The changing face of family life

With fewer and fewer children now being born to married couples, the London Women’s Clinic asks if marriage is out of fashion or just unnecessary in the 21st century.

Single parenthood is increasingly common

A recent report from the Office of National Statistics showed that marriage rates in Britain have fallen to their lowest levels since records began; the result is that women of 25 are now more likely to have a child than to be married.

Over the past 50 years, advances in contraception, fertility treatments, and the greater social acceptance of different kinds of families - as well as improved career opportunities - have all given women the freedom to choose when (or whether) to have a baby, and being married, or even in a long-term relationship, is much less relevant than it ever used to be.

Having a baby outside of marriage is no longer a stigma

We now take freedom of ever increasing choice for granted and it’s hard to imagine how for earlier generations of women a baby outside marriage could bring shame upon a family and the end of a career.

In 1935, the actress Loretta Young had an affair with the Hollywood star Clark Gable while they were filming The Call of the Wild. When Young became pregnant, she had to conceal the pregnancy to avoid damaging both actors’ reputations. She had the baby secretly and then ‘adopted’ her, raising her as Judy Lewis after taking the name of her husband, producer Tom Lewis. She even arranged for her daughter to have cosmetic surgery to hide some family resemblances.

Today, everything has changed and well-known Hollywood actresses like Jessica Albe and Halle Berry have felt able to talk about their pregnancies and openly celebrate their freedom to have babies without being married. Indeed, motherhood – whether single or not – is just as likely to be seen as career-enhancing as career-limiting.

And it’s not just Hollywood actresses who take the decision to remain unmarried while raising a family. Other female celebrities opting to have children without marriage include Stephanie Flanders, Economics Editor at the BBC. Flanders disclosed that she was an unmarried mother on Newsnight in 2007 when interviewing the Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, about tax credits for married couples. She famously said: “I’m not married. I have a small child. Are you saying the Conservative Party would like me to be married?”

Government policies and one-parent families in the UK

There are a number of reasons - in addition to greater social acceptance - why women in the UK choose not to marry before having children. The UK tax system, for example, no longer offers incentives to married couples - leaving many financially better off by staying single. And public policy, in trying to keep pace with the way we now chose to live our lives, has had to accommodate the new social norms, which are reflected in the near doubling of the number of one-parent families since 1971 who between them care for around three million children in the UK.

Fertility clinics no longer need to take into account the ‘need for a father’

In line with these changing family norms, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act has removed the requirement for fertility clinics to take into account the ‘need for a father’ in its treatment of patients and to consider instead the provision of ‘supportive parenting’. The same Act has recognised same-sex couples as legal parents of children conceived through the use of donated sperm, eggs or embryos.

Women increasingly choose to remain childless or delay parenthood

However, for many women the freedom to have a career as successful as (or even more successful than) a man’s means that one-fifth choose to remain childless and put their careers and education before having a baby. Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that the proportion of women who are childless in England and Wales has increased from an estimated 10% of women born in 1945 to around 19% born in 1960. Although the lack of a live-in partner was one important reason for this, the figures also suggest that childless women were more likely to be educated to degree level or higher, and more likely to have professional or managerial jobs.

The number of women who choose to delay their first pregnancy has also increased dramatically over the past few years, with many now seeking help from fertility clinics. Data released in April 2009 by the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA) showed that the number of women having fertility treatment has more than doubled since the 1990s and is still rising fast – the HFEA recorded a five per cent increase in just one year between 2006 and 2007.

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The changing face of family life