Saying no to motherhood is on the rise, so we spoke with women across Asia to understand the reasons why and the cultural norms they’re up against

Many women are all too familiar with unsolicited opinions about their bodies—and for those in reproductive age range, being childfree can still prompt insensitive questions and even judgments of being selfish or less of a woman. 

Scan the headlines, however, and childfree is rapidly becoming a norm. In Singapore, the fertility rate is 1.2 births per woman, in spite of supportive government policies. Hong Kong hit a 40-year low of 0.87 in 2020, and don’t bet on a quick turnaround; according to a survey by the Hong Kong Women Development Association, more than half of women don’t want kids, citing issues such as financial pressures, long work hours and cramped housing.

Sociologist Sandy To agrees that these are major deterrents in Hong Kong and beyond, but also feels that surveys and news reports miss a key consideration: “they need to take into account women who may not want children.”

So we've done some accounting of our own. We spoke to accomplished women, from age 25 to 65, about what being childfree has meant to them. Their inspiring stories suggest the growing number of paths and alternatives to motherhood. As for the naysayers? Malaysian entrepreneur Raudhah Nazran says, “go forth and ignore.”

See also: Why Modern Women Are Choosing Freedom And Independence Over Marriage

“I always wanted a partner in life; children were not the reason for having one”

Pat Dwyer, 41, founder and director, The Purpose Business, Hong Kong

I grew up with a single mom who made me believe that I could do anything; that was how she raised me, a “you and me against the world” type of thing. She wanted a child more than she wanted a partner, but I was the reverse.

For a Filipino, I married late at 31, eleven months after meeting Chris. On our first date, I wasn’t going to waste my time. I told him, if you want a family, that’s not me. I knew what I wanted, and he wasn’t driven by children. I found my match on so many levels.

There’s judgment, though: “how dare you not have kids when you’ve been blessed with so much?” I’ve even heard: “oh, I see you have your own business, that’s understandable, but maybe you should have a real job and then consider.” Wow. You’ve insulted all entrepreneurs and all childfree female entrepreneurs. But there are also conversations that have pleasantly surprised me.

Have I been able to do more of my sustainability work because I am childfree? Maybe, one of my peers is doing it with three kids. Because I don’t have that responsibility, I have the headspace to follow my passions, including working with non-profit Enrich to uplift Filipino women. While I love other people’s children, I’m very happy to go home to a childfree house.

See also: 10 Women Entrepreneurs You Need To Know In Hong Kong

“Being childfree brought my husband and I closer together”

Elaine Lim-Chan, 49, managing director, Deutsche Bank Wealth Management, Singapore

My family is very close knit. My sister and I talk every day, and my husband and I see her daughters a few times a week. Back when I was accepted to an expensive university in the US, I strove to do really well to show my parents my appreciation.

I’m quite the perfectionist, and when I do anything, I’m going to do it well. One reason why I wanted a childfree life is because I work really hard. I take care of ultra-high-net-worth families in Asia and there’s a lot to do to build and maintain their trust.

I also wanted to ensure that I have work-life balance and don’t forget myself or my husband because sometimes when you have kids, everything becomes centred on the kids. My husband and I made a joint decision, and it brought us closer together. There are no children to bind us, so we don’t take each other for granted and can indulge in each other’s hobbies. One of mine is driving; I was the first and only female president of Ferrari Owners’ Club Singapore.

My parents live with us, but there’s no guarantee your children will take care of you when you’re old, as I remind my friends. You need to take ownership of the decisions you make.

“Life is exciting when you’re not bound by traditions and definitions of mothering”

Jeannie Javelosa, 58, founder of ECHOstore and GREAT Women, Manila, Philippines

My partner of 25 years was 20 years older than me and separated from his first wife (divorce is illegal in the Philippines). My family pressured me to leave him because it wasn’t conventional, but I march to my own drummer. Apart from my social enterprise, I do soul destiny readings; I read charts around astrology and share life counselling.

Suggesting that a childfree woman is selfish is very unfair because we each have our own paths. I know someone who doesn’t want children because she was, in a sense, abandoned by her parents and she doesn’t want to burden children by expecting them to heal her. In my readings, I’ve seen so many messed up women because of their moms—a mother who has tried to live through their children or demanded they follow norms.

Now I have a much younger partner, 41, who I met at an ayahuasca retreat, and he might want kids down the line. That would mean a surrogate mother, if ever. It’s a very contemporary way of thinking about motherhood. I believe our definitions of woman and mother need to be recalibrated because my career has really fulfilled me, and the mothering aspect has come out in the kinds of work I do. I’m nurturing individuals along with the community and the planet.

