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A kind, funny, handsome husband. A dream wedding in the little Norman church under the South Downs where she’d been raised. And then they would settle down in a ramshackle Georgian rectory in the countryside and have the beautiful babies she’d always dreamed of. She’d have at least two – hopefully more.
This was Melanie Whitehouse’s dream as she grew up. To her, it was simply unimaginable that she wouldn’t one day become a mother.
So why has Melanie, now a 57-year-old author, found herself among the ranks of women in what has been dubbed Generation Childless? These are the women who were brought up in the Sixties and Seventies on a wave of higher education, growing equality and sexual freedom.
But the cost has been high. Indeed, the latest statistics show that women in their mid-40s are almost twice as likely to be childless as their parents’ generation. One in five women born in 1969 are childless today, compared to one in nine women born in 1942.
And it’s not medical infertility that’s fuelling the rise of childlessness among these women.
Instead, they are childless by circumstance. Whether it’s down to not meeting the right man, or finding that careers absorbed all their time in their childbearing years, or simply deciding that babies wouldn’t complement their comfortable lifestyle, women are increasingly starting the menopause without having had a family.
So who are the women who make up Generation Childless? In this two-part series, the Mail will discover why so many women of this era have found themselves childless – and uncover the true cost, to them and society.
Sadly, it seems that the majority of these childless women desperately wanted a family. Jody Day, founder of Gateway Women, a support network for childless women, says that her research shows 10 per cent of such women are childless due to infertility and 10 per cent have chosen to be child-free. But that leaves some 80 per cent of women without children who have simply ended up in this situation.
Melanie Whitehouse is certainly one of these women. And she is clear about the cause of her childlessness: men.
Or rather, the lack of men who were willing to settle down and start a family with her. The heartbreaking realisation that she was never going to have a baby struck late – in her 50s, while at a reunion lunch with her first boyfriend, whom she had dumped on a whim.
‘I hadn’t grieved for the children who might have been until then. I realised with painful clarity what I’d lost,’ she says. ‘Tom had been happily married for 25 years and had three kids, while I had nobody.’
These feelings of grief are common among women who find themselves unwillingly childless.
Clinical psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibberd says: ‘Despite societal changes, women are still expected to conceive. It’s a huge loss when that doesn’t happen.
‘It’s one of the last taboos: people aren’t sure whether a woman has chosen not to have children or whether she hasn’t been able to, so it remains unspoken – making the grief even harder to deal with.’
Melanie Whitehouse’s journey has been a painful one, characterised by a certain kind of man, she confesses.
‘The men I met from my mid-20s onwards seemed to delight in wooing and dumping me. I suppose if I’d been born in another era, men would have had to commit to marriage before they had sex, which might have meant I’d have got the children I yearned for.’
But Melanie doesn’t lay all the blame at her various lovers’ feet. She admits she had a part to play, too: ‘I did make some bad romantic decisions, certainly. One night in March 1987, just before my 30th birthday, I shared a cab home with a colleague, Duncan, after a night out. It was 4am and I found my hand in his. He subsequently pursued me, I didn’t resist – and that was it.
‘I fell more and more in love as the months passed. But he was married with two children under six. I’d always sworn I’d never have an affair, but here I was.
‘I always thinks of my life as BD and AD – Before Duncan and After Duncan. He changed everything.
‘Of course, there was no happy ending. After a couple of years, his wife found out. He stayed with her and the kids, as I always knew he would. And my life fell apart.’
Tortured, Melanie couldn’t let go. ‘I was on my own, almost 32, inconsolable and hating myself for the hurt I caused.’
And still childless. The next big relationship didn’t bring the family she yearned for, either. ‘In 1990, at 33, I really thought I’d found someone. I could see us having a family, but it was all over in four months. And the ticking of my body clock was getting louder and louder.’
Men have the benefit of time on their side, so are reluctant to tie themselves to children
Radical measures were called for. Aged 35, Melanie moved out of London, telling herself: ‘This is it, this is the change I need to find the man.’
But that dream of the Georgian rectory seemed further away than ever. As her desperation increased, and the chances of her having a child began to tumble, Melanie took drastic action.
