“Record numbers of women are reaching the age of 30 child-free, new official figures have shown” — The Guardian
“Half of women in England and Wales had not had a baby by their 30th birthday for the first time ever” — The Independent
“Half of women are now childless at thirty for the first time ever” — The Daily Mail
While these are all factually true, why do they sound so demeaning towards women?
As a woman in my 20s, I don’t understand why headlines continue to make such a big deal out of my age.
Ever since I was around 6 years old, spending my afternoons playing happy family with my teddy bears and toys, I knew that I wanted to one day become a mother. I have also always known that this was a choice I make for myself and changing my mind would never be met with any judgement.
Luckily for me, I never felt any family pressure or hurry in that regard. To this day, my parents continuously encourage me to do what is best for myself and allow me to make my own decisions. However, I am aware that I am incredibly lucky to have this, the ability to make that choice, and who isn’t surrounded by society’s expectations.
I also know that I have had a predestined feeling of wanting children for as long as I can remember, yet it was only ever that. A choice, an idea, a wish. Never have I ever thought of it as a deadline, an age by which I would have to accomplish this to be accepted by others.
Growing older, I find myself often scrolling through news and media outlets reading article after article about how women today choose career over family and freedom over a domestic life. Or about how the average age at which women have children continuously increases, alongside research highlighting the rising concerns over fertility levels in older women.
Last week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that, for the first time since records began, half of women in England and Wales haven’t had children by the time they hit their 30th birthday. To me, this isn’t surprising. My mother had my brother and I in her 30s, and so did the rest of the women in my family. I always perceived that as of 30, one would have enough steady income to welcome children into this world.
However, the more I read, the more I realise that I relate to the heaviness of turning 30. Why does 30 have such a big impact? What is it about turning 30 that changes a woman’s life?
ONS statistician Amanda Sharfman commented, “We continue to see a delay in childbearing, with women born in 1990 becoming the first cohort where half of the women remain childless by their 30th birthday”. Continuing with “lower levels of fertility in those currently in their 30s indicate that this trend is likely to continue”.
While it is true that there are biological concerns over fertility levels once a woman hits 30 years of age, why don’t we also include societal changes, an ageing population, and current financial struggles in the conversation?
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a woman’s peak reproductive years are in her late 20s, with fertility starting to decline as of 30. Where it becomes especially low after the age of 35. This is due to a decrease in the number of eggs, as well as a decrease in egg quality as women get older.
However, women are living longer and while expert Elizabeth Duff acknowledges the higher risk of complications, especially for older first-time mothers, she stresses that “for individual women who are fit and healthy, there’s no reason not to plan for a straightforward birth”. Dr Quinton Fivelman, chief scientific officer at London Medical Laboratory adds “while postponing childbirth until later in life isn’t without risks, they can be mitigated by regular check-ups and tests”.
Plus, not everyone wants children — and that’s okay!
When looking at the statistics published by the ONS and current media headlines, I can’t help but wonder: what about all the women who never wanted children? What about the rising number of adoptions or surrogacies?
The ONS clearly states that in this release “the number of children is based solely on the number of live-born children a woman has had. Stillbirths, adopted, fostered or stepchildren are excluded”. Moreover, the term ‘childless’ is defined by the ONS as “The proportion of women who had not had a live birth by a specific age. No distinction is made between voluntary and involuntary childlessness.” This data gives no insight into women’s choices, whether they are deliberate or due to an external factor.
It is frustrating that this study doesn’t take into account the entire female population. We have finally started talking about the various ways to have children, and same-sex parenting, and yet in 2023, the media still fuels society’s fixation on women and our bodies. Where is the equivalent data showing the average age of men becoming parents? Recently, there have been multiple studies confirming sperm counts are falling, so why isn’t that data making headlines?
The report itself is also comparing data from over 50 years ago, when gender equality was a very different conversation. Luckily, today, women have better opportunities and are allowed to focus on themselves, their careers, and their dreams, even if headlines like these make it seem like we are still stuck in the primeval, domestic, belief that every woman’s destiny is to become a mother.
Dr. Pragya Agarwal, a renowned behavioral and data scientist, commented on the discussion saying, “for me, such headlines are highly problematic because they perpetuate the belief that women’s bodies and reproductive choices can — and should be — monitored”. And I agree.
Besides the many ways in which women today can raise a family, we cannot hide the reasons why some may choose not to.
Between the UK’s lack of childcare support, the rising cost of living, the current economic climate, the constant pressure of environmental doom, and the current break down of family structures and communal parenting, to name a few, we are still experiencing microaggressions and a constant pressure to have children. All too often, the conversation shifts towards “time is running out! You’re already…”.
“Even as the concept of parenthood and gender identity become more fluid, the gendered notion of reproduction fails to move away from traditional norms, and womanhood and motherhood remain inextricably linked, while men are allowed to choose for themselves — free of societal pressures and expectations”. — Pragya Agarwal, 2022
So why are women’s reproductive choices still being judged? Why is it still taboo?
Despite these figures, it seems that being childless is still something people feel they can openly question; something we collectively try to ‘fix’.
For me, this isn’t a conversation about statistics, it is a direct representation of the media’s portrayal of society. I believe it is a mirror that’s reflecting our need for change. It is about considering how we communicate motherhood to young girls in the next generations, and how we can collectively change the narrative.