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What, No Baby?
Why Women are Losing the Freedom to Mother, and How They Can Get It Back
By Leslie Cannold, Sarah Shrubb
Fremantle PressCopyright © 2005 Leslie Cannold
All rights reserved.
THE CIRCUMSTANTIALLY MANY
Only she who says she did not choose, is the loser in the end.
What bothers fertile women without children most? Is it the false accusation that 'selfishness', or 'hedonism', is behind their childlessness? Or the totally inappropriate use of the word 'choice' to describe the reason why they end up without kids? Even though a handful of women do choose to be childless, the majority don't. They just end up that way.
It is hard to over-emphasise how indignant circumstantially childless women feel about being called selfish, and having their childlessness lumped together with that of women who actually made a choice. Andrea Cook's letter to the editor of the Age, aptly titled 'Childless Neither Selfish Nor a Choice', gives a good feel for how frustrating and distressing circumstantially childless women find the insult, and the all too commonly made conceptual mistake:
Another simplistic editorial about why women aren't having children these days ... I'm your 'subject' — a 34year-old, university-educated, childless woman. Not by choice. It just happened that way. That's the way my life has unfolded. I never once sat down and tallied up the pros and cons with children on one side of the balance sheet and work/finances on the other. Your editorial is not unique in giving the impression that women like me are consciously and selfishly deciding to abandon family and children in favour of getting ahead. The truth is more complicated, far less self-absorbed and much less rational. My list of 'reasons' goes on and on. Not on the list, however, is a sense of duty to my career or a fear of not getting enough tax breaks. Thanks, though, for joining in the black-and-white, us-and-them argument sustained in our society that winds up with me feeling selfish and greedy because I haven't sorted out my reproduction to other people's satisfaction.
Sylvie, 33, a high-profile museum curator, is constantly upset by the way friends, colleagues and clients interpret her relationship break-ups and her childlessness as evidence that she's coldly indifferent to marriage, and has 'chosen' her career over motherhood. In fact, says Sylvie, while her work is terribly important to her, her childlessness was no choice:
I remember when I broke up with the last man I [had] a long-term relationship with, people saying, 'Oh, you've let a good one go', as though I actually had options. I hadn't wanted the relationship to end, I was very distressed about it ending ... They assumed that I had left him because I am this kind of single career gal, when actually it hadn't worked out for other reasons, nothing to do with that ... [People I work with think], 'If you have a career you can't be a mother', and so they feel [that because I am childless] I have chosen to be a 'hardbitten career woman' ... My working life is just the air I breathe ... [but having said that,] I could also imagine giving it up and trying other things [for a while] because ... Having a deep loving relationship [and] having children is kind of an exciting challenge for me.
The naked truth about selfishness
The standard insult hurled at all women these days is that they are 'selfish'. Women who work rather than stay at home with their kids full-time? Selfish. Women who don't go out to work and deprive their daughters of 'role models'? Selfish. Women who have children? Selfish. Those who have pain relief rather than natural births? Feed their baby by the bottle instead of the breast? Abort rather than raise an unwanted child? Choose highlights rather than perms? Well, you know what I mean. Sometimes, it seems that no matter what women do, we are accused — by some self-appointed someone somewhere — of getting it totally wrong. We're also highly sensitive to the criticism. We want to do the right thing by ourselves, our families and our communities, but our roles have transformed so radically in the last 40 years that it is a rare female who feels she is doing and living right.
However, all this may simply be the inevitable outcome of gaining the historically unprecedented freedom to live according to our own rules. The downside of there being no strait-jacketing role to which all women must conform is that no woman's life choices are eligible for society's shiny stamp of approval either. Consequently all women feel 'out of step' with what everyone else is doing, most of the time. According to researcher Grace Baruch and her colleagues:
Never-married women can feel out of step because they are not married; divorced women can feel that way because they aren't married any longer. Childless women often feel different because they don't have children, and employed women who do have children often feel anxious because they have departed from the 'proper' role they were socialized to play. And the one group of women that did follow the expected route of marrying, staying home, and raising children now find that rules have changed — suddenly, society is questioning the value of what they are doing.
The 'selfish' insult has a long history in Australia and in the United States. It probably dates back to the very first woman who ever gave birth, and the very first lazy-ass man who — having noted the extent of her workload — began worrying what might happen if she decided one day to stand up for herself. Australian women without children, or with fewer children than the patriarchy of the day deems enough, have come under particular pressure to sacrifice and breed. Indeed, as far back as the turn of the 20th century, men in high places were commissioning reports to explain declining birth-rates and, as the following ditty suggests, pinning the blame on women who refuse their breeding 'responsibilities' in favour of their own 'selfish' desires:
A woman's duty is to wed,
And mind affairs domestic.
And every man should work, but entre nous,
If every place and trade'll
Be occupied by women, who
Henceforth will rock the cradle?
