ONCE childless women were pitied or shunned. Now, increasing numbers are delighted to be child-free to reap the rewards of freedom and fulfilment.
It's the age-old story. Girl meets boy, girl marries boy, girl and boy make beautiful babies. So deep is this fairy tale ingrained in our psyches that, even though women's choices have never been greater, it is still considered – how shall we put this? – 'unnatural' when we choose not to procreate.
Kylie Minogue, now 40, has said she accepts she may never have children and is happy with that, but she always seems a bit of a tragic figure as a result. Poor Kylie. Not only has she fought breast cancer, now she won't even have children. How awful! Never mind that she is talented, successful, beautiful and mind-blowingly wealthy. She can't possibly be contented and fulfilled in life if she doesn't breed. But she's far from alone in this child-free state.
"We are constantly being told that women are having more children, but in fact the reverse is true," says Madelyn Cain, author of The Childless Revolution. "We are bombarded with pictures of pregnant celebrities, but the figures prove that in every post-industrial European country in which women have access to education and safe methods of contraception, the birth rate begins to fall. It is a phenomenon that is prevalent in Europe, with Britain at the forefront.
The UK statistics, collated by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, speak for themselves: among women born here in 1946, only 9% remain childless; of those born in 1952, 16% are childless; for those born 20 years later, in 1972, that figure has grown to 25%. In Scotland, almost a third of Scottish women in their early 40s were child-free by choice, according to an NHS study in 2005, and only around 7% of those without children were unable to have them because of medical reasons.
Moreover, this wasn't some social blip, such as a small minority of women foregoing families for the sake of their careers. Rather, it was an indication of mass social change, suggesting that in the next generation – those born between 1970 and 1973 – as many as 40% will choose not to have families.
A study by the Family Policy Studies Centre found that the majority of those who don't have children fall into one of the following categories: those who decide early to be childless and stick to it; those who consider parenthood but decide against it; those who had expected to have children but had not found a partner; and those who felt that fate had intervened. Among the latter were some who found they were infertile and decided not to address it, and some for whom career and lifestyle came first.
Dame Helen Mirren, pictured recently looking fantastic in a bikini that celebrated her stretch-mark-free belly at 63, is clear about lacking a maternal instinct. "It's just not something that interests me. An awful lot of women don't want children, but go ahead and have them because there is such pressure to do so. They think there's something wrong with them if they don't want kids. It's not right."
Shirley Manson, the Edinburgh-born lead singer with Garbage, agrees. "What I find incredibly funny is people who say, 'Oh, you must have children otherwise you're being incredibly selfish.' As if having children stops selfishness. I know hundreds of parents and some of them are the most selfish people I've met. As wonderful as I think child-rearing is for some, it's not for everybody."
Beth Follini, a 38-year-old life coach who specialises in helping women who are deciding whether or not to have children (www.ticktockcoaching.co.uk), says, "All of the statistics show it's becoming more of a trend not to have children, but my clients are split 50/50 between those who want children and those who don't. Some women don't want to have children but have family pressure to do so or are worried about what will happen when they're older. Equally, some women do want them, but are worried about their career or whether they'll be good mothers.
"I help them work out how realistic their fears are and help them look at their options. We explore how they can have children in their life without having them biologically – nieces and nephews, say, or friends' children – and how they can care and nurture in other ways."
Follini's inspiration comes from her own experience of being in her 30s and "dithering" over whether to have her son, who is now three. Then, when she became a life coach, she realised the techniques she used would help those in a similar position.
Lysette and Barry Butler ran the British Organisation of Non-Parents for many years. The couple, who live in Essex and are now in their mid-40s, decided early on to remain childless and Lysette made it a condition of their marriage. "I didn't have any strong feelings," says Barry, "and Lysette was the woman I wanted to spend my life with. Neither of us has any regrets."
At its height, the organisation had 1,000 members but it has since folded. "Not because there are fewer couples like us," Lysette explains, "but because social attitudes have changed and couples without children don't feel the same need to cling together."
Barry agrees. "Society has changed and women's attitudes have changed," he says. "They want a career and the cost of child-minding is phenomenal, at a time when you might lose one wage. People need more money to survive."
