Selfish or Selfless?: Women and the decision to remain childless

Ellie Wilson

When I was sixteen, I decided I may not want to have children. 

On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a groundbreaking revelation. In fact, it is barely a decision at all – more of an observation that I may possibly not want to do something at some point in the future. Yet – as I have learned since – to many people this choice alone is alien, unthinkable, truly bizarre. 

‘But… who will take care of you when you’re old?’ 

‘Don’t you think your life will be… empty? …Dry? …Unfulfilled?’ 

‘How could you not want children? That’s just… life’ 

I could go on. 

These questions have been posed to me in various contexts, with different degrees of wide-eyed alarm at the horrifying concept of my lonely, loveless future. They made me think: about my life, but also – mainly – about the tragic reality that I have to justify this “decision” at all. No, I don’t dislike children. No, I don’t want to be alone. Yes, I know a career isn’t everything. 

Currently, there is an interesting preoccupation with women who don’t want to have children. According to the National Office of Statistics, the percentage of those not starting a family by age 30 rose to 50.1% in 2020, rising from the all-time low of 18% from those born in 1941. Many of these women will likely go on to have children later. Some may not. Either way these figures indicate that society and women’s priorities are changing. Childless women are all around us… and they aren’t going away. 

It is easy to find spotlight stories about successful individuals under variations of the same diminutive headlines: ‘Why I chose not to have children’, or ‘The secret to living life without giving life!’ While these articles work to break down the assumed life structure of marriage-baby-death (with -career- sometimes added in as an afterthought) they do not prevent women without kids from being seen as a spectacle. A curiosity. An anomaly. 

Indeed, there is an abundance of justification for a life decision that, really, has very little effect on anyone else. In fact, it has far less impact than the reverse. Bringing life into the world – a world that is damaged in so many ways – is a huge choice. But, it is also the assumed norm. 

The enormity of having children is rarely fully acknowledged as it should be. And that’s because… well, everybody does it, don’t they? Everybody has kids. But maybe it is time to rethink this outlook. After all, as mums love to say, ‘if everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?’ Making life decisions based on the idea that that is just what you do is not, and never has been, an actual reason. 

There are endless considerations when deciding whether to start a family. Issues like climate change factor in. Lack of water, the issues of poverty, racism, sexism and homophobia should be acknowledged. To bring a child into the world in 2022 is to present them with an unstable, uncertain future. 

Then, there is overpopulation. There is the fact that, according to government statistics, of the twelve million children in England, 400,000 of them are in the social care system with more than 80,000 of those being in care as of March 2021. Thousands of children are in poverty, without homes or parents to care for them. The question – should we add more people to the world when people are already suffering? – is more pertinent than ever. 

Alongside this is the simple fact that to be a parent is to become utterly selfless – a state that not everyone is truly prepared for (even if they think they are). Being a parent is difficult. It is as life-changing as it is rewarding. 

So, it should come as no surprise that I may not want to have children. This is not my first step to transforming into a cold-hearted, career-focused workaholic or a villain in the image of Cruella Deville. It is simply a decision that I need to think twice about. It is a decision that more and more women feel the need to think twice about. And maybe, one day, women choosing not to have children will no longer be viewed as strange. Maybe, one day, articles like this will be as outdated as the views that currently perpetuate their creation. I hope so, anyway. 

Feature image credit: Shutterstock

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