See also: Rebellious Spirit: Josie Ho On A Lifetime As A Habitual Rule-Breaker

“I treasure my liberty and feeling that my body is mine is very important”

Sonia Wong, 32, gender studies lecturer and Women’s Festival co-founder, Hong Kong

My father’s family is from Chaozhou, a region with conservative gender expectations, but my parents were proud of having two daughters. They gave me a lot of encouragement and opportunity to explore what I wanted to do, so I didn’t feel limited to one path in life.

I’ve been sure that I do not want kids since I was 18 or 20— so sure that I’m planning to get my fallopian tubes tied. My boyfriend is very supportive and knowing I can do it gives me a great sense of autonomy. Still, it’s much harder to get tied as a woman than a man, especially if you’re young and don’t already have kids.

I know couples who live childfree, but it’s easier for society to accept it as a couple’s decision than a woman’s decision. Even one of my progressive friends has suggested that maybe later I’ll suddenly want kids. As if as a strong, independent woman, I can’t be sure of what I want? It shows me how deeply rooted is the concept of the female body as a reproductive body. 

When motherhood comes up with my university students, I explain that I never wanted it for myself—I already see those kids every day. The way I will change the world is through changing people’s minds, so my legacy will not be one kid, but many, many kids.

“Not having children doesn’t make you non-maternal or unempathetic”

Rumki Fernandes, 51, chief HR and talent officer, Grey Group, Singapore

A lot of girls like playing with dolls and playing house, but I don’t have memories like that. I never really thought about being a mum. I loved coming back from school in India, and my mother being the first person who greeted me; I just didn’t see myself as that person.

In my late 20s, a lot of friends struggled with motherhood. Even if you’re married to someone with similar values and you’re on a similar career trajectory, what tends to happen is that the child becomes the mother’s responsibility. One person in the couple was having to make more difficult career and lifestyle choices, and I didn’t feel inclined to put myself in that situation.

I married my college sweetheart, and we’ve found decision making to be a lot easier because we don’t have the added factor of kids. We’ve worked in India, London, India again and now Singapore for eight years. We both have jobs that normally require us to travel, and we also love travelling on holiday, outdoor activities and fine dining. We’re even part of the same book club.

We never sat down and had a formal conversation about it; rather, there seemed nothing wrong with our life the way it was and because children were never a priority, they got deprioritised. In India, people often interfere in their own way of trying to be helpful and end up meddling. In Singapore, I don’t think it’s been a big issue or discussion. Sometimes people we meet will ask why we don’t have kids, but I don’t think they view me differently because of it. 

“There's nothing wrong with having a child at 31 or 39 or even never”

Raudhah Nazran, 25, founder of Accelerate, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Being Malay and Muslim, one of the expectations is to produce an heir for the husband. Luckily, my mother and grandmother are progressive. I give a totally different perspective than if you go into rural communities where we work such as Borneo. It’s a cultural thing to get married at 19 or 20 and have children at 21 or 22. If they don’t, they will be sidelined by the community, which is really frustrating.

Accelerate also works with elderly homes, and when I speak to the elderlies, they ask “when are you going to have children?” and lecture that if I wait there will be complications. Even extended family and friends pry, so we were relieved there was no visitation at Eid this year. 

I’m only married a year, and my husband, who’s European, and I agree there’s a lot to think about first—whether we’re financially stable and mentally and emotionally ready. I think we will but not any time soon. I’m not the type of person who would have children because society pushes me to. I’ve cut off a lot of people who are not open minded; just go forth and ignore.

See also: 16 Women Fighting For Fairness In Asia

“Being single is a blessing because I was able to devote all my time to work”

Jessie Sincioco, 65, founder of Chef Jessie Restaurants, Manila, Philippines

I loved The Sound of Music as a child and dreamt of being a nun. Being the eldest of six, I felt obliged to help my parents support my siblings so that also contributed to my decision to stay single and childfree. In fact, I’ve been celibate all my life.

I was mostly raised by my aunt, an accountant who loves to cook. She encouraged me to join a cooking competition and I won with a mango cake we made together. I was granted a training course at the Intercontinental and it opened my mind. I told myself, this is what I want to do and where I want to be. Seven years later, I was named the first Filipino pastry chef at any Manila hotel.

Even now, my work is my life, and it’s fulfilling. Some of my 120 employees have been with me for so long, and it makes me happy when I learn they were able to build a house or start a family. Have I missed out? No, not at all. 

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