Attitudes to family formation in Scotland

This report summarises the findings of two research studies commissioned externally by the Ministerial Population Taskforce on attitudes to family formation and ideal family size in Scotland. It includes the full report of the qualitative research exploring barriers and enablers of ideal family size

Annex B – Report of Focus Groups and Interviews (Qualitative Study)

Executive summary

Scotland's population is projected to peak in 2028 and start declining thereafter.[9] As part of the delivery of its Population Strategy, the Scottish Government set out a cross-cutting programme of work focussed on Scotland's distinct long-term demographic challenges.

One objective set out in the 'Family Friendly Nation' section of the Strategy was to improve and update understanding of trends with regards to falling birth rates in Scotland. The Strategy was clear that Scottish Government celebrates families in all shapes and sizes. Equally, it set out that it is not the role of the government to make intrusive value judgements on issues relating to having children – emphasising these are of a deeply personal nature. Nevertheless, the Strategy set out the aim of increasing understanding around some of the drivers and changing norms which may have shaped the fall in Scotland's birth rate from 1.76 in 2008 to 1.31 in 2021 (according to National Records of Scotland).

While it is possible to gauge a flavour of views and attitudes to the above questions through survey data, this research sought to establish a richer and more detailed picture through a (mainly) qualitative approach. A total of fifty-three participants took part in the fieldwork. Six focus group discussions and twenty-three in-depth interviews were conducted between April and July 2022 (Note: prior to fieldwork participants were invited to complete a brief questionnaire, which provided some quantitative data – see Annex 5). Participants were aged between 18 and 45. The sample was recruited to include a mix of gender, Socio Economic Group (SEG), ethnicity, region and rurality. However, it does not aim to be nationally representative, and thus the findings from this report cannot be generalised to any wider population.

Participants were asked a range of questions relating to their views on having children – whether they wanted to or not, and for what reasons. They were also asked about their 'ideal' family size, and what factors may influence their ability to reach (or have already reached) this. Using available evidence, the research was deliberately tailored not to explore one single issue, but instead investigate a system of influences – spanning personal, economic, and societal elements – and how they interact together in decision-making.

The research showed that in this group of participants there is a gap in between ideal and expected family size, which supports previous research literature on the fertility gap (the difference between the number of children people would like to have and the actual number they end up having). The gap between ideal and expected number of children was greater amongst those not currently parents.

Most participants said they wanted children (in the pre-discussion survey only one person said their ideal was not to have children, and one said they were undecided). Over the course of focus groups and interviews some additional indecision about wanting children was expressed, mainly among women aged between 30 and 40; however, this was a minority view in the sample.

The majority of participants made their decisions on having children based on their own personal feelings and values. Wider societal issues such as population profile, environment or religion were thought of, but alone would not be sufficient to influence the decision.

Most saw Scotland as a country that values families with children. However, some (mostly lower SEG), thought this was not the case, feeling that levels and availability of social benefits for families with children were limited.

Some factors affecting decision-making were different for men and women. Women were more likely to discuss thinking about their fertility and having a limited window of opportunity to become pregnant naturally. Women were also more likely to say they experienced pressure to have children than men, and, for those aged over 30, that they could be judged negatively if they did not have children. There was a strong opinion amongst a few women that they were faced with a choice of having a career or children, which was not the case for men.

Across participants the main barriers to having children in order of influence were: lack of financial resources; inadequate maternity and paternity entitlement; lack of right housing; need to establish a career; and childcare costs.

Other influencing factors included: expectations from friends, family and society; family dynamics; having a stable relationship; health and healthcare; world events; and life stage and lifestyle.

The main changes to attitudes towards ideal family size that were identified by participants included: greater social acceptance of not having children; delaying parenthood; smaller families; change in family structure; and cost of living being an increasingly important factor in decision-making.

Key enablers to achieving ideal family size were: financial support; more government-funded childcare; greater access to social benefits; more support for parents in the workplace; improvements in maternity and paternity entitlements; equality of treatment to women who return to work; and support in housing.

In conclusion, findings point to the complex interaction of multiple factors that shape views on having children. Some of these factors are heavily linked to personal circumstance – such as life-stage, relationships and family dynamics. Other factors, however, were linked to economic and social aspects of life which form an environment conducive to having children – the economy, the workplace, childcare, and housing. It is critical that the decisions of individuals are understood through this system of factors.


In 2021 the Scottish Government published its population strategy, A Scotland for the Future: the Opportunities and Challenges of Scotland's Changing Population. It discusses Scotland's demographic trends, their future implications, and a range of actions for delivery across different policy portfolios. The strategy identifies four 'building blocks' for a sustainable population, namely:

  • A family friendly nation
  • A healthy living society
  • An attractive and welcoming country
  • A more balanced population.

The strategy highlights Scotland's current record low birth rate and the need to understand the drivers shaping this trend. It sets out that while celebrating families of all shapes and sizes, and while it is always a personal decision whether to have children or not, it is important to understand views and attitudes that may be shaping long-term population change.

Recent research exploring attitudes to childbearing is limited. There is evidence to suggest that a fertility gap exists in Scotland,[10] although evidence is several years out of date.

This research is designed to provide up to date evidence on people's views of having children and on the ideal family size. It uses a mainly qualitative approach: in-depth interviews and focus groups with members of the public.

The overarching aim of the research was to gain an in-depth understanding of views of having children, childlessness, attitudes to ideal family size, and barriers and enablers to achieving ideal family size'.

Specific objectives were as follows:

  • Investigate general attitudes around having children in Scotland and their drivers
  • Explore views on the barriers that people may face when planning to have children
  • Explore enablers at the country-, societal- and family-level to enable people to reach their ideal family size
  • Explore participants' views on their ideal family size, and how this relates to the size of family that they either expect to have or already have
  • Explore how attitudes towards recent trends, such as climate change, delayed parenthood, and Covid-19, relate to decisions to have children
  • Explore attitudes to and reasons for not having children.


Research was conducted between March and June 2022. The research was undertaken using a mainly qualitative approach: in-depth interviews and focus groups with members of the public. People recruited to the interviews and focus groups were also asked to complete a short online survey. A review of existing evidence preceded the primary research. The process started with an inception meeting with the Research Advisory Group (RAG), the outcomes from which were fully documented in an inception report. Project oversight was led by the Scottish Government Research Advisory Group. Research was undertaken by Progressive Partnership Ltd.


The nature of the subject matter has ethical implications as it could have potentially made some participants think of distressing personal events such as stillbirth, the loss of a young child, or experiences of childhood abuse and neglect. In focus group settings, there is a risk that participants may feel obliged to talk about things that they do not wish to share, or that they do not feel they can engage openly. There are a number of ways in which risk was minimised during the recruitment process and fieldwork:

  • Recruiters were fully briefed on the nature of the research, target audiences, and the potential sensitivities to be aware of
  • Recruiters fed back to the executive team any potential concerns and sensitivities relating to individual participants
  • Anyone who had personal issues but wanted to take part in the research was offered the choice of taking part in a one-to-one in-depth interview
  • As part of the pre-discussion survey exercise, participants were asked to list any subjects that they would prefer not to discuss so that moderators could avoid prompting them on issues that may cause distress
  • Participants were made fully aware of their right to withdraw from the research at any time: this is a GDPR requirement and was made clear to participants during recruitment and at the research interview/focus group
  • Another potential concern was the term 'family planning' used in the title of the research brief as it has medical connotations that may be off-putting for some people. The phrase "views on having children and their ideal family sizes" was therefore used instead
  • Impartiality of language/tone was a key criteria of topic guide design, with questions phrased in a manner to allow participants to feel accepted regardless of how they answer, and to allow responses at a general rather than personal level. Questions were assessed for impartiality by both Progressive and the RAG team

Evidence review

The first stage of the study was a review of existing evidence. Findings from this were used to prioritise the audiences to include in research and to inform the development of focus group and interview topic guides.

The review covered a range of reports sourced from internal research papers provided by the RAG, which provided context and understanding of the existing evidence base. While recent research conducted at a Scotland-level was limited, evidence (referred to above) pointed to the existence of a 'fertility gap' with the number of children people in Scotland would ideally like to have being lower on average than the number they expected they would have.

The review also explored potential biases that could affect research and should be considered during research design, data collection, and the interpretation of findings. A more detailed account of findings can be seen in Annex 1.


The following section details the processes undertaken during fieldwork which took place in April through to June 2022.


Participants for focus groups and in-depth interviews were recruited using a free-found approach whereby recruiters targeted and contacted people by email and telephone who were suitable to participate from their extensive networks, or who knew someone who may be suitable.

A recruitment questionnaire ensured all information required to meet the agreed specification was collected; this included screening out people who had not even considered the subject of having children or who would prefer not to take part due to specific sensitivities around the subject matter. A copy of this can be found at Annex 2.

