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A luxury of choice

I’M TWENTY-SIX YEARS old, and recently stopped taking the birth-control pill. I react poorly to synthetic hormones – they aggravate my anxiety and put a weird haze over my experience of the world – so the decision made sense. But it feels like an almost unbearable risk. I really, really, really don’t want kids.

This places me in a difficult position. When taken correctly, oral contraceptives are around 96–99 per cent effective, which means that about one to four out of every hundred women taking them will fall pregnant each year. That’s pretty effective. Condoms, on the other hand, are only 79 per cent effective with ‘typical use’, meaning that in one year, twenty-one women out of every hundred will fall pregnant – much worse odds for the pregnancy averse. The most effective form of birth control, aside from abstinence, is the IUD, or intra-uterine device (99.8 per cent). These come in hormonal and non-hormonal forms. I tried the non-hormonal one; it gave me a fun taste of what giving birth might feel like, as my uterus cramped and contracted in order to expel it.

The next most effective form of birth control is sterilisation (99.5 per cent). I would like to be sterilised, but I have yet to find a doctor who will entertain the idea. The kind, sympathetic, female doctor who told me I was brave after my IUD debacle listened thoughtfully as I told her I was sure I never wanted children, nodded when I mentioned looking into ‘something permanent’, and told me, regretfully, that I wouldn’t be able to find a doctor to perform the procedure in Queensland. When I got an ultrasound to check that the device hadn’t mangled my insides, the ultrasound technician told me her doctor wouldn’t tie her tubes either, even though she was in her late thirties and had already had three kids.

There is a queasy sense of biological inevitability about child rearing. It looms in my future like the spectre of climate change, real but intangible, inexorable as the rising tide. I know what my body wants to do, and it fills me with cold dread. I don’t want it.

I’m not alone in feeling like this, I’ve discovered. Many women of my generation are, according to statistics and interviews and countless hand-wringing think pieces, choosing to delay or forego having kids. Globally, the total fertility rate in developed countries is dropping. Europe’s population is predicted to drop from 740 million to 732 million by the year 2050; Japan’s population has been in an ageing tailspin for decades. Australia is following similar patterns: our total fertility rate has been below replacement – meaning that not enough babies are being born to replace both their parents – since 1976; it’s fallen from 3.55 children per woman in 1961 to 1.93 in 2012. The median age of new mothers in Australia is 30.9, the highest it’s ever been. Many young women are not having kids. Or, should I say, many young women like me – for as I’ve found out, the women of my generation, and their attitudes towards their reproductive choices, are not all the same.

 

AUSTRALIA IS ONE of the world’s most urbanised countries, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, with 89.4 per cent of our population living in urban areas – an astonishing number, when you consider the vastness of our continent. However, this figure relies on a curious definition of ‘urban’: anywhere with more than a thousand people and a population density of at least two hundred people per square kilometre. Ask someone who’s been to a small town on a highway – Babinda, Queensland, for example (population 1,068) – if they’d call their experience of the area ‘urban’, and you’ll likely get a funny look. Babinda is a single strip of shops, including two pubs, an op shop, a Spar, a post office and a bank. It has a hospital, but no surgery facilities – you’ll need to drive an hour or more for that. It has a school that caters for students from prep to Grade 12. The median rent is $150 per week. The main cultural events are the sugar-cane harvest festival and touch footy. ‘Urban’ is not the word I would use.

If you consider instead that an urban population would more sensibly refer to Australians living in major cities, the figure drops to about two-thirds. That’s still high, but not, as the 89.4 per cent statistic would suggest, nearly all of us. Which means that around a third of the Australian population – or about seven million people – live in towns like Babinda, or remote communities, or suburbs so far from a metropolitan centre that you might not see your inner-city relatives for months at a time.

Young people are now more likely than ever to live in one of Australia’s major cities; people aged twenty to thirty-five make up around a quarter of those cities’ populations. As a generation, we are making very different choices to our parents. We are delaying marriage and cohabitation; we work part-time jobs; we are studying so much as to be the most qualified generation on record. More women are studying than ever before. Women are actually working more than men for the first time ever, although fewer of us work full time compared to our parents.

