Nearly 123 years after winning the right to vote, it is fair to assume women in New Zealand have a choice over their bodies and lives. But while the decision to forgo childbearing is on the increase, many women are discovering they still have to defend their right to choose not to become a mother.
When Virginia Braun, a professor of psychology, decided to undergo a tubal ligation eight years ago, she was shocked at the reaction of those around her and the barriers she had to cross to get the procedure done.
In her early 30s at the time, Virginia had made the decision with her long-term partner not to start a family, and was determined that the lingering expectation of motherhood would not dictate her life. She talks lovingly of friends’ and family’s children, but says she has never wanted to experience having a child herself.
“When I was growing up I was never one of those kids that said, ‘Oh, there are my dolls, there’s my baby.’ I never had the fantasy of having a baby that was mine,” she explains.
“As I got older it was clear that if I were to accidentally get pregnant I wouldn’t have the baby. That was hugely stressful, and I felt so much anxiety about the possibility of getting pregnant when I was absolutely certain I wouldn’t want the child.”
Breaking the news to her mother was difficult, because Virginia knew it would disappoint her. “She sees her kids as such a crucial part of who she is; we are such a precious part of her life, so she felt really sad,” she says.
But despite her feelings, Virginia’s mother understood her decision and Virginia booked in to see her GP and then a private gynaecologist, because public funding was not an option. DHBs offer funding for sterilisation on a case-by-case basis, considering each individual’s clinical and social circumstances.
Family Planning national medical advisor Dr Christine Roke says being of childbearing age and having no children counts against the bid for sterilisation and women like Virginia are unlikely to qualify.
“The element of regret is always a concern and gynaecologists are often reluctant because [the woman] may well change her mind,” she explains.
According to the Ministry of Health, the current criteria for public funding focus on: a woman’s reproductive history; the effectiveness of her current contraceptive methods; difficulties that would create medical complications in pregnancy; and the psycho-social impact of a pregnancy on the woman and her family.
When having the procedure done privately, there are no clearly defined criteria a woman has to meet, but a spokesperson from the Ministry of Health says obtaining informed consent is important in minimising the possibility of regret (ensuring a woman is well informed, has considered all options and understands the implications of the tubal ligation).
In some cases, a vasectomy might be offered to the partner of a woman who is eligible for sterilisation, but vasectomies are not usually publically funded. However, the cost of a vasectomy – the male equivalent to tubal ligation – through the private system is considerably cheaper than female sterilisation, and for many women who don’t qualify for public funding, the cost of the process makes a tubal ligation infeasible.Dr Roke says that without this funding a woman could spend between $4500 and $5500 to have the procedure done. In comparison, a vasectomy has an average cost of about $400.
After choosing to have the procedure done privately, Virginia found the process relatively smooth.
“My GP, who I have had a long relationship with, said she would refer to me to a gynaecologist who would likely be willing to perform the tubal ligation as soon as I wanted it. I was going through the private sector, so the referral was really quick.
"That said, I was still anticipating [the gynaecologist] would take some convincing, and I went to her office feeling very nervous, with my partner, and with my argument clearly lodged in my head.”
But while getting the operation was trouble-free, Virginia says the reactions she received from others were surprising, and she discovered what it was like to have her certainty questioned.
“My friends would say things like, ‘Don’t you worry you will regret it?’ or ‘Can you reverse it?’ I know it’s coming from a place of caring but it shows they are not really getting the head-space of the other person,” she says. “I mean, would you ask someone who was pregnant, ‘Can you reverse that?’”
Virginia speaks fiercely now of feeling frustrated that women are expected to provide a reason for not wanting children, rather than their decision being treated as legitimate in itself.
“It’s very hard not to feel that people see you as deficient in some way, that not having a child is some kind of personal failing, or you are missing a part of you that is fundamental to being a woman.”
Although Virginia doesn’t devote much thought to this perception, she feels it is something that can be crippling for young women, and she is most concerned about women who are unsure of their position on becoming a mother.
“That space of ambivalence is really challenging because there is this really strong sense that ultimately, if you are a woman, you will want children one day and you might be making a fundamentally terrible decision in your life if you don’t have them.”
She is upset that women in 2016 are being made to feel guilty for choosing to be child-free and says the decision is a deeply personal one.
“This decision makes no difference to someone else who is struggling with infertility,” she says firmly.
In fact, Virginia believes women who consciously choose not to have children might make it easier for women who can’t have children by highlighting a range of possibilities for living a meaningful life without kids.
