Mothers – and non-mothers. Our language creates the lie that being with a child is the norm. Words like “childless” or “childless” firmly define a childless person as a childless person. Our social and cultural norms mark women who choose not to have children as outsiders.
And women are expected to not only become mothers, but to be good mothers.
Women usually search for the ideal time to become pregnant, postponing the decision to become pregnant. This may seem like autonomy, but it is often a consequence of the huge gender inequalities that still exist in our society. Women lack the privileges and support to have children at “less convenient” times.
This is because, despite what we might like to believe, women do not have the same status as men. They do more mental and emotional labor at home and work longer hours than male fathers.
And although the number of single parents in the UK has increased significantly, there are still many barriers – social and practical – to becoming single. As poet and essayist Adrienne Rich wrote in her book Born of Woman:
“‘Childless woman’ and ‘mother’ are false polarities that serve the institutions of motherhood and heterosexuality.”
The idealization of motherhood undermines all women, regardless of their own choices, as I write in my book Motherhood: On Choosing to Be a Woman.
The reasons why people do not want to have children can be cultural, social, environmental and financial. This may be an individual choice, or people may not be childless by choice.
I continue to question whether women, even in this era of unprecedented freedom and choice, are truly free to understand their own reproductive options or have the autonomy to shape those decisions.

Decisions and regret

Often conversations about the birth of a child are framed in the form of regret. What if you regret it and it’s too late? What if you change your mind and it’s too late?
Research on childbearing regret has focused on mothers. It is not considered unusual for a man to not want children or have children. Women’s fertility choices are constantly under scrutiny, although we don’t often discuss men’s biological clocks.
In 2023, Michigan State University researchers found that one in five adults in the state, or about 1.7 million people, did not want to have children. This was followed by another study published later in 2023 that looked in more detail at people who choose not to have children. It turns out they are very happy with their decision.
On the other hand, studies have shown that people who have children are more likely to regret their choices. In 2021, a YouGov survey of more than 1,200 British parents found that 8% say they currently regret having children. And a 2016 YouGov study of more than 2,000 people in Germany found that 19% of mothers and 20% of fathers said that if they could decide again, they would not want to have children.
There can be many reasons for these regrets, but lack of childcare options and lack of support are likely to be significant. We no longer have a village. We’re trying to do it all ourselves, alone.
I keep wondering why society still puts so much pressure on people, especially women, to have children, why it tells them that their main, most important purpose in life is to be a mother, but then quickly labels them the label of a bad mother, an inattentive mother. mother, negligent mother.
The reproductive justice movement seeks to change this situation. It affirms the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, to have or not have children, and to raise the children we do have in safe communities. It brings attention to marginalized communities, those most affected by reproductive health barriers, and those who are also at greatest risk of sexual and reproductive violence.
Reproductive inequality also affects those whose lives lie outside the binary. We cannot discuss autonomy without considering the intersectional aspects of its impact on transgender, non-binary, gender non-conforming and gender non-conforming people.
Sometimes choice can be an illusion. Although we may believe that we are completely autonomous and free to make decisions as we wish, we are never freed from our social and cultural context.


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