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!