I embody a lot of the stereotypes associated with my generation, a generation that several cultural commentators insist on referring to as ‘Generation Me’. I live in an urban environment (an inner-city suburb of Brisbane). I am educated to a tertiary level. I rent my house (and have given up hope of ever earning enough to buy one). I work a part-time job in the creative industries. I have a boyfriend but I’m not married. I spend a lot of time on the internet. I have bad posture from looking at my phone all the time. I regularly take pictures of myself. And I’m selfish.

At least, if that’s what you want to call my desire for a child-free life: selfish. Like many young women I know, I have a lot of reasons not to want children. Deciding that I wanted to be sterilised was not something that I took lightly, like flaking on a dinner date or quitting a Christmas casual position in a fit of pique. And like me, most of the young, urban women I spoke to have been thinking about not having kids for a long time. When I wrote on Facebook that I was interested in people’s opinions on child-bearing, I was overwhelmed by comments, messages and emails.

There are all the standard concerns: no one has any money, for instance, or any apparent prospects of changing that in the near future; and the vast majority of those I spoke to who didn’t want kids found the thought of losing their independence profoundly horrifying. But the reasons seem to go beyond ‘kids are gross’ (to be absolutely transparent, though, a number of people I spoke to did make a point of telling me how gross kids were).

‘For as long as I can remember I’ve never wanted kids.’ This was Tara, a twenty-eight-year-old digital co-ordinator who lives in Sydney. ‘From maybe fifteen and onwards I distinctly remember never wanting them. I don’t like the idea of what [pregnancy] does to our bodies. I don’t like the idea of having to be emotionally and financially responsible for another human being for two decades. And I really like the idea of being able to stay out late, come and go as I please, and only really [worry] about myself.’

Young women seem unwilling to sacrifice their hard-earned sense of identity, as well as their independence. ‘I just feel like people become boring, watered-down versions of themselves,’ said Beth, twenty-three. She suspects that popular depictions of parenthood have a lot to do with her negative feelings towards procreating. ‘I probably don’t have a lot of examples of cool interesting women who became mothers but still conquered the world. If I did, I’d probably view motherhood differently.’

Others, like Freja, twenty-four, raise concerns about the environment. Carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere are at their highest in 650,000 years. Future generations will suffer more droughts and heatwaves; rising sea levels will claim coastal cities within a hundred years. A widely quoted factoid, courtesy of a study by the University of Sheffield, suggests that Britain has only a hundred harvests left before entering a period of deep food insecurity. We are increasingly making our planet uninhabitable for humanity, and despite Australia’s ageing populace, the world at large remains overcrowded; many of the people I spoke to suggested that they’d feel irresponsible for contributing to an already strained global village. Even Elaine, who’s thirty-one and already a mother to two-year-old Susie, has environmental concerns. She told me that she had recently read George Monbiot’s article ‘The thirteen impossible crises that humanity now faces’.

‘I got to the end of it and went, “Oh my god, I can’t have another kid.” I actually give so much of a shit about climate change now, for this purely selfish reason: I don’t want [Susie] to ever be distressed. It is a really interesting way to convince me not to have another one, to be like, “No, that’s too many people that you’re bringing into the world, you will have to deal with a whole heap of shit, and potentially a really awful future.”’

When I spoke to my poet friend Athena, twenty-seven, she raised an interesting uncertainty regarding her own genetic aptitude: ‘Something that’s played a part [in my decision to not have children] for a long time is that both of my parents have been chronically ill for most of my life. Looking into my future, I already have completely different chronic health concerns to what they do, that aren’t nearly as concerning but that have affected my life through childhood and adulthood.’ She describes neatly the catch 22 of being a fertile woman who must turn to artificial means in order to stay infertile, often with profound side effects: ‘If I prevent myself from having babies, I might make my health worse. If I have babies, I’ll definitely make my health worse. But I could also have unhealthy babies. Should I really be passing this on to the world? Or should I be conducting my own eugenics scheme on myself?’

