"For as long as I can remember I’ve never wanted children," says Kelly, 24. "At first it was because I didn't like children but as I matured (and gained a little half-brother and sister), I realised that I just didn't share the same drive to have children as a lot of my peers did."
Kelly is far from alone in choosing to forgo motherhood. While childrearing was once an almost unavoidable expectation on women – 91% of females born in 1946 could expect to reproduce – times have changed. By 1970 that figure had fallen to 83% and among millennials the trend continues; in 2018, the birth rate in England and Wales was the lowest ever recorded, and fertility rates decreased in all age groups except women over 40.
"There are more women of childbearing age without children than at previous points in history," explains Dr Amy Blackstone, author of Childfree by Choice: The Movement Redefining Family and Creating a New Age of Independence. "Women who opt out of parenthood do so for many reasons. Some of the most common include a desire to live an autonomous or spontaneous life, an interest in nurturing other relationships, a feeling that one would not make a good parent, and an interest in pursuits that may be at odds with parenthood."
Although the choice to remain childless may have social, financial and environmental benefits, it can place irreconcilable strain on even the sturdiest of relationships. Kelly’s partner was initially receptive to the idea of not having children but becoming an uncle made him change his mind, and the relationship eventually broke down. Amelia*, 38, found herself in a similar position after over a decade of marriage.
"During our engagement I’d mentioned how I didn’t ever want kids," she explains. "My husband is from a large family and said that he wanted at least three. I repeated at the time that I had no desire for one, let alone a tribe! We didn’t talk about it much until it came to a head as we approached our 40s. Most of our friends and family members were having kids and he was getting broody. I suggested that he needed time to properly think about it… We split for a few months to give both of us time to think about what we wanted from life and in the end, he said he could be happy without them and we got back together."
Amelia’s marriage may now be tentatively back on track but the conundrum that she faced will be familiar for a rising number of couples. Yet while advice columns and Mumsnet forums are crammed with guidance on how to deal with a male partner for whom kids aren’t part of the life plan, advice for women who don’t want children is lacking.
"We assume all women are naturally inclined towards childrearing (although there’s no scientific evidence to support this notion) and therefore self-help resources are created based on this assumption," says Amy. "I do think this trend is changing, though, and that more and more women are speaking up and proudly claiming their choice to remain child-free."
Women frequently have to contend with the assumption that they will change their mind about their desire to have children. The traditional role of the woman as carer combined with the myth of women catching "baby fever" the moment they hit 30 means that often, the decision to eschew motherhood may not be taken seriously.
"[My husband] acknowledged that I said I didn’t want kids but he always thought I’d change my mind about it as I got older," admits Amelia. "I still have a lingering worry that I’ve taken something from him and sometimes worry that his earlier desire for children may resurface which would mean we’d split, but I’ve got to take his word that he’s happy not having kids and not second-guess what he might think two or five years down the line."
For Sabina*, 35, who has decided not to have children because of an aversion to pregnancy and birth as well as for environmental reasons, the strain on her eight-year relationship is beginning to show.
"I was always quite clear on my views and for a long time it seemed like my partner was on the same page. Earlier this year he told me he did want children. I said I’ll have to think about it. I almost came around to the idea, more so because it felt like maybe [having children is something] I should do, but deep down I know that the abundance of reasons I have still stand. We’re now in limbo, deciding whether [his desire for children] is more important than us being together. I’m aware that if we continue to have different views then it may very well lead to us splitting up."
Whether or not to have children is a profoundly individual and impactful choice, and it seems that wanting to stay with a partner isn’t always enough to override a compelling desire to have (or not to have) offspring of your own. And for women – who often bear the bulk of the burden when it comes to pregnancy, childbirth and childcare – the decision is particularly complex. For women like Sabina and Amelia, the impossible and conflicting demands of their personal needs, social norms and expectations, and the love they share with their partner, means that there is no simple solution.
"Ideally, couples will discuss their goals and wants – with respect to parenthood and all kinds of other things – very early in a relationship, and continue to discuss them over time," advises Amy. "Whether differences in parent aspirations is a dealbreaker probably depends on the couple but if each member of a couple is dead set in their position, I'm afraid it likely is. But don’t beat yourself up if you don't want children. There are so many ways to live a fulfilling life, to make a difference in the world and to leave a legacy. For some, the path is parenthood. For others, it is something else."
*Names have been changed