The declining appeal of motherhood

The number of women without children in the UK, either through choice or infertility, now stands at one in five - a startling statistic. Mary Braid explains the reasons for the growing number of childless
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The Independent Online
One in five woman in Britain can now expect to die without bearing a child. The startling statistic - a childlessness rate that has doubled in a generation - was revealed yesterday by the Family Policy Studies Centre which is about to embark on the first national study into the reasons for the dramatic fall in fertility.

The 20 per cent figure forecast by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys emphasises the extent of the shift taking place in the structure of British society which will have profound implications for the future of the welfare state. The number of elderly citizens is increasing at a time when the number of children seems set to fall, raising questions about who will produce the wealth to maintain pensions and other social benefits.

The 18-month project, funded by the Rowntree Foundation, will involve lengthy interviews with the childless. One of the study's main aims is to find out whether infertility among women is a voluntary social choice or an unwelcome and distressing imposition, dictated by new social and economic pressures.

At the moment there are precious few facts about the reasons for the drop. There is no evidence that natural or biological infertility rates are rising. As few as 5 per cent of women are estimated to remain infertile after medical treatment. But there is no doubt that women are leaving it later to have children and this is making it considerably more difficult to conceive.

Two weeks ago the OPCS revealed that births among women over 40 had risen by half in the past 10 years. The birth rate for women in their late thirties had also risen dramatically, while fewer women in their twenties were having babies. The reasons for leaving motherhood later are not known but there is no shortage of speculation, ranging from relationship breakdown to career pressures and the difficulties of finding a suitable partner.

Often the late starters are highly educated professionals who deliberately wait until they are 40 to try for a baby or who begin in their early thirties when fertility rates are already beginning to drop. Women at 35 are half as fertile as women of 21. By the time a woman is 40 she has a one-in- three chance of being biologically infertile; just 12 months later that has risen to two in three. Some doctors report that female patients say they have found it difficult to find the right partner or that the men in their lives have resisted the commitment of a child. For men fertility remains the same until 45.

Employers may have played their part in the decision of some women to defer or abandon plans for children. Unsympathetic employment policies and inflexible hours of work make it hard for women - and men - to combine family life with a career. A recent upturn in fertility in Sweden, which experienced low fertility rates in the 1970s, is interpreted by some researchers as a response to the introduction of parental leave benefits after the birth of a second or later child.

The FPSC believes the drop in fertility may be a product in part of social indifference towards children and families. Frank Field, a Labour MP, has long argued that the tax and benefit systems penalise couples with families forcing them to give up a higher proportion of their income than single people and childless couples. In a new report, the researcher David Utting claims that the direct tax burden on a couple with two children under 11 has risen from 9 per cent of average gross earnings in 1964/65 to 22 per cent in 1994/95.

Falling fertility could lead to social divisions over public spending between those who have and do not have children. In the United States, parent pressure groups are beginning to emerge to protect spending on children. It is claimed that legions of pensioners have turned out in some states to vote for legislation that cuts spending in schools. The US Parenting Association berates a system which it claims starves children - and their parents - of resources at the beginning of their lives while piling them on at the end. .

The growth of infertility may, of course, simply be a consequence of a shift in lifestyles and therefore a trend virtually impossible, and even undesirable, to reverse. Freed from a rigid social structure which expected them to become parents, more women have led single lives for longer and have enjoyed the benefits. Being "child-free" may be a positive experience; no bad thing. For women the choice not to have children may be no more than a logical conclusion of feminism. Motherhood is no longer the only route but a path among many which has its own opportunity costs. Perhaps the fertility rates would always have been lower if men had been expected to take career breaks or forsake their professional aspirations altogether to provide the nation with children.

In the coming study it must be hoped that the FPSC researchers give men's attitudes to parenthood as much attention as those of women. It takes two to make a baby. Social commentators have already warned about the useless or redundant male. In the US, men's "defection" from family life is the subject of endless books and academic papers. Men must hold part of the answer to the question.

If the current trend continues, for the first time childless women will form a significant part of British society. Their sheer numbers will affect the choices of other women. It will no longer be odd to be childless. Fundamental to any attempt to change the current trend would be the notion of what constitutes choice for women. Women who want careers may feel that current work patterns allow them no choice but to wait. They are often devastated to find they have waited too long. If society believes the current trend threatens its economic and social base it may have to make fundamental concessions and remould the traditional role of motherhood to improve its attractiveness.