Times columnist Hannah Betts wrote, 'The pressure to breed would be more persuasive were those who have ventured there not forever lamenting their lives.'
In the Daily Mail, Kate Spicer argued that 'I believe the Motherhood Deniers, waving the flag for the childless life, remain in the minority...Most of those 43 per cent will have gone through fertility hell, or never met the right guy, or left it too late, or have any number of unhappy stories.'
In The Times, Anna Wharton described how she wound up being a single parent in her mid-thirties: 'I was going to meet Mr Right. We would get married and have children. What happened, however, was that I ended up sort of roughing it.'
|'Let's have twelve, honey!'|
But tellingly, in Betts' case, she then transforms the discussion from one about self-determined choice between two goods to reactivity against an assumed bad. Why would you have kids when it's simply such a drag, she asks?
'In reality, parenting is still largely regarded as women’s work. Men are commended for being “hands-on”, for having baby iconography on their desk and leaving work early for the odd infant appointment. Women, in contrast, remain routinely resented and sidelined for such behaviour...A study by social scientist Dr Nattavudh Powdthavee...argues that the notion that propagation fosters happiness is a “focusing illusion”, and that there is “almost zero association” between having children and contentment. “Parents spend much of their time attending to the very core processes of childcare: problems at school, cooking, laundry. It is these small but negative experiences that are more likely to impact on our day-to-day levels of happiness and life satisfaction.” In short, parenting’s a drag in which women continue to shoulder the burden.'
Suddenly, childbearing is not just a value-neutral choice that a woman may or may not make for personal reasons; it's an inherently inadvisable act that renders inevitable the negativity of her subsequent experiences. We've gone from a individualistic framework, that emphasises choice and agency in the realm of childbearing and raising, to a deterministic one that emphasises helplessness should you go down the Mothercare road.
This tension in the public discourse around childbearing masks deeper issues. Although Betts acknowledges that child raisers suffer in society because it's women's work, she fails to articulate the logical extension - 'it's still not ok to be a woman' - or to ask the question 'what does it mean to be a woman?'. She explains the choice to be childless on the grounds that childbearing is a female, domestic, thereby stigmatized activity, and women attempting to partake while (for example) holding down a job are socially resented. She implies that women begin to opt out to avoid resentment at work; perhaps as social attitudes seep into their self-fabric, they continue to opt out to prevent resentment within themselves. We might conclude that they do so to prevent themselves being identified as (society's pejorative version of) 'women'; and that the greater the reaction against childbearing, the more the 'very core processes of childcare' are construed as fundamentally negative.
If the great opt-out stems from a reaction against the universal ill of childbearing, we should expect childbearing to be stigmatised in perpetuity. However, the possibility that childless women challenge received notions of 'womanhood' has different potential. As a vocal minority of women dissociate their identity from childbearing and child raising, gradually these choices could become more gender-neutral, and thereby, less negative. We will no longer have the city phenomenon of the forty-year-old male exec taking two weeks' paternity leave, while his wife stays home for eight months. Already, for several young parents of my acquaintance, having a child together is simply something they are quietly getting on with - alternating nights up with the baby, and alternating time off work.
This possible social consequence of female childlessness for the hitherto 'gendered' nature of childbearing has not featured in the Great Childbearing Debate this month. It's bizarre, for example, that we're given no comparable statistics for childlessness among university-educated men; the attention is still focused on women. Cooking and laundry, activities that are frequently enjoyable and cathartic for many, are within the realm of childrearing suddenly dubbed 'small...negative experiences' by Dr Nattavudh Powdthavee. If public discourse were to question the idea that the 'core processes of childcare' are necessarily 'small' and 'negative', we might come to attribute the problems of modern childbearing not to drudgery, but to continuing inequality between men and women and the gendered segregation of public and private life. And then (stop me if I'm going out on a limb here) we might actually have to talk about how to deal with that.
That highly-educated women increasingly remain childless is a complicated phenomenon, with causes and consequences that require detailed investigation. It should therefore not be explained away on the simplistic grounds of individualistic 'choice' or universalistic 'childrearing is miserable'. Take Lucy Worsley's claim that she was educated away from childbearing: does a university education reveal the socially real fetters of motherhood, leading to deliberate 'choices' not to have children? Does it simply teach women that motherhood is a second-class activity? Does it shape women so that they work and live within echelons in society where childrearing is particularly demeaned?
Has anyone asked the men what they think?
To sum up: the coverage of this phenomenon has yet to analyse the cause and effect of increasing female childlessness in terms of evolving gender identity. If child raising is just one gender-neutral lifestyle choice among others, men and women will continue to make that choice. If having children is hard work because it's women's work, women will either opt out or be nudged out. If society provides cost-effective childcare and equal-duration paid parental leave to both sexes, men and women might have more babies. Whatever happens, the great childbearing debate must continue.