For those still wondering whether maybe, just maybe, they're missing out on something, it might be worth considering the words of (childless) writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, who dismissed motherhood as "a strange mixture of narcissism, altruism, idle daydreaming, sincerity, bad faith, devotion and cynicism". r
Infertility Network UK (0800 008 7464, www. infertilitynetworkuk.com and www.moretolife.co.uk)
Sarah Powell, 32, is a manager with Fat Face, dividing her time between Val d'Isre and Edinburgh
I've never wanted children, and my sister Lyndsey is the same. Our mother, a midwife, was a single parent, and when we were ten and eight, she had another baby, who is lovely now, but used to cry all the time. Our mum brought us up by herself and worked nights. We had a babysitter but we had a bit of responsibility for the baby and her crying stressed us out. She would go on for ages, until she vomited. It made a deep impression.
Even now, the sound of children crying gives us an almost physical pain in the chest. If I'm in a shop and there's a child crying, I feel like I can't escape – but you can't say anything to the parents, as it doesn't go down too well. I know they don't hear it, but I think, 'Please, let it end.' Also, when kids are trying to get their parents' attention, saying, "Mum, Mum, Mum, Mum," and the mother doesn't answer, that winds me up. I feel like saying, "Excuse me, your child wants you."
With my lifestyle and spending half of my time in Val d'Isre, I'm not that good at relationships. I can't even imagine having kids with my job. Even people with really stable jobs and lives, and who have children – it's just beyond me how they manage. I don't know how my mum managed with us. She'd work all night, come home and have a couple of hours of sleep, then take us out on day-trips and weekends away.
My sister feels the same as me, but our younger sister has a three-year-old daughter. I only have one friend who has kids. Everyone else I know is in the same boat as me. One of my friends runs a club and works nights, and the others have lifestyles like mine. I only have one friend who has a nine-to-five job.
Some people, when they meet you for the first time, are confused as to why you don't want children and ask what you do with your life instead. But they're kind of old-fashioned. Nowadays, there's not a huge amount of pressure to have kids. I don't get pressure from my mum because my sister has a child.
If I'm honest, I'm probably too selfish to have kids. Everything has to be about them, and you have to make sacrifices. I have plenty of money to spend, I can travel and, best of all, can just pack up and go whenever I want without making plans – be spontaneous. And the downside? There is no downside!
Franoise Chevalier, 46 works as a PA in Edinburgh
In my 20s, I was too young to have children. In my 30s, I was too busy. And now I'm in my 40s, I've escaped it. I had never considered having children as I grew up. I hadn't played with dolls – maybe because I came after three boys – and my relationships have been with men who had no wish for children either. I'm in a relationship with a man who has children of his own, so I've now officially given up even thinking about it.
I was an aunt at the age of ten, so I have nephews in their 30s, and because my brothers divorced and remarried, I've got nephews and nieces who are about eight. I get on fine with other people's kids – I'm not like some of my friends who can't stand kids and are afraid of them or get annoyed at them. It's not that I hate children, it's just that I don't want to have responsibility for one. It is a very important responsibility.
Not having children has meant I have a faster response time. If somebody has children, they have to reorganise everything according to them, their timetable, the location of their school, that kind of thing. My life is completely my own choice. It has more flexibility and more freedom.
I do think about the sadness of my parents. My mother would want me to have children – it's a bit of an emotional regret but not for myself. I'm an old maid, that's what my father tells me, and I suppose I am quite unusual because people my age tend to have children. But I'm happy with my life.
Marie Eccles, 72
lives in Nairn
I couldn't have children, as a result of having bovine TB as a child. I didn't know that until I was in my 20s, but in retrospect it's the best thing that could have happened.
I married Bernard at 21, and we decided not to have children for a couple of years – until we had the money to buy our own house. But by the time I was 25, nothing was happening. That was when I discovered I wouldn't be able to have children. My late husband said, "I didn't marry you for children. If it's not meant to be, it's not meant to be."
Because we had no children, we had complete freedom and were able to go out to Saudi Arabia and move about, living in different places, for my husband's job. We wouldn't have been able to do any of that if we'd had children. My late husband and I were both golfers, as is my husband now, and we can play every day if we want to.
And not having children means there are no hold-ups. For example, when we saw this house in Nairn, we signed straight away on the dotted line, and moved up from the north of England – because we had no one else to consult.
