What should we tell our kids about having kids?



The actor Dame Helen Mirren has never wanted kids. “I have no maternal instinct whatsoever”, she once proclaimed. Maybe she’s got other stuff to keep her busy.

Another who has eschewed having babies is Lionel Shriver, author of We need to talk about Kevin, who calls herself an “anti-mom”. She says she has been in the perfect situation to have kids but never wanted them; they are untidy and ungrateful and would have siphoned too much time away from writing her precious books.

Then there’s historian and TV presenter, Lucy Worsley, oft quoted as saying that she’s been “educated out of reproduction”.

She’s probably right. Highly educated women do have a higher chance of not having a family. Childlessness is on the rise and has nearly doubled in the UK since the 90s, but given the extensive press coverage in recent times of high-profile or careerist women choosing to forego the child-rearing experience you could be forgiven for thinking that most of those without children are of the ‘child-free by choice’ variety. In fact they represent only a tiny fraction of the childless and hide a growing swathe of the population who would like a family but for one reason or another just haven’t managed it. While half of all women in top jobs have no children, the vast majority of childless women are low or middle-income earners. So why is childlessness on the rise?

Actual infertility isn’t the issue. This hasn’t increased in the last few decades and still affects only 2-3% of the population while around 20% overall don’t have kids. It seems that people are finding it increasingly difficult to line up what they think are ideal circumstances for having children.

Let’s see then, what do we need?

1. an actual desire for a baby(s) obviously;

2. a readiness to settle down after finishing globetrotting, extensive education or whatever – this could take some time;

3. a decent place to live – increasingly difficult in these mortgage-challenged times;

4. a good career – yeah right;

5. a suitable partner who has also ticked boxes 1, 2, 3, and 4 at the same time and place as you.

Given the obstacles to overcome it seems amazing that anyone has kids at all really, and the reasons for increasing childlessness are far more complicated than just leaving things too late.

So is it time for a bit more planning in our early years? Instead of bombarding our teenagers during sex-education lessons with advice on how to put on a condom and about avoiding pregnancy, should we also be giving them “pro-ceptive” advice on how to plan their futures for having families?

Anna Rotkirch, family researcher and director of the Population Research Institute in Finland and co editor of Fertility rates and population decline; no time for children?  has been studying the issue of childlessness in Europe. I spoke to her at a conference last month and she says that of course it’s obvious that the first emphasis should be on using contraception and how to access it, but it’s very important to talk to young people now about having kids too. They need to think about how many children they, themselves, might want and how this could fit in with careers, but also they need general knowledge about the nuts and bolts of reproduction; Rotkirch told me of a Finnish study looking at what university students know about a woman’s cycle and when conception is most likely; a sizeable proportion of the students just didn’t know.

In a recent TIME magazine article, Camille Paglia bemoans the lack of family planning, in its literal sense, in US sex education: “Sobering facts about women’s declining fertility after their 20s are being withheld from ambitious young women, who are propelled along a career track devised for men,” she writes.

Rotkirch agrees that youngsters are unlikely to consider how they need to guard against leaving reproduction too late. “Many probably don’t think they will ever be 30, the whole concept seems very far away.” So, she says it would be a good idea to point out the decline in fertility with age, and also the fact that not everybody gets pregnant. “There are so many couples that want children, they plan for them and if it doesn’t happen this is a huge shock and crisis of identity, so we should talk to young people about problems with infertility,” she says.

Technology can help of course, there’s egg freezing, sperm donation, IVF and so on, but youngsters need to know the pros and cons and that these interventions are not necessarily the answer and don’t always work . Still, if a woman of a certain age finds herself without a partner she does have the option of going it alone, a scenario that seems to be on the increase .

Rotkirch suggests that women’s demands and expectations of potential partners are ever increasing and this could contribute to the difficulty in finding a good one, although it’s not just well-educated and well-healed women with loudly ticking biological clocks that face this issue. Young women in lower socioeconomic groups are likewise having problems finding a partner who can contribute meaningfully as a parent and bring in a steady wage, and many are choosing single motherhood as the better option.

But Rotkirch cautions against giving youngsters the impression that they need to have kids to be a valid part of society. People vary hugely in how much they actually desire kids and of course this changes over the lifetime. I myself know several women who only “realized” when pushing 40 that actually they’d like a baby (one of these gave birth to her son at the age of 42).

Wanting a baby clearly isn’t an automatic feeling. Before contraception came along, babies were an inevitable consequence of the desire for sex, assuming women were healthy and well fed, and so humans never needed to evolve a longing for babies. People vary hugely in their desire to reproduce and research by Rotkirch and her Helsinki colleagues has revealed that our personality types have quite an impact on our likelihood of having a family.

Extroverts of both sexes, for instance, have more kids, both planned and unplanned, and ‘agreeable’ women tend to have bigger families. Conscientious women, on the other hand, are less likely to reproduce, perhaps because they are responsible enough to remember to use birth control. Neurotics, likewise, have fewer kids.

“Then there’s a very repeated finding in the psychological literature that just having a problematic relationship with your same sex parent is often behind childlessness, both voluntary and involuntary,” says Rotkirch, which kind of makes sense – negative childhood relationships won’t inspire confidence in parenting; we don’t want to repeat bad experiences.

People who are high on the “openness to experience” personality factor tend to be less likely to have kids, says Rotkirch, perhaps because they enjoy aesthetic quality and complex experiences and so they consider there are other things of value in life. “Among scientists, obviously you have very many who are childless voluntarily,” she said gesturing towards the room full of conference delegates.

Plenty of people contribute valuable things to the world, and raising a healthy, happy and well-adjusted family is just one of them. Still, it would be good to make sure that our youngsters have the best chance of making a good choice for themselves.





  1. says

    Infertility in the modern age has shifted from functional, primary infertility, where some key biologic process or piece of plumbing malfunctions, to secondary infertility. Modern infertility can be secondary to lack of a mate, or presence of a mate but also access to birth control. But this second scenario, combined with higher education or what I’d call intellectual distraction, causes many women with normal biological fertility to pass into their forties without once having passed on their genes. And so human evolution continues to buffet our species in a whimsical fashion, just now weeding away the most intelligent, with a special emphasis on the women. Even for those determined female professionals who insist on “having it all” which means a dynamic career and a family, the family part is usually cut short after 1 or 2 offspring. Not so for their male counterparts, who much more often “double-down” by instead producing two clutches of offspring with two different female partners. Among women, natural selection is working most cruelly against the overachievers, and rewarding those who never thought to include college in their life aspirations. Among 35 year old women without any education beyond high school, the number of surviving offspring is 2.8 times that for those with an advanced degree. Natural selection proceeds stunningly when working with reproduction differentials of only 0.1 in lifetime reproductive success. Imagine for a moment a future human species in which the women become characteristically disinterested in intellectual pursuits. That future is coming at breakneck speed.

  2. Mairi Macleod says

    Interesting comment thanks. You might be interested in an article I wrote on this subject for New Scientist magazine, “Population Paradox” – see Works page (I can send a PDF if you like)

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