Lara doesn’t want kids - not now, not ever - and she’s known it since she was only a kid herself. “I was in primary school, leaning against a playground wall with my friends, coming up with names for our children like Chantelle or Sadie and I remember going with it because you don’t want to be bullied for thinking, 'I like human beings but I don’t want a child.'”
The number of UK women not having children has been rising steadily since the 1940s according to the Office for National Statistics. And, although some women may have wanted to become mums, there are also many for whom popping out the 2.4 sprogs expected by society simply doesn’t feature in their life plans. Some women are, in fact, so certain of this that they’re opting to have surgery to make sure it will never happen.
Carried out under general anaesthetic, sterilisation involves tying the fallopian tubes or blocking them using clips, rings or implants. It’s 99% effective in preventing pregnancy, although you can still contract STIs. Although the attraction for some women is that it’s permanent, it can sometimes be reversed. Alternatively, women who have had it can still conceive using IVF. However, neither of these are guaranteed and they’re unlikely to be readily offered by our cash-strapped NHS.
“I’ve never wanted kids but for a while I just assumed I would eventually,” says 31-year-old journalist Holly Brockwell, who featured in Young and Sterile: My Choice, a recent BBC Three documentary about young people who choose to get sterilised. “It's drummed into women that the 'biological clock' is a real thing, a light in your head that just comes on when you get to the right age.” Holly got sterilised at age 30 after four years of begging her GP to refer her for surgery.
"Having babies isn't the only way to leave a legacy."
Lara has discussed sterilisation with her GP too, but each time the conversation is brushed aside for another year. Lara isn’t Lara’s real name by the way. It’s still pretty taboo for a woman to declare themselves happily childfree, so she preferred to speak anonymously, anxious about potential backlash. The stereotype goes that women who aren’t mothers must either hate kids or hate themselves. Childfree men tend to get an easier ride - just compare the media treatment of “sad, childless” Jennifer Aniston to that of “sexy bachelor” George Clooney, pre-Amal.
In talking about sterilisation with friends and strangers, Holly’s come up against a whole spectrum of negative reactions that range from faux concern about her mental health to questions about who’ll care for her in old age. She's even been subject to nasty accusations of being “dead inside” or not being a "proper woman”.
“The only reason I can understand people for being angry with me is if it's someone who wants kids and hasn't been able to have them,” she says. “When you're in that kind of situation, well, you have my permission to hate me for throwing my fertility away. I'd give it to someone else if I could.” She has explored egg donation but wouldn’t qualify since she’s a cystic fibrosis carrier.
Doctors in the UK, following guidelines issued by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), are cautious of offering sterilisation to healthy, childfree women under the age of 30, principally because there are now other long-lasting contraceptives that are as effective as sterilisation and which can be reversed.
“Why do something which you could regret medically or psychologically when actually there are really good contraceptives there?” says RCOG spokesperson Dr Kate Guthrie. Holly found the pill made her seasick, and Lara has had the three-month injection, but worries about the long-term impact of high dose hormones.
Still, there’s a risk of side effects from sterilisation, too. You could suffer from worse periods, particularly if you’re younger when you have the operation, Dr Guthrie points out, but she admits that the commonly held view Holly mentioned earlier - the idea that most women want kids in the end - also has an influence.
“Perhaps that’s reflected in the culture of sterilisation, the paternalism of saying, 'Oh you’ll change your mind,'” she adds. “But it’s because people do. It’s borne out by experience. If you’re a doctor and you’re sitting there seeing someone crying because they wish they’d never been sterilised that impacts on how you practice your medicine.”
But if sterilisation is a permanent decision, so too is having children. However much you love your kids, parenting can be a relentless slog at times and if you fuck it up, you’re not just fucking up your own life. Because they’re simply sticking to the status quo, parents-to-be may not necessarily think this through as much as non-parents do.
“It’s such a big deal,” stresses Lara. “If I’m not going to be wholehearted about it, I don’t think it’s fair on the child.” Ultimately though, wanting kids, not wanting kids - neither are rational positions, they’re about how you feel. Lara again: “It’s like if someone said you’ve got to be a teacher. I’d hate that. It just doesn’t fit my character.”
Before she got sterilised, Holly says she lived in constant fear of getting pregnant. And two years ago it happened. “I cried day and night because despite everyone saying, ‘You'll feel different when it's your own,’ I still didn't want to be anyone's mother. It was horrible. I didn't think I'd be able to go through with an abortion, so I was going to carry the little one to term and find a family for them, which I know would have broken me emotionally.” Because she miscarried naturally after a few weeks, it didn’t come to that but she was left more convinced than ever before that she doesn’t want children.
Holly has written widely about her personal experiences - facing some brutal trolling in the process - because she believes it’s important to raise awareness of the issue so that in the future women like Lara feel emboldened to speak up. “Women like me needed to see that they weren't alone, and GPs who were against it needed to see that we could make just as much sense as women who want kids.”
And, although she reckons the number of women who don't want kids is probably about the same now as it’s always been, she’s optimistic that it’s finally becoming more OK to talk about it. “I imagine a lot of the people who had babies in years gone by didn't actually want to – I know my mum didn't, but she didn't feel she had a choice. If she'd been born later, I think she'd have made the same choice as me.
“While I'm obviously very grateful that she did have kids and I get to exist, if she hadn't, who knows what she would have gone on to do? Having babies isn't the only way to leave a legacy.”