Still A Happily Child-Free Unicorn
I was asked on Good Morning Britain this morning to talk about whether women face too much pressure to have children. It came up because Jennifer Aniston had written a magazine piece about how she is both “body shamed” and “baby shamed” when commentators obsessively wonder whether a picture of her with a bloated tummy means she is “finally” pregnant.
The nature of live morning telly is such that it’s hard to get chance to say much in what’s set up as a “debate” with Richard Madeley (whose randomness I love) chucking in random stories like about what happened when he asked Gaby Roslin if she was pregnant (and she didn’t know she was, but she was). Also I was “Up against” the right wing commentator Ann Atkins who, though she is churchy and thinks women should have kids, was reluctant to agree that people should pester Jennifer Aniston about whether she’s going to have kids.
Anyway, the thing I’d love to have said is that this narrative is a bit of a red herring. The story in which “Poor Jen” doesn’t have children, and in which I sometimes still get asked why I don’t/didn’t want them, is by the by. So, people are rude and find it harder to get to grips with women who don’t conform, nothing new there. Mothers get MUCH worse mithering about their choices- because this is all part of the wider issue of society still getting too much of a say over women’s bodies and women as supposed to be both “productive” and “reproductive”. It’s I think, much harder to be a mother in a society that is STILL not set up so that women get a fair crack of the whip at work (gender pay gaps, no allowances for career breaks etc). In a society that stigmatises single mothers. In a society which carries on the historic patriarchy of the church in which women’s roles are to be an Ideal Mother and a Productive Worker, preferably all at once. No matter how much austerity or lack of social privilege make it difficult. It’s also much harder to want children and not be able to have them for biological/social/economic reasons.
Compared to that, being expected to want kids is a minor irritant. What’s more destructive is that we are so rarely allowed to see and hear the narrative of the HAPPILY child-free woman. The women (AND MEN) who choose not to be parents and still do good stuff. Are still “complete”. Have had a variety of different experiences which were fulfilling in different ways. I don’t think it’s better or worse not to have children and its too simplistic to say “But it’s all down to individual choice” because there are all sorts of social factors driving this stuff (In a way you have to be able to afford to have kids- but you also have to be able to afford NOT to have kids). A New Statesman article once suggested happily child free woman are like unicorns (as in, mythical). Of course, there are LOADS of us. But we rarely get heard because we’re drawn into “Poor Jen” type narratives. It also makes it difficult for parents to then talk publicly about how challenging parenting is (I’m really not convinced by Ann Atkins’ assertion that she’s never met anyone who regrets having children- just people who don’t feel they can say so).
We don’t necessarily need people to be more tactful in how they talk about issues of parenthood and babyhood and make it taboo to ask people about their choices – we just need to hear a greater variety of stories and allow people to be honest. I’d love Jennifer Aniston to be able to come out and say “I’ve never had kids and I wake up every day in my lovely child-free apartment and thank my lucky stars I’m not a parent. Plus also I had a ginormous burrito for dinner and am now a bit bloated, whilst still conforming to Hollywood star standards. So don’t worry about me too much- cast your attention to wider structural issues of inequality”. Or, failing that, give me more than two minutes on telly and I’ll say it. (I sort of did in The Price of Happiness, my Radio 4 show- still on iPlayer…).