Women need a new word for childlessness

We all know that Australian women with the highest levels of university qualification in distinguished occupations are choosing not to have children. But statistics show that increasing numbers of women who don’t fit the Julie Bishop archetype are joining their ranks.

Robert Tanton’s recent study, A Changing Pattern in Childlessness, indicates that childlessness is bridging both the occupational and the degree gap, and according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), about 25% of women currently in their reproductive years will never have children. In 2013 Deakin University researchers published a paper, Why are Childless Women Childless?, which was self-consciously about shedding new light on women wilfully rejecting parenthood and filling in the gaps of pre-existing research which has focused heavily on infertility and involuntary childlessness.

Traditional commentary has attributed the gradual rise in childlessness to Australian women either not finding a partner during their reproductive years or consciously putting off having children and then being unable to conceive later in life. However, age-related infertility is being offset to a great extent by IVF and assisted pregnancies, and couples are increasingly choosing not to have kids (in 2013 there were 2.7 million married and de-facto couples without children).

As such, the Deakin researchers wanted to go beyond the external factors of modern life and find out what women thought and felt about the role of children in their lives. From their sample of childless women aged between 24 and 45 with a range of relationship statuses, Deakin reported that 47% did not want to have children. Furthermore, within this “no” group, a whopping 81% said that they had never wanted to have children. They cited various reasons for this, ranging from concerns about the environment and overpopulation, to a lack of maternal instinct and wanting “to be able to live my own life”.

What the researchers found most striking was that despite the size of the “no” group, these women felt that they were a deviation from the norm, that they were excluded, and that they needed to justify themselves to society at large. Sure, Australia is economically and culturally pro-natal, but this does not go far enough to explain why it is still almost exclusively women, not men, who are stigmatised for not having children.

As a woman in my early 20s I am incredibly frustrated that it is still entirely socially acceptable for someone (often another older women) to take an interest in and subsequently pass judgement on my intentions vis-a-vis children when it is a social faux pas to do the same to a man.

The thing I hate most is that my usual, firm “No. I never want to have children” is overwhelmingly met with a knowing look and a prosaic one-liner like “Oh, you’ll change your mind when you get older” or “Just wait until those hormones kick in”. How is it still ok for someone to effectively say “I know what you want better than you do because you’re a woman, and all women want babies deep down”?!

  From the Fruit to the Cup - Pt I

Like 40 year old Isabel from Deakin’s “no” group, I often feel the need to justify myself and follow up with “oh but it’s not that I don’t like kids”. But when I think about it, I shouldn’t have to defend myself, and I shouldn’t even have to like children either. It’s ok for men not to like kids; their integrity as normal, amiable human beings isn’t questioned just because they don’t. It is an incredible injustice that in 2015, our society still speculates that a woman who doesn’t indiscriminately like an entire age-group must be in some way selfish, unkind, cold, uptight, unfeminine or lacking in a sense of fun. Assumptions about their characters, achievements, and happiness are still heavily informed by their reproductive organs, while men are largely defined by their professional status.

Women’s individuality is still to some extent subsumed by the universal expectation of motherhood. Given the proportion of women not wanting children and being empowered to follow through with this, society’s attitude has to change. What women need is a new word to describe childlessness; a word that doesn’t contain any concepts of absence like “less” or “without” and instead reconfigures childlessness as an entirely new state that is not defined by its opposite. Perhaps something derived from the Latin “plenus” meaning “satisfied”, or from “absolutus” meaning “whole” or “finished”.

I don’t want to be a mum; I never have, and while I can now list off a myriad of logical financial, environmental, occupational, and lifestyle reasons not to have children, that strong underlying feeling that I just don’t want them is still the single greatest factor. I tend to think about children in the same way I think about people; some of them are great, but some of them are dick-heads and I’d like to reserve the right to chose when and with which ones I associate. And that’s ok.

Annathea Curry is a First Class Honours graduate from the University of Western Australia, with a BA in English and History. In a family of entomologists, psychiatrists, doctors, physiotherapists and engineers she is the literary exception.

Image credit: wiki commons


‘4442.0 Family Characteristics and Transitions, Australia 2012-13’, The Australian Bureau of Statistics, published 26.02.2015, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/4442.0

‘4102.0 Australian Social Trends, Dec 2010 – One for the Country: Recent Trends in Fertility’, The Australian Bureau of Statistics, published 14.12.2010, http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features10Dec+2010

‘4102.0 Australian Social Trends, 2008 – How Many Children Have Women in Australia Had?’, The Australian Bureau of Statistics, published 23.07.2008, http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Chapter3202008

‘4102.0 Australian Social Trends, 2002 – Family Formation: Trends in Childlessness’, The Australian Bureau of Statistics, http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/bb8db737e2af84b8


Robert Tanton, ‘A changing pattern of childlessness’ Australian Policy Online, published 23.02.2010, http://apo.org.au/commentary/changing-pattern-childlessness

Stephen Lunn, ‘Childless families on the increase’, The Australian, published 07.06.2008, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/health-science/childless-families-on-the-increase/story-e6frg8y6-1111116564542

Deakin University (Melissa Graham, Erin Hall, Julia Shelly, & Ann Taket), ‘Why are childless women childless? Findings from an exploratory study in Victoria, Australia’, Journal of Social Inclusion, 4(1), 2013, https://dro.deakin.edu.au/eserv/DU:30057292/graham-whyarechildless-2013.pdf