More women today are childless than ever before. According to research from European countries and the US, one in five Western women will end their childbearing years without conceiving, compared to one in ten just 30 years ago. In Germany, it’s one in four. If the trend continues for another 30 years, a predicted two in five will not be mothers by their mid-forties. In Japan, the number of childless women is even higher. One in three women are opting out of maternity. With these kinds of ratios, experts are concluding that motherhood worldwide is increasingly becoming a choice, rather than an assumption, with reasons for this trend cited as a mix of relationship breakdowns, career opportunities and, more recently, economics.
American journalist and author Sonja Lewis delves into the sensitive topic of choosing not to have children in her book, The Barrenness, a novel about a 39-year-old businesswoman who is faced with the difficult decision of whether or not to put her career on hold and have children.
“Although the book is fiction,” says the author, “it allows social norms to be questioned. My hope is that it will liberate women from feeling that they need to become mothers simply out of allegiance to an antiquated set of values and tradition.
I want to empower the younger generations. I just want to tell them that there are many ways for women to achieve happiness and fulfilment in their lives. Having children is just one path of many.”
Justifying voluntary childlessness
However, despite the increasing child-free figures and the outspokenness of women (many childless-out-of-choice celebrities, from artist Tracey Emin to actress Helen Mirren, have been vocal about it), culture tells us that women of a certain age must be incomplete or unhappy without a child. And it seems women, in particular, remain unaccepting of other women’s ‘voluntary childlessness’, viewing it as somehow abnormal.
Jodie*, 42, is happily married with a demanding career in marketing, and having chosen to walk the child-free path, she is perfectly content with her decision. It is other people – her family, friends and even strangers – who view her decision with pity, suspicion or contempt. “Invariably, when people find out I don’t have kids they pity me, concluding that it must be because I cannot conceive. When I fill them in, most seem put out – they want a ‘valid reason’ and as I don’t have one that suits their view of the world, it’s assumed I’m abnormal or that I’ve let the female side down. I’ve even been called selfish,” says Jodie. She even finds that mothers often avoid or shy away from her. “I think some view it as a disease – as if by being in my company they may catch this affliction.”
This seems to be a common experience for many women on the ‘voluntary childlessness’ path, and was a topic raised in the film Sex and The City 2 when Carrie and Mr Big discuss their decision to remain child-free at a wedding with a couple who have kids. The couple with children are seen to physically remove themselves from Carrie and Mr Big.
German Dubai resident Alina*, 42, who is child-free out of choice has, like Jodie, been exposed to awkward questions and disapproval. “As a mature woman I feel that it’s my right to choose and that not being a mother is an option, not an affliction,” she says. Alina decided at the age of 14 that she didn’t want kids and though she’s been in long-term relationships she’s remained uninterested in being a mother. “The assumptions can be frustrating – that I’ve not met Mr Right, that I can’t conceive or that I’ll regret it,” she says.
Jodie concurs, claiming that even today it seems a woman’s fertility status is considered public property. “I feel constantly judged and as if I have to justify my decision publicly. I don’t ask mums to justify to me why they feel the need to have four kids, so why do I have to justify my life choice?”
In fact, Jodie believes that her life choice, far from being selfish, is actually rather selfless. “I refuse to contribute to a society that already has too many kids,” she says. “I contribute to society through my work and through my voluntary work, which often involves children. Surely, it’s selfless to recognise that I don’t have the capacity or desire to be a parent and therefore not bring a child into the world.”
Like Jodie, there are more and more women now challenging the idea that happy and fulfilled lives require children. “I disagree with the notion that I’m somehow not valued as a person unless I’m a parent,” says 39-year-old Dubai-based businesswoman Karin*. “It’s my choice to be child-free and I don’t consider it an open forum for comment. I’m not out to convert anyone; at the same time I don’t appreciate parents trying to convert me.”
Womanhood is not motherhood
Devika Singh, psychologist at Dubai Herbal & Treatment Centre, is seeing an increase in couples in the UAE that choose to be child-free, an adjustment she feels will take more time for society to accept. “The UAE, in particular, is a very cross-cultural society. For some family-focused individuals and nationalities, seeing parenting as a choice can create a divide,” says Devika. “Many people still see a child-free woman in a negative light. Just because women have the capacity to become mothers, society assumes that they must want children. If not, the other assumptions are that a woman hasn’t found the right man or that she simply can’t conceive.”
Having lived all over the world, Karin has experienced negativity about her child-free choice from all nationalities “In every country, no matter how progressive they pretend to be, there is definitely prejudice against women who choose not to have children. Dubai is no different, however, I have many Emirati female friends who are some of the most accepting I’ve come across. It’s mostly nationals from other Middle Eastern countries who appear to find it hard to believe that a woman would choose to remain without children.”
