Viewpoint

More women claim right to stay child-free
Deferred motherhood can be a responsible choice

 Hannah Fearn

I confess that when the latest data drop by the Office for National Statistics revealed at the end of January that, for the first time ever, more women remained child-free (please, not “childless”) at the age of 30 than had become mothers, I was shocked. Not that we had reached this milestone, but that it had taken quite so long to get there. To look at it another way: almost half the women in England and Wales still choose to have a child before the age of 30, despite all the barriers standing in their way; they also, thankfully, possess the luxury of choice over that decision. The panic about birth rates is exaggerated and premature.

The graph demonstrating the decline in young motherhood over the decades since the 1940s shows, in turn, the impact of three things: first, the sexual revolution and free-of-charge access to the contraceptive pill; second, the increase in the number of young women entering tertiary and higher education; and finally – and much less welcome – the economic circumstances of all young people since the 2008 financial crash.

The impact of the first two changes is already well understood, and their effect on the age of first-time motherhood should spark nothing but great joy. Women who have control over their reproductive choices, and women with an education, are much more likely to choose to have fewer or no children. And thank goodness for that.

Motherhood is an overwhelming responsibility that no woman should ever have to take on unwillingly. The doom-mongers who like to crow about the decline in traditional family values are also the ones who fight hardest against public money being spent picking up the pieces of childhoods lost to unloving, neglectful or reluctant parenting.

More troubling is the economic instability that dogs the lives of women in their 20s. I suspect there may be many women who would, given the financial luxury of true choice, get started early and have larger families, but the reality is they simply cannot afford to do so. The evidence for a sharp decline in fertility at 35 is very sketchy, and that’s something women now know well. They are giving themselves more time because they know they probably have it, but also because the alternative looks like a very poor decision.

Young people starting their careers are often in low-paid jobs involving long hours, which may require regular unpaid overtime. In that environment, it’s impossible to balance professional ambition with the demands made at home by young children.

The shrinking of salaries against the cost of living now also means it requires, certainly at the outset, two full-time earners to manage the financial obligations of raising a household. And then we expect young parents to do this with minimal social support around them from families or the state. Nursery fees are extortionate and offer limited opening hours. Sure Start centres are closing. Meanwhile, older people are working past the retirement age of previous generations and therefore less likely to offer childcare in kind.

Some years ago, the TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp suggested young people should be encouraged to think differently about the likely duration of their careers and consider having children earlier, before focussing on work. Her suggestions were criticised as sexist, but did raise a significant point: women are expected to achieve the impossible – get a degree, start a career, find a partner, buy a house, start a family – in just a handful of years.

Allsopp missed the crucial issue on which this all hinges, however, which is money. You cannot make the choice to defer a career opportunity if you need those wages to survive. It’s not by chance that the only families you now see with four or more children – where the parents might be labelled “professionals” – are wealthy.

A related, crucial barrier to starting a family is secure housing. I’d like to see a similar chart mapping security of housing tenure before the age of 30 – whether that’s access to a lifetime social housing tenancy or having been able to get on the property ladder as a homeowner – mapped on top of the choice to procreate at a younger age. I suspect there’s a significant overlap. And while we’re talking about missing charts, let’s also see the one that tracks the percentage of men becoming first-time fathers before and after 30. We must have passed the 50 per cent mark some time ago because by 2018 the average age to become a dad in the UK was already 33. Oddly enough, no mention of that on the front pages.

Which highlights another stumbling block for women. Only this week, I heard yet another story of a woman in her early 30s feeling forced to call time on an otherwise happy, stable, romantic relationship because she wanted to have children and he refused. It’s anecdotal (oh how I wish a university would do a good sociological, longitudinal study on this), but any woman aged between 25-40 who’s debating whether to get pregnant or not will be equally stressed in her quest to find a man who’s actually willing to take that leap with her.

Too many men feel a lack of social and emotional responsibility around this pivotal moment in life, discarding women when the pressure for children increases, giving themselves another decade or two of “freedom” before they settle for a younger partner or decide to skip fatherhood altogether.

It is possible today for women to decide to go it alone and conceive by IVF, but the risks are high, the process costly and the burden unimaginably hard. Instead, women are making an intellectual choice: either not to have children at all or to put it off until a point where the expectation seems at least manageable. Given that delaying motherhood shrinks or deletes entirely the space between caring for children and caring for elderly relatives, that golden moment of possibility may never arrive.

And we haven’t even discussed the most salient truth of all: some women want to spend their 20s and 30s having fun without the burden of children, and others don’t want to have children at all; neither group feels any shame or obligation about that. Praise be.

What truly concerns me about the “50 per cent” statistic is not the change to women’s lives but how everybody has a view on that change. We treat the rapid reduction in teen pregnancies as huge social success – but then, about five years later, start worrying that women aren’t doing what’s expected of them. No, they are acting with responsibility. And if the result of that concerns us, then it’s about time we started doing something to address the causes, by providing good-quality, cheap childcare and secure, affordable housing.

Hannah Fearn is a journalist and columnist specialising in social affairs. She was comment editor of the Independent for seven years and writes a weekly column for that title. Her journalism also appears in the i Newspaper, Guardian, Financial Times, HuffPost UK and others. She has also worked as an editor and reporter for the Guardian, Times Higher Education and Inside Housing magazine

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