‘Aged 39, I went out with a tall, bald accountant. He was younger than me and obviously uncommitted, but I was determined to somehow make it work.
‘I’d shelved my dream of the perfect marriage by now and I took risks with contraception. I was quite prepared to bring a baby up alone if I had to. I remember getting so angry at his lack of regard for me that I had a huge row with him – and he dumped me.’
More uncommitted men followed, including one who confessed he was homosexual over a romantic dinner, a business consultant who two-timed her and – as she got older – countless married men who just wanted a ‘bit on the side’.
So are women like Melanie merely unlucky – or all too reflective of a generation desperately trying to convince unwilling men to have a child?
The latter, it seems. And that’s because, as ever, men have the benefit of time on their side. Their reluctance to tie themselves down has become even more pronounced today, as they don’t have to rush into marriage, a long-term relationship, or even the vaguest of friendships to have sex with women.
Relationship counsellor Andrew G. Marshall, author of Wake Up And Change Your Life, who has tried to help many couples cope with the reality of childlessness, agrees.
‘It’s not that men decide they don’t want to have children – they just decide they don’t want them at that exact moment. ‘Why change anything?’ they say to their partners. ‘Aren’t we having a good time?’
Lis McDermott, 63, from Swindon, a freelance photographer, was never tempted into giving up her comfortable lifestyle and burgeoning career for a baby. She was far too focused on her job to consider having children
‘Women are then in a bind. Do they leave him for a mythical family man who may not appear?
‘All too often they stay – and those child-bearing years are wasted.
‘It’s terribly unfair as the man doesn’t have to decide then. After all, he’ll be even more appealing to other women in five years’ time, because he’ll be more established in his life and career. Power and money are very seductive – and men know this.’
Or as the author and columnist Maureen Dowd sardonically puts it: ‘Females are still programmed to look for older men with resources, while males are still programmed to look for younger women with adoring gazes.’
However, it’s also undoubtedly true that to the women of Generation Childless who were raised on dreams of ‘having it all’, the reality of the men available often failed to live up to their high hopes.
Indeed, when you’re promised the earth, the disparity between your dream man and Mr Distinctly Average can be very disappointing. The kind of men traditionally seen as a catch because they were better educated and earn more than women are actually decreasing rapidly, as women outstrip their male counterparts in universities and the workplace.
Lis aged 30 in Croatia. Although she sometimes feels that she’s missing out on the small joys of family life, suich as Sunday lunches, she says the urge to have children was never greater than her career
When feminist writer Gloria Steinem said in the Seventies that ‘we’re becoming the men we wanted to marry,’ even she can’t have predicted this.
This is the bind Genevieve Smyth, a 45-year-old occupational therapist from South London, found herself in. Highly educated, with an honours degree and a Masters to her name, she was brought up on the mantra of equality. She was determined to find a partner who met her exacting standards. Instead, today, she finds herself childless.
‘I went to an all girls’ school where the message was that women of my generation could have a good and full life: ambitious jobs, children, friends, travel,’ she says.
‘We were reminded by our teachers that we had opportunities our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers never had.’
Genevieve took this feminist message with her into her romantic life. ‘I was on the look out for a special man who would share my dream of combining all my life goals with a family,’ she says.
‘And, at first, men seemed to want the same as me. But when we explored the subject more deeply, it was clear they didn’t envisage an equal partnership.
‘They were happy for me to be the breadwinner but also expected me to raise the children and clean the house.
‘It was as if the men’s thinking hadn’t caught up with what women were told to expect from life. And I wasn’t prepared to accept this. Previous generations put up with more because they weren’t financially independent, but I had a good job and my own flat.’
But those high standards began to wobble, under pressure from her biological clock.
‘By my mid-30s, I felt under huge societal pressure to meet a man and settle down,’ Genevieve says.
Some desperate first dates ensued in which she told startled men of her painful yearning for a baby, with all-too predictable results.
Then Genevieve met her current partner, Chris, a 43-year-old software engineer. After all the heartache, this time, it was love.
