Female refuseniks withdraw from gender war

The opportunity costs of being a mother are too high for many modern women, writes Sue Slipman
Click to follow
This century has seen a movement of young women out of entrapment in the home, where they and their children were the property of men inside marriage. The hard slog for access to education and careers, the vote and political power, and control over sexuality and fertility have been the undercurrents in this historical tide. Now many doors are open to those with the education and skill to walk through them. The glass ceiling remains a reality but it is a long way off when you are starting out. What slows women down in this career competition with men are the babies.

According to the Family Policy Studies Centre, one in five women now aged from their teens to early forties will remain childless.

If this projection is right, the number of childless women in the population will dramatically increase, reducing the numbers of children born as the numbers of the elderly grow. While the ticking of the biological time clock may change some women's minds, we have a trend that is alarming researchers. But the reasons seem clear. The perceived opportunity costs of being a mother are too high for many modern women.

When a working woman has children she takes enough years out of career- building to lose the race to men. She may get back in but she will spend the rest of her working life running on the spot, balancing the demands of the boss with the needs of a child. In consequence, most mothers work part-time. And you do not get to be a director if you work part-time.

Modern companies demand more and more of those who still have jobs. Those in work are working longer hours than ever before. There is a lot of talk about the family-friendly company - but the concept conflicts with flatter, leaner structures.

Governments refuse child-care support for families, increasing the strain on women. It is significant that in the Scandinavian countries where childcare is supplied, parenting in general taken seriously and lone parenthood not decried, the birth rate is increasing.

"New man" is a myth, and even newish man is difficult to spot. Women will no longer take the lion's share of responsibility for making male/female relationships work and for nurturing children. Even if women wanted to make the old compromises, the gap between being assertive at work and a doormat at home is too great for the modern female psyche.

Men are resisting change. In many cases they have abdicated from parenthood. Traditional male rites of passage are dying along with the staple industries and the breadwinner's wage. Unemployment and part-time, low-paid jobs are producing perpetual boys - we even spell it boyz so that it sounds cute. Material forces and the changes in women's attitudes prevent men from playing by the old rules of family life. Now they are withdrawing from the game. The recent battles over the Child Support Agency may have been fuelled by a shoddy piece of legislation, but their cause is male resistance to a transfer in wealth to women in the interests of children. In other words, if men no longer have the power they will not make the wealth available to meet parental responsibilities.

In the meantime, relations between men and women are at an all-time low. Divorce is spiralling, marriage declining, cohabitation increasing. The number of one-parent families grows apace, still largely as a result of relationship breakdown. But you can already see the signs of diminishing optimism that such relationships can work and are worth nurturing as more women decide that their best - perhaps only - option is to raise children on their own.

These days it is the non-academic, non-career women who are carrying on as normal. The career route out is not open to them. They are still having children relatively young. But they too are victims of gender fall- out. Increasingly they are raising their children supported only by the state and the welfare system.

It is in this context that we should place recent debates about blaming and punishing mothers and children, and withdrawing housing and benefits. We should recognise that moral panickers who talk much about strengthening two-parent family life, without once mentioning the need for men to change to accommodate women, are the new misogynists.

The young female refuseniks have identified that for women, children are stumbling-blocks to ambition. Their refusal to have children is a withdrawal from personal involvement in the conflict of the gender war. Time will tell how serious they are. They may prove that the maternal instinct is a socially constructed myth. It is far more likely that we will witness a growth in the number of late pregnancies to established, but firmly single, career women.