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Why do more women now choose not to have children? Perhaps because more people today lack confidence and fear commitment, says Ann Bradley

The case for kids

When demographers talk about the 'baby gap', they don't mean a high street store which sells cute but over-priced clothes for kids. They are talking about the growing trend for the twenty-somethings, and increasingly the thirty-somethings, not to reproduce. While motherhood has long been seen as a normal, even inevitable, part of a woman's experience, it is now eschewed by an increasing number who prefer to remain 'child-free'.

Statistics show that whereas 90 per cent of women at the peak of their fertility in the 1960s would have a child, among women of the same age today between 20 and 25 per cent will remain childless. The latest edition of the regular report by the Office of National Statistics Population Trends concludes that, assuming involuntary infertility has not changed much, the figures suggest that childlessness by choice has increased sharply.

'Childlessness by choice' is a concept that number-crunching demographers have taken some time to accept. The decline in births to women in their twenties has been a feature of official statistics for some time, but this trend was (and still is) accompanied by a rise in births to women in their thirties. This has led many of the discussions to focus on women's desire to defer motherhood rather than avoid it altogether. When, in the early nineties, it was first suggested that the number of childless women was growing, the received explanation was that many were women who had intended to reproduce but had deferred so long that their biological clock had run out.

This may well have been the case for some women. For more than a decade there has been a well-documented trend for women to postpone the birth of their first child until their late twenties. The reasons are not very difficult to grasp. The far greater involvement of women in the workforce provides a powerful incentive to delay pregnancy. For working class women, the expansion of women's jobs has offered the chance to earn an income. For middle class women, the explosion of job opportunities has meant the chance to establish a career. Consequently it is not surprising that the proportion of employed women in their late twenties has shot up from 61 per cent in 1984 to 72 per cent in 1994. Demographers project this proportion will hit 80 per cent by 2006. As any working mother will admit, combining work with child, given the paucity of affordable childcare, is no easy task, and it is clear that many women feel that child-bearing will have to wait.

Family planning organisations have pointed out that more women are possibly postponing births simply because they can: a desire to postpone a first birth is now far more practical than in the past. The wide range of effective contraceptive options, and the relative ease with which women can now obtain abortion when contraception fails, means that women are more in control of their fertility and able to plan their families according to convenience. Furthermore the improved sophistication of tests to detect fetal abnormalities has given some women the confidence to risk the increased likelihood of abnormalities associated with pregnancy later in life.

However, recent population profiles suggest that there is more to it. Women are not simply postponing motherhood, but rejecting it altogether. This is well illustrated by the number of couples opting to be sterilised well before the 'natural' end to their reproductive years. Despite the expansion of the range of reversible contraceptive options over the last 20 years, recent research published in the British Journal of Family Planning shows that the number of couples relying on female sterilisation has doubled to 13 per cent, and those relying on vasectomy has almost tripled from five per cent to 14 per cent. Furthermore, women's health clinics outside the NHS, such as those run by the Marie Stopes organisation, claim that their sterilisation clients are getting younger. Whereas the operation was once seen as something a couple considered when they had completed their family or when a woman in her mid-thirties came off the pill, now it is increasingly requested by childless career women in their twenties who have better things to do than parent.

Given the debilitating effect a child can have on a woman's engagement in the outside world, it is unsurprising that some feminists have seen this as a positive development. And in some ways no doubt it is. Countless thousands of women over the years have born children out of obligation rather than willingness - reluctantly and resentfully succumbing to motherhood, rather than embracing it with enthusiasm. If women are now able to make a genuine choice about their fertility it is only to be welcomed. Who can count how much female potential has been squandered in domesticity?

But listening to the voices of some of the women interviewed recently in media discussions of the issue has left me feeling uneasy. In the past, when a woman rejected motherhood she rejected traditional conservative values about her 'natural' role. The decision to remain child-free was a decision to break away from the dominant assumption that maternity must be a woman's highest ambition. Today, by contrast, the reasons given for not having children often seem to echo contemporary conservative sentiment. The decision to remain childless seems for some not to defy society's expectations, but confirm them.

Today we live in a society characterised by fears and insecurities about the future, caution about commitment, obsessive concerns about the adequacy of parents. These are themes that constantly appear and reappear in the media debate. The reasons why many couples are opting to remain child-free reflect many of these concerns. A plummeting birth rate is a typical feature of a society in which the population feels insecure and rootless - which is why it is a major current concern in the countries that made up the former Soviet Union. But the fashion for childlessness in Britain seems to represent something more: an absence of confidence, not just in society, but in one's own self.

Consciously deciding to have a child represents everything that many young middle class people seem to wish to avoid. It represents a commitment to and responsibility for another person for the indefinite future. It represents a self-confidence in your capacity to cope physically, emotionally, intellectually, financially and organisationally with something that is unknown and unquantifiable - unlike a car, you cannot test-drive an infant to see how you will get on. It also represents a declaration that you are willing to make a change from the life you know (of friends and parties) to one that seems unimaginable (dirty nappies and broken nights). In short, the decision to have a child means saying: 'I don't know how this will change my life, but I know I can handle it.' This is a sentiment that, in the nervous nineties, seems in short supply.

For some couples, the decision not to have a child is a calculated, rational and sensible desire to focus on another worthwhile goal. But for others it fits less into the framework of heady aspir-ations, and more into a context of destructive self-doubt. For these people, childlessness seems to be the 'couples equivalent' of the student who returns to his parent's home every vacation and moves back into his old bedroom when he graduates - still hanging on to the past, afraid to take up the challenge of an independent life in case he fails. The decision to remain child-free can be an act of extreme conservatism.

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that the world is divided into the adventurous who reproduce and the unadventurous who don't. The decision to have a child can certainly represent a desire to retreat into the personal pettiness of private family life. For some, emotional investment in a child represents an end to your own personal ambition for oneself, a drawing back from the challenges of life. It can represent the passing of the torch to a new generation in a way that implies that the current one has gone as far as it can go.

But it does not have to be like that. Having a child can represent a creative, forward-looking desire to reproduce in your own image: to replicate your strengths and ambitions and have a say in the future.

It seems a sad society when an increasing number of people feel no motivation to take a newly born human and try to shape it into a person in their own image. It seems a little pitiful when people feel no impulse to create a new generation and teach them to value the qualities they value and fight for the goals they feel are worth fighting for. A society that avoids commitment is surely a society without convictions.

Reproduced from LM issue 104, October 1997

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