To have or not to have? Australian women’s childbearing desires, expectations and outcomes

  • Sara HoltonEmail author
  • Jane Fisher
  • Heather Rowe


Australia’s low fertility rate is commonly attributed to deliberate decisions by women to avoid having children. Existing theoretical explanations of fertility decision-making mostly view childbearing as a rational, voluntary process and focus on the ‘costs’ to women of having children. Although this may help explain why women do not have children, it contributes very little to understanding why women do have children. This study describes childbearing desires, expectations and outcomes in a population-based sample of 569 30–34-years-old Australian women recruited from the Australian Electoral Roll in 2005. Most women surveyed wanted to have children, and their childbearing outcomes were associated with biological, psychological and social factors including the lack of a partner and adverse health conditions. The factors and their relative importance varied by parity. Most women had fewer children than they desired, and many would have children, or more children, if their circumstances were different. These data challenge prevailing assumptions about women’s childbearing behaviour that women are able to choose when and if they have a child. Based on the findings, a conceptual framework of childbearing behaviour is proposed which builds on existing theoretical explanations to explain why women do and do not have children, differences by parity, and the role of circumstances in women’s childbearing behaviour. The findings and conceptual framework have implications for public policies, and indicate that multiple approaches are required which are sensitive to and address the barriers women face in family formation.


Motherhood Women Fertility decision-making Childbearing Australia Theory 



A previous version of this paper was presented at the 34th Annual Conference of the Australian Society for Psychosocial Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Adelaide Australia, 1–2 August 2008. The authors are most grateful to the participants who completed the unsolicited postal questionnaire. The first author is the recipient of a Victorian Health Promotion Foundation Public Health PhD Research Scholarship (project number 2004-0694), and received a small grant for this research project from the Population Health Investing in Research Students’ Training Scheme run by the School of Population Health at the University of Melbourne. Assoc. Prof. Ian Gordon and Dr Sandy Clarke from the University of Melbourne’s Statistical Consulting Centre provided statistical advice regarding the sample size determination, principal components analysis and repeated measures ANOVAs.


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© Springer Science & Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Jean Hailes Research Unit, School of Public Health and Preventive MedicineMonash UniversityClaytonAustralia
  2. 2.Melbourne School of Population HealthThe University of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia

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