The bottom line is that today we are faced with many choices – to be a single mother, to be a working mother, to be a stay-at-home mother. Still the choice not to become a mother remains an undervalued choice.“Not being a mother at all is another choice that the modern woman is facing,” says Devika. “It’s also a choice that society is gradually learning to accept. Motherhood forms one part of a woman’s identity – yet she is still a complete woman if she isn’t a mother.”
Who wants it all?
There is no denying it, child-rearing is time consuming. Analysts have found that it takes, on average, eight hours a day to parent two children. That’s a lot of time you could otherwise dedicate to careers, hobbies and relationships. As founder of her own business Alina has, at times, found her work demanding, even all-consuming, a challenge she thrives on. But she says she has never been caught up in the ‘superwoman’ notion.
“During the past few decades women have been led to believe we can do anything and be everything: successful businesswomen, supportive partners, raise wonderful children and run the perfect household. We’re expected to do all this while wearing a big fat smile and killer heels. Just to prove we can,” she laughs. “I’m just living my life the way I want. I don’t feel I need to prove anything. I love kids, but I love my freedom more – I have no qualms about total immersion in my work and hobbies. I have a wonderful circle of friends and family with kids so I never miss out on any love or joy.”
Career and finances are other reasons many women choose not to have children. A qualitative study examining why some Chinese-Singaporean women choose not to have children, published in Springer’s International Handbook of Chinese Families, revealed that the main reason 20.5 per cent of Chinese Singaporean women aged 30-39 are not having babies is that they feel they cannot juggle motherhood and a job, and are unwilling to sacrifice their career prospects for motherhood.
“I honestly don’t think I would cope with the career I have and raising children,” admits Jodie. “I’m not a superwoman and I have no desire to be one. I actually don’t think it would be fair for me to have a child when my priorities lie elsewhere.”
The fact remains that having children is a choice, like any other choice, and it does not define a woman’s success as a woman. “I prefer not to call myself ‘childless’ because it assumes something is missing and it’s not,” asserts Alina.
Jodie believes that as a society we need to move from the ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of marriage, motherhood and career, to a ‘discover-what-fits-you’ model. Devika agrees and explains that choosing to have a child is a bigger decision than any other one and should be taken for the right reasons.
“I encourage those coming to terms with the decision to view it holistically; to look at the entire landscape of their life rather than just the trees,” Devika says. “Parenting is possibly one of the biggest of all of life’s decisions, an option that shouldn’t be assumed. Being a parent is one route to pursue, but it certainly isn’t the only purpose in life. This idea can be empowering for many women and couples.”
"I have no children and no regrets"
Australian-born Kim* moved to Dubai 13 years ago with her husband and she works in HR for a pharmaceutical company. About to turn 45, Kim has no children and no regrets.
“When I was growing up, my friends would fantasise about wedding dresses and play make-believe with baby prams. I was never interested in those games. I surprised even myself by getting married at 22, but I was always up front with my husband and I told him that I didn’t want children. It’s almost as if my biological clock was never switched on. I wondered if one day I would be swept along by the same maternal longings my friends talked about. I waited, even expected it in my 20s and 30s, but it just never came.
“In this day and age we don’t just get pregnant, accidents rarely happen – unless you want them to. In many ways having a child is an illogical choice – it doesn’t make financial sense, the short-term sleep deprivation and life restrictions aren’t something you choose. But the strong maternal urge most women feel overrides everything. I understand that and I’d like others to understand that I don’t have that maternal urge. I love kids – I’m happy to spend weekends with friends and their kids, I’m also close to my nephews. I just don’t want kids of my own.
“Before moving to Dubai my husband and I lived in South-East Asia where there is definitely an expectation of pregnancy soon after marriage. Living here in the UAE, I see similarities in the Arabic culture. The notion of being able to say, ‘I don’t want children’ is not really considered an option. People ask how long I’ve been married and initially, being newly wed, not being pregnant is acceptable. But the judgement gets harder the longer you are married. No matter what you say, they assume you can’t have kids.
“Eventually, when you are older and have been married many years, people just give up asking. I don’t feel I need to justify anything to any one. As an Australian woman it’s not uncommon to be child-free.
“My family is accepting of my choice. I feel no pressure – not from my family and not from my culture. I don’t feel smug about being child-free and I don’t feel envious of those who have children either. I’m simply at peace with my child-free life.”
Stars speak out on their decisions to remain child-free:
Artist Tracey Emin, 48
“There comes a time when you hit your 40s and every time you go out, the subject will come up… and I’ll say, ‘I don’t want to have children.’ And then you have to explain it.”
Model Marie Helvin, 59
“I’ve never wanted to be a mother. I don’t particularly like children. That sounds awful, but I have nothing to say to them.”
Dancer Dita von Teese, 39
“I don’t need children to claim I’m a fulfilled woman.”
Actress Cameron Diaz, 39
“Children aren’t the only things that bring you gratification and happiness. And honestly? We don’t need any more kids. We have plenty on this planet.”
Actress Dame Helen Mirren, 67
“I always did – and still do – value my freedom too highly."
*Names have been changed