This old chestnut…

Happy New Year and all that. Personally, I’m hoping that 2014 is going to be a vast improvement upon 2013, which was – to put it politely – patchy at best. I’m going to kick off the year with a feministy rant. Sorry.

I love a daft stock image.

Shortly before Christmas, I spent most of a day writing a piece on whether society still judges women who choose not to have children, as part of a staff writer application (miraculously, they liked what I wrote). Now, normally, I’d be all over that shit. As someone who has always found the whole pregnancy and childbirth thing utterly terrifying, and who has only recently started to think “aww, kids might be fun”, it’s something I could bang on about for yonks. But my word limit was around the 400-mark, so not nearly big enough. I like to throw all my thoughts at the page and see what sounds good, so small word counts are tricky. I also felt a bit bored by the topic – like “we’re really still having this conversation?” But we are. I even asked my mum – not that she’s the best person to ask, Mrs Daily Mail – and she shot back straight away “yes, we do judge childless women, without a doubt”.

So here’s the unabridged result of me throwing some thoughts at my laptop.

For all the progress we’ve made in a few decades (the vote, education, employment, equal pay – in theory if not in practice – and contraception), feminism’s still got things to do*. It’s got to deal with all the insidious stuff – the attitudes, the media’s representation of women, how women are treated by the legal system – stuff that is, arguably, harder to tackle. If you want legislation changed, there are procedures you can follow – campaigns, petitions, advocacy groups – you get the picture. It might not be easy, it might not be successful, but there are ways and means, paths that have been trodden. To change attitudes, you have to shout into the wind and hope that enough people hear you. You have to call people out when they say things that are narrow-minded, unintentionally offensive or just plain stupid. At best, they might accuse you of not having a sense of humour, and at worst, they might be hostile, aggressive and threatening.

*Despite what Angela Epstein said on Newsnight a couple of months ago, when they did a piece on Everyday Sexism. I didn’t know Ms Epstein wrote for the Daily Mail at the time, so I sat there and seethed about how contrary and deliberately obtuse she was being. When I looked her up afterwards, it all made sense.

Anyway, back to the thing. Womanhood and motherhood remain inextricably linked, despite all the progress that’s been made. The notion that you’re not a fully-fledged human being until you’ve produced a new one persists – if you’re female. Women who choose not to have children, and instead throw their energy and intelligence into their careers, travelling the world, or simply going about their own business – quite happily – still have to deal with questions and remarks that are loaded with judgement:

“When are you going to settle down?”

“Give it time, your hormones will kick in.”

“You’ll change your mind.”

From aging relatives hoping for grandchildren, you might expect it. But I’ve had the latter two said to me by male friends my own age. In my case, I happen to think they’re right – I would like children, it’s the personally having them I’m not so keen on. If it was simply a case of planting a tree and plucking a baby off when it was ripe, I’d be all for it. Or growing one in a tank, like Sea Monkeys. It’s the giving up my body in order to grow a little human that I have the issue with. And then forcing it out into the world. It’s the biggest physical commitment there is, and only women can do it, so when it’s men saying “oh darling, you’ll change your tune”, I get a little riled and want to spit back “how the bloody hell would you know?”

The flip-side of this was pointed out to me by a very wise friend – it’s incredibly rare that you hear parents saying that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. There must be some people out there who have children and have found that were they able to go back, they wouldn’t have had them. You don’t hear those stories, because it would be horribly damaging to the children in question to find that out. There are people who never planned on kids but had them, and wouldn’t change a thing, but that’s a far more socially acceptable position to take. Society needs to catch up and recognise that motherhood isn’t something that women have to cross off the list – we need to stop having conversations that run thus: “she’s very successful, yeah, top of her field. Never had kids though”. Making and raising new humans is such a commitment, such a life-changer, that you have to really want to do it. It’s the unwanted children, the resented ones, who will suffer.

One day, women’s choices and decisions aren’t going to be the subject of endless judgement and debate. One woman’s way of doing things won’t be seen as representative of the whole of womankind. We will all – men included – just be allowed to get on with things. And let’s hope that day comes sooner rather than later.

I don’t have a sex playlist (well, not as yet, but you never know) but if I did, this would be on it.

And when I went for a very chilly, rainy run the other day, this song made me feel invincible.

One thought on “This old chestnut…

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