Then won't the coming census show
A shocking alteration,
With no posterity, and oh!
No rising generation!
Though mercifully sparing us the doggerel, today's opinion makers pass similar value judgements about the moral character of women who remain childless or insufficiently fecund. The only difference is that in place of the word 'selfish', they employ the more fashionable euphemism, 'hedonistic'. Journalist Tim Colbatch, in his front page report on why Australian women are refusing to breed, says the reasons are simple: first, women's 'hedonist[ic] unwillingness to invest their time or money in raising children', and second, women's 'lack of emotional feelings for children'. The more things change, huh? Yet the truth remains the same: calling women selfish is a way of keeping them in line and working hard; it is a slur that gets trotted out whenever the female of the species threatens — individually or collectively — to stop bearing the 'motherload' of parenting. Whenever women start factoring themselves into the equation, we are accused of selfishness by those who hope we'll meekly return to the bowing and scraping that has throughout the ages enabled men to have so much yet do so little.
The race to motherhood
How do I know that Andrea and Sylvie's stories are the rule rather than the exception? What makes me so certain that the vast majority of the childlessness of fertile women, and the cause of most of the decline in birth-rates over the last 30 years, is the result of women's circumstances, not their choices? I know because I've had a look at a whole range of fertility data: from the birth trends in all Western nations (Australia and the United States included) to the whys and wherefores of the decisions individual women and childless couples make. The facts are simply beyond question.
But before we swan-dive into the numbers, we need to get some basic facts about the reproductive capacities of the female body straight. The first is that biologically speaking, women do it tougher than men on nearly every count. Not only do they have to carry pregnancies, give birth and breastfeed, but their window of opportunity to pursue these pleasures is far smaller than that available to men. We're talking a letterbox versus a post office. Men can and regularly do father children in their forties, fifties, sixties and even beyond. Who can forget the hoo-ha when David Letterman's much younger partner gave birth when he was 56? This is not to say that male fertility does not deteriorate with age. In fact, both quantity and quality of sperm decline on a yearly basis from age 24 onwards, and there is increasing evidence that a whole range of birth defects and problems, including miscarriage, can be sheeted home to the humble old sperm. What it also means, though, is that the infuriating image of a grey-haired, potbellied bloke meandering casually along the path to fatherhood — a spring in his step and a relaxed smile on his face — is highly accurate. They have all the time in the world to contemplate and complete Mission Parenthood. It's totally infuriating. I wish that tubby, whistling bloke would bend over and pick up a flower. I'd kick him up the bum.
Female fertility, as many women have been distressed to discover, is nowhere near as laissez-faire. Medical opinion differs about when precisely the easiest or 'best' age is for a woman to fall pregnant. Some say the teens, some say the early to mid-twenties and some say the early thirties, but for the purposes of this conversation, the debate is irrelevant. This is because all fertility experts agree that female fertility falls off at age 35, and then declines steeply at 37. By age 40, half of those who struggle to achieve pregnancies will fail and one-third of those who succeed are likely to have their pregnancy end in miscarriage. By age 45, natural family-planning guru Evelyn Billings says, only 1% of women will still be fertile.
What this depressing statistical litany means is that unlike men, women don't have three-quarters of a lifetime to muse on the question of motherhood. They have no alternative but to wake up, smell the parental coffee and — if brewing up a bub is what's intended — get on with it. The 'biological press', as one expert has dubbed it, simply doesn't allow women to shilly-shally around.
What the statistics don't imply is that someone, or more precisely a particular coterie of someones, is responsible for these highly irritating limits of female biology and their often unintended consequences: namely, circumstantial childlessness. Despite this, desperate attempts are occasionally made to find someone human, rather than divine, to blame. In Australia, the shrill accusatory finger is pointed either at particular women or at 'feminists' in general, and it is often pointed by highly educated and accomplished women who insist that had the women's movement told them 'the truth', they wouldn't be ending their reproductive years childless.
The most accomplished of such accusers is Haussegger, who lists her varied accomplishments as ABC TV news presenter, former host of the 7:30 Report, and reporter for Witness and A Current Affair. In an opinion piece accompanied by a winning cartoon of a woman chained to her briefcase tearfully bidding goodbye to a child, Haussegger accused feminist mums and teachers of preaching the lie that you can have it all. They induced girls like her to become successful editors, doctors and engineers, but intentionally withheld the truth about women's time-limited fertility. 'I am childless and I am angry,' seethes Haussegger. 'Angry that I was so foolish to take the word of my feminist mothers as gospel. Angry that I was daft enough to believe female fulfilment came with a leather briefcase.'
