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"Is a woman's only purpose in life to give birth?". Svetlana Kolchik on the Childfree and anti-natalist movement


Motherhood and parenthood are no longer a fundamental attribute of the family: more and more people in developed and even developing countries are choosing childlessness.

Svetlana Kolchik finds out what motivates today's childfree-ers.

"Is the only purpose of a woman's life to have children?" asks 39-year-old Zoe Noble in an interview with The New York Times.

Zoe is a Berliner, a former Vogue photographer and a convinced childfree-er. A few years ago she founded the multimedia community We Are Child Free. Through international photo projects, podcasts and interviews with women who have chosen to remain childfree, it aims to remove the stereotypes associated with the voluntary rejection of motherhood.

More and more people of reproductive age are choosing to become childfree every year. In the 1970s, only one in 10 American women left childbearing age without becoming a mother. These days, one in five women remain childless there, as the fertility rate in the US has recently reached its lowest point in 35 years. In China in 2021 it has also fallen to its lowest numbers since 1949, dropping by almost a third.

This is also the trend in the UK, where fertility among women under 30 is now at its lowest level for 85 years, with 50% of women born in England and Wales in 1990 having gone into their fourth decade childless for the first time in history. In all five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) fertility rates have also long been below the level necessary to sustain the current population.

Anna, a freelancer from Moscow, now living with her Italian husband in Milan, did not come to the position of being childfree right away. There was a period in her life when children seemed to be a natural extension of love. She didn't consider the option of "having children for herself" - even when she wasn't in a relationship.

"Partnership was always more important to me than children, explains Anna. - Gradually I realised that I had no desire to become a mother. There was no strong instinct or understanding that I wanted children. I saw them as more of a challenge and limitation than an opportunity and I also met a lot of quite unhappy mothers."

Now Anna is 42. Her husband is 11 years younger. But, as she says, there's "not much appeal in a story of procreation for either of them": "My husband doesn't really want children either, although he would make a great father. We had a conversation: "What if you want to someday in the future and I can't?" That's when we decided we'd keep the option of adoption. Or redirect our energy into mentoring."

Anna talks about her former boss, a childless British woman. "About 20 years ago I felt sorry for her. I thought: maybe she and her husband just can't have children. Perhaps I'm a source of pity and sympathy for someone else, too. But the format of the family is changing. There's no point in trying to fit it into a universal model. I'm for making a choice - and a conscious one. And that a person should make this choice on his or her own merits and not on the basis of an opinion imposed by society."

Olga Isupova, associate professor at the Institute of Demography, senior researcher at the Department of Social Sciences, National Research University Higher School of Economics, who has been studying the phenomenon of childlessness in various countries for many years, divides those who choose a life without children into two groups. These are the so-called "wave refusers" and the "persistent procrastinators":

"The first want a child, then change their plans, then return to the idea of having children, while still using reliable contraception - in the end, having children remains at the level of an unrealised project. The latter, on the other hand, are not so sure about their decision not to have children: they are ready to have children, just not right now.

Eventually this "not now" becomes permanent: over time people get so used to their way of life that they can no longer fit children in, or cannot have them for health reasons."

The number of 'refuseniks' and ‘procrastinators’ and is growing steadily. But it is not always a choice that is met with understanding by those around them. Anna, from Milan, says that after learning about the decision to remain childfree, her mother went through "several stages of digestion" - denial, anger and gradual acceptance.

"There was also manipulation," she adds. - But I sternly told my mum that it was my choice and I didn't want to hear any accusations."


For some, the position of being childfree turns into a social mission.

An anti-natalist movement is gaining momentum in many countries. They are convinced that bringing new people into the world only exacerbates the acute dilemmas of today's world, particularly global warming and other environmental problems.

The most radical members of this movement call themselves birth-strikers. There are even those who are prepared to take the most radical measures to prevent childbearing forever. The question is about sterilisation - both male and female (in the case of women, this is keyhole surgery, "ligation" of the fallopian tubes).

It is true that doctors do not always go along with this - especially if the patients are young girls, even if they claim to be firm in their decision.

