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.
YES, children can be tough to be bring up. Yes, you sometimes want to throw up your hands in the air and give up, but hey, I still think all that is much easier than getting slapped in your face by the fact that you can’t have them. And to all those who think it is a privilige to be childless, I can only say, if you are lucky enough to be a parent, yes lucky, think of what it takes to succeed in becoming a parent, what can go wrong…how lucky you are when everything does go well… Don’t you think YOU are the ones who are priviliged??? And to the ones who don’t have them, out of own choice, I appreciate you being honest to yourself, but why behave so tactless to barren women, whom are deprived of something that leaves a gaping whole in their hearts?
I know I cannot place myself in your shoes Stella, but believe it or not I really feel for people like you. Everytime I hear and read what you go through, my heart bleeds. It is something you try to fit into your life but get confronted with time after time. I work with mothers and their new borns, and although I try to put myself in their situation when they speak/complain about their hardships -after all my job is to support them- there is always this thing in the back of my mind thinking -NOT SAYING IT OUT LOUD OF COURSE-, “mum, appreciate what you have here! There are so many out there who would love to be in your shoes!
The final passage speaks volumes. It would be a much better world if we, as a diverse bunch of women, by working together, could help map out the future.
Beautifully written and heartfelt.
Government always talks about “hard working families” – implication that the rest of us are not.
I’ve not looked at Twitter but imagine that this woman made the choice to become a mother?
I’m all in favour of people who have chosen to become parents actually taking responsibility for their own children. Sadly, this is often not the case.
Unfortunately, a lack of intelligence, responsibility and morality do not impede reproduction! The tragedy is that the people who would make the most responsible and loving parents are denied that chance.
I am constantly trying to understand why it is that women who have given birth to a child believe – and it would appear TRULY believe – that they experience love on a level that the rest of us will never experience. And unfortunately one of those women is my wife. Obviously when a being is grown within your own body you must feel a profound connection with the child that that life force becomes. That’s fine and wonderful. But why does that experience lead you to believe that you are somehow the keeper of the profoundest of loves?
I am blessed to have a sister who is my identical twin. She is the most wonderful woman! Someone that I admire so much. But beyond that deep friendship that we have, there is a connection so profound that it is hard to describe. We are genetically identical. Our brains work in a very similar way. Even before birth we shared every experience. Until we were 18 years old we never spent 24 hours apart. We have something akin to a telepathy that exists between us. We rejoice deeply in seeing each other smile. We can spend hous talking about anything. We mentally finish each others sentences/discussions/thoughts – though never need to do so verbally. And I truly feel that she is the other half of me. And my greatest fear in life is her death. Because I have no idea how I will feel without her. So it is a very special, blesed and rare relationship. And one that I cherish. But I would never, in a million years, assume that my relationship with Corrine is in any way more valuable than the love and understanding that exists between any two people. Or ever tell another person that they cannot really understand the deepest form of love because they do not have a twin. As we would say in portuguese ‘que vergonha!’ ( what shame!)
What I believe we truly need in this world is a climate that allows love to grow and flourish. To break down the barriers of race, sexuality, and hatred that prevent the proliferation of love.
So PLEASE! When you are fortunate enough to experience a love that for you feels unique and special – do not then use that wonderful experience to debase or devalue the love felt by another human being for their beloved.
Your piece expresses the difficult space-non-space that childless women exist in. Expected ‘not to mind’ the fact that our unchosen childlessness is an unchosen identity yet also expected ‘not to mind’ having it pointed out to us all the time. It would be like going up to every disabled person you meet and saying, “well, living in a wheelchair, you wouldn’t understand…” or “you’re so lucky being in a wheelchair, you don’t have to worry about getting exhausted from walking everywhere…”
For some reason, being childfree (chosen) or childless (unchosen) lags behind other areas of personal difference where very little thought or sensitivity is shown by our culture… which is odd, as it’s not that rare (1 in 5 women in their 40s have no children in the UK and although there is no data available (yet!) as to how many of us have actively chosen this, amongst my own peer group I would say about most our childlessness has come about by ‘circumstance’ of one kind or another.
Because of my experience, I started a blog, which is turning into a movement to support, inspire and empower women without children. It’s called GATEWAY WOMEN and our mission statement is:
We may not be Mothers but we care, we count and we ROCK!
We are the #nomos
I have chosen the name #nomos to identify us as it sounds a whole lot less of a mouthful than childless by circumstance. It stands for not-mothers, which is far from ideal… but then that’s the truth of our situation! It’s far from ideal!
Stella, thank you. The more of us that speak out about this issue, the more chance there is that our culture will wake up to its insensitivity towards us and start treating us as the women we are, not the mothers we are not.
With a hug
Founder: Gateway Women
Almost every word of your blog resonates (altho’ I have — as yet — dodged the potentially mortal illness bullet). I too have had that ridiculous “I was once a non-mother; I remember what it was like before I had children.” It’s a really rubbish argument, both logically, and emotionally. And all the guff “I never knew what it was to feel, until I had children” or as someone once greeted a new parent in my presence “Welcome to the real world” (And I’m not part of that?) or “I am so much more touched by the plight of starving children because I have children of my own” So much more guff. Because actually, if one is ruthlessly logical about it, any Western child actually contributes to the inequalities of wealth/food/resource distribution that causes the “starving children.”
And I don’t think those of us without children should feel quite so scrupulous about not commenting on the way children are raised. After all, we contribute a heck of a lot to the raising of other people’s children. Even just through taxes. I’m an extremely “light” user of the NHS (touch wood, no major illness), a higher rate taxpayer, and an extremely productive professional, working far longer than my 37.5 paid hours of work. I cover for my colleagues who are parents. My taxes pay for their children’s schooling and the costs of their children’s health care. Und so weiter …
I don’t mind, EXCEPT when it is received with an ungrateful slap in the face of “selfish career woman’ or ‘selfish unfeeling persion who will never know true love/fulfilment’ blah blah blah … Or when I’m 80 and THEN need the care of the state, but am regarded as a useless bed-blocker.
Ah well, now back to work (yes, a Saturday).
the site looks brilliant. thank you Jody.
Loved how you expressed your thoughts. I wish some women stopped considering those without children as weirdos. Just like those who are single.
As a man, I will never give birth, so I can not claim it some mystic experience that is the greatest experience in the world. I have the privilege of bringing up two beautiful daughters who may follow me or forge their own paths. I have given them tools, which they can use in any way they see fit.
There are people who chose not to procreate and that is fine and there are some who are not allowed due to nature’s quirks. I recently found a comment that every one is a library and when you die those books are lost you have written in your head.