Come to think of it, why do we want to have children?

// 14 July 2015

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Barely a week goes by lately it seems without senior doctors brandishing a set of doom-laden fertility statistics at young women. In May, consultant gynaecologist Professor Geeta Nargund warned women in their late twenties and early thirties that if they didn’t get pregnant soon then “shock, agony and regret” would be the order of the day (according to the Daily Mail, at least). Then last week, the Telegraph reported the news that doctors have told us to conceive or freeze our eggs by the time we’re 35, in light of a major study showing that fertility falls off a “cliff edge” in the years that follow.

We can ridicule the hyperbole as much as we like, and bemoan till the (ever-fertile) cows come home the notion that pressures on young women to conceive can drive some of us to define our worth in stark and limited terms. But when it comes to resisting this pressure, we often lose confidence in our own convictions. Deciding not to have children, or having resolved to decide later, are choices that we’re challenged on again and again. What are seldom challenged, however, are the reasons behind the perceived desire that we should have to produce children. Thinking critically about why we succumb to these pressures can help us recalibrate the whole debate.

A need to replicate ourselves
The idea that when we die we will leave nothing behind is one that haunts most of us, irrespective of gender. Driven in large part by our egos, we convince ourselves of the need to reproduce in order that there will be something left to justify our existence. The Buddhist idea that humans created God because of a deep-seated fear of disappearing can be applied to having children too- we struggle to reconcile ourselves to the idea of leaving without a trace. Yet this yearning is not resolved by the birth of a child. Our fear will continue to rear its head as we start thinking about siblings, then grandchildren. The only way to deal with this yearning is to radically accept that it cannot be satisfied, and that we can only validate our existence – if that in itself is ever possible – by finding meaning in the actions we engage in in the present moment.

Fear of loneliness
Loneliness, similarly, is a mental and social construct, and one that is too bound up with the absence or presence of a partner and children. Not having children can give us the space to cultivate and renew friendships, find ways of making meaningful connections with the world and those in it, and – perhaps most importantly – reconnect with ourselves, and what we can do with the space and time we have.

Many women find that the nature of their relationships with their closest friends changes when these friends start having children, most notably because their social lives start to revolve around birthday parties, school fetes and other child-related events. Not to mention the endless conversations that centre around child development milestones. Feeling ‘left behind’ is something that certainly warrants empathy. Yet we all have it within us to make new friends, those who are perhaps younger, or who do not buy into a value system that defines women by their child-producing and rearing capabilities.

Pleasing our families
Women in doctors waiting roomOne of the reasons the Geeta Nargunds of this world still have so much clout is because our family members act as their mouthpiece. Simply asking whether you’re single can trail a host of unvoiced criticisms in its wake. “She’s 28 and still single? Then how the heck is she going to find a man, work at this dream job she keeps banging on about long enough to qualify for maternity pay AND have a baby before her ovaries freeze over?”

Finding our place within the family is difficult when those we are most likely to identify with (and those querying our life choices) are usually mothers, and the pressure can be hard to resist. Faced with confidence and conviction however, relatives will eventually accept our choices. Dumbledore was right when he told Neville Longbottom that it’s harder to stand up to your friends than it is your enemies. He obviously knew what it was like for childless women dealing with family members who won’t stop talking about your oestrogen levels over Christmas dinner.

Rosie Driffill is a freelance writer specialising in mental health, language, psychology and sustainable living. She writes regular pieces for the Guardian and Wanderlust and tweets at @RosieDriffill

Image attribution: Eric Lewis, used under Creative Commons license.

Comments From You

D H Kelly // Posted 14 July 2015 at 11:19 am

This is a great post – we talk a lot about this pressure, but rarely see these factors analysed so well. There’s also something of a myth for women in relationships with men that, until a couple have a child together, they won’t be as committed to one another as they might be. It’s often seen as the top level on our culture’s escalator of relationships.

I think it’s also fair to say that some women share the reasons people conscientiously want to have children – because they love children, want to create new life and pass down their wisdom to someone – but simply want other things more. And our culture tells us that anything we might choose to do instead won’t be nearly so important in the long run – even that’s the career that fulfills us on a deep and profound level or the relationship with someone who can’t/ won’t have children but who makes us truly happy. We’re told not to trust any other source of happiness.

It’s worth pointing out that the study in the Telegraph, along with *all* modern studies which suggest a sharp decline at 35 involve women trying to conceive through IVF. Obviously, fertility levels do decline and eventually drop off, but women in their late thirties conceive naturally only slightly less often than women in their late twenties. This is a useful link about fertility stats and the way they are regularly abused to justify these headlines.

purplefeminist // Posted 15 July 2015 at 3:00 pm

Thank you for writing this. It frustrates me that having children is so often portrayed in the media as an innately virtuous act for women (unless you’re a teenager, in which case it’s innately evil). I think for most women having children is, like any other life choice, motivated by a number of selfish and altruistic factors.

Another other fact that the media rarely pays attention to is that our society makes it so very difficult for women to have children. I have never wanted them because I want to write books, learn languages, have a career, travel, learn to dance, learn another language, and so much more, and having a child in this society is a barrier to achieving all these ambitions. With the ridiculous cost of childcare and lack of part-time and flexible working, women are so often forced to give up their jobs to take care of their children. Even if they return to their jobs straight after maternity leave, studies have shown that they are likely to face discrimination in their workplace and may never return to their previous level of status or responsibility. Meanwhile, heteronormative gender roles mean the burden of childcare and housework falls upon women. Couple this with the increasing cost of living and the fall in real pay and I’m shocked that any but the most privileged women feel able to have children.

Fortunately, BPAS is a voice of clarity in our patriarchal world: “Women are often warned about the dangers of leaving it ‘too late’ to try for a family, and this data confirms that far from facing a fertility cliff-edge at age 35, women still have a good chance of conceiving. We hope this provides some reassurance to them.”

MarianK // Posted 17 July 2015 at 1:50 pm

I’m offering my perspective from the ‘other end’ of this debate. In my mid-thirties I succumbed to societal and spousal pressure to start a family before my ‘biological clock ran out’.

Until then, I had a career, financial independence, lots of passionate interests and plenty of dreams. Within 10 years of succumbing, I was divorced, my career had run off the rails and I found myself a destitute single mother dependent on welfare to survive. Not much room for passionate interests when you can no longer pay your bills.

I do love my children, and I have a good relationship with them, but I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I would be a much happier and more fulfilled person if I had held out against all that pressure.

In the fierce, and stringently controlled, debate surrounding motherhood, there is virtually NO room at all for mothers (or even fathers) to talk honestly about whether parenthood is worth it. From my own experience, I say unequivocally NOT.

As an afterthought, I would also add that I had a childless spinster aunt, whom my sisters and cousins looked after in her later years. Even though her estate was very small, we felt an obligation to look after her. I mention this because one of the main reasons that women (and men) succumb to pressure to have children is the fear of having no one to look after you in your old age. This is not the big fear it’s made out to be. In your old age, someone will look out for you – whether it’s your family or the state.

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