There’s a scene in one of my favourite movies ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ where George Bailey is given a glimpse of how life might have been, had he never been born. When his guardian angel Clarence shows him what has become of his beloved Mary, I always feel a little bemused. In what appears to be a fate worse than death, George discovers that she has become an old maid and as if that weren’t bad enough, she’s a librarian!
In my eyes, Mary is living the dream; she’s independent, surrounded by books and beholden to no-one. But are women still viewed as somehow incomplete or ‘less than’ if they decide not to have kids?
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, in 2014, 47.6 percent of women between age 15 and 44 had never had children. The figure is one in four in Britain, Australia and almost one in three in Germany. While the number of child-free women is growing (whether by choice or circumstance) there is still a strange kind of taboo when it comes to talking about it. If you haven’t fallen pregnant by the age of forty, society demands answers.
Just look at the way Jennifer Aniston has been monitored throughout her childbearing years. What possible interest do we, as a society, have in her becoming a mother?
Having just turned forty myself, I have these awkward conversations all the time. I meet old friends with their kids and they just assume I’ve had kids too. They look about me with inquiring eyes and when I tell them I don’t have children, an uncomfortable silence ensues, which I inevitably fill with all sorts of justifications to make them feel less uncomfortable.
‘I couldn’t be happier!’ I exclaim, when really, I’m about as happy or unhappy as the next person – regardless of my parental status.
Yet no amount of high-pitched replies can stop the well-meaning avalanche of platitudes. ‘There’s still time’, or ‘Madonna had a baby in her forties!’ I have heard worse interactions, where women have almost apologised for their lack of offspring. So how do you respond to the dreaded kids question? (Apart from clocking someone over the head for asking it in the first place?) Living a child-free life by choice is often easier to defend because you have chosen your situation. But what if it just never happened for you?
Things have changed drastically since the dawn of contraception, giving women more control over their reproductive futures. However, in our family-centric society, there are a lot of misconceptions about women and couples who decide not to have children.
The first and biggest assumption is that you’re unhappy with your circumstances. You must regret not having kids and spend your days shaking your fist at the sky, asking ‘Why me?’ When the reality is, most child-free people are quite content with their lives, and spend very little (if any) time thinking about how their life would have turned out had they had children. Other assumptions such as putting your career first (do men get asked these questions?!) or simply not liking kids are often employed in order to try and make sense of your unpopular choice.
I think a big part of the problem is that people don’t know how to categorize you when you don’t have children and have reached a certain age. We all judge people and put them into little boxes, but there doesn’t seem to be a box for women like me unless it’s the one marked ‘Odd one out’.
Parents mark their progress through life with the milestones of their children. The first tooth, the first day at school, these are all big moments in the parent’s life and are a reassuring symbol of the circle of life. Being a woman sans famille is like going rogue on society – there are no rules and you can go merrily about your business without having to conform or buy a people carrier.
The truth is, I can’t imagine my life with kids. So when the kids conversation comes up, I rather practically point out that I’m saving the world’s limited resources by choosing not to procreate. Why women react as though I’ve just told a very funny joke is beyond me.
I would imagine that the questions for couples that choose to remain child-free are even more pointed. The pope recently accused such couples of being ‘selfish’, as if the sole purpose of being in a relationship is to procreate. People automatically jump to the conclusion that there must be fertility issues because choosing not to have a family is almost seen as an eccentricity. But if parenting is a choice couples make, then surely choosing not to parent is equally valid. And let’s be honest; a lot of these decisions are often left to chance. Some couples just don’t happen to get pregnant, while others get pregnant without actually having consciously made the decision in the first place.
Child-free women are almost like an anomaly when it comes to governmental policies, as it is assumed that we are only interested in issues such as schools and child care. Ironically, it is governmental policies that have contributed to women thinking twice about having kids.
The cost of childcare, coupled with the gender wage gap and the fact that full-time moms are expected to put in two shifts every day at work and at home, mean that starting a family is something to be considered very carefully. It is also true that some women just don’t have that maternal gene and know from early on in their lives that motherhood is not for them. And that’s okay.
On a recent TV show, the panel discussed the issue of child-free women and how society responds to our choices. The conversation broke down into an oddly misogynist argument between two female panelists and revealed a hidden tension that lies between mothers and child-free women at a professional and personal level. I think it’s about time we aired these issues, but any conversation should first begin by respecting the other person’s choices. Women who decide to have children should be valued, but should they be valued more than women who don’t?
Andrea Leadsom clearly thought so. In the race to become the United Kingdom’s next prime minister, Mrs. Leadsom made the rather foolish remark that being a mother meant she was in a better position to lead the country into the future than her rival, Theresa May, who does not have children. She resigned within days of the comments and naturally regretted them, but the damage was already done.
When it comes to gender equality, yet again our male counterparts seem to get off lightly when it comes to the baby question. I have yet to read or watch an interview with a high-profile male where the interviewer inquires about his family planning. In a recent article in Marie Claire magazine (Sept 2013) Zooey Deschanel was asked if having children was on her priority list, to which she replied:
“I’m not going to answer that question. I’m not mad at you for asking that question, but I’ve said it before: I don’t think people ask men those questions.”
Here, here Zooey. Perhaps the best way to deal with these kinds of intrusive questions is to just say no – I fail to see the relevance of your question – and move on.
Maybe these high-profile women, such as Helen Mirren, Kim Cattrall and Jennifer Aniston will help to re-frame this entire conversation and hopefully the next generation of women will not be defined by their parental status. As Miss Aniston remarked in her recent online article, “We are complete with or without a mate, with or without a child. We get to determine our own “happily ever after” for ourselves.”
Not having children, either by circumstance or choice, should be respected in the same way that I respect my friends with children. I respect their decision to have a family and admire their dedication and hard work. Child-free women work just as hard and are equally dedicated to their own way of life, so instead of cagily avoiding the conversation, let’s celebrate our differences and embrace our womanhood.