If ever there was proof that gender inequality is still alive and well it's the pressure on women in their 30s to have children. Bridget Jones, a story about the struggles of a single journalist, came out 20 years ago – and yet still the attitudes towards childless women beyond the age of 30 remain largely unchanged.
It’s an issue explored by Channel 4 drama, I Am Hannah, starring Gemma Chan. Hannah seems to have a nice life – a good job, meaningful friendships and a nice flat. The 'problem' is she’s 36 and single. In depressingly relatable scenes, she tries online dating to meet three unworthy men who leave her feeling more dispirited. One man asks why she’s wasting his time when she tells him that she’s not sure if she wants children. Another sexually assaults her outside a toilet. Her friends talk about their babies constantly without paying much attention to how downtrodden she’s becoming, or how engaged she is in the conversation. Her mother tells her she’s worried that, unless Hannah hurries up, she’ll miss out on building a meaningful child-filled life, prompting her to agree to having her eggs frozen. She refuses to accept that her daughter could be happy in her current childless state.
The interesting thing about this issue is that it tends not to be men who make women feel sad and inadequate about not having children; it's depressingly something women do to each other. This treatment is aimed at women who have chosen not to have kids, as well as those who, for whatever reason, aren’t in a position to just yet. As with any of these charged, deeply personal questions often masked as light small talk ("Who are you dating at the moment?" and, "When are you getting engaged?" falls into this category), it comes down to a limited social construct of what a woman needs to have in her life to feel whole and complete. It’s a narrative that keeps being passed down from one generation to the next – that not having children is somehow a big fail.
There’s a common misconception that women without children lead luxurious lives where they are miraculously free of work pressures, family responsibilities and financial worries, an idea that you won’t be doing anything important other than sitting in a bar drinking cocktails or indulging in spa days. There’s the “just you wait” phrase – you think you’re tired now, but just you wait until you’ve had children; you think you’re skint now, just you wait until you have dependants; you think you’re time-strapped now, just you wait until you have kids. Obviously, most of us know that childless women do not have 10 hours sleep every night, nor do we have weekly spa days, but there is a tacit suggestion that you couldn’t possibly understand - that you lack the empathy or the imagination to relate to a set of circumstances that are different to yours. None of us live in a childless vacuum – we have godchildren, nieces and nephews, younger siblings and children of friends whom we may play a role in raising. There can be a great deal of smugness, albeit sometimes unintentional, from these women, yet also an element of martyrdom. Childless women are expected to be envious of mothers, yet to also have sympathy towards how immensely difficult parenthood is.
"There's a misconception that women without children lead flimsy, luxurious lives"
The worst of all these comments is the age-old saying, “You’ll never feel a love like it.” Don't you know it’s the greatest love of all? Don’t you realise that real love is only felt post-children? Despite my childless state, I still feel love every day. I don’t know what a love for my own child feels like, but I do feel love for other children – I feel unconditional love for my goddaughter who I consider family. I know I love my friends, whom I couldn’t function without. I know I would walk over hot coals for my brothers. I love my mum and dad, and my grandparents. There are many different, unique categories of love – they are varied yes, but none are less valuable or richer. To suggest that someone – who may or may not ever have children – will not experience the depths of real love without procreating is at best ignorant, and at worst deeply insulting. It should also be noted that men are rarely subjected to this – how often is it implied that they don’t understand love because they haven’t had children? It is something often reserved solely for women.
Recent research revealed that childless, unmarried women are happier. At Hay Festival this year, behavioural expert Paul Dolan caused controversy when he said that studies have shown that women without a spouse or children are more likely to foster social connections that bring them fulfilment. The evidence is robust, yet many who lead their lives this way still feel chastised. There are a whole list of advantages to not having children that you may or may not value depending on your disposition – increased financial and social freedom, the option to travel often and the ability to focus solely on a career. And, despite the assumed plea of selflessness from new parents, there is an argument that having children is in itself a selfish act. We know there are enough children in need of loving homes and that the world is hugely overpopulated, yet so many of us still want to see what the pooled genes of ourselves and our partners might create. While we’re all too happy to probe why someone doesn’t have kids, we rarely ask a woman keen to have children why she wants them.
"The most offensive of sayings? You'll never feel true love until having children"
There is no right or wrong way to lead our lives, but it has to be recognised that there is more than one fulfilling path for women. Ultimately, it stems from an inability to understand a life that’s different to our own. When we swerve the life milestones, be it marriage or children, that society has told us must be ticked off for us to be happy, it makes others compare their lives to ours; it makes us question our decisions. People can be happy in so many different ways – it’s time we finally accepted that.