There's never been any shortage of children around, as my sister and friends had children and my second husband, David (above), does too. I was an aunt and now a great-aunt, and the family is up here all the time. We also had dogs, a springer spaniel and a labrador, who was my baby.
I believe in having children, but if it's not to be, there's plenty more to do with life. It's a wonderful life. I have no regrets.
Lisa Baxter, 47
is a care home inspector from Perth
There wasn't a time that I decided I didn't want children, I just never wanted them. When I was young I could picture myself growing up and getting married, but not having children. It was never in the plan. I have never had that broody feeling.
My husband Mike and I are building our dream home and both work part-time. We probably wouldn't be in a position to do that if we had children.
When we met, I made it clear that I didn't want children, and if he did then I was the wrong person to marry. He decided he wanted to marry me and wasn't worried about children. Now he would tell you that he wouldn't have them if he had the chance again. Neither of us has ever had any regrets.
It was an unpopular position to take when we first got married, but it's not as bad now. I had some awful things said to me, but you get over them. People called me selfish, asked why I bothered getting married, said, "What about giving your parents grandchildren" – every clich you can think of. There are still a lot of people who don't understand it, but they don't make the same kind of remarks that I got used to.
Society is still built around the idea that you get engaged, married and have children. It's a progression, and people have difficulty if you don't.
The lobby to have children is very strong, and I'm not sure that some of the things we are doing in the name of so-called science is good. I'm sure that some of the ways women get pregnant, and the ages they are doing it at, aren't meant to be. That's not how our bodies are meant to work.
You don't miss what you've never had, but I really don't know where we would have fitted children in because we are so busy. We have a full life of enjoying ourselves, and have friends all over the world. But it's not all about us – we also do voluntary work.
Undoubtedly, we have more money than we would have, because we don't have to spend it on children.
Lesley Winton, 43
is a driving instructor based in Tranent, East Lothian
I was in a very long-term relationship throughout my 20s with a man I thought I would marry, but unfortunately that didn't work and I've just never met anyone since I want to settle down with. Looking back, I had one clucky spell when I was with him. It hit me like a bolt from the blue and it must have lasted about two months – all I could think about was babies. I've never felt that way again.
Other than that, I've never had a huge desire to have children. My sister was the one who always wanted to get married and have a family; she'd be the one playing with dolls, but I preferred Action Man. I don't think that's changed – I still like action men!
If my maternal instincts had been strong and I had wanted a child, I would have had one, whether I was in a relationship or not. There are so many ways women can have children nowadays without having a partner. I do think there are still far too many women trapping men into having children.
I don't have any regrets. I have a lot of fun and freedom in my life that I wouldn't have if I had children. I've just been helping reintroduce orphan black bears into the wild in Idaho, and have a new rescue labrador that I'm getting back into shape. I'm definitely not a barren spinster.
I wouldn't say I'd consciously chosen the single life, but I love it. It's not that I dislike children. I have a niece and nephew who are now grown up, and I really spoilt them. But I very much enjoy the freedom of not having children. I love not knowing what's coming next – there's a certain excitement about that.
Some people think it's a bit strange for a woman in her 40s not to have children, but it's such a stereotype. And I think there's an awful lot of women with children who would love to trade places with me.
Justine Stansfield, 32
is a programme co-ordinator for Keep Edinburgh Clean
If it's a choice between a career and a family, I'll take the career. I've always wanted a job that interests me and is not just a means to get through the day; that has been more of a draw than settling down. And I sometimes work long hours, so if I had kids that would mess things up.
I'm gay so I would have to put a lot more effort into having kids because it's not going to happen accidentally. There aren't going to be any unplanned pregnancies.
It never really seemed that important to me to have children in the first place. I've never been particularly broody. There was a fleeting moment when friends were having babies and I thought, 'Oh well, maybe,' but I've got two nephews now so that kind of fulfils that need – I have an outlet for buying kids' toys! And the best part about nephews is that you can hand them back. I'm sure it is nice to have that unconditional love children give, but they make so many demands on you.
Now, in terms of meeting people online, I wouldn't contact someone who already had kids. I would automatically discount them. I like my life the way it is, and it would be a radical change to have children. I don't really need the complications.
I can spend money how I want and I can do what I want with my time. I have no idea how you could afford to have children these days, because I can barely afford myself!
I'm also my own person. I sometimes feel that people who have kids are just mothers; they lose their own identity.