Participants were given background information on the research which explained its purpose, what their involvement in the study would entail, and the reason for data collection. To encourage participation, an incentive of £40 per participant was offered for taking part in a group or in-depth interview, with a further £25 for completion of a pre-discussion survey (see Annex 4).

Pre-discussion questionnaire

Prior to the discussions taking place participants were asked to complete an online questionnaire, the aim of which was to gather some quantitative data relating to ideal versus expected family size. The survey comprised eight questions about the number and age of children participants currently had (if any), their ideal family size, and what makes this ideal.

Please note: as noted in the ethics section above, the survey also included a question about any sensitive topic areas participants would prefer not to discuss, to ensure they were not asked about these in their interviews/focus groups. The question was included as part of measures to identify potential vulnerabilities and avoid any potential harm to research participants due to the sensitivity of the research topic and is not included in the analysis of findings.

Sample profile

In order to ensure good group dynamics and that participants felt comfortable talking openly, focus group composition was based on factors likely to be important in shaping views. Groups were split by Socio Economic Group (SEG), with participants grouped by higher SEG (ABC1) or lower SEG (C2DE). Where possible participants were also grouped based on whether or not they had children. The research team considered a range of other factors in the recruitment profile including geography, gender, age and ethnicity. Details of the sample are below:

Table B.1: Sample profile
Number of participants
Parents/ Not parents Socio-economic group
Parents 30
Not parents 23
Aged 18-25 16
Aged 26-45 37
Urban 37
Small town 7
Rural 9
Total participants 53
Number of participants
Higher SEG (ABC1) 22
Lower SEG (C2DE) 31
Male 21
Female 32
White 43
Minority Ethnic 10

The original plan was to include 51 participants in research (36 in focus group discussions and 15 in in-depth interviews), but overall a sample of 53 was achieved. The sample was recruited from across mainland Scotland and comprised a mix of people from different regions.

Scope and limitations

Due to the qualitative nature of the research, the attitudes and opinions documented in the research cannot be generalised to the whole population of Scotland.

Participants were screened to ensure that people who had not considered the subject of having children were not included. The aim of this was to ensure that they would be able to answer questions about their decision-making on this topic. This means feedback from people who have not thought about whether or not they want to have children is not included in the findings.

Participants aged between 18 and 45 were included in the research. This age range was selected to target people considering having (more) children, or who have recently been making decisions about whether or not to do so. According to National Records of Scotland (NRS) the average age of mothers in Scotland in 2021 was 31, and the average age of fathers was 33.[11] It should be noted that as some participants were still considering having children, responses to questions about ideal and actual family size may be based on intentions rather than definite outcomes for many and may be subject to change.

The sample included a spread across gender, SEG, ethnicity, region and rurality; however, it does not aim to be nationally representative. In particular, recruitment of participants for in-depth interviews was influenced by findings from early fieldwork, with some participant profiles prioritised for recruitment where data suggested experiences merited further exploration. For example, additional interviewing was conducted with minority ethnic mothers, and with parents of three or more children.

The objective of this research was to explore general social and cultural factors and therefore does not focus on personal and/or medical barriers such as infertility and adverse experiences of pregnancy and childbirth (e.g. miscarriage, stillbirth) as this was beyond the remit of this research.

Research took place during a time when the war in Ukraine was ongoing and the costs of living crisis had extensive coverage in the press. These issues may have impacted thinking about having a family as this may have heightened awareness of financial issues and/or global instability.

While qualitative findings provide a snapshot of views among the sample of participants we spoke to only, this type of research facilitates in-depth exploration of complex issues, and provides detailed insight into factors affecting participants' attitudes and decision-making in regards to family size.


All members of the research team were involved in qualitative data analysis to ensure data validity and quality of interpretation. This stage of research began with listening to recordings from interviews and agreeing on key themes. Prevalence of themes and strength of feelings expressed was documented by the research team as they emerged. Patterns, common themes, deviations from patterns and any factors that may explain these were noted, and all members of the project team reviewed, interpreted, and discussed the results of the data analysis before and during reporting.

Thematic analysis is reported by importance. If a point of view was given by one participant only it has not been reported. Where an idea was expressed by two or three people across the research this is described as a view held by 'a few'. 'Some' is used to describe opinions which are mentioned by more than a few participants, but which remain in the minority overall. Where an idea is mentioned regularly across interviews and groups the term 'many' has been used. If an opinion (or agreement with an opinion) is expressed by the majority of participants, the term 'most' has been used in reporting.

Prior to writing this report a presentation was made to the RAG outlining the report structure and emerging dominant themes. The rest of this document reports on those outputs.

Main findings

The following sections report on findings from participants at the time of interviewing. The first section outlines the main results on ideal and expected family size from the pre-discussion survey that participants were asked to complete. The subsequent sections concentrate on the results from the focus groups and in-depth interviews and have been reported around the following topics: main considerations when having children in Scotland, enablers to achieve ideal family size and trends and attitudes on family formation.

Ideal and expected family size

Research participants were asked to complete a short online survey between recruitment and taking part in interviews/focus groups. The survey consisted of eight questions which asked whether they had children (and, if so, how many and their age(s)); their ideal number of children, if any; and the number of children they expected to have in their lifetime.

As shown in Table 2.1 below, the ideal number of children (on average) across the total sample was 2.6 (ranging between 0 and 6).

Most participants said they wanted children: in the pre-discussion survey only one person said their ideal was not to have children, and one said they were undecided. Over the course of focus groups and interviews some additional indecision was expressed, mainly among women aged between 30 and 40, although this was a minority view in the sample.

During focus group discussions and interviews participants were asked what made their ideal number of children right for them. Reasons were often related people's own experiences of childhood and wanting to recreate these; for example, those from large families often wanted to have a large family themselves.

Those whose ideal was to have several children were likely to say they wanted to create a lively home atmosphere. Those whose ideal was to have one or two children were more likely to talk about making sure they had enough time and attention to dedicate to children.

Family dynamics, such as not wanting to have an only child in case they were lonely and wanting siblings to be fairly close in age, were also considered in discussions around the ideal number of children.

While participants were asked about their ideal, practical concerns and constraints informed thinking for many, ranging from some who considered convenience (such as the number of seats they would need to have in their car) and others whose ideal was based on their current financial, relationship and career status.

The average number of children participants expected to have was slightly lower than the average ideal number at 2.2. For those who were already parents the ideal number of children was on average higher (3.1), than among those without children (1.9). The average gap between ideal and expected number of children was greater among those who were not currently parents: 12 out of 23 non-parents thought they would have fewer children than the number they would ideally like.

Table B.2: Ideal and expected family size by children/no children – averages shown
Current number of children Ideal number of children Expected number of children Difference Base size
Total sample 1.1 2.6 2.2 -0.4 53
All parents 2.0 3.1 2.9 -0.3 30
All not parents 0.0 1.9 1.2 -0.7 23

34 participants expected to have the number of children they ideally wanted to, and one had already had more children than their ideal number.

Out of 53 participants eighteen expected to have fewer children than their ideal number, all expecting to have either one or two fewer. This included seven people who, despite ideally wishing to do so, did not think they would have children at all.

While the sample size of 53 does not provide statistically robust data, these results are consistent with findings from the evidence review, which suggested that for many a fertility gap existed between the number of children people expected and wanted to have.

When looking at responses for different demographic groups within the sample, participants' expected number of children (on average) was slightly below their ideal number across almost all demographics, with the exception of those who were already parents and in higher SEGs.

Amongst parents both the ideal and expected number of children was higher among lower SEG than higher SEG participants. There was also a larger difference between the ideal and expected number of children (on average) for lower SEG participants. Conversely, among participants who were not parents, higher SEG participants were less likely on average to expect to have their ideal number of children.

Table B.3: Ideal and expected family size by SEG – averages shown
Current number of children Ideal number of children Expected number of children Difference Base size
ABC1s (all) 1.0 2.1 1.7 -0.4 22
C2DEs (all) 1.3 2.9 2.5 -0.5 31
ABC1s (parents) 1.9 2.4 2.4 0.0 11
C2DEs (parents) 2.1 3.6 3.2 -0.4 19
ABC1s (not parents) 0.0 1.9 1.1 -0.8 11
C2DEs (not parents) 0.0 1.8 1.3 -0.5 12

Women who did not have children were most likely to think they would have fewer children than their ideal number: only two out of 11 thought they would have the number of children they ideally wanted (including one participant whose ideal number of children was 0).

Overall, those aged over 25 were also less likely to expect to reach their ideal number of children than younger participants, particularly among those not currently parents.

The full pre-discussion questionnaire and additional data tables are included in annexes 4 and 5.

Having children in Scotland: main considerations

There were many ways of thinking about the importance of having children, and people could not easily be grouped by the way they thought. However there were some differences by SEG and whether or not people have children.

Decisions were often influenced by participants' desire to recreate their own childhood experiences. That could relate to family size, economic issues, home ownership, parents' relationships, sibling relationships and many other factors.

