Who wants to have a baby these days, anyway?
Media and pop culture often portray young women as baby-seeking, family-craving, biological clock-ticking time bombs. (Think Monica on Friends, or even the infamous Billie Jean with her “schemes and plans” in Michael Jackson’s hit song by the same name.)
But the reality may be quite different, because new research has yet again suggested that it’s childless men, not women, who are more likely to say they want to be parents some day.
Just over one-fifth (21 per cent) of childless women aged 18-34 recently polled by Pew Research Centre said they don’t ever want to be parents, compared to 15 per cent of men. Conversely, 57 per cent of men said they want to have children some day, versus 45 per cent of women.
While this specific data is new, the trend certainly isn’t, says Marina Adshade, an assistant professor of teaching at the University of British Columbia who specializes in economics and gender, who was not involved in the Pew study.
It was women who fought for access to birth control in the first place, says Adshade, and the physical, economic and emotional toll that having children takes specifically on mothers is well established.
“I’m fascinated personally by this kind of societal myth that we have that women throughout all time immemorial have just been desperate to become mothers, and that men are resistant to parenthood,” said Adshade, who is also the author of Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love.
“This is a very, very strange perspective because children have always been an enormous amount of work for women.”
A history of men wanting kids
The new Pew poll didn’t get into the specific reasons why more men than women said they wanted to have children, but it did note that pressure from the respondents’ own parents to start a family wasn’t a factor.
“Among young adults without children, men are more inclined than women to express a desire for parenthood in the future. Yet, there is no noticeable difference between genders when it comes to aspirations to marry,” said lead researcher Carolina Aragão in an email statement provided to CBC News.
The results are based on an Oct. 24 to Nov. 5, 2023 poll of 1,495 U.S. adults aged 18-34 with at least one living parent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.
The Pew results mirror data on fertility intentions from other studies going back decades.
In 1990, when Statistics Canada first started reporting on fertility intentions in the General Social Survey of the family, 15 per cent of childless women age 15-44 said they had no desire to have kids, compared to 10 per cent of childless men, according to data previously analyzed by Adshade.
In 2017, 19 per cent of childless women age 18-34 said they didn’t want children, versus 16 per cent of men, according to the Statistics Canada raw data provided by Adshade and analyzed by CBC News.
Statistics Canada pointed to a 2021 study on changes in fertility intentions due to COVID-19, where women were slightly more likely than men to want fewer children because of the pandemic.
In two widely cited studies from 2011 and 2013, men expressed more desire than women to become parents. In the latter, dads were more likely than moms in the poll to say they saw positive effects from fatherhood on their love life and career.
This isn’t surprising to some researchers.
“Men are more likely to say they want to have children because they perceive it is going to have less of a costly impact on their lives: less disruption of career, less emotional toll, less care-giving commitment,” said Karen Lawson, a professor and the department head of psychology and health studies at the University of Saskatchewan.
In her own research, Lawson delves into the reasons both men and women might choose not to have children, or delay the decision.
In her most recent study, which hasn’t yet been published but was presented to an international reproductive conference, of those who said they planned to have children eventually, a sizeable portion of women reported they intended to delay parenthood until they were at least 35, Lawson noted.
“Women believe more strongly that delaying will facilitate achievement in financial, career and relationship stability, as well allow them more time to pursue leisure activities and gain maturity before settling down and devoting all their energies to parenting,” she said.
Never had ‘the want’
Sara Studholme, of Crysler, Ont., says she never felt the desire to have children. Studholme, 26, has been with her now-husband since high school, and says she was always clear she didn’t want kids, but that her husband — who came from a big family — kept hoping she’d change her mind.
She became pregnant with her first child, Tallulah, “not on purpose,” she said with a laugh. “I’m definitely happy to have her, but up until then I really didn’t have any urge at all to have any.”
“I just never had ‘the want.'”
Studholme, who is trained in manufacturing engineering and works in administration, is currently on maternity leave with her second child, eight month-old Alice.
“I know for sure I don’t ever want another one,” she told CBC News. But her husband, she says, isn’t convinced.
“He’s still holding out hope.”
The toll of motherhood
Although it’s starting to change, girls are often taught from a very young age that becoming a mother is the most fulfilling act possible, Adshade said.
Feminist scholars such as Adrienne Rich have long theorized about “patriarchal motherhood,” in which it’s assumed and perpetuated that all women want to be mothers.
A recent analysis of gender stereotypes by U.K. gender equality advocacy group the Fawcett Society found that, in popular YouTube children’s videos, female characters were more likely to be shown in parenting roles. In children’s books, father characters were “under-represented or ineffectual.”
At the same time, research has consistently shown that parenting takes more of a toll on mothers.
While studies have found that fathers are taking on more of a parenting role with their children than in previous years (and can experience stress and isolation), multiple studies have shown the acute time pressures on mothers — particularly when it comes to the mental load.
For instance, a 2022 Statistics Canada report estimated that women consistently take on a larger share of unpaid household work, including child care. Other studies have shown that mothers are emotionally exhausted and burned out.
A 2023 report by media group Motherly found that household and family responsibilities are falling more on mothers than they were during the height of the pandemic.
And then there’s a well-established motherhood penalty. Mothers experience a 60 per cent drop in income in the decade after their first child is born compared to men, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers’s 2023 Women in Work Index.
“The motherhood penalty is the most significant driver of the gender wage gap,” that report says.
So it’s not surprising, given all this, never mind the physical burden of pregnancy and childbirth, that men would be more likely to want children, Adshade said.
“How delightful to have somebody else do all the work?”
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