If you’re a woman, from cradle to menopause; you’ll get asked this question: When Are You Having Kids?
Note, it’s when, not if.
At some point in time, our wombs became the defining attribute of who we are as women, in a way that a man’s reserve of sperm simply never does. What it means to be a woman has become so intrinsically linked to having and caring for children, that it’s had a bizarre ripple effect in the rest of our lives, from how we date (that good old biological clock) to how we proceed in our careers, and in some cases, to how visible and desirable we are perceived.
So, what happens when a woman rejects that classification and – controversially – doesn’t want kids? How does society view her?
Look at the attention that female leaders like Theresa May have received for having no children, how her childlessness was cruelly, yet often, commented on and was once used against her by a fellow female MP. Casting a value judgment backfired on the MP in question, but the topic of Theresa May’s childlessness was a talking point in a way it never would be for a male prime minister. It’s the same for female celebrities. Just look at the seemingly never ending question mark which hovers over Jennifer ‘Poor Jen’ Aniston, for being childless, as if the vacancy or otherwise of her womb is somehow a barometer of her happiness.
We make these assumptions about women with no children, and we frequently fail to understand that many are child-free for a range of unique reasons and, conversely, that many have made a choice to remain child-free. We seldom afford them the space and freedom to exist without children, without comment or implied judgement.
This is the issue tackled by British filmmaker Maxine Trump, whose new documentary ‘To Kid or Not To Kid’ challenges the taboo of the women who choose to be child free while also exploring her own indecision about wanting children. Though it was meant to be released in cinemas this week it has, like so many other films, been postponed due to Coronavirus. The film is due for an online release soon but you can watch Maxine’s amazing (and related) spin off show ‘Should We Kid Or Not?’ on YouTube now.
“I wanted to make the documentary because there is a real lack of language about this issue because we really don’t talk about it openly enough,” says Maxine, “We talk about having kids but there’s never an easy conversation about not having kids. I just thought, where am I seeing myself reflected and what can I point to for this, and I found nothing.”
Maxine made the film over five years and spoke to parents, grandparents and women who’ve chosen not to have children. She explores what went into that decision – kids or no kids.
“I saw a lot of women citing finances as a reason for not having kids – also how overpopulation is bad for the environment too, paying off student debt. Of course, a lot of people feel they have to give a reason, but the big one is a lot of people just don’t want kids. That is perfectly valid. They don’t enjoy being around kids – that should be fine and accepted. It almost is with men but still not with women.”
Many women she spoke to felt they had to keep their decision a secret – or pretend their reasons were medical – because they feared the backlash of admitting they did not want children. Often this pressure came from other women, and women within their own families.
“When I was researching I just kept on finding people that had so much judgement and were really vilified for their decision. It was just so negative,” she says, “I think it’s a wonderful choice to have children, but if everyone has to do it; it’s not a choice. Why don’t we ask parents why they want to be parents, as much as we get asked why we don’t want to be?”
Alicia Vine, 38, made a conscious decision not to have kids when she was in her teens. Ever since then, she has faced endless criticism. “As a young teenager I felt liberated, defiant and proud to tell anyone that would listen, but as I got older and people assumed (with a pitying head-tilt) I couldn’t (have kids). I’ve definitely started to shy away from those conversations,” she says, “It was also something people assumed I would ‘grow out of’ which was so incredibly patronising.”
Alicia is in a happy, committed long term relationship and, she says, it is only her age that has stopped people asking ‘when’ she will be having babies.
“It astounds me that people, mainly other women, assume that if you haven’t, you can’t. Choosing not to still feels very much the outsider’s choice. People aren’t cruel, but you can see them wondering where mother nature went wrong with your womb and these tend to be my fellow females.”
Charlotte, 25, decided she didn’t want kids when she was in her teens. She still receives endless judgement for this decision.
“The moments that stand out are the patronising ones, of people telling me I don’t know what I want, or that I’ll change my mind,” she says, “But I think that line of questioning takes away autonomy and is another way for society to control women’s bodies.”
Both Alicia and Charlotte have, of course, had to face telling partners and prospective partners about this choice.
“I’ve always been up-front, often within the first few weeks if I think it’s going somewhere. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time,” says Alicia, “Interestingly those conversations got easier as I got older, in earlier relationships often partners would naively believe I’d ‘grow-up’ and change my mind or worse still, that they would be able to change it for me.”
“It’s been an issue for one partner, but I think if your basic life-goals don’t align, then it’s not meant to be, anyway,” agrees Charlotte.
Analysing whether or not to have children is an increasingly prevalent Millennial and Gen Z concern. The UK birth rate hit an all-time low last year, and given the current situation with housebound parents struggling in lockdown, it does not exactly seem a desirable scenario for anyone on the fence when it comes to having kids.
This is not an uncommon thought process for our generation; who have seen countless waves of feminism fail to deconstruct the idea that women pay the penalty, financially as well as physically (the gender pay gap in the UK is at 11.9% currently) when it comes to having a child. The latter we cannot biologically change, the former we should.
This was the exact reason Alicia decided not to have children.
“I realised kids weren’t for me pretty much as soon as I twigged women were the ones who had to carry, both literally and metaphorically, the lion’s share of the process,” she tells me. She then recounts how countless zoom calls over the last few weeks, for the company she runs, have been disrupted by the children of women she works with.
“I feel sorry for these women, who are so clearly struggling with childcare, home schooling and work during this time,” she says, “It reinforced my decision, because I see that it is still disproportionately women suffering the strain of childcare.”
Charlotte, a Gen Zer, agrees with Maxine’s view, that the decision to have children should be taken more seriously, a thoroughly considered choice and not something women do out of fidelity to societal assumptions.
“I think parenthood is a privilege not a right. People feel entitled to be parents, but I think you should only be a parent if you’ll be a good one,” she says, “Some of my family work in children services, and I’ve seen so many examples of people having kids for the wrong reasons, selfish reasons, and I’d never want to contribute to that.”
So, is the taboo around women and children something we need to challenge more actively?
“Absolutely!!” says Charlotte, “Take your nose out of my uterus people! I think the line of questioning people take is super assumptive, and insensitive for those who can’t have children.”
But, as Maxine notes, this is a judgement that is only meted out to women. Men who make the decision to remain child-free, are bizarrely safe from this criticism. So, in breaking this taboo, we need to unpick the entrenched assumption that “woman = mother” and a resistance or failure to become one is somehow an abandonment of what it means to be a woman.
“The most important reason I saw, in making this film, was what it does to a woman’s identity,” says Maxine, “Do they want motherhood as part of their identity- not the whole of it. Being a father is part of a man’s identity, he is never defined by it the way a woman is. We need to change the societal assumptions around this, massively.”
“At the moment we seem to want to put women into two categories, those that have children or those that are married to their career. I’m neither,” she says, “Yes I want to be good at my job, but no, I don’t want to be CEO, nor do I want to dedicate my time to parenting. I’d like women to stand together, accept and celebrate individual choices and stop trying to label and categorise each other so we feel happier with our own life decisions.”
Amen to that.
Categories: Reproductive health