It was common for participants to say they thought differently about their first-borns compared to subsequent children. Life stage, career and housing were given more thought by those planning their first child. Issues like childcare and family dynamics played a bigger part in the thought process for parents having subsequent children.

This section of the report describes the most common considerations when making the decision to have or not to have children. It comments on societal considerations, environmental and current affairs and financial considerations.

i. Societal considerations

Thinking about what having or not having children would mean for society was not something that was important for most. Most participants thought about children from a purely personal point of view and what it means to them and their family. Some did think about societal and environmental issues, but those thoughts were generally not strong enough to override a personal and individual choice.

"To me it's a personal thing, I would never think about how it affects anything else rather than the individual or the family that decides that they're going to have kids or not." ABC1, no children, woman

No, I think when it came to our kids, I never really thought of how many I would need to keep the place going. It was kind of I suppose quite selfish, if I'm being honest." C2DE, children, man

Higher SEG participants were more likely than those in lower SEG to think about the importance of children to society. Those who did think about this commented on the importance of having a broad population age-range, noting that workforces are needed to support older generations (especially in light of longer life expectancy). A few also commented on interactions between generations as being positive, for example discussing community projects which brought children and older members of society together, such as visits from local school children to care homes for the elderly. Some commented that it was important to keep society going and that would only be possible by having children. A few also touched on younger generations as evolving/developing society and enabling change.

In regard to Scotland as a society, many saw Scotland as a country that values families with children. This perception was based largely on the understanding of the benefits and support that are available, including family allowances, the baby box, learning and childcare and free school meals.

Many felt that society is geared up for families with children, for example in the availability of places designed for children in restaurants, car parks and play parks.

"There's a lot of things in place to help people and even things such as a government baby box, everybody is obviously entitled to just get clothes and changing mat. For people who don't have anything that's a lot and it really does help a lot of people." C2DE, children, woman

"You've got play parks for children… You can go to the beach in Aberdeen and they've got a big space for kids – you can go on the little machines, they can play the games – so in general I think in society there is a lot of space and time for kids and for the younger generation." ABC1, children, woman

Views about whether children and families are valued in Scotland were better formed among those who had children than those who did not, many of whom were unsure.

A few commented on Scotland's progressive stance towards supporting families from a less traditional make up such as LGBTQ+. A minority mentioned maternity leave and the time off work that parents get as being a sign of families with children being valued, as well as something that non-parents miss out on.

However, some (mostly lower SEG) felt that families with children were not valued. Reasons given for this view were that levels and availability of social benefits were limited (examples given were benefits being capped at two children, low levels of poverty payments and difficulties finding social housing to accommodate a large family). A few pointed to the difficulties faced by those who are just above the poverty line and do not qualify for financial support.

"They don't do anything to support families. All of their policies, or the vast majority of their policies, are there to, you'll have to excuse my language, screw us over for as much money as possible to make themselves rich." C2DE, children, woman

While a minority did not feel Scotland values families with children, this was not described as an influencing factor in attitudes towards having children.

A few said society was changing, and that less value was placed on 'family time' than previously, influenced by a perception that more importance was placed on materialism than families in the media.

"I don't think it is as much as say back in our parents or grandparents… you don't see a lot of family days and things anymore. Even when I was a kid we used to go to my grandad's every Sunday for a family meal, there's nothing really like that, I dinnae take my children to see their grandad… I think it's 'cause everyone's got social media, so you dinnae have to, you can see pictures of them!" ABC1, children, woman

A few mentioned the need to have a good social network before having children, saying it takes more than parents to raise children. This included grandparents and other relatives, but also friends and wider communities. Parents said that help with childcare and more general support from these sources made a significant difference to how easy or difficult it was to raise children.

A few reflected on a modern society that was seen as putting children under too much pressure from social media to conform. Social media was described as heightening children's awareness of what others were doing or what they owned, leading to anxiety about their own lives in comparison.

"It's the sort of world you're bringing children into. Even the difference from when I was younger. There's so much more pressure. Social media, stuff like that. I think there's so much pressure on children now to have the latest trends, to have the new iPad or the latest jumper and stuff. And I think people can be quite cruel, and I don't remember it being like that when I was younger. So, I just think it's a harder world for children to live in now." ABC1, no children, woman

ii. Social Expectations

A social expectation that people would have children was mentioned frequently in the research. Some who had children said that they had been expected by family and friends to have them and the decision not to have children was not something they had ever considered. They were more likely to be in lower SEGs and/or minority ethnic backgrounds.

"I think that just came from the pressures of you know, the elders in the family. And you don't want to have your kids too late because they'll be young and you'll kind of be a bit old." ABC1, children, ME, woman

"Here, women are much more in the sense, like, 'Okay, my body; I want to pursue my career, I want to do everything,' whilst back home – (I'm not saying that doesn't happen) – it's a very small percentage that it happens, where most of the time, women, if you marry, you just have kids. That's just it; you're going to have kids. It's not a choice whether you want kids or not. So, I think here women have a lot more say on their body than back home." C2DE, children, ME, woman

Some parents with one child also described being asked when they would be 'giving their child a brother or sister' and feeling there was an expectation that they should have more than one child.

Participants who did not have children often mentioned pressure coming from their parents, who were hoping to become grandparents. One person related that his father had written an autobiography and dedicated a chapter within it to the fact that his son had chosen not to have children, depriving him of the grandchildren he wanted.

A few said they had felt more pressure to have children as their peers started to do so. Others were aware of the expectation in a more general way.

"You often get made to feel quite guilty. I don't know if anyone else has had this, but I've never been a broody type. I just thought I'm open to children, but I'll know when I want them when I'm with someone that I love, and I'll know. But sometimes you feel, obviously they're not making me feel guilty, but it's almost like there should be a guilt there or that you're abnormal for not feeling that want." ABC1, no children, woman

"I get it quite a lot with like "when are you going to give him a sibling?" You know what I mean, or "do you want a little sister?" Like I get that a lot, because he's obviously five, so that's what's kind of going on with me right now, they're always at me like "when you going to have another baby because he's at school now"…. we are actually trying for another baby, so it makes me quite upset because obviously I'm kind of struggling at the moment with it. So it annoys me, more than anything." ABC1, children, woman

"I think for quite a lot of people there is an unconscious societal pressure and I probably fall into this as well. Society and the world we live in tells us that it is essential that we have children. People's biology does that as well, so I suppose that's probably a big driving factor… I think you're expected to have kids." ABC1, no children, man

iii. Environmental and current affairs considerations

Views on population growth differed, with some perceiving a drop in population while others perceived population figures to be increasing.

"We're overpopulated. There's not enough nursery places, there's not enough school places, there's not enough hospitals, dentists. There's not enough of everything to go round to keep on producing at the rate that people are producing." ABC1, no children, man

"If we keep reproducing, is there actually going to be a sustainable planet there for future generations? And I think we're producing at a rate that's not sustainable. So, that concerns me slightly in terms of what is actually there. We're not doing anything about it just now, so I wouldn't want to bring a child into a world that's not going to survive, which I know is quite heavy-hitting, but it is something I think about." ABC1, no children, man

Some (mostly in higher SEGs) felt that concerns around the future of the planet were likely to be deterring people from having children. They described concerns over bringing children into a world where the future was uncertain, and contributing to perceived global over-population. This view was more likely to be expressed by those without children and was often also framed in terms of what 'others' may take into consideration rather than being important for most participants personally. This alone would not be enough of a reason not to have children for most, but was a strong influence for a few.

A few were dismissive of those for whom climate change was a consideration, saying concerns about the planet were 'far-fetched'.

"Maybe our kids will be okay, but actually their kids after that, but actually you don't know what the state of play will be, like aside from all the other stuff, like financial stuff or other disruption going on in the world, the actual environmental thing, that's just going to always keep getting worse. You think, well, at some point people will start thinking, "I don't really want to leave people behind knowing that that's what they've got to deal with" kind of thing." C2DE, no children, woman

"For people who are inclined that way, which is fair enough, everyone's different, I think a lot of that for the climate change side of thing would be an issue for them. But because I'm personally not that way inclined I couldn't tell you about that." ABC1, children, man

A few reflected on the impact of world events. War in Ukraine was mentioned as something which contributed to feelings that the world was not a safe place to bring children into.

"Just like the big, bad world. Everything going on now, it just seems everything's getting worse. It's quite scary for me, having this six-week old wee boy, I think what kind of world is he going to grow up in, you just wonder how bad it's going to be, the way things are going just now." ABC1, children, woman.

Most did not see the Covid-19 pandemic as an important factor in decision-making about having children. Some mentioned the pandemic as an example of negative pressures that can be placed on children, but this was not a strong deterrent to having children. A similar proportion said that Covid-19 had changed working patterns in favour of parents, making parenting and working more flexible and manageable.

