I came in from Elif Shafak‘s lovely launch (lovely book too, Honour, with quite a lot of relevance to the rest of this blog) last night to the twitter outrage that is always #BBCQT (George Galloway as a McCarthyite communist-hater? interesting), and also to another twitter storm around someone I follow and whose tweets I enjoy.

To precis what was a long discussion/argument (conducted in 140 character chunks) – one tweeter (a mother) was expressing the view that women without children are privileged because they can choose to work, have freedom of movement (her phrase) and their income is their own. She further asserted that she understood what it was like to be a ‘non-mother’ because she too, had been a non-mother before she had children.

Now, I’m sure I was reading some of this out of context, but nonetheless, it stayed with me all night, so here we go …

– my experience of living as a ‘non-mother’ in a society that rates the nuclear family above all other social groupings is that, as a woman who has not had children, I am treated as someone who has not yet graduated into full womanhood. All too often it is other women who treat me like this.
– yes, I know that not every mother is in a nuclear family, but that is the model our society holds up, and even those not in nuclear families do like to use the phrase “as a mother” time and time again, suggesting that those of us without children cannot fully empathise, cannot truly feel, cannot totally understand loss, or care, or whatever other thing they are emoting about when they chose to bring their own experience (as a mother, as a father, as a parent) into comparison with someone else‘s loss/grief/suffering.
– having once been a woman who didn’t yet have children is NOTHING LIKE being a woman who wanted and (for whatever reason) didn’t have children. Yes, we all have experience of the time before we were mothers/wanted to be mothers. We share that similar experience of womanhood. The divergence that happens when some (most) become mothers, some choose not to become mothers, and some choose to become mothers and are unable to do so, is a three-way divergence. How I felt at 18 as a woman not yet considering motherhood is nothing like how I felt at 36 deciding to have the chemotherapy that would likely make me infertile. The woman I was at the end of a long journey through infertility (via cancer) was a changed woman. Just as any of us are changed when we go through a major life experience. Our life experiences change us. That one experience has an obvious ‘product’ (eg a child) does not make it more real than the one that has no ‘product’ to show for it. (I would suggest a further category, having been with both my mother and my sister as they dealt with the deaths of their children, the experience of having-been-a-mother.)
– yes, I know being a mother is hard work. We all know that, we have ALL been children at one point, we can make some informed guesses about what being with children and caring for them and being frustrated by them and challenged by them – and loved by them – is like. We are also told, ceaselessly, in the press, on radio, in pretty much every magazine we pick up, how hard it is to be a mother. And AT THE SAME TIME we are told it is the most precious thing imaginable and that those of us without children have totally missed out. Sometimes it is as hard for us, as it is for those with children, to hold those two opposing things together. The wonder and the awful.

The thing is, I’m not a not-mother. I am a woman, a wife, a sister, an aunt, a great aunt. I haven’t been a daughter for a while, but I still feel as if I am one. The place where I have NOT – not had children, not climbed Kilimanjaro, not died of cancer – is not a place I want to give much emphasis to.
I want to put my emphasis on what IS. That I am alive. That I might yet climb Kilimanjaro (I won’t, I’m not much fussed about mountains, swimming a lake on the other hand …). That I did, actually, love those five embryos that were frozen and held until I could try with them, held for three years until I was well enough to try, and then lost, one after the other.
I’m many things. I choose not to dwell on my lack. We all have lacks, things we haven’t done, could have done, wished we’d done, won’t do in this lifetime. (Yes, it always comes back to Buddhism!)
But it’s hard, sometimes, not to dwell on the lack of children in a world that constantly offers an opinion on our childlessness.

I try very hard not to comment on how other people bring their children up. It’s not got much to do with me (unless those children become adults who damage us in some way) – I really wish more people with children would grant me the same courtesy. We do NOT have the same experience.

But we can learn from each other and we can share and we can be far better feminists if we stop playing each other off (whose life is hardest, who is most beaten by patriarchy) and work to sort out a world that prefers women arguing amongst themselves instead of getting on and making it better for all of us. (Making it better for your children!)

As ever, while we’re on children and motherhood, have a look at this : SOS Children.