Words by Beth Brown, Features Editor
Entering your twenties is a time when everything starts to feel very real. You are no longer comforted by teenagehood, and many twenty-something-year-olds start looking towards their futures. Scary stuff. Being thrown into ‘adulthood’ opens up countless anxieties about what your future should look like. From career paths to moving out, it seems as though your twenties force you to make endless crucial decisions.
However, for many young women, one anxiety rises above them all. Motherhood. Their twenties welcome a new wave of uncomfortable family dinner conversations along the lines of: ‘When am I getting a grandchild?’ ‘When I was your age I was pregnant with my second!’ ‘You know you’re most fertile in your 20s, right?’ This is enough to send any twenty-something-year-old into a panic. When you are just about finding your feet as a self-sufficient adult, caring for a child can seem a lifetime away!
And for many young women, having children is not in their future at all. More and more women are choosing to not have children, as The Guardian reported that a record 50.1% of women in England and Wales born in 1990 were child-free in 2020. The average age of women having their first child is steadily increasing, so perceptions around motherhood are certainly changing.
So why is motherhood still such a stressful topic for so many people?
When speaking to young women who are not set on having children, there appear to be two main perspectives. The first is those who are simply not prioritising children in their life plans. They may have children later in life, through adoption, or not at all. As a young adult, they are not ready to label themselves as someone who definitely wants children and are comfortable with the idea of potentially being child-free.
Despite this being a completely valid mentality to have, especially for women who are so young, some people see this as a challenge to convince them to have children. There is a cultural perception that having children is the natural path to take, with any deviation being seen as wrong. On top of this, a common response to a young woman’s uncertainty around having children is ‘you’ll change your mind eventually!’ Even if she does eventually decide to be a mother, the response ‘you’ll change your mind’ is extremely patronising. This feeds into the assumption that others know what is best for her: more so than herself. Whether she decides to have children or go child-free, why can it not just be respected that having children is not necessarily a priority for her?
This adds to the anxiety around motherhood for many young women as it feels as though you must make a strong stance to be respected. Giving an open-ended answer to wanting children in the future often leads to the assumption that she is simply going through a phase. The response ‘you’ll change your mind’ argues that settling down and having children is the ‘right’ option and these young women will ‘come to their senses’ eventually. This often leads to many young women feeling as though they must completely decide how they feel about having children to avoid being patronised.
This pressure to decide whether or not to have children is completely unnecessary! Who has their future completely figured out by their early twenties? It is deemed acceptable for young
people to still be figuring out career paths or life goals, so why should a woman always just ‘know’ if she wants children? Women can not just be limited to the role of motherhood, having children is a big (life-changing!) decision. It is such a big decision you can not just assume they will fit into her life like a puzzle piece.
The second perspective is that of women who are absolutely adamant that they will not have children. This could be for a range of valid reasons but the outcome is still the same; no children in any way, shape or form. Although this stance usually stops the dismissive response of ‘you’ll change your mind’ because of its certainty, it equally opens up rebuttals. Friends and family will often try and highlight how they are making the wrong decision. But children give your life meaning! Purpose! Direction!
One common response is: ‘how could you take away a grandchild/niece/nephew/baby from me?’ Due to the overwhelming societal pressure for women to have children, actively choosing not to can make family members feel as if something has been taken away from them. This can develop into a complete guilt trip, as these women are villainized for choosing to withhold such a ‘joy’ from their lives.
And this guilt can easily be internalised. Many women may have been in the situation where mindlessly scrolling through Facebook has led to the new baby photos of an old classmate. After fawning over the cute baby (and potentially leaving a congratulations message) the nerves start to creep in. She looks so happy, should I want a baby? Am I going to miss out if I don’t have children? What if I don’t have children and regret it? And so on and so forth.
Even for women who have completely settled on not having children, it can still be hard to escape these anxieties. The remaining stigma surrounding child-free women can enforce the idea that her life would be lacking in some way. Womanhood is still incredibly linked to motherhood, where many consider wanting children the norm. Not wanting children, on the other hand, is seen as shocking. But why don’t you want kids? Who will care for you when you’re old? Don’t you like kids?
Obviously, for all the young women who are ready for children (or definitely know that they want to have them someday), that is great! However, all of these responses to young women not wanting to have children can make navigating their early twenties even more daunting. The added judgement from deviating from what is expected of women contributes to the problematic idea that women are unable to make their own choices. Regardless of whether a woman wants children or not, stay out of her business!
Photo Credits: Istvan on Flickr