Personal considerations

iv. Influence of age

Participants in their early twenties had typically not given as much consideration to whether or not to have children as older participants. Women in their thirties had often given more thought than others to having children due to biological influences and fertility which focused their attention. Those in their thirties were also often further into developing their careers (more so for higher SEGs) and the thought of fitting children into their lives was higher on their agenda than it was for younger people. Those in higher SEGs were more accepting than those in lower SEGs of having children in their late 30s and their 40s. Those who had not planned their children were more likely to be in their twenties than in their thirties or older.

v. Influence of religion

The subject of religion was rarely mentioned as an influencing factor. A small number of people mentioned the influence of Catholicism on the larger size of their family growing up that had an indirect effect on their thinking now, influencing them to want a large family for its own sake rather than religious convention.

Those who said religion influenced their thinking tended to be from minority ethnic backgrounds. One mentioned the importance of the Islamic belief that finances should not influence the decision to have children. A few women mentioned the influence of being in a Muslim family and it being expected that they would have children. One mentioned that as a Christian, five children would be the ideal to create an overall family size of seven, the number of completion.

"I'm Muslim, so when you're in a Muslim household, you're supposed to get married and then have a baby. You need to be married before you have sex with somebody. I did it the opposite way; I fell pregnant and got married later on." C2DE, children, ME, woman

"Well, I'm a Christian, and obviously seven is the number of completion, so if you have five children and then me and their father, that's seven of us. So, that's why I've always had five; I just felt like… Yeah, it's the number of completion, and doing my research as well, I've seen there's so many nice cars that are seven seaters as well." C2DE, children, ME, woman

"It does influence it quite a lot. I have grown up in a Christian household and there's a lot of references that you hear from Sunday school and as you get older and start listening to preachings that are very family-orientated, so it's hard to not put God into everything to do with family, in terms of… You know, from marriage, you're quoted scriptures about the man respecting the wife and the wife seeing the husband as their Lord, and then the whole marriage, the man is the head of the household and, you know, the importance of a father figure, and the importance of having a mother there being nurturing, and how the two cohesively can work really well together in terms of raising a family." C2DE, children, ME, woman

vi. Influence of gender roles

Some factors affecting decision-making were different for men and women. Women were more likely to discuss thinking about their fertility and having a limited window of opportunity to fall pregnant naturally. For some, being physically able to conceive coincided with a time in their lives when they were developing careers, which added a further complication to decision-making. There were some comments that a break could be damaging to career progression, and many women felt it was assumed that it would be women and not men who take time out of their career to have children.

Among women who chose not to have children or who had not yet had them, many felt they were judged as being odd, uncaring, unloving or incomplete, and as needing to justify their situation. This was not the case for most men interviewed. This caused distress for a few women who were angry about being judged, and stress for a few who did want to have children but had not had them yet.

"Having a child isn't everybody's happy ever after. And I think some people struggle to get their head around that, that maybe some people don't want to have children. It doesn't mean that we won't be happy and content." ABC1, no children, woman

"I'm 42, so I think people just assume that I must be married, and I must have children, so then you say, "oh, no, single" and just like that, "I've got a wee Frenchie" and they're like "oh, just a dog?" And they just don't think that you wouldn't want children and why would you not want to be married and why would you not want to have children." C2DE, no children, woman

"I like got married a few years ago, I have been on the receiving end of those sorts of comments, "oh, it'll be you next", "oh, when's that happening?" You know, you've got that expectation." C2DE, no children, woman

"I think if it's a man who doesn't have any children, "oh, that's fine, he's maybe a bit of a Jack the Lad" or he's maybe walked away or whatever. But I think sometimes if you say like you're in your 40s, you say, "no, I don't have any kids" before you're even able to say, "never really wanted them" or whatever, they go "aw" as if like "oh, poor you."" C2DE, no children, woman

While a few men felt an expectation from their families to have children, they did not experience the pressure to have children that women did. Many women who were in stable relationships said they regularly face questions about when they were going to have children. Some described these questions as feeling intrusive, considering the subject to be a private matter.

Some men placed importance on having a male child, and for some the arrival of a son marked the end of a need to try for more children. Many men and women wanted to have children of each gender. Some said that legacy and continuing the family line was important to them.

vii. Health

While the focus of this research was not to investigate health reasons behind choosing to have children, some participants did raise this issue.

Health, mental health, and birth experiences were not mentioned as key factors in decision-making among participants who had not had children. However, some parents (mostly mothers), described negative experiences of giving birth. This made them hesitant about having more children.

Two minority ethnic participants described inequality in the healthcare system, one while giving birth, the other in perinatal mental health. As a result, three more minority ethnic women were recruited and this issue was explored further. While it was not an issue for other participants, this point is worth noting as a potential issue that minority ethnic women face.

"The information about mental health isn't aimed at black people after they give birth, or have a miscarriage and stuff like that." C2DE, children, woman

"Because just thinking about it, as a black woman, knowing the health inequalities, is fear that comes to the back of your head when you have children." C2DE, children, woman

viii. Unplanned pregnancies

A number of parents had unplanned children. Some had not given any thought to having children before becoming pregnant, and others had expected to start a family but later in life. It was more common for unplanned children to be first-borns than subsequent children.

The decision-making process for these participants was accelerated, and once they had decided to go ahead with pregnancies, the main considerations were mostly practical preparations. Living situation was typically a priority. For some this was about deciding what arrangements would be with a partner they were not living with at the time; others focused on moving out of accommodation that was not suitable. Most described looking for information about maternity/paternity entitlements and what to expect during pregnancy. Most also said they had spent time assessing their finances, though some said that their outlook once expecting had been that they would 'make it work' rather than any firm planning.

A few had larger families than planned due to multiple births. While these parents talked of the additional struggle that brings in terms of expense and time given to parenting, they were happy to have had multiple births.

ix. Relationship and emotions

It was important for many to be in a stable relationship before having children. Parents were more likely than non-parents to say this. The importance of relationships was magnified for some single mothers who had unplanned first children and were contemplating more children.

For a few single women in their 30s who did not have children, relationship status was a key factor in their decision-making. These participants said they would only want to have children if they were in a couple with someone they thought would be a good parent. Some did not expect this to happen because of their age, i.e. they thought they were unlikely to be in a suitable relationship before their fertility declined.

The idea of receiving and giving unconditional love was a strong influencing factor for many. In a few cases the possibility that a child could save a relationship was mentioned as being a driving force to have children.

"For me as a parent I wouldn't want to take away from my own child by becoming a single parent to a second child. Or that risk of it happening or whatever else. Whoever wants me to have their kids, they have to really make that pledge and that promise to me and my child. Through marriage and just be 100 percent there for us." C2DE, children, woman

A few stressed the importance of wanting to have children, saying that if this was not the case it was likely to have a negative impact on the child. These participants remarked that some people had children without making a considered choice.

A minority mentioned that they did not want to compromise their current lifestyle in order to have children. They associated having children with having a less busy social life, not being able to be as spontaneous, and having less disposable income.

"I would need to drastically change my life altogether to be able to have a child and maintain the same kind of lifestyle." ABC1, no children, man

Life stage was voiced by a few as being important in decision-making. These participants (who tended to be in higher SEGs) said that until milestones such as university/college/travelling/getting a job had all been achieved it was not the right time to have children.

x. Family dynamics

Some talked about family dynamics and wanting a family that reflected their experience of having many siblings, of wanting siblings to be fairly close in age and of not wanting to have an only child. These views were more likely to come from parents than non-parents.

Those brought up in large families often wanted to have a large family themselves. They often talked about the comfort and joy of having lots of siblings while they were growing up, and said they wanted to recreate this for their children.

Some participants from minority ethnic backgrounds talked about how important family was to their heritage (African and Asian) and for some there was a cultural expectation to have children soon after getting married. A few from minority ethnic backgrounds commented on the experience of living with relatives when they first got married. They said that this environment had influenced their decision to want a large family.

"I have a big family, in general, and I've always wanted to have a family of my own, one day. I think sometimes when you look at your family you think "I want my family to be like that someday". C2DE, children, ME, woman

"I grew up in a big family … Even though I've only got two other sisters, we grew up with loads of cousins and people around us in the house. Yeah, I've just always grown up with loads of family around me, that I've just always wanted that for my children. I just want them to be in a house where they have so much fun because there's so many of them and their friends." C2DE, children, ME, woman

"So, we want them to grow up together and have someone to play with all the time and be best friends sort of thing throughout the rest of their life. So, it was more of just being a sibling more than anything else, I suppose. It was the main factor of having a second one." ABC1, children, man

Financial considerations

The biggest influence on people's decision-making was financial. Financial concerns that were mentioned included having enough money to fund the initial cost of baby equipment (this was a particular concern to those having multiple births), as well as long-term costs of feeding, clothing and looking after children. A few also mentioned wanting to have enough savings to support their children into adulthood, for example helping them to buy a home. Others talked more broadly about struggling to get beyond earning a minimum wage and how this made them concerned about having children. The majority were concerned about immediate and short-term costs. Those who had children were more likely than those who did not to mention finance as an issue to consider. Money was a concern for most participants.

