Although when you look around you in the street, amongst your friends and family or in the media you may sometimes feel like the only woman who isn’t a mother, the surprising fact is that 1:5 UK and US women born in the 1960s reached 45 without having had children. And, as the first of those born in the 1970s turn 45 in 2015, we’ll begin to see if the statistic rises to 1:4 as it already is in Italy, Switzerland and Finland. My hunch is it will, but the data’s a few years off yet.
The last time the rate of childlessness was this high in the population was for women born around 1900. Research has shown that this was due to two factors: the large number of women who remained unmarried due to the loss of so many men in the First World War, and the effect of the Great Depression of the 1930s on both fertility and finances. Rather shockingly these were known as the ‘surplus women’.
The fact that it took the most devastating war this world has seen in terms of loss of life, coupled with the Great Depression, to suppress birth rates to this same extent before shows that we are indeed living through a period of massive social change. It really isn’t ‘just us’.
I call the generation of women (and men) who were born in the 1960s and 1970s to mothers who hadn’t had the same easy access to birth control, higher education and professional careers the ‘shock absorber generation’ for the sexual revolution.
When I was growing up my mother, who’d had me at 18 ‘out of wedlock’ (as it was called in those days) married unhappily whilst I was still a toddler in order to provide a ‘respectable’ home for me. Growing up, she instilled in me the belief that a life outside the domestic sphere was the one to aspire to, and that education and ambition were important. As far as I can recall, she never once suggested to me that when I grew up I should get married and have a family.
Now, I’m not saying that every 60s and 70s mother would have given the same message – but I’ve spoken to enough childless women aged 40 and over to know that many of us can identify with this. However, like all aspects of circumstantial childlessness, a great deal more research needs to be done.
Although the contraceptive pill was made available on the NHS (the British health service) in 1961 my Catholic-raised mother knew so little about how babies were made that she didn’t even know she needed to use contraception, and hence my unscheduled arrival in 1964.
Whilst my mother never told me not to have children, she made it pretty clear that there were other options that were more interesting, meaningful and liberating for me to aspire to. When I became sexually active as a teenager, she encouraged me to go on the pill immediately. She also taught me the facts of life so early (I think I was about eight) that I really didn’t have a clue what she was talking about! Her love for me included protecting me from what had happened to her.
Many men who’ve grown up with similarly frustrated mothers also picked up that having a family ‘traps’ you. This, reinforced by the fact that women don’t need the kind of financial support they used to, contributes to many of them feeling that they don’t have to make the kind of early and long-term commitments they used to. If women can have children out of marriage and it’s no longer a ‘sin’; if you don’t ‘have’ to marry a woman if you ‘get her pregnant’ and if sex doesn’t automatically run the risk of pregnancy, where’s the urgency for men to ‘settle down’ these days? They can remain ‘free’ for as long as they want and many are choosing to do so. There’s also not the same status to being a ‘family man’ that there once was – these days it seems that a high disposable income and a good-looking partner seems to have more kudos than the more private sacrifices and satisfactions of family and domestic life.
Perhaps also some men may be reluctant to take on the role of fatherhood having seen so little of their own fathers whilst growing up. Combined with his frustrated mother’s possible resentment towards her own subservient role and the unspoken (or spoken) resentment she had towards his father, it’s not hard to imagine that he might wish to construct his life on an entirely different template.
The old ‘marriage deal’ isn’t really possible any more and its prevalence in the past may actually have been overstated in our current cultural nostalgia for more ‘settled’ times. Those sole-breadwinner families living in comfortably-sized homes maintained by a secure (and well-pensioned) income – they hardly exist anymore. And, as for a stay-at-home wife, home-cooked meals on the table every night, freedom from domestic chores, children in bed by 7pm, good free state-schooling and a community of non-working women around to share the childcare… it’s another world, another age and these days, a lifestyle only available to the very rich. Meanwhile, professionals such as teachers, solicitors and doctors, many of whom in the past were able to afford to live like this on one income, now scrabble to achieve something like it on two incomes, not enough sleep and a mountain of debt.
