BBC News, March 31, 2006
Birth rates in the European Union are falling fast.
The BBC News website’s Kathryn Westcott talks to those among a growing group who have chosen not to have children, and are fed up with the emphasis given to family life.
Childless or childfree? Not so long ago, all women without children were known as childless, with its implication of a state of loss. Nowadays, a growing number of women are insisting on the term childfree — with its emphasis on liberation.
An increasing number of women in their 30s are rejecting the job description that they believe comes with parenting — loss of freedom, reduced career prospects and financial burdens.
Numbers are difficult to come by, but London School of Economics sociologist Dr Catherine Hakim has carried out some extensive research in this area.
She has no doubt rising numbers of people are actively choosing not to have children.
“In many European countries around 10% of women reach the age of 45 with no kids,” she says.
“Of that figure, there are those who have chosen to remain childfree, those who have delayed having a child and are experiencing problems, and those who are infertile. A UN fertility study says 2-3% will fall into that category.”
She believes the number without children will double in many countries to around 20% — except Germany, where the figure is already closer to 30%, partly because it is seen as having some of the most family unfriendly policies in Europe.
“The whole idea of the childfree lifestyle is beginning to be recognised by the media,” says Dr Hakim. “Private feelings are being legitimised and people are beginning to feel that they are not being deviant in some way.
“Very consciously people are more confident in saying they have a different lifestyle.”
Despite that, in some countries where there are very strong pro-natal policies, such as France, the idea of women actively choosing not to have children is, to many, an anathema.
Until recently, it was extremely difficult for men and women to undergo sterilisation in France.
“In France, it is difficult being a women without any children,” says 33-year-old Alexandra, who lives in Nantes.
“The subject is just taboo. There is no open debate. People refuse to believe you could not want to have children — they always think it’s because you simply haven’t met the right person.”
Alexandra, who has a long-term partner, says that up until her mid-20s, she always thought she would have children. But, after changing her mind, she says she is confident that nothing will make her change it back again.
She says that the assumption that it is only the work-mad who shun parenthood is far from accurate.
“I didn’t make the choice for career reasons — it was a lifestyle choice. I only work part-time and I like to enjoy life,” she says.
FERTILITY RATES In Europe 2.1 children per woman is considered to be the population replacement level. These are national averages
Greece: 1.29 Source: Eurostat — 2004 figures
Dr Hakim says that governments with “vague pro-natal attitudes” such as France, Sweden and Norway, claim that there is no such thing as voluntary childlessness in their countries.
But Mariah who lives in the city of Linkoping, Sweden, says that over the past few years, she has met more and more Swedes who are opting for a childfree lifestyle.
The 30-year-old says she has known that she never wanted to have children since she was a child herself.
“I was sterilised at the age of 25. It’s a choice I have never regretted,” she says. “Once I had made the decision, I felt stronger as a woman. I have a long-term partner and he is happy with my decision.”
She says that in Sweden there is a lot of pressure from family and friends to have children. “It’s the norm and Swedes really don’t want to stand out in a crowd. But, in the past few years, I feel there have been more and more people questioning whether or not they having children is really for them.
“Some people simply have no maternal feelings — some are worried about how the world is going, some like to travel, some like to pursue their careers — we’re not selfish people.”
“Selfish and irresponsible,” are words that 43-year-old Jane, who lives in London, is used to hearing.
In the UK, the most commonly cited statistic is that by 2010, one in four will be either childfree or childless.
“I made the choice early on not to have children. I don’t dislike them — I simply decided that I could not devote 100% of my time to someone else,” she says.
“I have also been called selfish but I think that people who have three children are encroaching on the planet’s resources — I can’t believe the amount of waste that children produce.
“The world’s population is still growing — it’s only people in the West who are perceived to be not having enough children. People will always have children and the world will continue,” she says.
Jane, who works in the media, says there is an increasing tension in the workplace because many employees without children feel that parents get a better deal when it comes to time off.
This is partly why Europe is now following the US with the establishment of active groups of the childfree, some of whom are demanding a better deal for their members.
Jonathan McCalmont is the founder of Kidding Aside (The British Childfree Association), which was first set up on the internet to lobby for equality for people without children.
He is fed up with the way the government is wooing parents with longer maternity pay, paternity leave, flexible hours and family tax breaks. He describes the latter as “simply a middle-class tax break masquerading as social policy.”
He is angry at what he says is a redistribution of money from people without children to those with.
He contends that childfree people who have other responsibilities — such as looking after an elderly parent — should get the same benefits.
“We believe it is up to the individual to decide what constitutes a family,” he says. “It’s not up to the state.”