Lack of financial resource was enough of an issue alone to make people delay or decide against having children. Conversely, a windfall of money would be enough for some to increase their likelihood of having (more) children.

Issues related to the economics of having a family and reported in this section include maternity leave, home ownership, career and childcare.

"Money is always the biggest driver, and I know it's the biggest driver for me at the moment because I've always been in low-income jobs, you know, when you're earning a living wage for years upon years, you kind of sit there and think to yourself, can I really afford to do more?" C2DE, no children, man

"I guess the financial thing is linked to everything else, because if you can't financially bring a child… Like I couldn't give up my work and spend time with a child. So, I would need to go straight back to work as soon as I could, and then, obviously, what's the point?" ABC1, no children, woman

xi. Maternity and paternity leave

Maternity leave entitlements were often considered in decision-making around having children and when to have them. However, this was less likely to be the case among people who had given less consideration to whether or not they want to have children. Many felt that the amount of time on full or close to full salary was too short, and statutory maternity pay was also thought to be too low by some. This was discussed in most detail by parents, but was also mentioned by those who did not have children.

Maternity leave entitlements were an issue for those in both higher and lower SEGs. It was a very strong influencer for women, more so than men. A few women described how they had calculated the affordability of having a child in light of the maternity leave they would get.

Maternity leave was also of particular concern to a few single parents who said that statutory maternity pay was not enough to live on, on a single wage.

"I just wanted to have a little bit of savings aside just to make sure the mortgage was paid and like I say, we could support ourselves from, obviously… In my work you get paid for three months and then you would go into the statutory maternity pay. So, it was just to make sure that we could live off of that." ABC1, children, woman

A few mentioned the inadequacy and inequality of paternity leave. For many fathers it meant having just two weeks off which was thought by both men and women not to be long enough for the father to bond and adjust to a new baby. Women thought it was not a long enough period to provide support. Some who worked in corporate settings had longer leave and could share maternity/paternity leave with their partners. Those working in small companies or doing manual work said they were not likely to have any more than two weeks off.

A few noted that support for mothers was not built into society, seeing limited paternity leave in most workplaces as an example of this. One participant said her doctor had told her it would take six to eight weeks to recover physically after a 'normal' pregnancy, during which time they should rest. She noted that two week paternity leave allowances meant that many women may have to do without support for most of that time, and that there was no provision for those without a partner.

xii. Home ownership/stability

For many, financial stability was linked to housing and the home environment. This was translated by some (especially in higher SEGs) as the need to own a large home before having children. It was important for some that each child has their own bedroom. For others, the priority was to move out of a smaller living space such as a flat. Not all were focussed on home ownership: for some (usually lower SEGs) it was about having stability and not being vulnerable to eviction.

"House would be another one, you know, we're fortunate, it's a three bed house with a garden and a garage and drive and that, in a nice area, and it's in the nice school, so these are all factors I think for people." ABC1, no children, man

"I think probably a cross between finances and a house because when we had our first, we only had a two-bedroom flat. It was big enough for the three of us; but when our second kid came and there was four of us, it was like, "Okay, at some point, this is going to be too small." And, you have to then think, "Wait, do I have the finances to get something bigger?" and "How am I going to get them?" and all that kind of stuff. And then, obviously, you've taken into account childcare and all the other things that can affect your finances, so that was probably one of the biggest things for us." C2DE, children, woman

For a few, providing a positive home environment for a child meant living in an area where they felt their children could live safely. Access to facilities such as parks was mentioned by these participants, but also the importance of living in areas where rates of crime and social disorder were low.

"The area that I lived in. It's not the best area to live in, and we moved from the worst area in the area to one of the better areas. That made a big difference actually, having neighbours around you that didn't smoke weed constantly and didn't break things and steal tyres off your car. I know it sounds like really silly, wee things, but it's all those wee things, things like they'll just open their front door and chuck their rubbish into your garden because they don't care." C2DE, children, woman

"There's a park just like 150 yards down the road for my kids to play in, and there's a wee local shop that doesn't get held up at gun point every other weekend. It's nice to have that security." C2DE, children, woman

Some minority ethnic respondents claimed that having a large house where children do not share bedrooms was not their expectation or experience. A few minority ethnic participants commented that housing location was the most important factor for them, and in particular, living close to family and community networks. Location was more important than property size or tenure.

xiii. Career

Having an established career or good job was important, and a precursor to having children for many.

Working women talked about how a career break due to having children would mean they would need to be careful not to lose the position they had spent years building up in their workplace. There was a strong opinion amongst a few women that having a child could mark the end of career progression. Some felt it was a case of having to make a choice between having a career or children. This was particularly true of ABC1 women who were not parents.

Men did not voice concern about having to take a career break, but many were concerned about the need to get a good job before having a child in order to feel financially stable. A few (lower SEG) men talked about the long hours they worked and needing to have a job that allowed them family time before having children.

"For me I always wanted children. But I think in society for a woman I feel you almost need to choose but it's kind of either you have a family, or you focus on your career. You can't kind of have both." ABC1, children, woman

"Jobs. I mean my job at the moment, the hours aren't very sociable for a family, you know, I start in the morning, sometimes I can get in after 10 o'clock at night. You know, you're out all day and it's not a 9 till 5." C2DE, no children, man

xiv. Childcare

Many talked about the cost of childcare. This was of more importance to parents than non-parents. However, it influenced the thinking of non-parents who were aware of friends spending large amounts of their income on childcare. It was of importance to those in lower SEGs because their pay would only just cover the cost of childcare, but it impacted on those in higher SEGs who were working full time as well. Childcare was also of particular concern to those who did not have a close support network around them. Childcare costs were seen as a potential barrier to having children for many.

"I know friends of mine who, her and husband, have got really good jobs. They are, I would say, both of them over 50k in salary, and they're just burnt out because they're having to obviously work more to provide for childcare. And that builds resentment in society, because I see that they resent people who have ended up with a child, and they don't have to pay for childcare." ABC1, no children, woman

"I tried to go back to college when my wee boy was a couple of years old, but unfortunately because myself and my partner, we both worked so we'd get a good income, we weren't getting any support from the college or anything for childcare and we physically couldn't pay for that when I was going to drop my job, I'd be a full time student. It was coming to about £1000 a month for childcare and we were like "we can't do that and pay for a house and everything else on top of it". So I always wanted to do nursing or midwifery and I just, it'll not be any time soon I'll be able to do that now." ABC1, children, woman

Women were particularly focused on the issue of childcare and a few mentioned that it is women rather than men who take on the biggest share of responsibility for organising this.

"I feel like it does automatically always fall to the women in terms of organising childcare and stressing about that sort of things, you know. I don't think your partner or anything means it. It just automatically is sort of assumed that it would be down to you to sort it out." C2DE, children, woman

Enablers to achieve family size

As seen in the previous sections, there were many factors which influenced participants' views on family size. Towards the end of the interviews and group discussions, participants were asked to comment on what could be better and make it easier for people to have the number of children they wanted. Reflecting a sample which included a majority who had or wanted to have children, suggestions were primarily focused on enablers that would allow people to have (more) children.

To a large degree, comments focused on things that could help overcome the barriers they had identified when discussing their decision-making process. The following section reports on enablers in in order of popularity:

  • Economic constraints and enablers
  • Government-funded childcare
  • Benefits
  • Housing
  • Social enablers

i. Economic

Economic factors were the most important consideration when discussing planning a family. Unsurprisingly, financial support was the factor most likely to be mentioned when participants were asked what would make having the ideal family size easier. This issue was of concern to many. It impacted participants from different socio-economic groups, and affected those with and without children.

Many made comments on the current state of the economy and how that was set to get worse. The general cost of living, fuel, and food were main concerns. There were also comments on inflated housing costs making it harder for people to buy property, impacting people's desire to have children.

A few participants mentioned that economic hardship meant that some families had to choose whether to 'heat or eat'. Some described just managing financially, but not being able to absorb unexpected costs. Others talked about only just managing to afford after school activities such as swimming and gymnastics.

The view that economic hardship is set to last and that this is likely to have a negative impact on the number of births in the future was expressed by several participants. Finances were expected to play an ever-increasing role in decisions about family planning.

