Monday, 16 December 2013

Life and the child free woman

I feel the need to return to this topic (see my previous post here) as there's been a new rash of handwringing articles about the rising levels of childlessness in women of my generation (the ONS reckons one in five of us will hit 45 without any signs of babies in the nursery).

The culture, from books, to films, to the tabloid media, loves this issue because, even more than the working/non-working mummy palaver, it allows them to whip up entirely artificial divisions among women.
And if women who reproduce  are under constant scrutiny (for having children out of wedlock, too many children, only one child, children they cannot support, children they leave in the care of others in order to earn a living), childless women offer a whole new avenue for vivisection and chastisement.

They are blamed for being career obsessed, for leaving it ‘too late’, for being too picky in their choice of mate, for  having youthful abortions that they’re made to tearfully renege on. They are pushy, selfish, self-obsessed. The only type of child free woman given any slack is the tearful, infertile one, particularly if she’s had the decency to ruin her health, marriage and bank account by going through several rounds of painful IVF. This doesn’t mean she’s a proper woman. But she is tolerated and pitied. There is a script for her.
As my readers will know, I belong to a difficult-to- quantify subspecies of female who is unabashedly childfree by choice. I’m certainly not alone but let me tell you: there is still no script for us.

I first became aware of my predicament when, having kissed every available frog in both Italy and Britain, I finally met my wonderful husband at the age of 36 and realised that had no desire to reproduce at all. Rather, if it had been a matter of handing over some genetic material and tell my partner to get on with it, I probably would have done it. I would have been a dad, at a pinch . But being a mother was an unpalatable proposition, once the possibility existed in practice.
I don’t know how to explain it, other than to say that I felt none of the hormonal pull towards it, whilst at the same time experiencing these realisations:

1) I wanted my life to continue to be about me.  The new fathers I knew seemed to have been able to add ‘children’ to their life’s CV, whilst their partners had gone from being women to being mothers. Motherhood described them and circumscribed their lives completely.
2) My mother and most of the mothers of friends my age all seemed, in different ways, to have felt cheated by motherhood, the very thing they were so desperate to sell us. Most seemed bitter and hypercritical. Many were depressed. These are older women I’m talking about, for whom the trials and tribulations of raising a family were firmly in the past. It struck me that they’d spent their lives expecting some special reward for all the selflessness they’d had to endure, and none was forthcoming. This, I thought to myself, is what happens when you live your life for someone else.

3) There was no structure ‘there’ to make motherhood happen like any other rite of passage, any other phase of life, other than my willingness and desire to put everything else on hold and go for it. From pregnancy to decisions about work, then childcare, then the juggling of the two, the running of the house and so on I knew with absolute certainly that, wonderful husband notwithstanding, having a life that could accommodate children in it (not even at the centre of it) would have been my problem to solve.
When strangers ask me about children I’ve adopted a shorthand response: my husband and I met too late but we have many nephews and nieces.  My face and demeanour says: I know, I’m pitiful yet somehow I will manage to be strong. Inside I’m dancing the Samba , giddy at the thought that I’m allowed to get away with  living my life for myself.

These are the things I love: I love my husband, working, writing, sleep, travel and time to read. I love living in London’s zone 2, in a minuscule house with a relatively tiny mortgage, I love the cultural events I can attend because I live there and disposable income I can spend on them.
And  I love lots of children, from my sister’s little Mouse to several friends’ offspring, some of whom I have somehow become a godmother to. I love them because I love their mothers. They are under no obligation to love me back or make me proud or happy or give me things to look forward to. They are little people I hope to know for the rest of my life (they are bound to become interesting any day now) but whose possible failure,  unhappiness and neurosis won’t be pinnable on me. 

Had the conditions for motherhood have been different would I have gone for it? Ah, now that is a question, and one our leaders might want to start asking themselves. 