Haussegger's rave got on more than a few people's nerves — the letters page was buzzing for weeks — and mine were definitely among them. I hate that 'oh no-one told me' rubbish that has increasingly characterised the plaints of young antifeminists such as those in the 'Women Hurt by Abortion' movement. First of all, I'm only a few years younger than Haussegger and I certainly have no recollection of feminists telling me anything at all about my biological clock — true, false or otherwise. And given how enthusiastically the media has embraced the 'it's all the fault of the feminists' line, I find it hard to believe that if a hapless women's libber from the past had proffered fertility advice of any kind, a journalist wouldn't have uncovered it by now and broadcast it across the globe. The deafening silence suggests that nothing of the sort was ever said. Further, I actually did know by the time I was in my twenties that fertility declined with age, as did a number of my contemporaries. Some of these are now mothers; others are not. We may be a rarefied group, of course, but this does imply that the truth Haussegger so desperately needed was in circulation. As a colleague of mine — a high-profile media personality herself — grumbled after the article appeared: 'What's wrong with her? Doesn't she read?'
It is true that feminists urged all women to shed their domestic shackles and seek fulfilment and financial independence outside the home. But what is Haussegger? A brainless puppet? A mindless drone? There were plenty of women around at the time, a whole movement of them in fact, who rejected the feminist message and urged women to cling fast to 1950s values and social roles. She could have taken their advice ... and don't we all wish she had, so that we weren't now forced to tolerate her unseemly assault on the very women who made her career success possible.
Social forces, including ideas about social change, may constrain women's thought horizons and by so doing limit their awareness of their options and their confidence to choose freely among them. However, even if the existence of such restrictions can be demonstrated, they don't render women mindless robots whose decisions aren't worthy of respect. Indeed, the object for anyone really trying to make a difference in women's lives is to challenge such limits in a way that doesn't invalidate or disrespect the authenticity or worthiness of their own or other women's reproductive decisions. This means getting the balance right between recognising the responsibility we have and must take for our lives and the real limits on our freedom to choose: something that Haussegger's unseemly whinge utterly fails to do.
Let's now turn to the evidence that shows, incontrovertibly to my mind, that there is a new, unrecognised social phenomenon in our midst: the woman who is childless by circumstance.
Most childlessness is circumstantial
The big studies show this effortlessly. In developed countries, the more family-friendly a society is, the closer women get to having the number of children they want — and, consequently, the higher the birth-rate is. In family-unfriendly societies, the reverse is true. That is, where the 1950s model of family and economic modelling prevail, women and their desired family size are like ships passing in the night: they never even get close. Indeed, so tight is the relationship between family-friendliness and high fertility rates in Western nations that virulently family-unfriendly societies such as Spain, Greece and Italy now face the prospect of national disintegration. Even though this has been thoroughly ignored by policy makers, experts now predict, some with a slight tremor in their voice, that unless things start changing — and fast — in 100 years' time, there simply won't be any Italians left!
So what kind of family-friendliness are we talking about here? We are talking about tax, industrial relations and family policies, and about work practices. To be family-friendly, all of these must be based on the assumption that both parents do, should do, and have a right to paid work. This means that childcare is a responsibility that must be shared by both partners (if there are two), and by the family and society at large. This is in stark contrast to the assumption that underpins most tax, industrial relations and work policies and practices in most Western societies, including Australia: that everyone lives, wants to live and should live in a male-breadwinner household. You know, the sort of home where the wife raises the kids, feeds the dog, picks up the dry-cleaning and generally does all the unpaid domestic work, while Dad works long hours, takes few holidays and doesn't look after or even speak to Junior for more than seven minutes a day.
You may already have guessed that Italy, Spain and Greece (with rates of 1.2, 1.2 and 1.3 babies per woman, respectively) are on the bottom of the ladder when European countries are ranked according to family-friendliness. As a consequence, Italian, Spanish and Greek women have downed fertility tools in an unprecedented — and in many instances, one suspects, an unrelished — birth-strike: one that will only be broken when Italian, Spanish and Greek men and societies change their ways and start pulling their weight at home. Speaking specifically about Italy, demographer Jean-Claude Chesnais explains:
Educated along the same lines and performing similarly or better than their male partners in the labour force, women have altered their self-image as well as their outlook on marriage and family. They seek a social status based on jobs they themselves hold and on the related financial rewards such jobs provide. Education has made them conscious of their own capability ... and they wish to be considered as autonomous individuals ... Italian men, even the young, are ill-adapted to this new equality of genders. Even those who shared school classes with girls from early childhood are not prepared for family life in which women are on equal footing with men. But young women no longer accept the family arrangements their mothers or grandmothers considered natural; ... they do not tolerate subordination. The link between these attitudes and fertility behaviour is direct. A woman who engages in repeated childbearing runs the risk of being relegated to roles from which young Italian women struggle to escape.
Excerpted from What, No Baby? by Leslie Cannold, Sarah Shrubb. Copyright © 2005 Leslie Cannold. Excerpted by permission of Fremantle Press.
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