"I think we're marching into a horrific recession right now. Cost of living is through the roof. We're getting told there's going to be another increase in the cost of gas and electricity in the winter, bills going up another £900. People can't afford that and unless there's a big political change, it's not going to happen." ABC1, no children, man

"When you're looking on the TV and you're seeing it on the news, that people are having to choose between having gas and heating or feeding their kids. I think that's putting people off. Because they think, if I can't heat my home and feed my child, why would I have a child? I can't afford those basic necessities that a child needs. That we all need. I think it's just, yeah, it's like everything. I think it all boils down to money and finances." ABC1, children, woman

"Even just things like the North Coast 500, I'd love to be able to do that. But the cost of fuel is just too high. Even since yesterday, I had to put a new tyre on my car. It was like £75 for a tyre, so it's even these small things that just eat away at everything that you've got. Whereas, if you didn't have the problems of constantly having the money, money, money, money, you'd be able to do all the things you actually wanted to do." C2DE, children, woman

A lower cost of living and having more money were most frequently identified as enablers to have (more) children. While participants from all categories (all SEGs and those with/without children) said this was the case, this was most strongly expressed by those in lower SEGs and with no children.

ii. Government-funded childcare

More government-funded childcare was the second most frequently mentioned issue that could enable people to have the ideal family size. Parents were slightly more likely than non-parents to mention this, and it was of particular importance to those in lower SEGs.

A few of those who were working felt penalised by the cost of childcare. These participants said it felt unjust that they were paying for childcare while contributing to the economy, but that others who were not working (and were therefore seen as being able to look after their children themselves) qualified for free childcare. A few mothers described counting down until their children were three and qualified for government-funded early learning and childcare. This included one participant who described 'wishing their toddler's life away' waiting for them to turn three. The most common view in the context of childcare was that an increase in government-funded early learning and childcare generally would support people to have children.

"You literally… you count down until they are three, when you put your child into a private nursery. You cannot wait for that funding. ABC1, children, woman

I don't feel particularly poor, I'm definitely not rich, but actually weighing it up, is it worth having kids if I've got to pay all that childcare out? But then I can't do my job in less hours. So you know, like people having to give up their career or whatever over potentially having kids because you think what's the point in spending all that money on childcare for somebody else to watch the kid? And I think that's really sad." C2DE, no children, woman

"If you don't work for instance, you get funded hours to a private nursery when your child turns two. But when you work, if you have to wait until they are three. And that completely baffles me and really does wind me up. I think… I remember when my son went back to nursery, he was three full days. I think I was over 600 pounds, 650 pounds a month. Yet, there was kids in his nursery with parents that didn't work, and they were getting dropped off, and you'd overhear conversations that they were just away to clean their house. And I'm away to work so that I can pay for the nursery." ABC1, children, woman

A few specifically mentioned the need for government-funded childcare for children under the age of three. One mentioned the need to have free childcare across the whole of the year and out of school term-time. One participant proposed the idea of having a general caring allowance that could be spent in private nurseries or with relatives and friends.

"This is very, very optimistic, but you get caring allowance. So, if you have, for example, you've got a couple and the husband takes care of the wife or the wife takes care blah blah blah, if you had some sort of babysitting allowance that I could pay my gran or my mum, that would be fantastic, do you know what I mean? If you've got a parent at home, you turn around and go well, I can get babysitting allowance and that will subsidise you for missing out on a Friday, something daft like that, because sometimes grandparents are taking a lot of flak to help with families." ABC1, children, man

"Because obviously, up until the child's three, you don't get any childcare… And most people have to go back to work after a few months. So, I think if there was something from like before a child was three." ABC1, children, woman

iii. Social security

A few from lower SEGs who had children recognised the government support that is already there and commented on how much difference that makes. However, others called for more benefits to be made available.

"The government is quite good with support by giving us money for kids. If I didn't have that, I would be on my bum completely." C2DE, children, woman

"Even though you do get support – which is amazing; not every country gives that kind of support that the UK does give mums and children; honestly, it's amazing – but it's still not enough. It's really not enough. Because yes, you can use it and buy milk, buy diapers, buy wipes; maybe, okay, mums, you have phone bills, pay your bills; you're still broke. You don't have anything left." C2DE, children, woman

"Benefits for children do make a difference. My husband is working six days a week. We have food on the table the house is beautiful, and I can be with the kids at weekends. We are not struggling but we can't do what we want. The third I got no benefit but got another payment when we moved to Scotland. The benefits we get are good in Scotland. I don't have to pay for nursery and the school meals are free for the 10 year old." C2DE, children, woman

A few described themselves as caught between earning too little to live without anxiety but earning too much to qualify for benefits, and felt that access to benefits should be increased. Others simply suggested an increase in benefits overall. One thought an increase in child benefit would support people to have the family size they wanted. Another said that there should be more support for parents of multiple births. One participant suggested a government-backed scheme that would support organisations to employ parents would be helpful. They felt this type of scheme would remove some of the pressures that working parents have when they have to take time off to look after their children.

"More support for the working class. I find that we're in this sort of middle bracket, where you earn too much to receive any help, but your wage isn't enough to sort of… And, there's nothing for us stuck in the middle, if you like." C2DE, children, woman

"Obviously, I get child benefit and then you get a reduced rate for number two and in my case I get a reduced rate for number three. But we were saying, like going back to the nursery. You don't get any additional help when you have twins or multiples. You know, you don't get that… When you try for a baby, you're pregnant, you can't help if there's one, two, or three. You're trying for a baby and it's absolutely amazing having twins. I absolutely love it. But from that financial standpoint you have got so many worries as I say, because everything is double the cost." ABC1, children, woman

"I think more consideration from the government, like financial help for the parents and financial help for the companies who do employ people who are parents would be very, very much appreciated, because it would make things so much easier. You won't end up feeling bad about having to call in sick; you won't feel bad about putting your child to nursery for like full six hours from the time that they're a year old, because you can afford it, and you know they're well looked after." C2DE, children, woman

iv. Housing

Issues connected to housing and home ownership were frequently mentioned. Many of the suggestions about support needed for housing were linked to the factors participants had talked about affecting their decision-making.

v. Social housing

Improvements to social housing was the issue most talked about in this context. This tended to be discussed more by those in lower SEGs but was also commented on by higher SEG participants. The main thing participants felt would help would be an increase in social housing. They also commented on the long waiting list and councils' intransigence in the application of rules. This included some feedback social housing policies should recognise the need for separate bedrooms before the age of ten.

"The housing market needs to change, we're actually looking for a bigger place, we had to get a new sofa bed to increase the room, so we could get room for the twins. Trying to get a new house is impossible, trying to get a bigger place, or trying to get an exchange… everything's pushed back with the Covid. [We are] unlikely to get a new home until the boys are 10, children are sharing rooms but as now have a daughter wouldn't want to do this indefinitely." C2DE, children, man

"I think housing as well is a big thing… the housing market here [Edinburgh] has went crazy in terms of actually buying a property and renting, so on both sides it's very unaffordable now for a lot of people. Social housing I know here is quite a long waiting list if you are waiting on houses from the council so I think that could definitely be a concern… having some sort of support in terms of affordable housing – I know there's a lot of government schemes and a lot that's already being done but I think especially in Edinburgh at the moment it's quite scary." C2DE, children, woman

"I've seen people having to really heavily exaggerate something just so that they can actually get that attention, and get that help, and get that assistance for whatever they need. I think that's the one thing that I would love to see happen, just that collaboration with different councils together." C2DE, children, woman

vi. House buying schemes

The cost of buying a house was mentioned by some (mostly in higher SEGs) as a barrier to having children. House prices were described as having spiraled, making it difficult for young people to get on the property ladder. Participants mentioned the benefit of having a government-backed scheme similar to Right to Buy and how that would help enable people to have their ideal family size.

"The cost of everything's going up, but wages aren't going up to match that. So, it's going to be even harder for people to afford to have children or take time out of work or give up on careers, get on the property ladder. And there's not enough council houses to go round, so even with people with overcrowding and points and whatever the criteria is, they aren't going to be able to get them soon, let alone normal people that just want a council house to have a family and do what your parents did. My family were brought up in a council house." ABC1, no children, woman

"But I think money is a huge factor. I think finance is a huge factor in having kids. My friend openly told me the other day, "I would have another, but I can't afford to". And that's what you hear quite a lot. Especially around my age. Because most people around 31, they're still trying to get on the property ladder." ABC1, children, woman

"I was going to say, some people are maybe having kids older because it's so much to buy a house and if people are wanting to get a house for security and things, it takes so long to save up a deposit, but the Help to Buy schemes and all the schemes that are out there are obviously helping families to start sooner now which is a great thing." ABC1, children, man

Other issues mentioned connected to housing included one call for an increase in building of low carbon houses. A few mentioned not just the need to increase the amount of housing but to ensure all the necessary infrastructure was developed alongside.

vii. Workplace enablers

Support in the workplace was thought to be one of the factors that could help people to have their ideal family size. Comments made in this context focused on maternity and paternity leave, creating a flexible work environment in which parents, and in particular mothers, were supported; and removing discrimination against mothers in the workplace.

Maternity/paternity leave

As noted in the previous section, many thought current entitlements were not good enough. Improvements to both were suggested to support parents.

An increase in the time mothers can take off on full (or closer to full) pay, and an increase in the level of statutory pay was suggested. Some who were paid three months full pay and then received statutory maternity pay stressed this was not enough to live on.

