One of my hopes for my work is that as well as helping childless women heal their hearts and rebuild their lives, it might act as a way to build a bridge between mothers and the childless. I’m a feminist and I long to open a new kind of dialogue across the pronatalist ravine so that we can stand together as women against all issues of gender-based inequality and disenfranchisement, no longer divided by our maternity status.
But then there are other times when I feel a lot less hopeful and hifalutin’ and feel more like building a liferaft and putting some mothers on it and letting them drift out to sea! This week, two articles were published, one in praise of women without children, one condemning us, and they’re both so blisteringly, emotionally and factually tone-deaf that even a double face-palm isn’t bringing relief!
Often, when I speak about pronatalism and the privileged point of view it can create, some people shake their head at me and say, ‘No, surely it’s not that bad Jody; don’t you think you’re just being a bit oversensitive?’
Well, m’Lord, let me offer you this snippet from Exhibit A, an article called In Praise of the Childless Mother (April 16, 2019, Townhall.com) by Kira Davies, a US ‘op-ed journalist and co-host of the Smart Girl Politics podcast on the Ricochet network’. She doesn’t call herself a Mom in her Twitter bio (good sign, thank you) but rather claims she is a fan of ‘Jesus, Scotch and funny ppl’. I’m not a Christian and mostly have no issue with those that are, so was reasonably hopeful at the beginning of the article (even after it opened with a Bible quote). It didn’t last long…
Because progenation is the only way the human race survives, we are naturally hard-wired to place great value in the act of conception. Mothers are afforded a certain respect. Much of what we do – in church, at work, in marketing – is aimed at the child-bearing woman or women who will eventually bear children. It’s only natural, but where does that leave the childless woman? Some women forgo motherhood as a personal choice. Others are forced to forgo motherhood by their bodies and still others may have longed to become mothers but were unable to find a suitable partner in their child bearing years and unwilling to pursue a path as a single mother.
So far so reasonably good that she’s noticed that non-motherhood is complex (although way more complex that didn’t want/couldn’t have…) but she falls at the next fence because ‘childless women’, unconstrained by the all the demands of motherhood are:
…free to lavish love and grace and care on my children […] Your cup is always full, and when you are with my children it spills for no other but them. What a glorious gift! You can care for my sick children without worrying about what you’ll bring home to your own. You can celebrate my children without comparing it to how you would celebrate your own. […] When you are in our home you share in our pride and amazement, and when you offer to care for our children while we are away I can be comforted in the knowledge that your love is reserved for them in that time and space.
So basically, our ‘glorious gift’ to Davies is to be an unpaid Mary Poppins in her life and to be there for her children so that she’s got time to write articles about her motherhood experience wrapped up as a saccharine-sweet hymn of support for her poor childless sisters?! Ugh, the virtue-signalling pity and smug condescension of this piece made me feel quite ill! If she’d run a draft of this article past any honest childless/free friend (if she has any left, maybe only Handmaidens visit these days) they’d have pointed out that if a woman doesn’t have children, it might be too painful (or boring) for her to be the fifth-wheel to someone else’s family life and that anyway, they might be doing other stuff with their lives which she’d know about if she’d noticed or asked lately… As one member of the Gateway Women community wrote in response:
Dear God! Literally. Christ have mercy. I say that as words of prayer. I am a Christian and a priest. This article is making me feel sick and angry […] The quote is a quote from a very old prophecy of Isaiah and for me (and many, many other Christians) in both contexts in the Bible it is about God’s promises to be with and love those who are most marginalised and for all people to do likewise – joy will come to all.
I guess Davies agrees with that interpretation, it’s just her definition of ‘joy’ is childless/free women picking up the slack.
However, what I will say for Davies is that she meant well. She really did and I genuinely appreciate the effort. What has surprised me is that her own experience as a Black woman in America (which she alludes to this in this tweet) and thus her experience of tone-deaf white saviours, white privilege and discrimination hasn’t made her more aware of her own blind spots.
#PronatalistPrivilege is real and it’s nasty (see point 6 in my article here). If you want to be a mother-ally to childless women, do your homework, please. Open your heart. Read. Ask questions. Be curious about the life of non-mothers and see how you can contribute to them in meaningful ways rather than graciously allowing us the breadcrumbs from under your family dinner table. Explore the many Christian writers without children (both voluntary and involuntary) if that’s the lens you want to understand it through to begin with. You could start with the resources listed here at Gateway Women. Even a basic Twitter or Google search on ‘childless Christian’ would have helped.
Which brings me to Exhibit B, an article in The Guardian ‘Do millennials opt for a ‘fur baby’ because they’re broke – or scared of responsibility?’ (April 19, 2019, The Guardian) by Josie Cox. From her Twitter bio we learn that Cox (who also doesn’t mention she’s a mother, thank you) only recently left another national newspaper as their business editor to go freelance and is a runner. However, nothing can prepare you for the vile, uninformed, hurtful, judgemental click-bait to follow, and which would have been much better suited to The Daily Mail than The Guardian.
