Will you choose to have children?

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Little girls are taught to nurture as soon as they’re old enough to play with dolls – this is early training for life as a wife and mother. But increasingly, as a generation of girls become women, they are choosing to abstain from motherhood. Instead many are focusing on careers, travel and restriction-free leisure time. By contrast, many women with children have reflected and wondered if it has been as blissful as they’d been told it would be. According to The Guardian, there’s a growing army of women engaged in robust conversations about motherhood regret. They love their kids, but if they had their time again, they might choose a different path.

When 30-year-old Holly Brockwell had her tubes tied after a four-year campaign for the procedure, there was public outrage. But she’s one of the many young people who are choosing not to have kids. Millennials now have the lowest birthrate in history. Not just because they’re studying and building careers before settling down, but because they realise having a family isn’t necessarily a given, it’s a choice.

How does society perceive women without children?

Deakin University’s Dr Melissa Graham has conducted extensive research into the stigma that childless women face. Specifically, she has explored their experiences of social exclusion and its impact on their health and wellbeing. According to Dr Graham, women who don’t have children often feel pressure to have them or are ostracised due to their choice. She says that both the media and government position women as maternal by nature, reinforcing the fact that this should be the norm. In particular, she cites a three-year study of print media in which she concluded that women without children who were deserving of sympathy received it, but ‘there were assumptions made about career women,’ she points out. The perception was that women were not having children as an act of feminism, but this was not necessarily the case. ‘We have a long way to go. The first step is to acknowledge that some women don’t have children and accept that this is an acceptable pathway,’ she says.

Why only women?

Ingrained gender roles contribute to the problem. In another study, Dr Graham and her team interviewed 17-year-old girls and asked about their hopes for the future. ‘All they could talk about was being a mother. They’d chosen names for their children,’ she recalls and says this is because that’s what they’d been told they would do. She says that although we have made some progress, men are still seen as breadwinners, while women’s roles are tied to motherhood. ‘Women who don’t have children are not conforming to gender roles,’ she says, but men are not disrupting their perceived roles by not having children.

'We have a long way to go. The first step is to acknowledge that some women don’t have children and accept that this is an acceptable pathway.'

Dr Melissa Graham,
Deakin University

What can be done?

Dr Graham suggests that as a society, we need to get better at acknowledging the fact that all women’s experiences are equally valid and deserve to be respected so that women feel free to make the right choice for them, rather than assuming they have a pre-determined destiny. As it stands, those who can’t have children or choose not to, run the risk of being what Dr Graham describes as ‘mummy-jacking’ and having their perspectives drowned out by the majority. ‘The pro-natalist environment is influencing women,’ she says and suggests that a diverse range of women’s voices need to be heard, so that women are more likely to stop and think, ‘is this what I want to do?’

Interested in how society changes over time? Check out Deakin’s study options in the fields of health and social development.

 

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Dr Melissa Graham
Dr Melissa Graham

Senior lecturer and researcher, School of Health & Social Development, Deakin University
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