Increasing paternity leave was thought to be another factor that would encourage couples to have the number of children they wanted.

Paternity leave of two weeks (as previously reported) was seen as too short: two weeks was not long enough for fathers to bond with their child or to support their partners.

Participants felt that entitlements should be more consistent across organisations, and that an increase in understanding and availability of shared paternity and maternity leave would encourage take-up of this type of leave. A few also called for parents to be given enough leave be able to take time off together.

Two participants called for maternity leave to be based on a percentage of salary rather than a universal amount. Calls for improvements in maternity and paternity care were voiced by participants across all SEGs and by both parents and non-parents.

"Some people are getting three months full pay or six months full pay, but there's a lot of people that don't get that. Even when they're sick, you don't get paid for the first number of days potentially. So, probably trying to encourage workplaces to change their policies. I know that's a very difficult thing to do but trying to encourage them somehow to support people would be a good step in the right direction." ABC1, children, woman

"I felt like I missed out on loads of stuff because you're straight back to work, or it feels like you're straight back to work. So, you're kind of back to whatever the job is you've got, and then, you're missing a lot of stuff in the house and all that kind of stuff, So, you miss a lot, and then all the pressure's obviously on your wife because they're in the house for the full six months or a year, depending on what they take." C2DE, children, man

"Maternity pay is definitely a substantial difference to the sort of income that you're used to if you work full time prior to it. I think if I hadn't had as much support from family – I don't know if it's an experience that would have been as comfortable. With the cost of living crisis that's going on at the moment it definitely will be a factor for many families or single women expecting, it definitely will be something to think about for them… In an ideal world as much full pay as possible before dropping down to that statutory level, but the statutory should even be a percentage of your salary, or sort of capped if you're on a higher salary." C2DE, children, woman

Flexibility in the workplace

Many felt there was need for an increase in flexibility in the workplace. This was a particular issue for parents who had experienced a lack of flexibility when needing time off for childcare, often working part time or being in a male dominated industry (e.g. firefighting) where parenting was not given much consideration and flexible work shifts were not an option.

"My shifts are pretty much set. We don't get any of that at all, so it was definitely my wife. It was a case of, "Well, I can't get it," so she went… Not so much part time, but she cut her hour rate down so that we would get to have things like two or three days in nursery, and then she would spend the other two days…looking after the kids. So, there was no kind of flexibility for me to say why don't I work…I don't know." C2DE, children, man

"I think when I had my first son, obviously all those years ago, and I remember when I was coming back after maternity leave, and I could only actually get three days in a private nursery, and obviously I worked Monday to Friday at the time. I had a real, real fight on my hands to try and reduce my hours. I just felt like you're sort of penalised in a way, and it was almost like you were just an inconvenience then because you couldn't do the five days. But, I had absolutely no other option." C2DE, children, woman

Many saw increased working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic as a benefit and hoped this would continue. Home working had allowed parents to fit in childcare duties around work, and had normalised working from home in workplaces where this may not have been considered before. Participants suggested the government could support employers to (continue to) be more flexible, although there were no ideas on exactly what form that support would take.

"In terms of flexible working, the cost of living is rising and we have to work, both parents have to work and the thing with work can be more flexible, it just started to be more flexible now, that could be more supported by the government as well and I just feel that that would make it easier, it already has made it easier for many." ABC1, children, woman

"I would say since Covid, since the pandemic and all these companies finally realising that they don't need offices. If you work in pensions or finance, you can do your job from home. I think they have then seen that you can alter your work-life balance. If you're customer-facing and have to deal with them 9-5, that will pose an issue. When you're an analyst like myself, or a test manager like my wife, you can be flexible when you work. Since the pandemic, it has opened up a brand-new way of working and having a flexible lifestyle. The work-life balance thing that gets spoken about these days." ABC1, no children, man

Some noted that more could be done to prevent discrimination against mothers returning to work after having a child. Such forms of discrimination included being sidelined and responsibilities being removed.

A few called for a better work-life balance and a four-day week was mentioned as a possible way to achieve this.

"Well, "you can't be relied on because you need time off because your kids aren't well. You can't be relied on because you have a pregnancy brain, and you can't do this, and you can't do that." There's a whole lot of that. It's really bad. I guess it depends which industry as well you work in. For me, it's bad." C2DE, children, woman working in care industry

"I feel like people spend too much time working. That makes it really difficult for families to be families. If there was an ideal situation where there weren't as much pressures on you know like making money. And like all these societal pressures of having to work from nine to five. Having to do this. Having to do that." C2DE, children, woman

One participant suggested the government should help support women into qualifications that could help them "work their way out of the poverty trap", particularly single mothers.

viii. Social enablers

Various elements of support were mentioned that fell into a general category of social enablers. Collectively the elements formed a fairly large number of comments, though only a few participants mentioned each one. Some mentioned having support groups for mothers, culturally-specific support groups for parents and more information on available support.

"When you have a baby and you go to like baby and mother, baby classes and stuff like that. I think there should be more funding to be able to provide cultural ones. Not just your basic whatever. Because there are practices that Islamic families do for their babies. Hindu families do for their babies. I think if there was more of a support network and we didn't have to just do this stuff at home, it would kind of feel like we're more integrated into wider society." C2DE, children, ME, woman

"Support groups and getting to interact with people, there's loads of families from different backgrounds, cultures and things like that, interacting with different families, if you have any issues, questions things like that." C2DE, children, woman

Changing attitudes were felt to be widespread, that can make being a parent more difficult. Examples that would counter those widespread ideas included:

  • Promoting a greater acceptance of families with a less traditional makeup such as members of the LGBTQ+ community.
  • Working to counter a perceived pressure on women to be 'super-mums' with careers, perfect children and a perfect body shape (post giving birth)
  • Reducing children's exposure to consumerist pressures
  • Re-instilling what was described as traditional family values associated with previous generations, in which children were seen as having fewer possessions, and being more respectful to adults
  • A few called for greater social cohesion and more involvement from friends and neighbours in bringing up children
  • Improving health equality for minority ethnic women was mentioned by two participants

Most of these elements were mentioned by a few participants each, usually without a clear idea of how to achieve them, but with a sense that doing so would help to make society an easier place for parents to thrive.

Family formation trends and attitudes

Participants were asked about changes in attitudes towards having children, childlessness and family size. The following section reports on perceived attitudinal shifts and expectations around having children, and how these are experienced.

i. Acceptance of the choice not to have children

Most agreed that acceptance of the choice not to have children was growing. This was something that was mentioned by some when discussing the importance of having children at the start of groups. It was confirmed by most participants when asked directly about this towards the end of interviews/focus groups.

"If a woman or a man wanted a child themselves, that's more acceptable as well, but I think it's also more acceptable not to have a family, I think that you see that, that's much more popular today than it was sixty years ago." ABC1, no children, man

"There's a lot more choice now for women, where we have a lot more control of our fertility and our sexual health and our like family planning. That kind of adds to the control of women being able to say, I don't want kids, I want to abort this child, I want to have kids at this point, or whatever. I think that that's very beneficial. It's progressive." C2DE, children, woman

Many had said that having children had individual rather than societal importance. In keeping with that, not having children was described as a private decision that should remain in the realm of the individual or couple. As a result, participants, including those who felt strongly that parenthood was an important and enriching experience, reported respecting the choice not to have children.

The growing acceptance of not having children was considered by some as part of a wider societal trend of acceptance of differences/plurality in society and 'you do you' culture.

"You should be able to do what you want and without anyone judging it, whether you want to have a baby at 15 or 34, it's completely up to you and I don't feel like anybody, whether you want to be married or do it yourself, it's completely up to you, not what's expected of you in society, just you do what you want to." ABC1, no children, woman

Whilst the decision not to have children was seen as increasingly accepted, it was noted that this was more likely to be the case among younger people than older generations.

Older people in society were reported as often thinking it was normal/natural to have children. Participants commented that many older people held an assumption that people would want to become parents, and that choosing not to do so was abnormal and a curiosity.

ii. Delayed parenthood

When asked how attitudes to families and having children had changed over time, many mentioned delayed parenthood as a trend. This view was commonly held across different demographic groups.

A few said this was linked to people wanting to complete higher education courses, or travel, before having children. Some also associated delayed parenthood with a desire to achieve stability (primarily financial stability) before starting a family. This was seen as more difficult, and requiring more time, than for previous generations, due to a more challenging economic outlook.

