Tuesday, 19 November 2013

To Breed or not To Breed? How to make a drama (well, a play) out of a very recent female dilemma.

You know that image of a clock showing that if Earth has existed for a day 'man' has only appeared, in evolutionary terms, at five minutes to midnight?

Well, the subatomic watch hasn't been invented yet that can accurately record the infinitesimally short time in the history of the world in which women have had some say in reproduction. 

For most of human history women got children like they got arthritis or tapeworm: no choice at all in the matter. In a lot of places they still don't have any. 

I guess by the early 60s the invention of the pill gave some women (those from relatively affluent backgrounds living in relative affluent countries) a fairly accurate technique to avoid pregnancy - we're talking a window of the last 50 years or so.

As for permission to decouple sex from reproduction, and have sex for the sheer hell of it, we need to wait till the sexual revolution proper - 1968/69 say - although even that would have been news to my mother, who was still busy being a virgin and planning a big white wedding right then. 

In other words, in the great scheme of things women have had a choice as to when they want to become mothers for mere nanoseconds. After that, for a few years we called it 'family planning' and left it at that, happy enough to be allowed to keep our brood down to manageable proportions, provided you didn't tell the priest, of course.

And yet, right on cue like the first gay divorce following the first gay marriage (and proof to conservatives everywhere that there's no pleasing people), the existence of this choice has generated a fresh dilemma and accompanying agony galore, namely whether we want to have children at all.

How will it change our lives? Do we want our lives to change? What happens if we don't want to? Is motherhood too high a price to pay for bringing children into the world? If so, can you lead a worthwhile life without putting reproduction at the heart of it? Will we regret not doing it? Or worse, will we regret ignoring our gut feeling if we do do it?

Let me specify that I am very much talking about being child-free i.e. the choice not to become mothers, instead of the tragedy of being child-less for women and couples who desperately want parenthood. 

The choice is there, you'll say at this point: why are you still yakking on about this? Because, my friend, it is the choice that kills you. 

Let's consider the data for a second. There aren't yet any large longitudinal studies that I'm aware of highlighting specifically the number of women who have chosen to remain child-free. 

But a 2002 study on Childlessness in Europe by the Economic and Social Research Council showed that in Britain 7 to 8pc of 42-year-old women identified themselves as voluntarily childless, with that figure raising to 12 pc for 30-year-olds. Astonishingly, another third of women aged 30 said they were ambivalent/uncertain about having children in future. 

In 2010 a widely reported US study found that one in five women in their early 40s are now childless, compared to one in ten in the early 1970s. The report found that women with more education were more likely to be childless.

And earlier this year the Office of National Statistics released 2011 figures for England and Wales, showing that one in five women at the age of 45 are childless.

They can't all be infertile or unlucky in love, right? It looks as if women, particularly educated ones, are voting with their feet against motherhood.

I came across those figures when I was agonising over this myself, a few years ago, after meeting my Mild Mannered Intellectual Husband and having therefore run out of excuses of the 'Bridget Jones' variety. 

I found the figures but no debate whatsoever, no literature, no art of any kind addressing the dilemma itself. Lots of Western women, women of my generation and background, were quietly dropping out of reproduction without saying a word about it or leaving any explanation behind.

Recently the issue of non-reproduction has had its fair share of publicity and discussion: stories in the Atlantic magazine, covers of Time, anguished BBC documentaries about nations like Japan quietly driving themselves to extinction rather than address the problems that make the idea of motherhood so abhorrent to many of its women.   

But the dilemma is still not talked about, the internal struggle some of these non-mothers by choice will go through before allowing themselves to make that choice.

As I couldn't find anything informative and inspiring to read on the matter I did the next best thing - I decided to write about it. More specifically I wrote a play exploring that dilemma from a number of angles - six to be precise, one for each of the six colleagues who struggle to their office in central London the morning after a huge snowfall. 

Dylan is bringing up two kids on her own.
Bowie is a cheating dad of three.
Drake might have liked a child but now it's too late.
Jones has all the time in the world ahead of her to think about it.
Conte has finally met a guy would make A Great Dad. So what's wrong with her that  the idea of motherhood seems so grim?
Cohen hopes to grow into a good man and a good father one day.
But no one, apparently, is interested. 

