It’s official: child-rearing is women’s work

Independent on Sunday, 10 March 2013

On Sundays, dads up and down the land look forward to football with their kids followed by a lazy family lunch. It’s an idyllic picture of life in 21st-century Britain, but for once I want to talk about all the men who don’t have children. What’s wrong with the one in five who don’t become fathers?

If you haven’t heard this statistic before, the reason is simple: I made it up. I haven’t a clue how many childless men there are, but then it isn’t my job to count. You might think it’s the job of government, which assiduously collects figures on women’s childbearing habits, but apparently it isn’t. Last week I read the latest publication from the Office for National Statistics, which enjoys the gender-neutral title Cohort Fertility, Engand and Wales, and realised that every single statistic relates to women. One in  five women born in 1966 has remained childless, compared with one in eight from 1939, and fewer women are having four or more children.

All of this is fascinating, so I called the ONS to ask for comparable figures on men and fatherhood. That’s when I discovered there aren’t any. They don’t collect them, and they sounded surprised by my question. Yet the impact of not collecting data on changing patterns in fatherhood is obvious, reinforcing the age-old notion that the business of having children is “women’s work”. It ensures that any discussion about individuals who don’t have children is bogged down in female stereotypes: career women who have left it too late and lonely middle-aged women who tried to deny the maternal instinct.

I’ve never wanted to have children and I don’t see why childless women should be pitted against mothers, as though one choice is better than the other. In any case, the size of families and the wider subject of the way people organise their private lives are hardly specific to women. Yet every time I read about an increase in single-parent families, single households or childless adults, it’s as though the changing nature of the family is entirely down to the whims of women. A couple of days ago, the Daily Mail used ONS research to create a double-page “portrait of 21st-century British woman” and you don’t need me to tell you what made headlines.

Naturally it was all those childless women, along with results from another study showing that fewer than half of adult women are married. This is a world where marriage and motherhood remain the ultimate goal for women; domestic abuse, which affects more than one million women each year, isn’t mentioned despite being a significant cause of single-adult households.

It shouldn’t need saying that there’s nothing wrong with choosing not to have children. It’s also obvious that the traditional family hasn’t evolved as quickly as women’s expectations, which is why so many end up living without a partner. The statistics don’t surprise me at all, but I just have a sneaking suspicion that it isn’t all down to the behaviour of women.



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