Jennie Bristow talked to Lynda Clarke, co-author of a controversial new report on why couples choose not to have children
What is the 1990s' stereotype of the childless woman? Not a spinsterish singleton or an infertile woman who desperately wants a baby, but a go-getter whose child-free life is too exciting and whose aspirations are too high to fall into the well-trodden female role of wife and mother. And if this stereotype were right, the increasing numbers of childless women would represent a great step forward from the days when women spent their time engulfed by nappies and unable to have aspirations of their own. But is it true that childlessness today is necessarily liberating and positive?
In October 1997 LM columnist Ann Bradley sparked something of a controversy by arguing that, for some couples, 'the decision to remain child-free can be an act of extreme conservatism', representative of a general fear of the future and an unwillingness to take on responsibility for a new life. Almost a year on, a study supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation indicates that childlessness by choice is, at least for some couples, born more out of conservatism than a radical decision. Of the women surveyed, 'most emphasised the individual responsibility that choosing parenthood entails. Their picture of childlessness versus parenthood is one of independence contrasted with constraint; material security with financial risk. Parenthood was clearly identified with disruption and change, which people considered ill-suited to their organised and predictable lifestyle'.
Lynda Clarke, co-author of the 'Choosing childlessness' report, published in July, explains that there is no one simple reason why women decide not to have children. 'In the study, few people made an early, irrevocable decision - it was a complex decision-making process over time.' And the study does not pretend to represent all voluntarily childless women: it was based on in-depth interviews with 45 individuals between the ages of 35 and 49 who were childless by choice. But what it does show, through the candid remarks of its respondents, is how changing social attitudes towards childlessness can be incorporated into the decisions made by individuals, and the ways they explain these decisions.
As Lynda Clarke explains, many of the respondents 'didn't see themselves as childless': to be childless implies a negative state of being, whereas the respondents had a far more positive attitude towards the choice that they had made. Rosemary Kensit, certain that she did not want children, said that the term 'childless' gave an image of 'somebody poor who hasn't been able to produce...somebody who's actually missing out on life somewhere', and that if somebody were to describe her as childless they would be 'describing what I'm not, rather than what I am'. Others argued that they would rather be seen as 'individuals', as 'single' or, in the words of Lillian Waters, 'I've never had cause to describe myself as being childless... I'd probably say I'm free'.
If to be 'free' of children is viewed as positive by some of the survey's respondents, having children is sometimes described very negatively. Parenthood, for some, is viewed as involving significant sacrifices, some financial, others social. Tanya Moore cites the familiar parental lament of expensive teenagers as one of the advantages to remaining childless: 'When they're teenagers they just want you for taxi rides and for spending money, and children seem to live at home for a lot longer...I'm finding with people I know that their children are staying on to their early 20s.' For Isobel West, the free time afforded to the childless was a key factor, 'just being free and easy and not the constraints of like, you know, having to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner and not being able to go out'. The reluctance to commit to having children often coincided with an ambivalent view of the benefits children bring to their parents.
What is clear from the research is that, for most of the voluntarily childless couples interviewed by McAllister and Clarke, the decision not to have children came from a combination of their circumstances and their ideas about children and parenthood; not because, as the standard view would suggest, childless women are taken over by an all-absorbing and totally fulfilling career. While the majority of women worked full-time, they were not, according to the study's authors, 'remarkably careerist', even those who were 'certain' that they did not want children, rather than the other groups who had a less definitive attitude. Many expressed that one of their goals was early retirement, and work was seen as a means to an end, rather than an opportunity for self-actualisation in and of itself. In fact, having a nice house and a particular lifestyle were the kind of things that many of the respondents cited as important, and as goals. When contrasted with the popular notion that childlessness denotes high ambitions about an individual's role in society or even in the world of work, the relatively narrow ambitions of those who choose disposable income and added leisure time over having children makes such a value judgement erroneous, if not impossible.
With the continuing improvements in reproductive technologies and changing expectations of women, individual choice will play an increasing role in determining whether or not people have children. With these changes, the stereotypical view of independent women making positive choices is easier and nicer to accept. But if the choice to remain childless can, as Lynda Clarke suggests, come from 'insecurity about one's future', it is important to question whether the aspirations of childless women have been raised by the circumstances of today, or simply lowered further. The fact that women were expected to raise children and considered capable of little else was once seen as the reason why their ambitions were crushed and frustrated. If some women now balk at even this responsibility, preferring to confine their ambitions to a new conservatory or the chance to go to the pictures at a moment's notice, it is time to reassess this new stereotype.
'Choosing childlessness', by Fiona McAllister with Lynda Clarke, is published by the Family Policy Studies Centre
Reproduced from LM issue 113, September 1998