There is no singing, no nudity, no gory scenes of childbirth. No ancient pistol appears on a drawing room wall in the second scene of act one, only to go off in a totally predictable way at the end of act three. There is, however, a lot of swearing.

Beyond that, let me be honest here and admit that my qualifications for writing a play are the same as for flying a plane: I have sat through hundreds of plays and on hundreds of planes, but I've never been in charge of either. The hope, with play-writing, is that I shouldn't cause anybody to actually die, and serious damage to buildings and infrastructure should be minimal. That is the hope anyway. 

To find out for sure I've decided, with the encouragement of my amateur dramatic director friend Antonia, to get this play performed. Unfortunately she's leaving London soon so I need another passionate director and six brilliant and committed thesps to make this happen.

If theatre is in your blood and you live in the London area please get in touch with me on Twitter (@Peebi). 

C'mon baby, let's make a drama out of a crisis!


  1. Sounds great - I'm passing this on to a young actress I met through Streetbank recently....v enjoyable post.

  2. Thanks Nell! And please do tell your friend(s): we are really keen to start the casting process and bring this play to life. tay in touch if you want details later on re: performance.

  3. For some of us there is no great decision and no big dilemma... we just never wanted to have children :)

  4. really interesting blog. I adopted my niece when I was 35, would have physically liked to have been pregnant but don't really like babies that much (but love kids 3 upwards). problem is, if you don't have a child, you'll actually have the time to yourself to think about it! Whereas if you do have children, you don't really have much time to think at all, you just have to get on with being a parent. written by gemma tighe

    1. You are right Gemma, the absence of children creates the necessary conditions of pece and quiet and 'me' time to have the luxury to wonder about such things. It's a Catch22 situation really. But what happened to me is that I decided to stop and listen to myself whilst on the verge of maybe just going with the flow. I'm very happy now that I did that. I am really grateful that I took the time to understand what life would make the best sense for me instead of rushing into motherhood.

  5. I thought very hard and for quite a long time as to whether or not I actually wanted children. (I thought dp would go along with my choice, and he did). DD is 7, so I'd say about 10 years ago I started thinking hard. And I found a few things on the internet, to help me through my decision. It was a decision. But the main reason was based on the totally irrational fact that whenever I saw a baby on TV, I cried.
    So conscious choice yes, but based on my subconscious that I had no control over.

    1. The interesting part of the conundrum for me is that I assume and hope that once you have them you can never really imagine them not being there; if you don't have them you will never know what you might have felt. Whatever decision you make it's forever but there is not personal counterfactual you can invoke.

  6. It is interesting but from my point of view really agonizing. I have been with my girlfriend for 3 years and love her very much. Several of our friends are having children and it's clear to both of us that it's something we should be thinking about now. She wants children, whereas I'm just not sure - in fact, more than unsure. I like kids, I like spending time with them. But I've always been a bit depressive and I find life really difficult. Therapy and hard work has got me to the point where I make the best of my own life, and I'm grateful for the good things I do have. But would I 'choose life' per se, if I had the option? I don't know. And because of that I don't know if I want the responsibility of putting someone else through it. As you say, when the decision's made it's there forever, and when I think about the struggles I have had, and of having to watch someone I love more than anything (I'm talking about the hypothetical raising of a child, obviously) go through the same struggles or similar, it's almost unbearable. I don't know if I could take that responsibility. I want my partner to be happy and I know she needs an answer fairly soon. I profoundly wish that I felt more positive about life but I don't seem to be able to, and believe me I've tried. I really envy those who know for sure, one way or the other. But I don't, and there's a real risk that it will tear apart a relationship that is fantastic in every other way.

  7. I really do feel for your dilemma. I share your view that life is worth living most of the time JUST ABOUT but the gamble is just too big if you are planning to put another human into this world. I think my views were to a large extent influenced by a very depressive mother.
    Ultimately I think our only chance of happiness is to be true to ourselves and in my case I knew I couldn't achieve that if I'd opted for motherhood. You have your partners' feelings to consider - it may well be that for her to be true to herself she really needs to have children, even if it means losing you.