Athena wasn’t alone in these concerns. A surprising number of people I spoke to mentioned their own mental or physical health issues. Our apparent self-absorption means that we are plugged in to our own feelings, aware more than ever of the difficulties of moving through the world and interacting with one another while trying not to hurt anyone, have a breakdown or die. No wonder we’re not keen to pass that on to our kids.

None of us appear to feel any moral obligation to continue the human race through reproduction – quite the opposite, in fact. Many women I spoke to mentioned, misty eyed, the idea of adoption – a process so difficult in Australia as to be almost prohibitive, but an option that seems to provide comfort for those feeling the twinges of ‘what if you change your mind?’

It’s clear that the women I know have an intellectual relationship with their reproductive choices. But the women I know are not representative of our generation as a whole, as much as it might feel that way to me.

 

UNTIL VERY RECENTLY, childbirth was a great equaliser. Almost all women who could become mothers, did become mothers. In many parts of Australia, abortion wasn’t fully decriminalised until the 1980s or later; the birth-control pill wasn’t popularly distributed until the 1960s, and even then it came with its own hefty stigma. Which means that the notion of choice – of being able to decide when, and even if, to have children – is a relatively modern convenience.

Or it is for women like me. In the metropolitan centres, young women have access to education, employment, entertainment, mobility, free and youth-friendly sexual health care – all factors that make it easy to decide not to have children. Young people in cities are more likely to have tertiary degrees, to earn more money, to work fewer hours, to have access to fun stuff to do, and to eat better. I know this because I’ve read the studies – but also because I used to live in Babinda, that town I mentioned earlier, and I know exactly what it’s like to go without all of those advantages that have come to define my generation.

The cultural gap between urban and rural is wider than it’s ever been. I can’t bear this out with hard stats. All I can do is tell you what I know: that the highest rural populations are in Western Australia and Queensland, and those are the states that voted in three out of four One Nation senators; that there are vast swathes of the coast between Brisbane and Cairns where all you can pick up on your car radio is conservative talkback; that for two weeks this year, the whole state of Queensland, a land area of 1.853 million kilometres squared and home to 1.4 million people, picked up their newspaper to find cover stories about inner-city train delays in Brisbane. I know that while I’m whining about gentrification in my suburb, my high-school friends are selling their four-wheel drive in order to upgrade to a mini-van.

While the average fertility rate in Australia is dropping, if you narrow your focus to those places outside of major cities you’ll see the figures change dramatically. In rural, regional and remote parts of the country, women’s fertility rates are increasing: women are having more children, and earlier. Statistics released by the ABS in 2010 showed that women aged under twenty in remote areas had a fertility rate five times higher than their city contemporaries. If you look at the 2015 age-specific fertility rates, and follow the ‘Births by remoteness’ spreadsheet from left to right across the age groups, you’ll see the figures wobble and flip as you scroll down from ‘Major Cities’ to ‘Regional Areas’ to ‘Remote Areas’: the further out you go, the younger the mothers get. In the group aged twenty to twenty-four in major cities, the birth rate – the number of children born per thousand women – was 37.9. In regional areas, it was 81.3. In remote areas, it was 111.5.

Almost all of the young women I know who have children are from the country. I met Claudia, twenty-seven, when we went to high school together in Innisfail, a town close to Babinda. She has four kids now – she had her last, a little boy, while I was writing this article. Nina, also twenty-seven, has a little girl with severe allergies around which her life now revolves. My cousin Audrey is twenty-two, and had her first child straight out of high school. Katie, twenty-seven, has three kids, her first when she was nineteen. My high-school boyfriend’s sister had a baby before she’d finished school. The only woman I’m friends with in Brisbane who has a baby is Elaine, and she’s several years older than me. It’s a pattern borne out both with anecdote and with hard data. Women in the country just have more kids, earlier in life. But why?

I spoke to demographer and population health expert Dr Ann Larson, whose work on young women in remote Western Australia is documented on her website, Social Dimensions. One post in particular is prefaced with a Gloria Steinem quote: ‘Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie.’

‘There’s very little role for the girls who stay in town [in remote areas], so the ones who do stay are the ones who have partnerships and child-bearing,’ Dr Larson told me over the phone. She spoke keenly about the subject, despite the fact that I’d called her in the middle of Christmas lunch.