The old model is broken, but it shimmers like a mirage in the distance. It’s going to take time for us all to accept that it’s gone.
The next generation, growing up in such stressed-out families and watching their parents tear themselves apart trying to make it work, will probably choose a very different model to organise their own family lives. But the shock absorber generation? We’re the ones metabolising the shock of integrating these changes into our culture, and many of us are reeling from the disparity between our lives and the ones we expected to be living. And sadly many of us think that’s our own fault – and that’s certainly the message that mainstream culture reflects back at us.
Since humans evolved, if a man and a woman had sex, it was highly likely that it would lead to a baby. It’s important to realise what a complete and absolute game-changer the pill has been in all our lives.
The sexual revolution has enabled women to achieve increased equality in many areas, but not in that of fertility. Life is long, but fertility is short, and as so many of us in the shock absorber generation tried to pack education, career, marriage and babies into our 20s and 30s (with a last dash to the altar of the fertility gods in our early 40s), the disparity between men’s and women’s fertility has come into stark contrast.
Women have joined a professional working world which has grown up around the male template of working incredibly hard to establish your career in your 20s and 30s and to delay starting a family until your 40s – a model which runs counter to female fertility. Sadly, this is something that many of us who are childless-by-circumstance have found out the hard way.
In 2012, University of Huddersfield psychologist Kirsty Budds analysed the media rhetoric around ‘delayed motherhood’ and concluded that:
For a lot of women it isn’t a selfish choice but is based around careful decisions, careful negotiations and life circumstances such as the right partner and the right financial position. These women are effectively responsibly trying to produce the best situation in which to have children, which is encouraged societally, but then they are chastised because they are giving birth when older, when it is more risky.
The pill, access to safe and legal abortion, women’s education, and women’s wholesale entry into higher education and the professional working world has completely changed the way men and women relate to each other socially, culturally, sexually and as potential parents.
In one generation, we’ve turned on its head aeons of courtship and mating behaviours, and those of us in the ‘shock absorber generation’ are working this through within the day-to-day context of our lives. We’re a living experiment.
Hopefully, the generations that come after us will learn from our experiment that ‘having it all’ is a myth, that lunch isn’t ‘for wimps’ and that equality doesn’t necessarily have to mean going head-to-head with men in a working pattern that many of them don’t like either! Rather, equality should mean that both men and women are equally entitled to a culture that makes it possible to live balanced, healthy and purposeful lives, whether that involves being a parent or not.
This is an edited extract from Chapter 2 of my #1 Amazon bestselling book: “Rocking the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfiling Life Without Children” It is available as an Kindle ebook and paperback from Amazon, and for other e-readers from Kobo.
Jody Day is a London-based writer and social entrepreneur and the author of #1 Amazon best-seller ‘Rocking the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfiling Life Without Children’ (Published Autumn 2013). She set up the Gateway Women friendship and support network in 2011 to support, inspire and empower childless by circumstance women (like herself) as they develop meaningful and fulfilling lives without children. Jody runs private sessions, workshops and retreats for women coming to terms with the fact that motherhood didn’t happen for them. She speaks regularly in public, in the media and online about issues and prejudices facing childless women in our society today and is becoming known as ‘the voice of the childless generation’. She was selected by the BBC as one of 100 Women that represent the voice of women today in 2013. Neither a bitter spinster nor a dried up old hag, Jody puts her heart, mind, and soul into lovingly and mischievously subverting the stereotype of the ‘childless woman’. She is living proof that your Plan B can rock too! Watch her talk at the Women of the World Festival in March 2013 on “Creating a Meaningful & Fulfilling Life Without Children” in under 10-mins, with jokes!
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I know what you mean, I was born in 1971 and I’m a single guy…with no kids nada….never found the right person, while everyone around me did. It gets pretty depressing though, but I am finally giving up on ever having any children or meeting the right one for that matter. I will be 45 years old come Jan 2016. In 5 years I’ll be 50. I never wanted to be an old parent (still don’t). I guess life takes a different turn for most of us. The crazy thing is, that most people who get everything they want in life are not always happy, where as those of us who want what they have, will never get it, or never got it……when we wanted it.
