Motherhood On Hold: Where have all the babies gone?

Many graduate women will find themselves at the end of their fertile years and childless; some don't mind, others look back with bitter regret. Julia Stuart reports on a growing phenomenon
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The Independent Online

Look around and there are certainly the signs. Most of us know of women in their mid-thirties who haven't had children. But research published last week showed a startling picture: 40 per cent of graduate women are still childless by the age of 35, an increase of 20 per cent in just over a decade. A third of female university graduates will never have children. Some right-wing commentators blamed these "selfish" women for the pensions crisis facing the country. Others asked, "Who is to blame?" But the author of the research - along with women all over Britain - says that the real questions are much more complex.

The findings come from a study of more than 5,000 women born in 1970 and tracked throughout their lives by researchers at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, based at the Institute of Education, University of London. "Highly educated women," says Professor Heather Joshi, head of the research team, "are more likely not to have children young and they are more likely to end up with none. It's probably because they have better paying careers, better alternatives: they may have the kind of careers in which they need to settle before they think about having breaks or finding the means to combine parenthood with paid work. They may have higher aspirations about the housing market and who they will settle with. There are a lot of factors."

The author Lionel Shriver, 49, chose not to become a mother. "For me, establishing myself as a writer was so important, and took so long, that it consumed my entire reproductive lifetime ... I didn't feel I could afford the distraction and emotional energy that it would have taken to try and raise a family at the same time."

Shriver, who won the Orange Prize in 2005, believes that had she become more successful earlier in her career, she would have been more likely to have had children. But she is at peace with her decision. "I think that's because I've never had the experience and so I don't know what I'm missing. There is an element of ignorance being bliss. It does mean that in terms of my emotional support system, it's rather narrow. If anything happens to my husband, who is older than I am and smokes, I'm really by myself. So the chances are very good that I end up living the last 20 years by myself."

Others, meanwhile, are more concerned about Britain's low birth rate. David Willetts, the Tory education spokesman, is one who suspects that not everyone is as content with their childlessness as Shriver. "I think high house prices are a very powerful contraceptive," he says. "I think one thing that's going wrong with our country is negotiating the stages of the cycle of a life course. Leaving the parental home to create a new parental home, which a generation ago happened without thinking for many young people, has become much harder.

"There is a great issue of the increasing debts that young people have [after university] and the massive increase in the cost of housing. Are the young going to be able to have the kids they wish to have, buy the family house they want to buy and build up the funded pension savings that they need? At the moment we're failing them on all those measures."

According to many women, a principal reason for not having children, often overlooked by academics, policy wonks and politicians, is that they do not find someone they are content to settle down with.

One in three women is still single at 35. Women no longer need to marry for economic reasons or social standing, and they are finding that the men they meet simply don't live up to their expectations.

Kathy Cluney, 43, a single psychologist who would have had children in the right relationship, says: "A man recently said to me that he couldn't understand why I hadn't been snapped up. You're not waiting to be snapped up, you're looking for a match that will be as good for you as it is for them ... that will sustain you mentally and emotionally."

It is not too much to ask. But Shriver, whose new novel, The Post-Birthday World, explores the subject, warns that every partner has their limitations. The book relates the two futures of a woman according to which man she chooses to be with. Both are decent, but flawed. "The epigraph is, 'Nobody's Perfect: Known Fact'. And there's a line towards the end of the book: 'Ultimately, we all settle.' When you are considering getting married you don't want to resign yourself to something that's short of the mark, but everybody is. I think that if you keep your expectations modest and introduce a measure of kindness you have a better chance of finding enduring love."

It is not always the case, however, that lack of money, or lack of a man, prevents women having children. Some say they simply lack the maternal instinct. Actress Dame Helen Mirren, 61, said: "It's just not something that interests me. An awful lot of women don't want children, but have them because there is such pressure to do so. They think there's something wrong with them if they don't want kids. It's not right."

Natalie Haynes, 32, a comedian from London, is another. "I didn't touch a baby until I was 30 and still haven't held one. I've no idea why anyone would want children. I don't hate them. It just seems irrelevant. My partner doesn't want one either so it all worked out fine. Most of my friends don't have them. I served a very long apprenticeship as a stand-up. Had I wanted one I would have had to have given up my career.

"You can't afford a place for two people in the South-east, let alone with children. It's plausible that even if you are going to be really successful it won't be until you're in your mid-30s or 40s. Sadly, that's too late. For a lot of people not having children is about not being at the right age, with the right fertility and the right pay cheque."

A number of women are put off motherhood by the fact that they will not only have to put in a day's work at the office, but will then have to do the lion's share of the domestic chores.

