Why is the happily childless woman seen as the unicorn of society?

Non-mothers are often told they'll "change their mind when they meet the right person". Between that and being forced to worry who will visit you in your old age, it's no wonder society seems to believe the happily childless woman is more myth than realit

Being a parent isn’t always a walk in the park, according to the World Happiness Database unveiled in Rotterdam this week. In fact, it could be bad for your mental health: one of the activities which sends happiness levels plummeting, according to the research, is having a child (although, it hastens to add, your happiness increases when they grow up and leave home - which hardly seems a glowing recommendation for having them in the first place). Meanwhile, it was reported by the BBC that China has just passed what it is euphemistically calling the "Elderly Rights Law", a piece of legislation that makes it compulsory for adult children to visit their parents in a country with a rapidly ageing (and lonely) population. In other words, you sacrifice happiness to parenthood in the prime of your life, enjoy a brief but halcyon retirement, then are abandoned in your twilight years to the extent that the government has to force your children to pop in for a cup of tea. No wonder we’re all procreating less.

But the fact remains that the "childless by choice" - or, as some prefer it, "child-free" - are still looked upon as dangerous oddities, possibly with some sort of social disease. Even worse is the female half of the dreaded "childless by choice" couple, all settled down with someone they love in a perfectly good home with a spare bedroom that could be easily transformed into a nursery and just downright refusing to warm up a bun in her oven. "Tick tock", publications aimed at thirtysomething women sing-song, as you scour the magazine rack for something that doesn’t make you want to throw up, move countries, cry, or all of the above. "Your ovaries are getting old! Your eggs won’t last forever! You’ll change your mind in a few short years - and where will you be then?"

It’s beyond comprehension to most of the media, of course, that women without children might not end up crying outside the local school-gates every morning before being shooed away by the caretaker. The "evolutionary science, hideously misapplied" brigade have been banging the "naturally maternal" drum for decades as an explanation for all possible facets of female behaviour. Through this lens, the female role in a heterosexual relationship is to become your male partner’s new mother, helpfully cooking and cleaning and facilitating his life for him while he has fun and plays with his friends outside. The "maternal instinct" apparently inherent in all women has been used as a way to keep mothers out of the workplace and discriminate against fathers who want equal custody of their children. The belief that we are essentially born to be baby incubators crops up again and again amongst anti-abortion debaters, and is one reason why new mothers often report feeling ashamed of postnatal depression. After all, if you’re supposed to be in your element but you feel like crap, then surely you’re a Darwinian failure of the first order - never mind if you opt out of having the baby altogether.

All of this contributes to the idea of the happily childless woman as the unicorn of society. A dedicated bachelor is a good-time guy, and a married man without kids is hardly a talking point. But a bachelorette is more likely to be seen as tragic, bitter, yearning for the family that she hasn’t yet had the opportunity to create; her coupled-up counterpart a perpetual mother-in-waiting. And why should this be the case, on an overpopulated planet with a surplus of poverty, starvation and greenhouse gases? Really, it shouldn’t be the child-free who have to justify their position - it should be those who choose to bring others into the world without good reason beyond "I JUST WANT TO SEE MINI-ME". Yes, your unfortunate nose might look hilarious on an unsuspecting infant’s face - but is it really worth the extra carbon dioxide and the toe-curlingly boring hours spent poring through stacks of GCSE retake papers? After all, the lifetime cost of raising a child in the UK is now £222,458, which is a hell of a lot of luxury holidays and stiff gins down the drain, not to mention the damage those little darlings can do to your nether regions on their way into the world.

Women we’ve spoken to through The Vagenda have told us that their own doctors have made it difficult for them to undergo sterilisation by condescendingly insisting that they will "only want it reversed in a few short years", as if they had chosen the procedure on a whim. Others have been told by relatives that they’re not performing their "womanly duty" by shunning motherhood - seriously - and still more have contended with the mind-bending accusations that they’re "being selfish" or "will get bored in your marriage if you don’t". By far the most common amongst our Twitter followers, however, was experience of the smug assurance that "you’ll change your mind once you meet the right person", as if a Baby Alarm will go off in every woman’s mind the moment they meet their God-given soulmate and embark upon Happily Ever After. This is apparently now wheeled out more often even than the old and reliable, "Who will look after you in your old age?", which still persists despite the fact that very few of us are living on isolated farmland dependent on continuous manual labour in countries without some semblance of a national health service.

So how to stop the constant barrage of criticism if you are to live life as a contented child-free female human being? Firstly, ignore all magazines aimed at the thirtysomething demographic: there are far too many allusions to "Fertility O’Clock" and "foods to maximise your spouse’s sperm count". Secondly, have faith in social progression: a recent survey covered by the Washington Post found that the belief that "mothers are more natural parents" is much more prevalent amongst older groups of society, as it fades in the younger (two-thirds of women aged 65+ agreed with the statement, compared with about half of woman in younger age groups.) Meanwhile, grit your teeth while people loudly worry about who’s going to visit you in your nursing home and own the choice that’s right for you. Because £222,458 later, who’s to say that THEY’RE not the ones who’ll be left wanting to change their minds?

Now read Lulu Le Vay's call for "Mumsnot", in which she asks whether if a woman doesn't have any kids, she still has any value.

The happily childless, or child-free, woman is more common than you think. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.