Nitzan Peri-Rotem, January 2016
Is it their high-flying career? Not finding the right partner? Or is it just that they don’t like children? People may delay childbearing to later ages or remain childless throughout their life for various reasons. However, only a small minority declare not wanting any children, while many others could be described as ambivalent about childbearing or childless by circumstances. As sexuality is increasingly disconnected from parenthood, people may spend most of their reproductive years without giving too much thought about their fertility.
In most industrialized countries, couples have been postponing parenthood to an ever-later age during the past decades. In the UK for example, the average age of first time mothers has increased from 24 at the beginning of the 1970s to 28 in 2013. Similar increases can be found across Europe (see Figure).
Source: OECD Family Database (2015).
The increase in women’s age at first birth is associated with the spread of the contraceptive pill since the late 1960s; for the first time, women were able to delay marriage and motherhood without the penalty of abstinence or concerns about unintended pregnancy. In parallel to that, the increasing participation in higher education and rising female employment have also provided incentives to postpone childbearing to later ages. Other explanations to delayed parenthood have focused on cultural shifts, including the emergence of higher desires for self-fulfilment and personal development. Thus, decisions about family life and whether and when to have children were increasingly guided by own personal needs, rather than by social prescriptions.
Later parenthood is not without advantages. For example, being established in the labour market before having children enables parents to accumulate financial resources and to have a greater flexibility in the work place, which in turn facilitates the balance between family and work. On the other hand, delaying childbirth, especially beyond the age of 35, may lead to involuntary childlessness or to having a smaller family size than initially intended. It should also be noted that while these risks are more pronounced for women, men are also affected by age-related decline in fecundity.
Across the Western world, highly educated women were those who have led the trend toward later parenthood. This is hardly surprising considering the difficulties in balancing student and mother roles. In addition, these women are more likely to pursue a career and therefore, they would benefit more from postponing motherhood until they are well established on their career path. This delay is most likely to have contributed to the generally higher rates of childlessness among better educated women. In turn, these trends have fuelled stereotypes of well-educated childless women who choose to postpone motherhood or avoid it altogether in order to focus on their career.
Nevertheless, a closer look into individual fertility aspirations and reasoning for remaining childless reveal a far more complex picture. For example, a number of studies from the UK and the US have questioned the extent to which timing of childbearing is the result of a conscious choice; in many cases, the time and occurrence of childbirth depends on various circumstances that are often beyond one’s control. These may include finding and keeping hold of a suitable partner, own and partner’s fecundity and partner’s childbearing intentions. Recent findings from the 1970 British Cohort Study show that less than a third of cohort members who were childless at the age of 42 reported that they did not want children. This is consistent with previous research from the UK, showing that only a small minority of men and women across different age groups state that they wish to remain childless. Moreover, in a stark contrast to the discourse in popular media, evidence from the UK, Australia and Finland show that career development is rarely reported as a dominant reason for not having children, either by men or by women. For example, among those who intend to remain childless, more commonly cited reasons involve a desire for independence and reluctance to change one’s lifestyle, rather than career or economic considerations.
While only few people clearly articulate their wish to avoid parenthood, most cases of childlessness could be placed along a continuum, ranging from those who are childless by circumstances (due to biological infertility or absence of a suitable partner) to those who are uncertain, undecided or generally ambivalent about childbearing. Other people on this continuum are described as “perpetual postponers”, meaning that they intend to have children at some point in the future, but keep on delaying it until it is “too late”.
One of the most intriguing finding from qualitative studies in Western societies is how rarely fertility intentions are discussed between partners and individuals in every-day life. In many cases, these intentions are never explicitly addressed and often remain vague, unthinkable and unimaginable. It appears that the social and technological developments of recent decades, including the spread of effective means of contraception, prolonged time spent in education and a growing acceptance of consensual unions, enabled people to postpone parenthood without having to worry too much about the consequences of unintended childbearing. At the same time, the disconnection between sexuality and reproduction has led to a repression of intended fertility plans and created the illusion that we have more control of our fertility than is actually the case. Thus, while the biological clock has not stopped ticking, we are more likely than ever to keep pressing the snooze button.
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