"I would have liked to have been a mother, but I couldn't think of being one without the support of a man, and yet the notion of what I might have become didn't appeal to me," says Kathy Cluney. "I don't think family life is a great thing for a woman. From my own family experience family was a great institution for men, but not women."

And it isn't necessarily the woman who wants to continue working. Many want to stay at home with their children, but their partner doesn't want to be the sole breadwinner. And some men, of course, don't want children, or continually put it off.

Beth Follini, a life coach who specialises in coaching women who cannot decide whether to have children, says: "Some of my clients are in relationships with 35-year-old men who think that they are too young to become fathers. In all the debates about why women aren't having children, this is the great unspoken problem. Where are the men? Having children challenges their view of themselves as eternal adolescents. Women are not the irresponsible ones refusing to have children, but in many cases men are making it difficult for them."

For some, the eventual regret of not having been a mother will be very deeply felt. Tracey Emin has contemplated the future that lies ahead of her without children. "Sometimes I imagine I'll be an old lady surrounded by all my newspaper clippings," she once said. Emilie Pagan, 38, a successful businesswoman, chose her career over a baby. Five years into a good relationship her then boyfriend asked her to have children, slow down on the job and stop putting it before him. "I was about 32 at the time and agonised over it for ages," she says. "I always worked late socialising with clients, which was really important for the job. Incredibly stupidly, with hindsight, I chose the job and now totally regret it.

"I'll probably never have kids. He went off and married someone else. I'm going out with someone now, but he never wants to have children. He is adamant. When I could have children, I thought that I couldn't jeopardise my career. Now I think what an idiot I was."

'I have no maternal instinct whatsoever'

Dame Helen Mirren, 61, accepting the Oscar for Best Actress earlier this year, insists motherhood holds no interest for her. 'An awful lot of women don't want children, but have them because there is such pressure to do so,' she says. 'They think there's something wrong with them if they don't want kids. It's not right' AMY SANCETTA/AP

'You need a strong wind behind you to have children'

Gwyneth Lewis, 47, the first National Poet of Wales, lives in Cardiff. She wrote about her decision not to have children in 'Sunbathing in the Rain: A Cheerful Book About Depression', published by Harper Perennial.

"I always thought it was just a matter of when I'd have children, not if. Then I married someone who was 24 years older than me who already had children. I made the judgement not to have them on the basis of my marriage. He was willing to have children with me, but I thought it would have put an intolerable strain on us. He's retired so I would have had to work full time to support us, and living hand to mouth with a child is not what I wanted. I wanted to be a writer so that would have had to go. Also I suffer from depression, and I was worried in terms of the stress of it all. To bring up children you have to have a strong wind behind you because it's not easy, and I think there was quite a lot of wind blowing against me. An older man, and less patient, he'd had children and I wasn't the sort of woman who thought my life would be tragicwithout them. I have step-children and step-grandchildren and my relationship with them is important to me. But there are times when I regret the decision not to have my own. In life, relationships are the most important things and the loss of that unique bonding between a mother and child is a big loss. But I do think I might have regretted having children more than not having them. My husband was very ill with cancer a few years ago. It would have been very, very hard for me if we had had children as well. Sometimes families aren't as good as they're cracked up to be. They can be very destructive if they go wrong."

'The longer you leave things, the greater the health risks'

Susan Fox, 34, lives in Warwick, and is business manager for a company that services and maintains the wiring, cabling and fibres of the UK's broadband providers.

"I've been married since 2003 and we both want children, but we're going to leave it for a while. I graduated as an engineer and am now doing an MBA as well as working full-time. It's quite demanding. I'm also spending a lot of time with my husband, bringing him up to speed on what I have been brought up to value - which is family life. That understanding is important before I go ahead and have a family.

"Last year, I took him to India and Bangladesh so that he could experience my culture and background. I want him to understand how important it is to me. He's 48 and has his own business. He knows the demands of my job, and of studying in particular. He wants to make sure that I can cope and have a work/life balance. There is only so much an individual can cope with and I know my limitations. I think we'll start trying for children within the next three years.

"But the longer you leave things there are the additional health risks, which my family has been pointing out. I'll be 35 in July and I know fertility starts to decrease at that age. It does concern me and I've accelerated my MBA programme because of that. It doesn't mean that as soon as I finish things I will be pregnant straight away. I want to go into this gradually.

"I would love to have children but if I can't I just have to accept it. It would be really sad if I don't have children, but it's my choice and I have to be sure the circumstances are right.

"People want many things in life. Sometimes the circumstances are such that you just can't have these things and you just have to move on. I have no regrets so far."