Thursday, March 1, 2012

'what does she have to look forward to?'

Another gem from the mothers’ group I have recently started attending provides the theme of this post. One of the mothers present told us about her sister, who is in her thirties and is still ‘living the London life’. This is code for ‘she has a partner, they both have plenty of disposable income and no children, and are able to do what they like when they like’.

Imagine, a woman earning her own money and doing what she pleases with it! In this day and age!

As the mother of a young child too, I can well understand what might drive this mother to slightly envy and occasionally even resent her sister’s apparently carefree life. What I don’t understand is what she said next. She told us that she had an unspoken question for her sister, one she would never dare ask, but frequently played on her mind. Puzzled, she told us what was bugging her: ‘I don’t understand what it is she looks forward to?‘

I have to confess, I was a bit stumped as to what she meant.

She then elaborated and said ‘I mean, I look forward to having lots of grandchildren. I love children, and I want lots of them and one day I want to be surrounded by grandchildren. I don’t understand what she looks forward to - another trip? A promotion at work? What?’

Someone else then chimed in with a similar question for non-mothers, this time the even more patronising ‘I know! I mean what have you accomplished if you don’t have children?’

At this point, I was thinking to myself that this might not be quite the consciousness-raising experience I was hoping for, and that perhaps I really had been born two decades too late. Where are those speculums when you need them?

I didn’t really feel that there was any rejoinder for me to make to this conversation that would not be offensive to either of the two speakers. Who am I to police a woman’s relationship with her sister? Nor question their positive sense of accomplishment and happiness with their own entry into motherhood. As far as that goes, good luck to them, it’s fantastic that they feel that way. What stuck in my throat was the policing of women’s other lives, and the assumption that, as all those present were also mothers, we would all feel the same way.

While I love my daughter and value my experiences with her so far, I do not consider motherhood to be my one and only accomplishment. I do not consider raising a child to be ‘my greatest achievement’. And, especially, I do not consider women who do not, cannot, or will not have children, for whatever reason, to somehow not be ‘proper’ women (the implied subtext of the conversation above) to either be pitied or treated with suspicion.

I should note here, before I get too much further and lest I be accused of selfishness, that my definition of achievement is of something completed and finite: an essay, a task, a mountain-climb. Perhaps this is too narrow, but, for me, parenthood is very much a process and in process. It is something that will only reach an endpoint when one of us dies. To my mind, to make my child into something that I have ‘achieved’ is in a sense to wash my hands of her. I think it also puts a heavy burden on her: ‘don’t screw up or you’ll ruin what I’ve achieved’. While she is young, it is my responsibility to give her the best start possible, but her life will be her creation.

But I’m digressing.

What I want to discuss in this post is the idea that women who don’t have children are missing out in some way. I’ve never heard anyone say this about men who are not fathers. By this logic, aren’t they missing out too? Or is it okay to not be a dad, because you can legitimately find self-worth and accomplishment in other things?

This conversation reminded me of the way in which New Zealand’s former prime minister Helen Clark was described in some quarters as selfish because she did not have children. This is notwithstanding the decades of public service she had provided to the FOUR MILLION people of New Zealand, and, subsequently, to the world, as the head of the United Nations’ Development Programme. Recently, Australian prime minister Julia Gillard has been subject to the same kind of sexist scrutiny of her suspect childless ways (this is the subject of a blog-post by the fabulous Antipodista). Presumably, Mother Teresa (maternal in the monastic sense) is suspect in the same way, then? The idea that women can only be accomplished if they have children is sexist, patronising, and narrow, regardless of who says it. I stress that this does not mean that mothers shouldn’t feel a sense of accomplishment for their mothering, just that there are many ways to be accomplished, and why should we compete over them and judge each other for them?

If we think about it a different way, if Helen Clark had had three kids, would New Zealand mothers have access to 20 hours’ free childcare for their three-year olds? If Mother Teresa had had a brood of her own babies, would the abandoned street-children of Calcutta have had a tireless champion? Perhaps they still would have accomplished these things - I don’t for one minute want to suggest that mothers can’t do these things too - but perhaps they wouldn’t have.

In Mother of All Myths, Arminatta Forna suggests that the reason mothers and non-mothers are in competition with each other is to do with the current societal preoccupation with pro-natalism: ‘we are all part of a society that assumes, encourages and rewards parenthood while disapproving of those who do not have children. ... Indeed, pressure from family and friends has been cited by study after study as a major reason for wanting to have a family’. (p 139)

Feminist academic Sara Ruddick in ‘Maternal Thinking’ traces how women of all kinds are made to feel guilty by pro-natalism. She writes:

Guilt complicates feminist rage - and slows down feminist activism. There is the mother's guilt towards her children, and the non-mother's guilt that she has evaded this mass sisterhood now elaborated for us all as full of joy and pain, blood and passion, that she has evaded the central life dramas of intimacy and separation described so well in feminist writing about motherhood.

Before deciding to have a child myself, I had ambivalent feelings about becoming a mother. I didn’t not want children, but I couldn’t say that I definitely wanted them either. It never really seemed like the right time, when there was so much else going on in my life. I enjoyed spending time with my nieces and nephews - another untruth about the childless woman is that she has no loving contact with children at all - but it didn’t particularly make me want to rush out and get reproducing as soon as possible.

While I was in my twenties, no-one really passed a comment on this. But, as soon as I turned thirty (and I had been married for a year), the comments began in earnest.

‘So, when are you going to have children?’

‘Um, I don’t know.’

‘You really should, you’ll be a great mum.’

‘O ... kay.’

If I was foolish enough to actually engage anyone on the topic, I ended up being in the unenviable position of trying to defend not having children, which didn’t reflect how I felt at all. I came to resent these conversations and the way in which family, friends and even acquaintances felt that it was perfectly fine to voice their opinion about my uterus like it was their property. It got to the point where my inner child was wanting to react ‘I’m never going to have children. So there!’

Needless to say, I had to take a step back from all this static and make a more mature decision about whether or not to have children based on what both my husband and I wanted for ourselves. As you know, we now have a lovely daughter, and are happy with our decision. But we do not feel we ‘missed out’ by waiting to have her. On the contrary, for us, we feel that we’re both more confident and in the best place possible to parent her.

I also feel strongly that, as a role model for my daughter, I want her to learn that motherhood isn’t just about reproduction, doing the washing up, and looking for lost toys. It is also about figuring out what’s important to you and how you want to live your life.

Because it is true that if you do become a mother your time for yourself is precious, and there’s no point wasting it on judging other women's lives.