Aged 36 and with her fertility dropping like a stone, they tried desperately to conceive. It wasn’t to be. After three miscarriages and expensive private consultations with fertility specialists, Genevieve finally accepted that she would never be a mother.
She reflects: ‘I was raised to believe that if you work hard at something you reap the benefits. But having a child isn’t like that.’
This quest for control over unpredictable Mother Nature is highly characteristic of the high-achieving women who make up Generation Childless, as Dr Jessamy Hibberd says. ‘Women today are so used to being in control of their lives, thanks to their increasingly professional roles in the workplace.
Melanie Whitehouse, a 57-year-old author, blames her childlesslessness on a string of unsuitable men
‘Perhaps in generations past women would have been more accepting of things they couldn’t control. Now it’s not like that. We’re told to be organised in every arena, nothing is out of reach.
‘But having a child is the one area where this simply doesn’t apply.’
And, as we all know, small children bring chaos to even the most finely tuned household. For some women, well used to a comfortable, affluent lifestyle, making the sacrifices a baby requires can be too much to ask.
Lis McDermott, 63, from Swindon, is one woman who was never tempted into giving up her comfortable lifestyle and burgeoning career for a baby. She was in charge of the music curriculum for schools in Wiltshire and today works as a freelance photographer – a full and fascinating career that, she says, wouldn’t have been remotely possible with a little one in tow.
‘I married in 1974, aged 22, and certainly didn’t want children at that point because I wanted to focus on my career.
‘I really enjoyed working with children in schools, but also liked being able to hand them back to their parents at the end of the day. I was far more focused on my job. The higher up the ladder I climbed, the more prestigious it became.’
Melanie aged 20. Although she wanted children when she was younger, it just didn’t happen for her
This determination to concentrate on her career survived the break-up of her first marriage and a few flings in her late 30s.
Today, she is married to a man 13 years her junior and has travelled the world. With a book on photography under her belt and a figure unmarked by the stresses of pregnancy, she feels more confident than ever.
It’s not to say she hasn’t found herself excluded by women with children, though.
‘I met up with an old college friend in my 30s who told me that I was foolish and selfish for not having children.
‘I’d been her bridesmaid a few years earlier, so we were pretty close. She and her husband had gone on to have two children. It was so clear our lives had taken different paths that we didn’t see one another again.’
Sometimes, Lis admits that she does feel like she’s missing out on the small joys – Sunday lunches, Christmas festivities – that make up the whole complex fabric of family life.
But she stands by her decision to remain childless: ‘The urge to have children was never greater than my career.’
But countless women in Generation Childless do not feel as positive as Lis. Many struggle with overwhelming feelings of loss, isolation and loneliness which mar their lives, as Melanie Whitehouse reflects: ‘Recently I bumped into a friend who, like me, hadn’t met ‘The One’. She had adopted an adorable little girl.
‘It has filled the void,’ she said, and I knew just what she meant.
‘Except for me that void hasn’t been filled – and won’t be by grandchildren either. My life is undoubtedly less because of this.’
Some names have been changed. Additional reporting: Helen Carroll and Jill Foster.
There’s a problem with this article – the generation of childless women it talks about do NOT believe in equality. They want to earn the same as a man for the same job, but at home it’s very different. At home they expect the man to do all the menial manual work himself – because it’s man’s work – then expect his help when it’s time to cook and clean. They don’t want equal, loving relationships – they want a slave, and preferably a slave who earns more too (we’ve all seen the studies confirming that women hate dating men who earn less). Inauthentic women have been encouraged to reject the men in their lives and accept the state as the daddy figure (provider & protector) for the small perks that the state provides. It is part of the feminist agenda created to divide the sexes and make the population easier to control. Mark Passio and others have talked about this.
This generation of women are the generation who thought money could buy happiness, the generation who has not studied biology, who thought lesbian feminists could give them love and freedom and thousands of them are finding out the hard way that they got it wrong. Men have been assaulted by this kind of woman. Now, it is simple. Who is gonna love a feminist? Men are escaping from relationships because feminism has ruined dating. Furthemore, the way men are treated in the so called fair courts this is not a surprise.