It seems to me if we want to encourage women (at least those lacking the natural urge to reproduce) not to opt out of parenthood we need to make motherhood more attractive: less of a, often  lonely and always (it seems to me from the outside) superhuman struggle to keep all the balls in the air, all the trains running on time, everybody else happy and safe. It should be an easier, lighter load, more equally shared in the personal and political sphere. 
When I originally published this post on Mumsnet last week it generated a fair amount of , er, robust comment from mothers who felt that 1) no one who hasn't got the inclination should be encouraged to reproduce and 2) as long as each was 'happy with their choice' why do we need to talk about this at all?
I totally agree with the first point but not the second.  I think we need to talk about this because the 'choice' narrative is empty rhetoric unless we strive for a more even playing field among men and women when it comes to domestic and parental responsibilities - the great untold failure of third-wave feminism.
Having just come back from a long-planned four days trip with three friends who met each other at the school gate I feel as strongly about this as ever. My friends are all highly educated, highly competent, in professional work. Totally equal to their partners you would think, but you'd have thought them inmates of an open prison on day release for good behaviour, both in  terms of the bargaining they had to endure beforehand, the surveillance they were under throughout and the amount of payoff facing them on their return.
They had to arrange all the childcare and complex picking up arrangements for their children, including to and fro all their various activities over four days. They had to bargain with spouses and deploy parents, pack children's bags, arrange play dates then monitor them from another continent in extremely expensive phone calls. One had 14 missed calls one evening when we had left our mobiles behind for a two hour period. No one was dead - she had just somehow failed to report to her probation officer mother who was looking after her child.
The amount of total control and responsibility they still held for the well-being of their brood, (not toddlers, ten year olds) jarred horribly with the infantalising effect of finding themselves dependent to some extent or other on the good will of their own spouses or critical or meddling parents as child-minders, drafted in to help said busy husbands or ex husbands who work. They WORK people.
Needless to say, when the men themselves are away a phone call home every day is the extent of the family duty expected. They are not asked to sat-navs clueless wives all the way to a child's gym kit 'hidden' on top of a dresser. They don't get texted by clueless wives to be reminded again of the baby-sitter's number. They don't have to beg and cajole their own disapproving parents to look after their children. They then get to come home to a full fridge and children who have barely noticed their absence. (Needless say the men don't go away on trips with daddy friends they have made at the school gates as they are the only adults they have time to bond with while their children entertain each other. In fact the men of this particular group of mummy friends had barely met, despite the hundreds of hours their children have spent together).
The difference between being able to retain some sense of self and squeeze some fun out of life and being in a perpetual state of watchful duty, anxiety and guilt is not about choice, people. It's about inequality. If the only real choice women have is between having children or having a life I would not call even my own blissfull childfree status a result to be proud of.


  1. Really interesting post Paola. Just to chuck something else inflammatory in... I very much recognise the last bit, about mothers holding all the responsibility even when they aren't even there. In my family we have worked hard to make sure this isn't the case - when I travel away for work, as I do periodically, I have no concerns at all that my husband is on top of the arrangements and can deal with any crisis (from emergency Nativity costume to A&E).

    Last time I went away I was generally congratulated at the school gate for having some kind of saint (vague implication of not-very-manly, also) as a husband because the children had eaten food, washed, done their homework and made it from A-B without me for four days. My husband is not a saint. He's just not an idiot.

    But I know most of these women's partners, and they're not idiots either. They're intelligent hands-on fathers. Doubtless many dads do simply expect someone else to run round doing all the admin, but I've seen so many families where this slides into normality because Mum does it and Dad never has the chance to get good at it. This is partly the simple ( and grossly unfair in my opinion) fact that mothers get months of parental leave and fathers don't, which sets the pattern, but to what extent do mothers also allow this to happen out of a need to retain that special 'Mum does everything status'?

    I'm not saying we've really cracked it, but we recognised early on that if we were to parent equally, then it took thought. He needed the chance to 'Dad' unsupervised and often. Most aspects of parenting aren't instinctive, they take practice, and sadly, many dads don't ever get the chance to get really good at it, because employment rights, employer attitudes and very entrenched social and cultural patterns means it's really hard to do things differently. That means not just mothers missing out, Dads and children do too.

  2. Hi Jess, thank you very much for your comment. You are TOTALLY right: it is possible for fathers to be responsible co-parents. What's lacking is both the institutional context (paternal leave etc which then creates a chicken and egg situation) and also a culture which elegises motherhood as sacrifice. This is a trap: most women's reluctance to allow their partners to make mistakes and get on with it soon translates into most men's realisation that they can get away with doing very little. Despite what everybody says, 'parenting equally', as you seem to have managed to do, is paid lots of lip service but rarely implemented in families and it's women who pay the price later on. I love Caitlin Moran's take on it when she observes that it takes breasts to breastfeed but it does not take breasts to take a
    child to the dentist....

  3. Oh, our family life is a long way from equal... no question that my career has suffered from our family life in a way that his hasn't. (Though that's also due to our choice that we wanted to do as much of the parenting ourselves, and I'm happy with that decision.)

    It indeed takes conscious effort even to do things as we have, because the patterns and assumptions are so strong. Lip service is just what the idea of equality gets in most cases, and then people start bleating about 'nature'. It is rightly unacceptable to say that an engineer is incompetent because she is a woman. It seems to be considered entirely normal to suggest that fathers are a bit useless at looking after their kids.

    But the real point I really wanted to make is that it isn't just women that suffer. Weak bonds between fathers and children are an invisible problem - our culture is so accustomed to this that we can't see the gap. And the danger of always painting the picture as 'men getting away with it' (which they are, don't get me wrong) is that until men realise what they're missing, and what is in fully equal parenting for them, we can whistle...

  4. I hear you, but I'm sceptical. It seems to me most fathers have worked out what are the fun, low effort ways in which they are willing to get involved and tend to stick to those. No mother I know has to be coaxed and cajoled into doing the boring, thankless, soul destroying tasks child rearing requires, alongside the roaring like a dinosaur/flying a kite routines. The women who do eschew those are (perhaps rightly) dubbed 'bad mothers', not pitied because they might miss out.