Australian birth rates have been steadily declining in recent years, hitting a record low in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Women today are having fewer children and have them later in life. There are also more women choosing to lead child-free lives than ever before.
For some, the decision about whether to have children is an easy one. Some may have always wanted to be mothers, while others have always known a child-free life is for them.
But what about those who are undecided? How can women who feel ambivalent or uncertain about children make a decision that truly reflects their values, goals and feelings?
Lauren Daniell, psychologist and director of the Untangled Mind + Body, confirmed that more women are undecided about having children or choosing to live child-free than in the past, especially those in their mid-20s and 30s.
One of the most common reasons cited for not wanting kids or being unsure is concerns about the environment.
Single women and those in the LGBTQIA+ community are also among those giving more ‘conscious thought’ to their reproductive and family decisions.
“Through the increased availability of assisted reproduction, women who 50 years ago would not have had access to these options now are able to consider whether they’d like to explore them, either in a relationship or as a solo parent,” Daniell said.
What influences a woman’s decision about whether to have children?
Historically, the expectation of motherhood was forced upon women as part of their ‘feminine duty’. Having children was how men ensured their legacy would continue, and how society kept population rates high enough to function.
With global populations increasing rapidly, there is no longer a practical ‘need’ to have children. Yet societal pressure to have kids remains as strong as ever, with those who decide against it often seen as selfish or inherently unfeminine.
These false and limiting ideals of womanhood gloss over so many important influencers to what Daniell calls a woman’s “reproductive story”.
“Our reproductive story begins with our early attachment to parents,” she said.
“This, combined with our childhood experiences, narratives, observations and exposure to parent/child relationships, and cultural or societal expectations, shape our ideas, beliefs and assumptions about what it means to be a parent and whether we want to become one in the future.
“Ultimately, a person’s reproductive story evolves alongside family, cultural and peer expectations and hopes.”
Daniell explained that many other factors determine how an individual feels about having kids, including their family dynamics, relationship status, reproductive health, and a combination of work and financial factors. Timing, access to paid parental leave, and social support at home and work are all important deciding factors for women on the fence about having kids.
Women are also influenced by broader, more macro-level factors such as politics and the environment.
Younger generations are more likely to delay or abstain from having children because of environmental concerns and a lack of effort from those in positions of power to protect the planet for future generations to enjoy.
How to decide to have children (or not)
“Our society is largely pronatalist whereby the unspoken expectation is that we grow up and have children. End of story,” said Daniell.
“This leaves little room for ambivalence on the topic which can lead to anxiety and pressure.”
This pressure seems to compound with age, with increasing awareness of the ‘biological clock’ for those who want to conceive naturally.
These opposing pressures can put women between a rock and a hard place. They know it isn’t the right time for children emotionally or financially, but are also painfully aware that time is ‘running out’.
Many women grapple with the understandable fear of regretting their decision or losing their identity and freedom. Some may even have a misplaced sense of shame about their uncertainty, assuming that everyone else knows what they want and that something is ‘wrong’ with them for needing more time or support to decide.
Daniell uses a gentle, exploratory method to help clients explore whether parenthood is right for them. She first validates and normalises their feelings of uncertainty, while reminding them that nobody else can choose for them. She encourages them to embrace their indecision and doubt.
“If we can make room for feelings such as ambivalence, uncertainty, and indecision, it gives space for us to work through the choice rather than feeling stuck and paralysed,” she said.
From here, Daniell supports her clients to set aside the pressure of making a decision, instead reflecting on their desires and values.
Writing down all their fears and hopes regarding children can be a confronting but valuable place to start.
“We then start to work through the client’s reproductive story,” said Daniell.
This involves exploring their relationship with their own parents and extended family, the parenting styles they were exposed to, and the verbal and non-verbal messages they received about parenting and gender norms.
Depending on what this process uncovers, Daniell sometimes recommends clients immerse themselves in hypothetical scenarios to explore further their feelings about having children.
“Make the decision to have and raise a baby. Live with this decision for a week. Really embrace this decision, and each day reflect on and write down how this feels,” she said.
“Make the decision to be child-free. Live with this decision for a week. Really embrace this decision, and each day reflect on and write down how this feels.”
Writing down your reflections is particularly helpful as it engages the left, analytical side of the brain, freeing up the right, creative, emotional side to explore and wander.
“This process can guide us towards confronting difficult or inhibited emotions, helps us process difficult events, connect the dots and create a coherent narrative about our experiences,” said Daniell.
"If we can make room for feelings such as ambivalence, uncertainty, and indecision, it gives space for us to work through the choice rather than feeling stuck and paralysed." – Psychologist Lauren Daniell.
She stressed that no simple or logical process will guide you to the right choice. Embracing the emotional, messy, uncertain nature of this life-changing decision is a key step in making a choice that you can truly make peace with.
“It’s important to understand that we can’t just approach this as a cognitive process,” she said.
“Writing out a pros and cons list just does not cut it. It’s not that simple and keeps you stuck. We need to experience and identify our deeper feelings on the topic.”
Those with good social support networks can benefit from using them as a sounding board for their thoughts and concerns, as long as they remember that the final decision must be their own.
For those who can’t or don’t want to share their decision-making process with friends or family, professional resources can also help.
“One book I can recommend is Motherhood – Is It For Me? Your Step-by-step Guide to Clarity,” said Daniell.
“It’s written by Denise Carlini and Ann Davidman who have backgrounds in psychotherapy and counselling respectively, and spent a large portion of their careers supporting women in identifying their truth on this matter.”
Daniell highlights the importance of accepting and embracing feelings of indecision as perfectly normal. There is nothing wrong with anyone who feels unsure, nor with women who decide to live child-free.
“Trust that you’ll be okay, no matter the outcome,” said Daniell.
“Give yourself permission to take the time you need to identify your heart’s desire and then work out the how. Realise and accept that whichever way you decide, there will be loss.
“Building or improving self-compassion is important. Be kind to yourself, talk to yourself the way you would a loved one.”
There is no ‘right’ way to live, so it is impossible to make the ‘wrong’ choice. There is only the best choice for you, your circumstances, desires, values and beliefs.
Whatever you decide, give yourself grace and compassion and remember that you are the one who will live with the consequences of your choice. Do your best not to be swayed by the opinions of others and, above all, be kind to yourself throughout the process.