If the title alone didn’t have you grinding your teeth, the first pull-quote of the article will: ‘The burden of raising a tiny human is losing its appeal for commitment-phobic, cash-strapped, travel-obsessed or simply career-prioritising millennials.’ Brace yourself.
Cox goes on to relay the story of attending an event at a ‘recently-befriended mum’s house for a gathering of new parents and babies’ and her surprise that one woman there didn’t have a baby with her; her distaste when said woman had the nerve to show her some Instagram pictures of her dog; her outrage when she suggested that she was just as taken up with ‘sleep training and feeding regimes’. And then, in one of the most mean-girl lines in a thoroughly bitchy piece that, ‘It was only when chatter turned to nipple cream, and how it serves wonderfully as lip balm, that her contributions to the conversation dried up.’
Considering how many women are childless either by choice or not, Cox’s surprise that a woman might not have a child shows her own ignorance (1 in 4 or 1 in 5 for Gen X like me, possibly higher for Millennials and who knows, maybe it’ll go even higher for Gen Z). And if the event was indeed just for ‘new parents and babies’, perhaps being the only woman there without a ‘cooing, spewing infant’ might have been either boring or painful for the woman in question, and could explain why she was ‘refilling her mug in the kitchen’? Maybe she’d had already had one too many passive-aggressive, pronatalist privilege-fuelled barbs directed at her and was wondering how soon she could leave without bursting into tears? Perhaps she was doing her best to join in the conversation by sharing anecdotes about her dog as she’d spent the last awful 30 minutes having every other conversation she’d attempted to broaden out to something other than babies shut down and redirected back to motherhood? Maybe she was having a really bad day…
To make the leap from this one woman’s experience and the latest UK Government ONS data showing that more women are now getting pregnant in their 30s than their 20s makes me glad that Cox is no longer the business editor of any national newspaper. It’s a whopping false-correlation to presume that all of those women delaying or foregoing motherhood are doing so because they are ‘opting for pets over kids’ and branding a whole generation as shying away from parenting because they are ‘commitment-phobic, cash-strapped, travel-obsessed or simply career-prioritising millennials’. She does throw a bone to the complex historical, ethical, medical and socio-economic reasons that might be involved including ‘their understandable (and responsible) reluctance to bring a child into the world if they can’t get a foot on the property ladder or find stable work in an uncertain economy’ but soon goes back to accusing of them being lightweight adults ‘accustomed to easy, breezy global travel, unconditional independence and relationships that are created and killed on an app’ and thus are ‘scared of lifelong responsibility’.
From her description of her own experience of motherhood, Cox comes across as a tedious mummy-martyr, angry that she drank the pronatalist Koolaid that promised her that motherhood was going to be a breeze and that the social beatification she received during pregnancy was going to be lifelong. Instead, she’s found, as childless/free women are quite aware of that:
It’s bearing full, unconditional responsibility for a person’s basic survival, but also their physical and emotional wellbeing at all levels, around the clock, for at least the next two decades. Parenthood is all-consuming. It’s an existence dictated by constant fear and guilt. It’s deeply fulfilling and relentlessly draining. It will make you change – even abandon – your career, friends and identity without so much as a second thought, and it will force you to re-prioritise every morsel of your life. Waking up every two hours to soothe a helpless, screaming creature back into a short-lived slumber may be a total bitch at the best of times. But bless you, fur mama, if you think I’m talking about that kind.
This article is offensive on so many levels, just for starters, it assumes that all mothers will be as cruel, unhappy and judgemental as she is and makes a mockery of the very real and complex reasons behind voluntary and involuntary childlessness. Let alone completely side-stepping the idea that climate breakdown is a damn good reason not to have children (a decision that will benefit her child), and forgetting that those animal-loving childless/free adults she so disparages are the very same ones paying the taxes to support her child’s education and healthcare. From her educated, white, privileged position as ‘a freelance writer and consultant,’ it rubbishes the socio-economic fragility of so many people’s lives today.
Having a cat was hugely healing for me during my years of grief, heartbreak, loneliness, depression and social isolation due to my involuntary childlessness. To have a living creature in my life that loved being nurtured by me and gave back unconditional love in return, was a priceless gift. But I never confused my cat (or now my dog) with a baby. Some childless women cannot bear the term ‘fur baby’ and find it very hurtful when strangers think that their pets are ‘substitute babies’ – because they’re not – they’re our much-loved pets and we will nurse them through their old ages and deaths. Whilst continuing to be lectured by those who had the opportunity or biological capability to have a baby on our shameful indulgence. Whilst still paying our taxes.
Cox’s piece ends with “Whether or not to reproduce is probably the most personal decision you will ever make. But nothing can substitute for that. So don’t pretend that a canine companion is the same thing”. We don’t. And once again, like Davies, had you actually spoken to any childless or childfree women with dogs, you’d have learned that.
Check your privilege, both of you. You’re setting a very bad example for your children…