Do you have children? And if not, why not?

You can't ask me that! Continuing her series tackling socially unacceptable questions, Christine Manby discusses whether you can ask someone why they don't have children

Christine Manby
Monday 11 June 2018 17:08 BST
Illustrations by Tom Ford
Illustrations by Tom Ford

When it comes to talking about parenthood it seems there are several distinct categories of egregious question that are all too often asked. There are the intrusive questions you get before you have children. Then there are the intrusive questions you get while you’re pregnant. There are the intrusive questions you get after the baby is born. And finally the truly painful questions you get if, for whatever reason, you don’t end up having children at all.

Almost every human being on earth of reproductive age has been subject to the first category. “Do you have children?” is a classic ice-breaker. If there’s one thing people love to talk about it’s their kids, right? And most people have them, don’t they?

Actually, your chances of discovering that your conversation partner doesn’t have children are probably higher than you think. Of those English and Welsh women born in 1946, a mere 9 per cent did not have children by the age of 45.

For the cohort of women born in 1970, that percentage has almost doubled to 17 per cent. That’s nearly one in five women who would answer your question “no”.

Getting a “no”, maybe you’re tempted to ask “why”, you brave soul.

Perhaps they’re too young. Statistics from 2015 show that while the number of women over thirty having children has increased, the number of women under twenty-five giving birth has actually dropped, with the largest drop being seen in the under-twenties. It seems that the myth of teenage girls getting pregnant for a council house is just that. Perhaps they’ve cottoned on to research that suggests for every year she delays having children, a woman can expect a 10 per cent increase in the amount she’ll earn over her career.

On the subject of careers, it used to be commonplace for employers to ask prospective employees about their parenthood plans. That’s been illegal since 1975. The position was reasserted in the 2010 Equality Act on the grounds that it’s a line of questioning that could be used to determine someone’s sexual orientation.

Nobody told Alan Sugar. When he was pulled up for asking women about their parental intentions, he defended his actions in the Daily Telegraph, saying that he thought many employers “would like to ask, ‘are you planning to get married and have any children?’ These laws are counterproductive for women,” he said. “That’s the bottom line, you’re not allowed to ask, so it’s easy – just don’t employ them.” Alan, you’re fired.

Maybe the person you’re asking hasn’t found the right partner. In 2014 more than a third of people were not or had never been married. Or maybe they have met the right partner but there are other obstacles in place. Like not having enough money. Babies are expensive. Recent estimates put the figure of raising a child to the age of 21 at nearly a quarter of a million. You’ll spend £11,500 of that in the first year, before they’ve even learned to say iPhone. No wonder psychologist Jean M Twenge writes in Generation Me that, “the greatest predictor for a woman to file for bankruptcy is motherhood”.

Or maybe they can’t conceive. It’s estimated that one in seven couples will have trouble. It’s a 50-50 split as to whether that trouble will be caused by female or male infertility by the way. Sperm counts in the average British male have fallen by almost half in the past 60 years, thanks to an increase in environmental pollution by chemicals with oestrogenic effects.

Or maybe the person you’re talking to is actually afraid of getting pregnant? Tokophobia is the term given to the fear of pregnancy and childbirth. Unbelievably, given how long women have been dying while giving birth, tokophobia was only officially identified in 2000 by Dr Kristina Hofberg. Since then, a study by the Industrial Psychiatry Journal estimated that up to 13 per cent of non-pregnant women may experience a fear of pregnancy and childbirth strong enough to dissuade them from ever starting a family.

Or perhaps they’re afraid of what might happen after a baby is born? Marital satisfaction plummets among new parents. Parents are much less happy than non-parents, though, you’ll be relieved to hear, this unhappiness doesn’t increase the rate of divorce. There’s something to be said for staying together for the children.

Or maybe your child-free friend is worried about population growth? Or the state of the world they would be bringing their children into? Trump, Putin, nuclear war, global warming, pollution? Who wants to hand any of that on?

Maybe they’re afraid of what they’ll hand on in a different sense? I know that as an adoptee, not knowing about my biological parents’ medical history made the phrase “genetic lottery” particularly pertinent when I was considering motherhood myself.

Or maybe they just didn’t want them?

Now that’s a really brave answer to give. All the other answers engender some sympathy (and most likely a flurry of unhelpful if heartfelt advice). Saying you just never fancied having children is something else.

Sometimes, when I haven’t wanted to go into the real reasons I’ve remained childfree, I’ve tried it. I thought it might be the fastest way to get my questioner to change the subject. I was wrong. The subsequent conversation always went like this.

“But you’d make a really good mum!”

If only that were something more people considered before they took the plunge. Would I make a good parent? Many people seem to spend less time asking themselves whether they should have children than say, get a dog.

“You should get a dog.”

“I don’t want to.”

“But you’re really good with dogs.”

“Other people’s dogs. Dogs I can hand back at the end of a long walk. Dogs I don’t have to worry about when I want to go on holiday. I live in a really small house. I don’t have a garden. I have to go away a lot for work. There’s a real danger I’ll forget to feed it.”

“You should still get a dog...”

It takes more than having lucky sperm to be a dad and it takes more than giving birth to become a mother. If you’re not sure you’ve got what it takes, isn’t it better not to risk it? For everybody’s sake?

Then there’s that old chestnut: “It’s unnatural not to want them.”

Is it really? What secret percentage of people have children because they think they ought to? A 2016 German survey by YouGov, found that 8 per cent of 1,200 participants said they regretted becoming parents.

It’s selfish not to have them!

Why? I’d argue it’s the very opposite. Right now I’m paying more into the system than I’m getting out. I’m hoping I won’t be a burden on the state when I’m elderly because I’m planning for my retirement. Philanthropy specialist Russell James, of Texas Tech University, discovered that people without children are much more likely to leave money to charity, a fact which charities are studying with interest.

OK then but here’s the killer blow. You’ll be growing old alone!

No chance. Spending much of my adult life as a singleton has taught me the importance of making and maintaining friendships. My best girlfriends and I are already planning our retirement house share. And we all know plenty of horrible people who do have kids who will likely spend their latter years alone in an old people’s home anyway, with their children visiting only at the very end to make sure they’re really dead.

Maybe the baby I didn’t have might have grown up to be the person who invented a revolutionary green source of energy or found a cure for cancer. Maybe they would have brokered peace in the Middle East. Probably not. So I’m happy to get eight hours a night sleep and keep paying taxes to support the offspring of someone braver.

In the meantime, I will do my best not to ask other people about their status as parents. It may not be illegal in a social context but it certainly isn’t small talk.

Christine Manby has written numerous novels including ‘The Worst Case Scenario Cookery Club’

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