(estimated reading time 17 minutes)
The problem with women – the young ones at least – is that no one lets them know that motherhood is an option for their future. This is the opinion of Jordan B Peterson, the psychologist, Jung enthusiast, and rudderless-young-white-guy-whisperer, as quoted in the Financial Times. The comment struck me as not particularly true. In fact, it seems the opposite of true; false, if you will. I’ll happily admit that I lack Peterson’s credentials and knowledge of psychology, but perhaps I can be permitted some disagreement based on my own lifelong experience as a female person. From that experience, I learned that you don’t get to go long as a woman without being reminded that children are a thing you should seriously consider having; moreover, should you reply that you don’t really see them as part of your future, you’re very likely to be met with incredulity, derision, or condescension.
The first time someone asked me whether I wanted to have kids I was a student in the first or second year of my undergraduate degree. I had a friend who made no secret of her dream of being a homemaker with several kids. At the time of writing she is a happily married mother, but that that time we were just two young single women trying to find our feet in the world. One day when we were having a chat, the subject of kids came up, and she asked if I planned on having any.
“Naah. I don’t really want them.”, I replied off-handedly.
“Why not?”, she asked.
I paused for a moment. I don’t know, I thought. I mean, why do we want some things and not others? Why don’t I want any number of things?
Why don’t you want to be a mime artist?
Why don’t you want to learn ju jitsu?
Why don’t you want to be an organic farmer in Australia?
I didn’t know why. There was no special quality to having kids to be factored into the equation; it just didn’t appeal to me, the same way any number of things don’t appeal to me. And it never had. Looking back over my life, up until the time of that conversation, I cannot think of a single instance when I felt any desire to care for or nurture a child or a baby. As a little girl, I found it strange that other little girls like to play with baby dolls. I was more than faintly disgusted by those dolls that would wet themselves when squeezed, and even more so with my peers who debased themselves by changing their pissy nappies. Sure, I had Barbies, but then Barbie doesn’t cry and shit and dribble. She drives a Jeep and goes on skiing holidays and is fully housebroken.
Around the time I had this conversation with my friend, I was working a part-time job at a café that was popular with new mothers. I was faintly fascinated by the small creatures that these women brought with them, but not for any reason that you would describe as maternal interest. What really interested me was how completely besotted people were with them. Babies are famously selfish and needy and very poor conversationalists, yet people went utterly cuckoo in their presence. Infants could do anything – anything – they liked, and people would still love them. A five-month-old could literally puke all over its mother’s carrot cake, and still the grey-haired strangers at the next table would turn around and chortle indulgently about the little cherub in the high chair, and oh dear, did the lovely little chappy have a woopsie-doo on mummy’s carroty-warroty cake? Aren’t these precious years! I kept watching, and I kept wondering: Why? What’s so great about these chubby, screaming, boring lumps? I couldn’t figure it out. I had babysat for babies and small children many times before, but that was simply doing a job and trying to do it competently. I didn’t hate babies, they were just nothing special to me; neither cute nor interesting nor useful. I preferred cats and orang-utans, but I was well aware of the expectation that one day I would have one of these little humans of my own.
I wasn’t just curious about the babies themselves; the mothers were a bit of a mystery to me, too. These harried, apologetic, be-sweatpanted ghost-people would plonk their babies in high chairs, around which the little darlings would swiftly unleash a vortex of thrown food, screaming, tears, burps, and milk. After an hour or so the mothers would take their kids and leave, and I’d be saddled with the task of cleaning up the food globs and wet tissues that spattered every surface within a three-yard radius of the spot where the little angel had been enthroned. At times like that I’d think: This is just one meal, but that baby’s parents are going to be doing this up to three times a day, every day, for years. Why would anyone choose this life for herself? What’s in it for her? You’d have to really like babies to saddle yourself with that kind of burden, I thought, and I just didn’t care for them that much. In an essay by Tim Kreider on being a childless, lifelong bachelor in his forties, there is a passage that would have strongly resonated with me:
“Most of my married friends now have children, the rewards of which appear to be exclusively intangible and, like the mysteries of some gnostic sect, incommunicable to outsiders. In fact it seems from the outside as if these people have joined a dubious cult: they claim to be much happier and more fulfilled than ever before, even though they live in conditions of appalling filth and degradation, deprived of the most basic freedoms and dignity, and owe unquestioning obedience to a capricious and demented master.
I have never even idly thought for a single passing second that it might make my life nicer to have a small, rude, incontinent person follow me around screaming and making me buy them stuff for the rest of my life. [Note to friends with children: I am referring to other people’s children, not to yours.]”
Yes, I knew that people loved their children with a love that filled their life with a deeper meaning and significance than they could ever have imagined. But I also felt at that time that the world was wide open to me, and I had no idea what treasures of love and significance and willing self-sacrifice I might discover down any given avenue in my future. I didn’t see a reason to create an entirely new human who would bring with them a whole set of human needs, in order to find something that might already be out there. In fact, Christianity taught me that it was out there; Jesus didn’t have kids, nor did many of his disciples, and much of what the New Testament taught seemed to favour the unmarried, childless life for those who could bear it. In light of all this, it always struck me as confusing that the church seemed to put so much emphasis on family life and marriage.
So, in the moment after my friend asked that question, I had no idea what to say.
“Oh, you know…”, I began, fishing around for a particular reason that I could pull out the bag at such short notice. “I mean, I don’t want varicose veins and incontinence and all that”, I finished. The conversation moved on, and I didn’t think any more of it.
