We need to stop shaming women into having children

·4-min read
Photo credit: New Line/Kobal - Shutterstock
Photo credit: New Line/Kobal - Shutterstock

Shortly after the clock strikes midnight on a woman’s 30th birthday, she will be routinely reminded that her fertility is dwindling. But the dictatorial reign of the biological clock is impossible to forget – women don’t need family members, nosy acquaintances and the right-wing media to jog their memory. The weight of the expectation for women to conceive mounts incrementally as we edge closer to 35, when we are given the dire and completely unscientific warning that our fertility will ‘fall off a cliff’. Inevitably, men - whose sperm quality decreases as they age - do not receive the same memo.

Last week, the Pope decreed that anyone that has pets rather than children is selfish. The fact that this comes from a childless man who famously chose his career over procreating is not worth dwelling on for too long. The Pope’s comments have naturally sparked worrying responses among conservative publications, who have used it as an opportunity to raise the issue of falling birth rates and to rubbish reports of overpopulation. One of these opinion pieces calls for women to have more children “to keep humanity in balance”. This particular article was written by a man without mentioning the women who will be required to give birth. It’s as if we’re not even there, not even part of the process. Women’s bodies are everyone else’s but our own; like a breeding cow, we must reproduce for the greater good and the economy.

There are many reasons why women are choosing not to have children, but let’s start with the climate change issue that the right-wing media are so upset by. In October, an article in The Spectator called those who don’t want children for environmental reasons “baby doomers”, while New Statesman described them as “over-anxious” for citing climate change as the cause of their decision to remain childfree. It’s worth being clear here - considering the consequences of environmental collapse on future generations is positive and sensible. Worrying about bringing a child into potential risk or danger seems a psychologically understandable and healthy response.

The most galling part about the way in which women are blamed and shamed for not procreating is how it completely absolves the powers that be from any responsibility. If we women shoulder the blame then it means that governments don’t have to address and remedy the huge structural issues that act as barriers to motherhood - the woeful lack of affordable childcare, the huge risks it poses to any woman’s career, expensive housing, the uneven medical treatment we receive during birth and afterwards, and the lack of paternity leave. If the old white men at the top (the Pope included) want birth rates to increase, then perhaps it’s time that they tackle the obstacles that prospective mothers face. There is an assumption that the biological yearning that some women have for children should override all of these issues, but why should it? Why should our options be to either grin and bear these hurdles and become mothers, or be shamed for not having children?

Even if we manage to overcome these barriers, it should be enough that a woman just doesn’t want to have children. As we all know, children are life-enhancing, glorious things that often lead to fulfilment and joy, but they are also utterly, immovably life-changing. As highlighted by Caitlin Moran in a 2021 piece for The Times, the concept of ‘fathering’ is generally used around the moment of conception, whereas ‘mothering’ is considered a life-long pursuit. We know from countless data and research that women shoulder the emotional labour more than men. We know parenthood interferes with our careers more than it does men. In Maggie Gyllenhaal’s brilliant Elena Ferrante adaptation A Lost Daughter, Olivia Colman’s character shocks a young mother when she describes motherhood as “a crushing responsibility”. We live in a society where it is somehow insufficient for women to simply say, ‘I just don’t want to.’ Why are we trying to tacitly bully women into having children that they don’t want? Surely we all understand that the repercussions of this just create unhappy, desperate mothers and even unhappier children.

It is OK not to have kids. Deciding not to do does not make you selfish or cold, or render your life unfulfilling, unsuccessful or unimportant. Procreating should be a joyful choice and one that shouldn’t be made because society makes us feel culturally validated when we do become parents or because, increasingly, it feels our ‘duty’. Contrary to popular belief, becoming a mother isn’t the only thing that counts or matters in a woman’s life. The author Sheila Heti said it best in her book Motherhood: “The childless and the mothers are equivalent. A person who can’t understand why someone doesn’t want children only has to locate their feelings for children, and imagine that desire directed somewhere else – to a life that is just as filled with hope, purpose, futurity and care.”

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