I have just found this website and am so thrilled! until now i’ve been unable to find references outside of the biological infertility realm.
my story is probably very similar…i’m 40 now. i was raised in a very financially stable, traditional home with my mom staying at home. her focus was always on her children and marriage and nothing else. there was never pressure on us to have kids (even now) and we were sent to an all girls school where we were all taught to be strong, smart, independent women. i never really thought about kids until my mid-30s because I was so career-focused and had not gravitated to children until later in life. at the time, it was clear to me that i needed to educate myself so that i could do work i loved. i definitely had blinders on and often think i missed out on the spontaneity of life by being so focused but i also exposed myself to some amazing experiences (travel, studying abroad etc).
at that time, when or if the idea of kids came up, i always thought “i’ll just adopt by myself if need be”.
at 35, my degrees were complete but i hated my job and started questioning the last 15 years. my then boyfriend started pressuring me to have a kid but i knew i couldn’t because i wanted to be HAPPY in my work, not running from it. also, i knew i didn’t want to have a child with him.
we broke up.
that was followed by a bout of mild depression for a year after which I came out SO much better on the other side! i am so happy now having disassociated who i am from the work i do. i am more complete, content and balanced. i am physically and mentally the healthiest i’ve ever been, financially independent and have amazing friends and social life. i also love my alone time and rarely feel lonely.
but i am ready for a child. or was. i spent the last 2 years trying to figure out what to do. i was single the whole time (and still am) and when it came down to, after a life of proving i could “do it on my own” i am not willing to have a child by myself. the thought exhausts me in every way imaginable.
could i do it? yes. but the fact is i don’t want to. i don’t want to work all day, then be the sole caregiver to a child. i want someone to share not only the burden but the joys with. i knew this is how i felt at a gut level, but i gave myself a year to really explore options and see how i felt and reacted to them.
this was the hardest decision i’ve ever made and i still question it sometimes. but i’ve decided to let go and to grieve it. feeling the time pressure was making me live my life in a position of fear and anxiety.
so now i just have to figure out what that means and how to do it.
This article makes me want to cry.
I haven’t been on the Pill since my early 20s (when I had a horrendous reaction to the still-horrendous Marvelon (I gather it hasn’t improved) and have been active since then (am in my mid-40s) and have survived perfectly well using condoms, “accident”-free.
I am still fertile but wonder even now about the having-a-baby quandary, and look to my long-suffering Mother – insolvent, with six children, and an unsupporting husband.
She loved us, but my siblings grew up to be so resentful, even now, as to never have given her comfort during her life.
Both my parents are gone, and I look at my remaining family without affection, aware of how little sympathy they had for the woman who brought us into the world. I guess it must have put me off, subconsciously, because I am still questioning whether to have children is worth the pain, risk and sacrifice.
Thanks for another great article!
It resonated with me in many ways. Similar to you I was “an accident”, I made it to being born in wedlock by 6 months. My parents while still together have had a difficult marriage. My mother made no secret of the fact that she resented my father for “ruining her life”. And we were brought up to believe that getting married and having children was for losers. We were to get degrees and have careers. I think she thought she was doing the right thing by us based on her own experiences, but I also realize now that this was a generational thing and not just the result of my mother’s own unhappiness with her life choices.
I had my own unplanned pregnancy at 26. I was put under a lot of pressure to have a termination and focus on my then fledgling career and told that I could have a baby later. I chose to ignore this advice and continued with the pregnancy in less than ideal circumstances. I was criticized for being irresponsible and a lot of fingers were pointed at me. I lost my baby and have never been able to get pregnant again, which rather debunks the myth that we can do it any time
I am struggling with my anger at being forced down a particular path and indoctrinated so much that I didn’t feel that I could be open about what I really wanted from life. We were given such a negative view of relationships and marriage that I was in my late thirties before I’d straightened myself out enough to actually get married.
But to be fair to my mother it wasn’t just her that peddled the myth that a husband and children would “just happen”. And as your article points out there are 1:4 of us for whom it hasn’t “just happened”.
