I had the pleasure of attending the second-ever NotMom Summit earlier this month and was blown away, yet again, by the camaraderie between women who are not mothers by circumstance and those of us who have made that choice very intentionally (much to the chagrin of Popes everywhere).
I was also delighted to share the stage on the second day of the conference with an incredibly distinguished panel of childless and childfree women for a discussion of “NotMoms from Around the World.” The panel included Jody Day of Gateway Women, Dr. Kimya Dennis of Salem College, Catherine-Emmanuelle Delisle of Femme Sans Enfant, and yours truly.
I kicked off the session by sharing just a bit of context – starting globally and then moving locally – to think about how and why fertility rates and rates of childlessness vary around the globe. We then moved on to thinking about how our experiences as NotMoms coming from different locations might vary, and why.
As someone who studies the stigma associated with the childfree choice and the pressure placed on women to reproduce, I’m always struck – and a little confused – when I think about the figure to your right. Globally, our problem is not actually a lack of people. Our global population hit the 7 billion mark 5 years ago and it is increasing at a rate of about 200,000 people/day.
This fact often gets forgotten or overlooked in much of the contemporary discussion about changing fertility rates. This is because the political, ideological, and religious project of pro-natalism is designed to get us to be concerned only with populating the earth with people who share our national, cultural, and racial identities. And when we focus the lens at the national level, we discover that fertility rates vary quite widely across the globe.
Globally, women today have an average of 2.42 births each, well above the population replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman. The lowest rate is found in Singapore, where the estimated 2017 rate is 0.83 births per woman (or, the average number of children born per woman if all women lived to end of childbearing the years). The highest rate is found in Niger (“nee-ZHER”), where the estimated 2017 rate is 6.49 births per woman. In terms of the countries represented by our panel at the NotMom Summit, in Canada the rate is 1.6 children born per woman; in the U.K., it is 1.88; and in the U.S., it is 1.87.
Demographers interested in what drives fertility rates to vary across the globe find that urbanization, higher age at first marriage, and better access for women to health care, education, and employment are all correlated with lower fertility rates. In nations and states where fertility rates have declined, policy makers and media commentators lament that “their people” are not repopulating “their territory” at replaceable rates and this fact shapes our experiences as NotMoms, whether we come to the experience by chance or by choice.
In 2009, 43 countries had policies designed to increase fertility among their populace. These policies are most heavily concentrated in Europe, where fertility rates have dipped below population replacement levels in many nations. While the U.S. does not have such a policy, declining birth rates among (some) American women, has been the focus of much hand-wringing here.
One nation whose response to low fertility made global headlines recently is Italy. In Italy, where birth rates are lower than anywhere else in the E.U., the Ministry of Health introduced a campaign last year to try and increase fertility. The campaign went viral – but not in way health officials had hoped. At the NotMom Summit, I shared images of two posters from the campaign. The first comes with a dire warning, reading: “Beauty has no age. Fertility does.” Another poster reminds women that their fertility is not their own. It says, “Fertility is a public good.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the posters were quickly denounced as totally offensive and the entire campaign was withdrawn within days of it launching.
In 2014, Spies Travel in Denmark launched a more well-received “Do It For Denmark” campaign, urging couples to take a romantic holiday and get busy populating their nation. The company even offered an “ovulation discount” and couples who could prove that they conceived during their trip were promised 3-years of baby supplies and a free child-friendly holiday. How a couple is supposed to “prove” that they conceived during their trip, and not immediately before or after, remains a mystery but no doubt Spies Travel has worked it out.
Though many of us know from our own experiences that the line between by-chance non-parent and by-choice non-parent can be fuzzy, and that our place the continuum may change over the course of our lives, one thing is certain: we all live in a world where having kids is the presumed norm and where not having them means having to face queries that are almost never invited and almost always unpleasant. I’m grateful to theNotMom for giving me a much-needed chance every couple of years to walk into a room without having to worry about how I’ll respond this time when I’m asked how many kids I have. The answer is zero and I’m quite happy, thank you.