Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Great Childbearing Debate

This month, the Great Childbearing Debate resurfaced. The Office for National Statistics told us that 43% of university-educated women born between 1965 and 1978 are remaining childless, and that the proportion of women without children has doubled since the 1990s. The GCD exploded in the broadsheets:

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!'
Why do so many women remain childless? Hannah Betts looked to women in the public eye: 44 year-old Kate Humble calmly says 'My maternal gene is missing'; historian Lucy Worsley argued last year that she had been 'educated out of the natural reproductive function.' Different again is novelist Ann Patchett's account: 'by the time I was in middle school I'd figured out that a low overhead and few dependents would increase my time to work.' According to these examples, some women choose not to have children because fundamentally they just don't feel the urge, or they just want to do something else more.

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.

Mosaïcultures at the Montréal Botanical Garden

The world's biggest horticulture competition, the Mosaïcultures Internationales Montréal 2013, has attracted over half a million visitors since it opened on June 22nd. What is mosaïculture? It is not topiary, as the info boards hastened to inform us. It is altogether grander and more impressive. Artists create sculptures from plants embedded in meticulously organised soil. This year's edition of the triennial competition exhibits forty plant sculptures created by two hundred artists from all over the world, to speak to a particular theme: Land of Hope. As have the themes of previous years, the components of Land of Hope invoke questions of ecology, biodiversity, and the impact of the human cultural world upon ecosystems:

  • The interdependence of man and nature
  • Positive actions for the environment
  • Endangered or at-risk species or ecosystems
  • Nature in the city
  • The beauty and fragility of life on earth
  • Peace: the key to planetary survival

The two kilometre stroller-friendly path around the exhibition takes in much of the grand Botanical Garden. Even on a weekday it was well-trodden; the grand imagination of the artists entranced children and left adults looking wistful. It's a magical afternoon retreat from one of North America's most vibrant cities, and a must-see if you're in or near Montréal this summer. 

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Prescription: A Weekend in the Woods

In his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, American journalist Richard Louv combed through the evidence for the psychological and physiological benefits of spending time outdoors. At the outset he wryly explained his choice of concept in a public context of widespread psychologese:

'Our culture is so top-heavy with jargon, so dependent on the illness model, that I hesitate to introduce this term...I am not suggesting that [it] represents an existing medical diagnosis. But when I talk about nature-deficit disorder with groups of parents and educators, the meaning of the phrase is clear. Nature-deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.' 

I picked up Last Child in the Woods as I was packing for a weekend of canoe camping in Algonquin Provincial Park, a paradisiacal expanse of forest and lakes in Ontario, Canada. I didn't need Louv's persuasion to look forward to my upcoming trip. I remembered that on my visit last summer I had enjoyed a magical five days in which the sun shone, the air was fragrant with the scent of pine, wolves howled, lakes glistened and loons called to each other with haunting flute-like voices. I couldn't wait to go back.

Grand Lake, Algonquin
Bizarrely, when the nature bug bites, one tends not to remember the mosquitoes. My actual experience of canoe camping in Algonquin last weekend was a sensorially murky blend of mild discomfort and distinct, subtle, progressive quietening. The photographed aesthetic of sunlight glittering on a glassy lake doesn't capture the wonder felt lying in a drifting canoe and watching while it continues to glitter, hour after hour, unfailing, unchanging; or checking each morning the slow accretion of pine gum dripping, dripping, dripping, from the great tree that's the cornerstone of your campsite. Nothing is that still in the world in which we usually live.

Two days pass quickly in our busy society, but two days without phones, computers, running water, or electric lights in the evening, unfurled with unexpected endless moments. When I returned from Algonquin I was surprised at how much of my frenetic computer-stimulated energy had died down and steadied like the embers of a campfire. It's this sense of steadiness that I always remember. Nature does not inscribe in my memory the bugs, the damp clothes, the obstinate sleeping mat slipping and sliding on the floor of the tent, the hamstrings cramping from washing dishes off the frog-strewn beach. It challenges man's foremost assumption: that what is expertly crafted, calibrated, and controlled by us is best for us. Unwieldy, unpredictable, itchy, and occasionally painful, a weekend in Algonquin is only ever a good thing.

A Grand View From a Canoe
With these experiences in hand, I accept Louv's argument that no-one will buy into spending time in 'nature' if it's sold as a leisure activity or a lifestyle choice. As these, it's either baffling (the discomfort) or self-indulgent (hours drifting in a canoe? Really?). This is why he pitches it as a health intervention: we need more parks, more treehouses, and we need to let our kids out into the woods if we're going to reduce anxiety, recalibrate attention, promote problem-solving, and preempt obesity. His strategy is appropriate. At the level of urban planning and education policy, evidence is currency, and health is good rhetoric. On the home front, perhaps only 'health' could combat the stranger danger that has kept a generation of children out of the backcountry. Moreover, any scan of the prohibitive price labels in an outdoor goods store will tell you that hiking and camping are distinctly middle-class. For many, the only way to get a weekend in the woods could be on prescription.

It's a shame that in a society where banking interns are literally worked to death, the concept of 'leisure' has become so pejorative that we have to justify a stroll in the forest in terms of cost-effective population health strategy; and that we have to wrestle nature into a sanitised 'self-improvement' box to get parents on board. But the human world is just as murky as the natural: you have to get your hands dirty to start a fire.