Women in England and Wales are having fewer children, according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics. “The number of children a woman is likely to have while of childbearing age has fallen to the lowest level on record,” reports The Guardian.
I don’t think this will come as a surprise to many. In fact, the media was more surprised when Labour MP Angela Rayner recently announced she was a grandparent aged 37. We’re far more used to conversations about IVF and “leaving it too late” than the success stories of teenage mums, unfortunately.
But we can see the decline in and around our own lives, or at least I can. And I don’t think it’s an unusual pattern. By the time my mum was my age, she had two kids, was married and had a mortgage. My grandmother had three children. Meanwhile, at 32, true to stereotypical late-millennial form, I’m still doubting my ability to nurture and sustain a small houseplant. (For the record, the national average age for a first-time mother in 2015 was 28.6 years old.)
I think it’s good to take stock of these numbers because they can suggest positives. The drop in teenage pregnancies comes down to greater education. And the reluctance to have more or any children is, potentially, a reflection of choice. And that is a resounding victory – for surely all women have ever fought for is the right to choice? We should remember that, just over 100 years ago, stories like that of Anne Higgins were common. Higgins was the mother of the founder of what we now know as Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger – and she had 18 pregnancies (with only 11 of the children surviving) before dying aged 49 due to the toll taken on her body. We should read and reread Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays and remember the women of the 1960s, driven to motel rooms and having abortions on newspaper-covered floors for a fee of $500. And we should consider how, in the developing world, unwanted pregnancy is one of the greatest barriers to education and, in turn, the route out of poverty. Women choosing not to have children is a sign of political progress as well as autonomy over their own bodies – the greatest sort of female empowerment I can think of.
For many, from the very poor to the middle-class children of baby boomers, children are simply unaffordable
And part of that choice, of course, is choosing something else – like a fulfilling career. Arguably, the falling rate of women giving birth is a sign that familial life and maternal duty is no longer quite the pressure it once was – or at least women feel empowered and supported to resist it or not be entirely defined by it. As women in Western Europe, we are fortunate that we live in a society that promotes women to the highest level – from the prime minister to newspaper editors. Control over our bodies results in control of our careers – our contribution to society doesn’t have to be maternal.
This may all sound like some sort of feminist paradise, but of course we know that isn’t the world we’re living in. So I wonder if our choices to have fewer babies or none is in some small part a false choice? Are we deciding not to have children because we want a big, fulfilling, ambitious job – or because we can’t afford more than one? We know that one child is a much easier and more affordable prospect than two; after a second child, the wages of the lower earner in a relationship – still, typically, a woman – often vanish, as they go completely on childcare. We know that many in this country are facing extreme financial hardship, that support from government is being axed or simply not turning up, leaving families in chaos and poverty. For many, from the very poor to the middle-class children of baby boomers, children are simply unaffordable.
And perhaps my generation – very much of child-bearing age – floating along in a semi-formed adulthood, put on pause by the economic catastrophe around us, are thinking, “Actually, having a baby in this climate, with no money and with a workplace that is only just coming to grips with any serious type of parental support, isn’t worth it.” Perhaps, we are the post-Wonder Woman generation who learnt from their mothers' hardships and are still waiting for workplaces and society to truly catch up. Currently, there is a rush on companies offering parental leave – this is marvellous, but the cynic in me says this is because they will be forced to reveal their salaries by gender next year, and this will soften the blow to their female employees who will inevitably realise they are being underpaid. The decline of women having children does not necessarily mean we’re on a yellow-brick road to equality – after all, our choice to have a career is not choice at all if we still have to sacrifice something men don’t, and our choice to not have children isn’t a choice if we’re living in an age of austerity that is pulling the bottom out of the lives of so many vulnerable people.
I am speculating – and, perhaps, allowing my own worries to inform my response. Yet, I think it’s significant – women have been fed control dressed up as choice for a very long time. We’re no nearer equality if access to choice comes at a very high price – a price some women simply won’t or can’t pay.