately for Brockwell, doctors have finally taken her decision seriously. In March 2016, after years of asking for the procedure, the then 30-year-old was told the news she has been put on the waiting list for sterilisation. Though happy her decision had finally been respected by medical professionals, Brockwell expressed her displeasure at the lengthy wait. “Age isn’t a factor as far as I’m concerned,” she says. “If a woman is able to make the permanent choice to conceive from the age of 16, then we shouldn’t be telling her at 25 she’s not old enough to know her own mind. It’s about the woman, not the birth year.”
Whatever the reason for not having children, it is evident that this is something not all of society is ready to accept. “It is a social taboo,” Day says. “It’s unacceptable to be a woman without children. And what drives the taboo is the ideology of pronatalism, and pronatalism is the ideology that says the only way to be a fully adult member of society is to be a parent and that being a parent trumps all other forms of adulthood.” Pronatalism, otherwise known as natalism, is the belief that promotes human reproduction. Recently, the subject has gained fresh exposure thanks to the release of the television series, The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian tale based on the book by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, where women are kept as handmaids, their sole purpose to breed or otherwise be sent to their death.
While this narrative may seem far-fetched, the parallels between the handmaidens and modern society’s attitudes towards women without children have reignited the discussion of what it means to be a woman without a child. In one particular scene, where the main character Offred is seen discussing her previous life with her male captor the Commander, this distinction is made blazingly obvious. “We had choices then,” Offred says of her life before living under a misogynistic dictatorship. “Now you have respect, you have protection. You can fulfil your biological destinies in peace,” the commander responds. “Biological destiny?” Offred questions. “Children,” he proclaims. “What else is there to live for?”
Thankfully, the tale of Offred largely remains one of fiction within developed world (although some religious groups like the United States’ Christian Patriarchy and New Zealand’s own Gloriavale Christian Community do hold similar beliefs when it comes to child birth). Like the handmaids featured in the story, women from across the globe are now coming together to lend each other support. Offering workshops and support groups throughout the world – including New Zealand in cities like Auckland, Christchurch, Hamilton, Dunedin and Wellington – Day’s network for childless women has come a long way from its beginnings as a simple blog.
“I started a blog, which was 6½ years ago, and really thought: ‘Well if one woman reads this blog and understands, that will be great.’ [Now] 2 million women later, and I hit a bit of a nerve.” And it’s not just Day who is striking cords with child-free and childless women. In recent years, prominent public figures have begun speaking out against society’s treatment of women without children. In 2013, actress Dame Helen Mirrin made headlines when she publicly told “boring old men” where to go when questioning her decision not to have children. Lionel Shriver, author of the award-winning fiction novel We Need to Talk About Kevin has also become a figurehead in the community for her outspoken views on living child-free.
Looking at the statistics of women without children, it’s little wonder more women are speaking out. According to Statistics NZ, in 1981 just 9 percent of women aged 40-44 were without children. This number rose to 12 percent in 1996 and again to 15 percent in 2006. With similar trends showing in ‘close by age’ groups, women without children are on the rise – despite opposing attitudes. Fascinatingly, the statistics organisation also notes that New Zealand is not alone when it comes to the increase of women without children.
Other developed countries like Australia and the United States have also seen the number of child-free and childless women increase. In Australia, for example, 9 percent of women in the same 40-44 age group had no children, while in 2006 the percentage had risen to 16 percent. Similarly, the latest US Census Fertility Report shows that for the first time in written history, more than half (53.8 percent) of women aged 25-29 are childless, with a further record 30.8 percent of 30-34-year-olds without children.
But it’s not just countries like Australia, New Zealand and the United States that are experiencing a decline in childbirth rates. When it comes to women without children, Japan is well-known for its declining population. Today, the number of births in Japan is at a dramatic low. With less than 1 million babies born in 2016, the statistics are the lowest they have been since 1899, when the government first began keeping records. A perhaps extreme example of what happens when women have to choose a career over a family, research in this area suggests Japanese women are putting off having children due to financial constraints.
Like many countries, traditionally it has been the role of the father to provide an income for the family while mother raises the children at home. While today this set-up appeals to fewer young Japanese women, who now have higher educational qualifications and careers of their own, the men are still largely reluctant to give up traditional gender roles. “You can ask a Japanese man to work three times as hard to save his company, but not to take time off to look after his children,” explains Satoru Saito, a psychiatrist and director of the Institute for Family Functioning in Tokyo. In a culture that glorifies long working hours, it’s easy to see why Japanese women, and indeed other women across the world, might now be thinking twice about having children.
“Why are there fewer and fewer children being born? Because women are losing more than they are getting by having children,” says Rieko Suzuki, a research director of the consumer culture department at the Dentsu Institute for Human Studies. “They lose their freedom, their free time and their money… it is all but suicidal for a woman to aspire to both a career and child-rearing.”
Despite research like Suzuki’s indicating women are now choosing a career over family, there is no singular factor behind declining birthrates. For each women without a child, the reasons are varied and deeply personal. Some, like Kennedy, found themselves in circumstances that did not allow them to have children. Others, like Brockwell, live a life without children by choice. But as Jody Day explains, society as a whole is also entering a new era. “[The surge in child-free and childless women] is directly linked to equality, to the sexual revolution, to birth control and to the fact that a lot of women now – because we don’t have to get married or we don’t have to partner up for our economic survival – can wait until we meet a partner who is someone we want to share the job of child rearing with.”
And while many of today’s women certainly have more choices when it comes to having children, no woman has a choice when it comes to being on the receiving end of society’s perceptions towards childfree and childless women. For this reason, women like Day continue to speak out, to educate and teach society that women are more than their biology.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.
This article was feature in the July/August 2017 issue of M2woman Magazine