Being level about it I’m not sure that those of us for whom it has happened are necessarily having a better time of it. As you point out both parents have to work, separation rates in relationships are high and many people are frazzled and worn out trying to keep all the balls in the air.
Anyway I will stop now. Thank you for such a helpful article. I was struggling with a repressed anger and reading your article and writing this has helped me to identify it so thank you xx
Fantastic analysis Jody!
I am always getting frustrated when people or magazine articles assume we were just too selfish or valued fun, parties, money and carriers more highly than settling down when younger. It is simply not true. I hear ‘oh but you choose your carrer over children’ so many times I’m truly sick of it. I don’t have a carrer I just have a normal job and never had a choice as the men in was with at the ‘right’ age didn’t want children.
It’s Good to know that there are in fact 20% of us around as it does not feel like it.
A great article that resonates with me. I was also born in the 60s ‘out of wedlock’ to a 19 year old mum, both my parents came from Catholic families and we brought shame on them: my mother was never really forgiven by her parents. My parents were forced to marry 10 weeks after I was born (when my parents found out they were pregnant they moved to a different part of the country and didn’t tell anyone about the pregnancy until after I was born, specifically because they wanted to see how they felt themselves, knowing that their families would interfere). They are still together 45 years on, had their ups and downs but seem to have done OK most of the time, luckily for me. But until I read the chapter in Jody’s book on this topic, it hadn’t occurred to me that my parents never gave me ‘get married and have babies’ messages. In fact, I have been married twice, and my mum was quite unenthusiastic about both weddings (but is very keen on my 2nd husband and did manage to get in the spirit). I’ve since had a conversation with her about her own wedding and while she did want to stay with my dad, she always resented that she had to get married. The messages I got as a teenager were “don’t get pregnant accidentally, your mum is a very sensible person but look what happened to her” and I spent most of my adult life strictly avoiding getting pregnant, I just didn’t have maternal urges. But by the time I met my 2nd husband and felt secure enough in myself to share my genes, it was too late.
Hi Ness – it is indeed interesting to realise the messages our parents gave us – or rather didn’t! My mum always valued freedom and education highly and never gave me the family-message either. She married young as they felt they had to to be able to live together (at 21 and 23) but only had me (in the 1960s) after 12 years of marriage as they worked abroad and my dad finished his studies first.
I am working in a highly make-dominated profession with lots of overtime and weekend work in your 20s and 30s which put lots of men off – now I’m finally on a stable salary and more normal hours (and earning still not as much as my male colleagues but that’s another story) . I have met a lovely man but now I’m too old.
I hope people realise its circumstantial and not selfish to have children late !
You are completely right. My husband and I wanted to have a child and perhaps we could have managed, but after hearing my parents argue about money all through my childhood I wanted to be positive that we had the financial means to provide the child with every advantage. I am, though, lucky to have a wonderful husband who has been very understanding of my current grief.
how often we underestimate the influence our parents have on us! I still believe it is the right approach to want to create the right circumstances as you say to bring a child into. I had the same and always wanted a good relationship and safe enough job before having a child. Quite a few women I know got married and had a child when their biological clock was getting louder and are now unhappy – with their partner not their children. I always assumed it would work out in time but hasn’t.
I have a lovely and understanding partner now just like you but the ‘right’ ages has somehow passed…
It’s good to hear that some one out there has been through some of the things I have been through. My mother always admitted that she married my father because she didn’t want to be an old maid. My father was a terrible alcoholic and my mother was so resentful she became an emotionally neglectful mother. They were no kind and supportive parents so I grew up thinking that’s how it was to be married and have children. Therefore, I didn’t get married until I was 32 and although I was still young enough to have children it never happened even after a few IVF attempts.
Now that I’m older I realize I would not have been the mother my mother was and would have been a caring and loving mother, but it is too late. I am resentful and will continue to grieve the rest of my life.
Spot on Jody, you’ve made sense of the mess the shock absorber generation is in! X
I am 50 and long for a child. But it seems earlier in our life my husband and I could never maintain financial or professional stability long enough to have a child. Now that we are financially and professionally stable, it happened too late. I still wonder how our life would be if we had taken the chance on having a baby.
Jody you nailed it, once again.