Opting out of motherhood is a choice on the rise. In 1981 only nine per cent of women aged 40-44 years were childless, which rose to 12 per cent in 1996 and 15 per cent in 2006. With similar increases across neighbouring age groups, the trend to not have children is on the increase in New Zealand, despite barriers and opposing attitudes.
Now, approximately 31 per cent of all women don’t have children. While this includes those who have yet to start their families, many of them are child-free by choice. Rhodi Bulloch is one of the latter. At 38 years old, the softly-spoken dietitian is happily married without kids. She says it wasn’t until she mentioned to a cousin that she never wanted to be a mother that she became aware of other people’s reactions.
“I got the lecture, ‘Oh, you are only young, and when you turn 30 your body will start wanting children, just you wait,’” she says with a laugh. “So I waited for that maternal instinct to kick in, but 30 came along and 35 came along and nothing happened.”
Rhodi has come to believe that in our pro-natalist society, people are conditioned to ask ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ you will be having a baby.
“When you meet someone, you would never ask immediately why they chose to have children or why they are single, or why they are with their partner. So why do people ask me when I will be having children?” she says.
At formal events and functions, Rhodi says people either seem offended by her decision not to have children, or awkwardly cut the conversation short.
“I always feel like I need to qualify my decision by saying, ‘Look, if one comes along, that is fantastic,’ rather than saying outright, ‘I don’t want to have children, I’m not interested – children are lovely but they’re not for me'.”
She is surprised that admitting to not wanting children is still a taboo thing and loaded with assumptions.
“It’s always, ‘Oh, she doesn’t have children, so she is super committed to her career,’ or ‘She’s selfish,’ or ‘She just can’t have children'. There’s never any thought given to the fact that a woman might have consciously made the decision, that she is happy with herself and her life, and children just aren’t a part of that.”
She says there is the added pressure of feeling bad for women who would love to have a child but struggle with infertility.
“Sometimes you become aware that you might have offended someone because they might want to have children but perhaps they can’t [while I have chosen not to].”
Linda Rooney, 53, has experienced life as both a woman who didn’t want children, and a woman who couldn’t have children. She felt it was very important to know she was making the right decision and was ready to have children before becoming pregnant, so she chose to wait until her maternal instinct kicked in, which happened in her mid-30s.
After suffering two miscarriages, and failed IVF treatments, Linda and her husband settled into life without children. Her circumstances have inspired a passion for blogging and Linda has created No Kidding in NZ, which gets about 2000 hits every week. She wants people to realise that a woman’s life can be equally as meaningful without children.
Linda says she has had childless women from all walks of life share with her their feelings of being overlooked by others, or losing touch with those in their social circle as more of their friends become mothers. She believes women who don’t have children, whether by choice or by circumstance, are all tarred by the same brush – they are treated as if they have not fulfilled their purpose.
“If you look at society in general, [childless women] are ignored by the media, advertisers and politicians, and in many respects marginalised because they’re not seen as equally important parts of society. Listen to the rhetoric around an election or Christmas and it’s ‘family, family, family’,” Linda says.
The marketing consultant says it can be hard to escape the isolation that comes with being childless.
“I think we still live in a very sexist, misogynistic society and it makes people comfortable if women are doing that traditional role of being a mother – they are less comfortable with women like Helen Clark.”
The three women interviewed for this story have found strength and certainty in their decision to be child-free, and hope others can find the same. Rhodi says she can only hope the stigma surrounding childless women will eventually wither away as society becomes more diverse and accepting of differences.
“We need people to stand behind women who don’t want children and support their decision. I hope that in five years, when I am 43, people don’t look at me and go, ‘Poor you, the choice is no longer yours because you have left it too late'.”
Virginia, eight years on from her procedure, is still 100 per cent certain about her decision to have the tubal ligation and sees no possibility of ever regretting it.
“Whenever I reflect on that procedure, it feels like a better and better decision, and when I reflect on the decision not to have children, it feels more and more right.”
She says there is too little discussion about the concept that having children might not be for everyone, and that people have thanked her for being forthcoming about her decision and opening up dialogue about women’s right to choose what is best for them.
“It needs to be part of the broader conversation if we are going to keep open a range of possibilities for women and couples.”
- In 2016, approximately 31 per cent of New Zealand women are child-free.
- In 2010, women had on average 2.2 children, half the number of births per woman in 1961.
- Childlessness rose 6 percent between 1981 and 2006.
- 25 per cent of women born after 1975 are expected to not have children.
Words: Therese Henkin