Why are women judged for not having children?


Here is the full text of the conversation with freelance journalist Chrissie Russell that led to her article “Childless and Happy? You’d better believe it…”

She was interested in looking at how we judge women who choose not to have children, and why.

When thinking about what image to accompany this post I decided to do a google search for “not having kids is..” Look at the screenshot to see what happened – #Eek!!

Not having kids is...
Not having kids is…

Why do you think there is an assumption that women should want to have/ should have children?

I think the assumption is based in the fact that traditionally women are the child bearers and rearers, the nurturers, the ones who talk about and spend the most time with their children. Women are assumed to have “ticking clocks”, to feel the “urge” or biological drive to reproduce in a way that is spoken of differently in the male context. We rarely speak of men, or hear of men, who crave babies. We hear of men who “want” kids, but the flavour of the language can be quite different between the genders.

For women, some women, it can be spoken of as a physical need. These women use terms like “aching” or ” longing” to have children. I have heard women speak about physically feeling the urge to birth, they feel an “ache” sensation in the birth canal of feel an urge to breast feed an infant, to hold infants closely, to smell them. Many women imagine how they would look pregnant, perhaps most. Playing with stuffing pillows up jumpers just to see what it looks like. And of course girls are still encouraged to play with dolls. This teaches them, from a very early age, that this is what women do :

“You are now playing at being a grown up woman – Here, hold a baby, it’s fun”.

The physical investment for women is more, because of pregnancy, and this is of course another reason it is perceived widely as being in the domain of women. Today, due to work commitments and so on, women may spend less time than they used to with children and doing housework. Proportionately though it seems that women still spend more time than men engaging in these activities. This is of course a generalisation, one however that I observe personally in my own peer group and professionally.

And so we take it a step further and assume that because we “can” have children, we should want to do so, because it is so “natural”. Of course, many things are natural to us as human beings but  none divides the genders more obviously than childbirth. For a lot of women it feels ‘natural’ to want children. And it is natural, but that does not mean that a woman is somehow “unnatural” if she makes different choices.

The role of women, even constitutionally, has been to be in the home, care-give, produce children and so on. For centuries women who produce many children have been revered and considered good, productive, ‘valuable’. Conversely women who do not have children, for whatever reason, and in a general sense, been perceived to be of lesser value. When we consider the historical context, from royalty to land labourers, we see that it has long been thus. The notion of continuing the bloodline is an old one that is still with us. And the end of a blood line is still perceived by some as somehow tragic. Even though humanity is in fact thriving.

There is no longer the need to ensure our survival, we are surviving just fine. We don’t need to procreate to ensure that knowledge and human genetic material is passed on. It’s all going just fine. Indeed many would argue that not having children is doing our planet a favour. But that’s for a different article.

The fact that there are more options available to women now is, ironically, causing considerable difficulties for many. On the one hand we are encouraged to have careers, excel in those careers, but also be sure to have a family before it’s ‘too late’. We are now encouraged to do both, not necessarily to choose. Ideally, we do both. And so there are a lot of very tired and stretched and dissatisfied women out there who cannot understand why they feel so awful and unsupported. This ‘doing-of-both’ is not supported very well. There is not a sense of equality for many women out there as a result of these ‘choices’. For many it’s merely a source of anxiety, at its root is merely sense of ‘more to do’.

Do you think that is more pronounced in Ireland, where the image of ‘the Irish mammy’ is so ingrained into the cultural psyche of womanhood?

I’m not sure about making assumptions that this is more pronounced in Ireland. Until recently we have had very large families, thanks  largely to the Catholic Church and its forced limits on womens’ choices. Things are changing with regard to family size. We hear less of families with ten or eleven children than we used to. But we still hear of people who are “barren” (what an awful word) and who, God love them, can’t have children. And how that will put a strain on the marriage etc etc.

The message is certainly clear: there is something wrong with being childless. (Or as some prefer, child free).

The role of women in Ireland is often the subject of heated debate,  as recently as the Savita case, and the damning Magdaline report. What these two very different cases have in common is an increasing and understandable sense of seething resentment that women are not seen as valued individuals with equal rights, with choices. Rather, they live under the veil of expectation. This expectation comes in many forms and is certainly not exclusive to Ireland.

We are told on a daily basis how to look, how to behave, how and when to have sex, how to work, how to parent, TO parent. There is little assumption of choice, little reference to it, anywhere.

Why do you think it’s something people get so worked up about – ie why does anyone else feel its their business if a woman doesn’t want to have children, we so often hear of women who say they don’t want children being told they are ‘selfish’ or they’ll change their minds when they’re older – why do so many people have an opinion on fertility??

We are, as human beings, very fond of finding common ground with our peers, of not being too different, not being awkward or weird. At the same time some differences are rewarded, but not the choice to not have children. Not in our society.  The why question here is of interest to me. I have heard many debates about this, and been part of them too. I do sense a recent shift towards acceptance of women who choose not to have children. However, what I hear on there is a qualification: She doesn’t want kids, but she has a good career.

So that’s OK – she’s being useful and has something to fill that gaping baby shaped hole that simply must be in her life.

I know of women who tell their peers that they can’t have children just to avoid the anticipated stigma that they feel would result from simply saying they don’t want children. They do this because they know they will be treated differently- thought of as cold, hard, selfish, and other undeserved labels. One argument I have heard is that women who don’t want children don’t want the responsibility of children. They can be perceived as lazy, not contributing to society.

This of course, is utter nonsense.

