Today’s Guest Post is by: Paula Coston
Paula lives in Stroud, Gloucestershire in England. She blogs about childlessness, singledom, the gender divide and more at BoyWoman. Her novel about a woman trying many things to cope with childlessness, ‘On the Far Side, There’s a Boy’, comes out in April.
Best wishes for a happy New Year from the UK, Sisters-in-NotMomhood.
In my last guest post here, I promised to talk a bit about the differences between us NotMoms on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and why they might be.
Most NotMoms I talk to in the UK and the US agree that up to now, childless British women have been more vocal and have got further in their quest for recognition than their North American sisters. On this particular issue, it would seem, your American stereotype of the shy rose of an English lady doesn’t apply! For a while I’ve puzzled the reasons. There are no definitive answers, but here are some suggestions.
Many of us may know and quote the chastening statistic that today, 1 in 5 women in the UK, the USA, Canada and Australasia reach the menopause still childless – the highest ratio since World War II. But statistics can be blunt, masking telling detail. If the 1:5 proportions were even true, the population of the UK is some 64 million, while that of the States is some 317 million; so of course 1 out of 5 of those women in the UK will make themselves more visible and prominent locally, in expressing their feelings, than you.
As it happens, the 1:5 figure isn’t even strictly right. It started as a widespread generalisation based on a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2011.
Entitled Doing Better for Families, it showed Britain near the top in the ‘league table’ of childless women. Italy was at the pinnacle. In that European country, 24% of women born around 1965, (i.e. mostly through the menopause), were still childless. Next came Germany (20.3%), then Finland (19.9%). Britain followed, with 18.9% — slightly under 1 in 5.
The US featured lower down, at 16%. Since then, figures have changed again, although generally, the percentages are still rising. Karen’s recent post discussing the UN World Fertility Report of 2012 features a different list of countries (Singapore and Bahrain rank high, but they are not OECD countries). Nonetheless, it shows both the UK and the US, only a year or so on, higher up on another childlessness league table. But, we in the UK are still third, and you still below, at place six.
In other words, our situation in the UK is more extreme than yours. That’s probably partly due to another stark reality, revealed in the same OECD report I mentioned above: Women in the UK leave it later than those in any other country to have their first child. They attempt to conceive or give birth for the first time at the average age of 30 – with all the attendant difficulties and disappointments that delayed plans for a family may bring. Not surprising, then, if we appear a bit more vocal on the childlessness subject.
Other factors may revolve around the workplace. In the UK, we’re in the middle of a baby boom: from June 2011 to June 2012, more babies were born here than in any one-year period for 40 years. Yet in the US, births have declined by 8% since 2007. The labour and tax credit laws of our respective countries are bound to respond to, and reflect, these contrasts.
Sure enough, in the UK mothers are now entitled to up to one year’s paid maternity leave before returning – without discrimination – to their old jobs. As you know, your maternal sisters have only 12 weeks’ annual leave, and that’s unpaid.
On top of that, on this side of the Atlantic, all full-time employees get at least 20 days’ paid holiday: double your rate. Maybe as significant, any mother in the UK working for 16 hours+ each week is entitled to income tax credits towards registered, approved childcare (if earning up to a top salary total for a couple of some $67,000). I believe that the American credit system stops at a lower threshold of just over $50,000.
The culture of our workplaces inevitably mirrors this gap. On our side of the pond, the number of working mothers is rising, and is higher than in the States, where the figure is stagnating. So over here, large numbers of childless women go to work to witness their ever more numerous maternal coworkers receiving paid time off and tax benefits for having children – and these days in quite a few workplaces, new fathers benefiting from paternity leave on top of that.
British childless women may have sick or elderly family members to look after, but for them, employers are unlikely to make equivalent allowances. Then there are the insidious discriminations that UK NotMoms often report: the boss letting off the mother delayed by some crisis at the school gate while not excusing the NotMom also unavoidably late; the baby gifts ready for the new Mom when she reappears at work, though there’s not even a card waiting at work for the childless woman who has just passed her driving test, or achieved her doctorate.
The case of France lends weight to my ideas. There, maternity leave arrangements are even more generous than in the UK, and as a direct result, the OECD deduces, the fertility rate in the country is high. It’s all about the money again. The OECD sees a direct and indisputable correlation.
If that’s all so, then why aren’t the French NotMoms out in force complaining about cultural discrimination, organising themselves like us Brits and Yanks, you may ask? I’m suggesting that that’s because the workplace is childless women’s fiercest battleground. After all, we spend enough time there – you even more than us Brits! And statistics show that fewer French mothers reappear at work after childbirth than they do in either the UK or the US, which means that fewer French working mothers can rub their financial salt into childless women workers’ wounds.
American NotMom sisters: on behalf of NotMom Brits, it’s good to have you with us.