"I dread to think what kind of planet my child will face when he or she reaches my age," says Alice Brown, a 25-year-old birth-strike activist from Bristol. A social worker by profession, she recently asked herself whether having children should be taken for granted. But after learning about climate change and the environment, she dramatically changed her mind.

Another climate change activist, 23-year-old Hannah Scott, explains her decision to become Childfree:

"I decided to remain childless because I feel desperate. The future of the planet doesn't bode well and I don't want to start another new life here. Every time one of my friends shares the news of a pregnancy or even plans to get pregnant, I bite my tongue in terror."

For many 'zoomers' (those now aged between 18 and 25) and millennials, 'climate anxiety syndrome' is a good reason to give up on parenthood.

"Staying childless is the best thing that can be done for the planet right now," agrees Moritz, a 38-year-old filmmaker from Berlin.

He adds that it is worth getting special "permission" from a psychologist before becoming a parent: "Just as you have to take a driving course and a theory course to get your driving licence, so before having a child you should have to undergo compulsory psychotherapy. Our generation - both in Russia and in Germany - carries so many unprocessed traumas that are passed on to posterity."


"In today's world, there are fewer and fewer rational reasons for having children," notes sociologist Olga Isupova.

Her research shows that previously it was mostly people with a high level of income and education, mostly atheists, who became childfree. Now people with other convictions are becoming celibate.

Isupova believes that men and women have different reasons for not having children: Most childfree women have a higher level of education and income than the men who decide to remain childless.

When choosing childlessness, women think more about the time needed to care for a child, while men think about the costs that would be incurred.

Childfree women prefer to focus on their career and are not sure they can combine it with a child. A man's decision whether or not to have children is closely linked to whether he can provide for them: not all men are prepared to earn more for a child and spend less on themselves at the same time.

The ever-increasing cost of the project called 'children' is indeed one of the most compelling reasons for some to choose to be Childfree. In many countries, having and raising a child is becoming a 'new luxury'.

In the UK, it costs £160,000 for a couple to raise a child to adulthood and almost £194,000 for a single parent - a figure that increases every year. In the US, it costs an average of $230,000 to care for a child to adulthood - an amount not everyone can afford either.

"One in five women don't have children by mid-life, and 80% find themselves in this situation due to the pressures of circumstance rather than infertility," confirms English woman Drogy Day, founder of Gateway Women, a movement that supports childless women. - "Most put motherhood 'on hold' because of debt, career fixation, rising house prices and financial instability."


In her book Legitimate Marriage, writer Elizabeth Gilbert (herself a convinced Childfree-er) mentions the "invariable ten percent" of women who never give birth. It is possible that this 10% is actually a basic minimum, and that the number of childless women - by choice or fate - has been greater in the past, depending on the economic situation and socio-cultural context.

Elizabeth Gilbert

Researchers from the Universities of Antwerp and Ghent (in Belgium) and the University of Leiden (in the Netherlands), authors of the book "Single life in the big city, 1200-1900", have concluded that almost one in five inhabitants of French cities in the 18th century had no partner and were quite likely childless. One reason was that not everyone had the financial means to marry, much less to support offspring.

Another study reports that at least one in five Americans born between 1885 and 1915 had no children. A similar pattern was seen in Canada, Australia and many Western European countries at that time.

Gilbert writes in his book about "spare mums" - childfree women who either become loving aunts to their nephews or put their need for care into social activities:

"Childless women have always played a key role in human society because of their willingness to take care of those who do not fall under their biological responsibility. This behaviour is not characteristic of other groups of people. Childless women have always been in charge of orphanages, schools and hospitals. They become midwives, nuns, or do charity work."

According to forecasts made by The Lancet medical journal, if the tendency for the increasing number of childless women continues, by 2100 the population of 23 countries including Japan, Thailand and Spain will halve, and the population of China will decrease by 48%. The pendulum may swing back, as it has done so many times in history, and fertility rates, at least in some countries, may rise again.

But in the meantime, childfree and anti-natalist people are becoming a new demographic force that is becoming louder and louder.

Svetlana Kolchik's book "The New Family '' about family and community setups in Russia and Europe will be published by Alpina Publisher later this year.

By: Svetlana Kolchik


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