Delayed parenthood was linked by participants to another trend: that both partners worked in most couples. It was also mentioned that the timing of pregnancies was critical, as career interruptions can be potentially damaging to a woman's career. This was felt to be a reason behind women increasingly delaying parenthood

"Some people are maybe having kids older because it's so much to buy a house and if people are wanting to get a house for security and things, it takes so long to save up a deposit, but the help to buy schemes and all the schemes that are out there are obviously helping families to start sooner now." ABC1, children, man

"Now some people are choosing to have kids a bit later, they want to make sure that they've reached somewhere, maybe reached their goals." C2DE, children, woman

"I know you need to be with certain companies for a certain amount of time to qualify for maternity leave and earn the money and things like that. So, if people are planning on having kids they will need to be with a company for a year, two years, and get that under their belt to then earn six months or nine months kind of thing. So, again, it's just another factor." ABC1, children, man

In contrast, a few participants said that more people were having children at a young age (late teens/early twenties). Lower SEG participants were more likely to comment on this than others. Some felt these parents had not given enough consideration to starting a family, and some disapproval towards younger parents was noted.

"I feel like a lot more young people are having kids. Skyrocketing basically. C2DE, no children, man

"I work with a lot of young girls in our job, like there's a lot of beauty therapists and things, and it is a very crazy thing that all of a sudden now they seem to think that if they're not getting on with their boyfriends or if they're all falling out, it's time to have a baby and that kind of thing…. you just want to say to them, "just stop and think, like don't jump into it and think that that's going to be like the plaster that's going to fix your situation." C2DE, no children, woman

iii. Families getting smaller

Many said parents were having fewer children than in previous generations. This was often discussed alongside delayed parenthood. Those delaying starting a family were seen as less able to have a large family due to biological factors. Many also considered the high cost of having children to be both the reason for delaying starting a family, and the reason for having fewer children.

Having children was described as more expensive than for previous generations because parents were expected to spend more on goods and activities. Several commented that children were increasingly expected to have separate bedrooms rather than share; to have new clothing, footwear, toys, make-up and technology items; to take part in a number of out of school activities; and to have expensive/elaborate parties. People also said that social media leads to people feeling pressure to spend more, as the things parents buy for their children is more visible.

"Back in the day – my wife's grandparents were both one of seven and eight. As years have gone by, it went down to four, three. There are people happy just having one child. Being able to have one, that would be great." ABC1, no children, man

"I feel like now every mum is trying to compete with each other…. I feel like now society is like so much about showing off… I feel like society's creating like the pressure of parents to live up to that, whereas I feel like that needs to change because people just can't afford it and it's only going to get worse if you have girls getting their nails done for their tenth birthday, make-up parties… Like I feel like you'd be made to be the bad parent when your kid would hate you because you're not doing what everybody else is doing." C2DE, no children, woman

"When I was a kid, I shared a room with my sister right up until we were well into secondary school, and there was no problem, no issues. But now, people look at you like you're an alien if you say your kids share a bedroom. They have to have a bedroom and a playroom and an extra… There's all these rooms, and it's like, 'What?'" ABC1, no children, woman

iv. Non-traditional family structures

Many participants commented that the makeup of families had changed compared to those typically seen by their parents or grandparents, moving away from a traditional family with one mother, one father, and a child or children. The term 'family' meant different things to different participants, from household units of a partner and pets, to extended families of relatives across several households. As noted in relation to delayed parenthood, 'stay at home mums' were no longer considered to be the norm, and participants also commented that having children when not married was now widely accepted, as were single parent families. A few also mentioned a change in attitudes towards couples having children in same sex relationships, with greater acceptance of this also noted. Many who did not have children described their household as a family.

"Back in the day the mom was at home with the children, the dad was out working and that was just normal. Whereas the way things are now both parents have to work to be able to keep things going with the cost of living rising, and it's going to rise even more so, you can't not work. So, families are, you know, both parents are working, from that point of view I think it's just become more acceptable to have less children and keep it more manageable." ABC1, children, woman

"Decades ago, it was sort of the done thing that you would get married and have a child and the husband would go to work and you would be staying at home with the children. I guess it's changed in the sense now that not everyone is married before they have children – I know that always wasn't the case, but I think a lot more people are having children without getting married than before. Like I touched on before the individual wants and needs of women have changed over time. A lot of my friends do have children but a lot of them don't want to, I think it's just become more acceptable to not want to go down that traditional route of getting married, having kids and that being your sole purpose in society." C2DE, children, woman

Changes to old traditional family models were predominantly considered to be positive, with many expressing the view that individuals should be free to build any type of family they wanted. A few were concerned about a loss of 'family values' associated with traditional families in previous generations, such as greater respect for elders and eating meals together as a family unit, visiting grandparents and parents at weekends and spending time with family members.

v. Perceived increase of gendered pressure

Alongside the pressure to have children, some women described pressures related to being a mother associated with modern day living. These included an expectation on mothers that they should 'snap back' to their pre-pregnancy physique quickly after giving birth, an expectation that organising and accommodating childcare needs would fall to mothers rather than fathers, and increasing pressure to provide children with parties, activities and belongings, with social media often seen as a source of these pressures.

"I get quite a lot of, "you look amazing for having twins". You think, "well what does that mean?" I feel like there's people… they say things to try and make you feel better. But then that kind of feeds into that pressure of a woman should snap back. And that's like, well we're not, our bodies have been stretched and they've been through hell and back. Do you know? I don't understand… I think there is a huge thing and obviously seeing lots of constantly… It's like a celebrity will have a baby. Next minute they're doing a weight loss DVD. And you're thinking, "oh gosh, should I be doing that?"" ABC1, children, woman

"It's almost like the society is founded on the fact that mothers raise the child, like, I would say alone, in quotation marks. Because obviously, you're not technically alone. But that experience falls on us and therefore we're already creating an imbalance between the family unit or the relationship on its own. Because then the father is pressured to go and provide and protect. And the woman is pressured to stay at home and do that duty. Already there's that disparity." C2DE, children, woman

"That's one of my pet hates, like you go online, and do you know what I really hate? It's when you go on and it's been a birthday or something and they've got like every single thing that they've bought, and they lay it all out…." ABC1, children, woman

Pressures around motherhood were described in tandem with pressures to have successful careers, particularly among higher SEG participants. Achieving both was described as difficult, particularly as some said time off work to have a child could have a negative impact on their careers. These competing pressures led to feelings of inadequacy among women who were parents and were cited as a deterrent among those who were not.

"I've seen this thing online actually. I don't know if you've seen it. It's like a quote and it says, "The world wants mothers to work as if they have no children but raise children as if they have no job"." C2DE, children, woman

"I think it clashes with the view of women being everything they possibly can be. It's almost like we're being encouraged to be the best career woman, the best wife, the best mum and also that woman that's keeping up with appearances and off in Barbados with her friends. And I think it's been great for us to be presented with more opportunities, but it's also felt almost like people that want to just live a quiet life and not have all that, it's almost like, 'What are you doing? Make something of yourself.' I just think there's a lot of pressure from different angles as well as opportunity. There's positive and negative there." ABC1, no children, woman

vi. Family formation depending on financial considerations

A desire to be financially secure before starting a family was thought to be a relatively recent idea and not one that participants' grandparents or (in some cases) parents considered.

Many commented that continuing increases in the cost of living were likely to make having children increasingly difficult for those wishing to be parents. Uncertainty about financial security, and increasing expenses not met by wage increases, were commented on and were expected to mean many people may not to be able to afford to have children in the future, and that family sizes would be likely to decrease.

"With the current economic crisis… I wouldn't want to be having kids right now. I think that we… If it doesn't get better in the next five years, I think it'll be horrifically bad for folk and if you're bringing up kids in that, that's almost cruel. You've got plenty of kids… The amount of kids that are having to go to foodbanks, that's just not fair on them." ABC1, no children, man

"I think family size might stay small. I think it will generally stay between… the average size will be between two and three kids. I don't really see it going that much higher. Especially if the rate of inflation and economy stays the way it is going." C2DE, children, woman

Conclusions and main lessons

Research findings for this group of participants support the theory of the fertility gap.

Participants were clear that they consider decision-making around whether or not to have children and what their ideal family should look like to be highly personal and it is essential that any policies recognise the right of individuals to determine the size of their family.

There are many factors involved in the decision to have children that are highly personal, such as:

  • Expectations from friends, family and society
  • Family dynamics
  • Life-stage
  • Having a stable relationship
  • World events
  • Lifestyle
  • Relationships

The Scottish Government is limited in its ability to influence some factors mentioned such as acceptance of less traditional family makeup, pressure to be a super mum, pressures of consumerism and social cohesion, all of which play a role in decisions on ideal family size.

While Scotland is recognised as a country that values families, for those who do want more children government (across devolved and reserved policy areas) could make it easier by focusing on:

  • More generous family benefits
  • Extending funded early learning and childcare provision
  • Increasing access to benefits that some working parents are not entitled to
  • More flexible working rights for parents
  • More generous and gender-equitable parental leave
  • Equality of treatment to women who return to the workplace after having children
  • Equitable access to high quality healthcare
  • More support for Help to Buy schemes.
  • Social housing policies that recognise the need for separate bedrooms before the age of ten
  • Improvements to housing benefit schemes



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