In Brief

Motherhood: why are we putting it off?

Stats show around 50% of women in England and Wales now don’t have children by 30

Why are women leaving it later and later to have children, and having fewer of them? According to the Office for National Statistics, a new milestone has been reached: around half of women in England and Wales now don’t have children by the age of 30; in 1971, the figure was just 18%. At 45, nearly one in five are childless.

The news has provoked much dismay, but it didn’t surprise me, said Holly Williams in The Guardian. I’m a 36-year-old woman without children, and “my child-free friends still outnumber those with kids”. Much has changed since the 1970s. Women are educated and employed; but maternity leave is feeble and paternity leave worse.

Dating apps have given people a sense of endless romantic possibility, making it harder to settle down. Parenthood is harder, too, when jobs are uncertain and housing and childcare costs are exorbitant. Yet birth rates are also falling in parent-friendly countries such as Sweden. So perhaps something more “fundamental” is at work here. In my experience, those who really want a baby have one, despite the obstacles – but the reality is: not everyone does. And the fact that women have a choice “is a cause for celebration, not concern”.

Yes, motherhood’s a choice, unlike for previous generations, said Sarah Vine in the Daily Mail. But is it available to everyone? From 2011 to 2019, the “share of births” increased among women in higher-paid and professional roles, but fell among those on lower incomes. As the cost of living soars, “a family has become a luxury” – something policymakers worried about “a dearth of future taxpayers” must address.

It’s annoying that this is usually framed as a choice made by women, said Rachel Moss on the Huffington Post. Men must also take responsibility. Women are chided for “delaying” motherhood, but where are all these men under 30 who want to have children hiding?

It might help if motherhood wasn’t so often depicted as a miserable slog, said Rosie Kinchen in The Sunday Times. Twenty years ago, the author Rachel Cusk’s book A Life’s Work – an “unflinching” depiction of motherhood – caused an outcry. Now, maternal dissatisfaction is everywhere, from the sitcom Motherland to the Netflix film The Lost Daughter, to the Facebook group called “I regret having children” (it has 42,800 followers). The modern cult of over-involved helicopter parenting has piled on the pressure, too.

“I worry the pendulum may have swung too far,” said Judith Woods in The Daily Telegraph. It’s good that we’ve moved beyond idealising motherhood as seen in countless “online mummy blogs”. But do we really need to demonise it?

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