Women who don’t have children are contributing towards the education, health, nurturing, teaching and wellbeing of other peoples’ children. They just play a less obvious role. We often lose sight of what it means to be a society. We like to separate “them” and “us”. This is apparent at a macro level (whinging about government, who are made up of “us”), and at a micro level, like family allegiances and so on. And people who are in the minority, or perceived minority, feel this acutely. I heard one woman say in a radio interview that she was sick of people telling her she was “responsibility aversive” and her lack of desire for children proved that. She was of the opinion that she had put a lot more careful thought into not having children than any of her peers had put into having them. That struck a chord with me.

There is, for some women who have children, a wistful envy of those who have none. Their child free friends are a reminder of how it used to be when they were responsible just for themselves. Because being a parent is a very, very time consuming job that requires utter  commitment. Many find this shocking, and far more demanding than they thought it would be. The pain of this can be expressed through anger or resentment or jealousy. And the grass is often greener.

For other women who have children, it is so utterly wonderful and enjoyable for them that they pity their peers who don’t have children, because they want to share the experience purely out of love for their friend. Or perhaps to hold onto common ground. Which is nice and appropriate if your friend wants children, but can be experienced as a criticism or judgement if she does not. She might fee that she is now somehow “less than”.

Many women assume that their peers want children and don’t ever have an honest conversation with anyone other than a therapist about that. Indeed, my experience has been that this very thing has brought many women to therapy. Some women have no other place where they can say “I don’t want children” without fear of rejection or castigation, raised eye brows or the almost inevitable “why not?”. Somewhere a professional can tell them that they are not pathological in some way.

As a society of men and women we do ourselves and each other a great injustice by making assumptions and not having conversations about this. It is no mystery as to why women who choose abortion do so privately and in some cases go through an entire lifetime without telling anyone, man or woman, other than a counsellor or therapist. They may not even tell their GP. I noticed that during the abortion debate, some men and women who claimed to be pro choice qualified their opinions saying that it’s not as if they’re advocating aborting healthy embryos. The notion that a woman might terminate just because she doesn’t want to have a baby is still a step too far for people who claim to be pro choice. They are pro choice, but will only approve of that choice depending on a set of conditions and judgements.

Do you think women who choose not to have children are treated differently to women to can’t have children and if so why?

I had a conversation socially with someone whom I respect and who I know would hate to consider herself judgmental. The topic was the horror felt by a colleague of their’s who accidentally got pregnant. (And in there is another implication about carelessness and so on, but anyway..). I asked if they were going to keep the baby and I was met with a look of horror ” Oh GOD yes, she’s not THAT kind of a person”. This kind of judgement, at a societal level and a personal level is what leads to many unwanted pregnancies being carried through. And it can lead to resentful women who are not doing what they originally wanted to do. It can be truly devastating, and feel like imprisonment.

I know that the person I was speaking to had little awareness of the impact her comment would have had on someone who was struggling with this kind of quandary. I think that raising awareness of this would be enormously helpful to everyone concerned. In my experience the happier we are with our own lives the less judgemental we are of others. I remind people of this on a daily basis. If a woman is being criticised by another, or by a man, for not having children, then it is worth thinking- what is going on with that critic that they need to say this to me? A criticism always gives more information about the criticiser than the receiver. It may be simply that they have not thought any farther than the assumption. It may not be done out of cruelty, but rather a lack of understanding.  If the problem is that we are not happy as a society and so can’t allow individuals to make choices to enhance their own happiness, then that’s something we need to address and for which we must take responsibility, one by one. We all have biases but may not be conscious of them. We might use the word “gay” as a joke and not stop to think that perhaps someone with us is gay and hasn’t yet told us.

(And is now far less likely to).

Avoiding being thought of as bad or lacking on some way can be motivation enough for us to do something we are not comfortable with, or ready for, or find utterly distasteful.  We can want to avoid punishment more than we want to NOT go ahead with something that may be rewarded by the approval of others. Like having children. Women do feel bad about not wanting children. Women feel bad about a lot of things, and all these things are fed to us, one way or another, via various media which influence attitudes on a daily basis. I have said before and I’ll say it again, making women feel bad is a very lucrative business.

Do you think a lot of the accepted viewpoints are built into our society – for example, the recent census labelled couples, without children, where the female is under 45 as being ‘pre family’ which suggests an assumption that they would go on to have children? Do you think this bias will ever change?

The categorisation of women under 45 as being ‘pre family’ is a wonderful example of assumption. That is quite a shocking categorisation. It betrays the existence of an attitude that won’t shift unless there are sufficient complaints against it.

If we do nothing, then nothing will change. Simple.

Why do you think women who decide not to have children are judged differently to men (we never hear the same stuff in the papers about ‘poor George Clooney’ not having kids, but Jennifer Aniston is constantly held up as being lacking) The gender bias is undeniable, in my (anecdotally based) opinion. If women don’t have kids various terms are used, with various judgements attached. If men don’t have children, there is more likely an assumption that their partner can’t, or that there is a sperm problem. But it’s not something that is considered as great a pity, or a lack of fulfillment. It is what it is. They don’t have kids. It’s such a ‘non problem’ it doesn’t get mentioned. Tabloids don’t go crazy speculating about whether or not they are considering fatherhood. There is perhaps a sense of “well that’s their own business”.

And it is their own business.

Part of the objectification of women is that we are society’s property, and so our bodies must be pleasing and produce well and people are welcome to comment. And boy do they comment. Entire industries depend on this. But God forbid that we don’t skip merrily to the gym and get ‘back in shape’ quickly after producing said offspring. We must meet all requirements: be mummies, make money, be yummy, and be glowingly and serenely happy about it.

You can find the resulting article few posts back if you’d like a read – although that was a long one, your eyes may need a rest now!

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