In one of her blog articles, titled ‘Constrained choices and early motherhood – young women in the regions’, Larson writes that while early motherhood is attractive to young women in the regions for a number of reasons – a steady income, connection with community, possibly the opportunity to buy a house – it should not be considered a choice.

‘A choice implies that there really are some options, and my argument is that, systematically, rural and regionals have fewer options,’ she told me. ‘The individual will often feel that [having children early] is a very empowered thing to do, so they shouldn’t be made into victims. But if a high proportion of young women in certain areas are doing this, and comparable ones in someplace else aren’t, then there’s something structural about it as well. It’s limited life choices, period, that make this the more attractive option.’

It’s true: women outside the major cities have a much rougher go of it than their inner-city counterparts. They have more difficulty accessing services, including sexual-health clinics. They miss out on educational opportunities, and often – I remember this from school – find no encouragement from their teachers or their parents to pursue vocational or academic goals. Attitudes, and politics, are often conservative. Abortions are difficult to procure. In Western Australia, there are no family planning centres or youth-friendly health services outside of Perth; in 2011, a fifth of the eighteen to nineteen-year-old women in the regional area of the Gascoyne were already mothers.

Many of the high-school friends I contacted to talk about their choice to have children were unable to get back to me – something that I should have been able to predict, considering that their lives are necessarily far shorter on leisure time than my own. I did talk to Jenny, who’s my age and has a two-year-old boy, Michael. While she was quick to explain the positives of motherhood – she feels more focused, she likes her new responsibilities, and she loves her child very much – she also said something that none of my inner-city acquaintances had: that she felt it was something she was supposed to do. She fell pregnant after previously having both an abortion and a miscarriage.

‘Miscarriage is horrible, because you feel like your body has failed this one thing that you are put on this Earth to do.’

 

THE GAP BETWEEN the two populations of young people is widening. The media’s concept of the ‘millennial’ as self-absorbed, eternally adolescent, frivolous and flighty is limited to those young people living in cities, where the generational changeover is in full swing. The regions, however – where Australia’s food is grown, where our resources are mined, and where many of our political decisions are made – continue on country time. Young people there are doing what their parents did: marrying young, raising families, owning houses, working on the land. When you take in the broader picture, beyond Instagram celebrities and smashed avocado in Brunswick cafés, the stereotypes begin to seem small and insulting.

The difference in our reproductive choices is indicative of a larger divide in my generation – a troubling one, considering that we will soon be the ones making decisions for the country. There are clearly those among us who feel that a woman’s role is to make and care for babies. Anti-intellectualism is alive and well, providing a platform from which to shame women for considering their reproductive choices in the context of the environment and the uncertain political climate. While the overall age of motherhood continues to creep up, mothers are still young in the country. Urban women are throwing the numbers, and the conversations we have with one another about the huge decision that is choosing whether or not to have children don’t reach beyond our own circles. The hallmarks of my generation are dictated by people like me. But my generation is fractured across political and geographic lines, and the future of Australia’s human population will be shaped along those fractures.

 

BEFORE I BEGAN my research into young parenthood, I considered child-bearing in much the same way as a laid-back vegan might consider eating meat. More than it not being my thing, deep down I thought it shouldn’t be anyone else’s thing either. All the concerns raised by the young women I spoke to – the environment, the economy, the clearly worsening world that we are bequeathing the next generation – seemed obstacles too great to overcome ethically. I couldn’t think of a moral reason to reproduce.

(And kids are gross. And I still would like to be sterilised.)

But, as I keep learning – as I apparently have to keep learning over and over again – not everyone is like me. (Is this me fighting my millennial nature? Am I becoming self-aware, learning to participate in society at large?) Our generation is not a monolith, especially not in Australia, this weird, sparsely populated country with its dark past and its violent contradictions. Child-bearing is not my thing, but only because I get to have a choice in the matter. The truth is that even now – as we charge into the second decade of the new millennium, here in this First World country – many women don’t.

 

Some names have been changed to protect privacy.


From Griffith Review Edition 56: Millennials Strike Back © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review