That is until a few days later, when I went to a housewarming party for a member of the church. One of the church leaders was there, too, and as we sat on the living room floor with our paper cups of soft drinks in hand, he piped up:
“So, [your friend] tells me you don’t want to have kids?”
“Yeah”, I answered hesitantly, a little taken aback, “I don’t.”
“Why’s that?”, he asked.
This time I quickly worked out what I felt was a much more acceptable reason; my previous reply had somehow made its way to the ears of the concerned leader (I later learned that that my friend had made a joke about it in passing to the leader and had been surprised when he frowned and started asking follow-up questions), so I must have said the wrong thing. I wasn’t about to make that mistake again.
“Well, having a baby can really damage your career,” I replied confidently. “You have to take time off to look after it and stuff. Women have babies and it really affects their work.”
I don’t remember the precise details of the conversation beyond that, but I do remember roughly what happened next. The leader made it clear that this was a much more serious issue than I imagined it was. He had a really great book that could help me address these issues, he told me, and would I like to read it? Sure, I said, my heart sinking and confusion rising. What’s the problem here? How can I get out of this?
A short time later, I was in my room, a copy of the “great book” in my hands. It was one of those American self-help books where the title pretty much sums up the entirety of the book’s advice in one pithy trademarkable slogan, and is printed across the cover in enormous letters. Written by a clinical psychologist or therapist or something, it was crammed full of stories of people struggling with family breakdown, suicide, alcoholism, and domestic violence. About halfway through, as I read a story of a woman recovering from childhood sexual abuse by following the steps laid out in the book, I went from wondering what on Earth any of this had to do with me not wanting kids, to a dawning realisation: The church leader had done his own little piece of psychoanalysis on me, and decided that because I didn’t want to have kids, I must be messed up.
I’m not sure I can really explain how I felt at that moment. “Violated” might be the best word for it; as though my privacy had been utterly invaded. Anger flared up inside me and I threw the book to the floor.
A few days later, my friend asked, an earnest expression in her eyes, whether my feelings about having children had changed yet. She spent a lot of time at the church and I guess she must have been convinced by leader that this was worth an intervention on my behalf.
“Hmm…no”, I replied, then excused myself from the conversation.
I couldn’t believe how out of hand things were becoming. A snippet of unguarded conversation had become An Issue, and I had become A Person With Issues, and I would only be declared fit and healthy again when I affirmed my heartfelt desire to have a brood of beautiful babies; something I knew that truthfully, I could never do. I didn’t want to do it, either. Instead I felt like screaming, “Who the hell are you to tell me what I want and don’t want is wrong? It’s MY life!”
I went home for the weekend to see my parents, but I couldn’t enjoy my time there. The anger stayed simmering, ready to spill over. I knew I had to do something about this horrible ugly feeling, so when I got back to the city I arranged to meet up with one of the women church leaders. When I explained what had happened, to my considerable relief she agreed that the guy’s behaviour had been out of line. She assured me that she would try talking to him about it.
I don’t know what she said to him but the next time he saw me, he apologised. I accepted his apology, and that was that. I didn’t hear about it ever again from either the leader or my friend.
* * *
Over the years, I’ve asked myself why this incident touched such a deep nerve in me. Usually when someone reacted with such total rage to some godly instruction, we Christians would say that they were being “reached” by the truth, that whatever had been said was “getting through” to them (a pretty obnoxious assumption, when you think about it). We were taught that godly words were the sword that the Holy Spirit was wielding to cut through the darkness, and shine a light on the secret recesses of the human heart. But I knew that just wasn’t it. I didn’t have some super secret maternal instinct that I simply couldn’t bear to confront; that I shrouded in darkness because for some reason it hurt too much to expose it to the light. It really was a simple case of I don’t give a particular shit about babies or children, and I don’t see any benefit or joy that could come from having one.
If you’re wondering why I didn’t just tell the leader that it was none of his business, well, you were probably never involved with a certain non-denominational kind of Christianity. While I was a Christian, I didn’t know about the concept of boundaries, and I didn’t know that you even get to have a private life. That’s because in the Christian world I was a part of, you don’t get to have a private life; you forfeit it to the inspection of those in godly authority over you (the leaders: pastors, elders, and group leaders). If someone in authority over you tells you that there may be a problem with your internal world, you have to listen respectfully (in Christian terms, you have to submit). If you simply tell them that it’s none of their business, you are committing the sin of pride; you are attempting to hide something not just from the authority figure, but also from the Holy Spirit Himself. But the truth is, that doesn’t stop it from hurting when your unspoken boundaries are violated; when someone intrudes into your inner world in order to judge you, and to judge you incorrectly and unfairly. Whoever asks, the vast majority of the time, “Do you plan on having kids?” is just a flat-out inappropriate question. It’s even less appropriate to criticise the answer you get.
It wasn’t wasn’t just the privacy angle that bothered me. It was the presumption that I was a defective woman, or to put it another way, that I was damaged and broken as a woman. I bristled at the implication, too, that women were first and foremost baby machines; that no reason for not wanting a baby could ever be good enough, because making babies was our entire purpose. I didn’t think of myself as a feminist (in my circle it was a negative thing), and I had a fairly poor grasp of feminist theory, but I instinctively recognised this for the sexist bullshit that it was, and the implications for women who cannot have children troubled me: First, that they will never be fully complete. Second, that God would have them spend their whole lives in mourning for the children they ought to desire, and if they don’t mourn forever then there is something spiritually wrong with them.
After that incident, I made a mental note to myself that the next time someone asked me (as they inevitably would), I would say simply and honestly “I just don’t want kids” and close the conversation immediately. The incident had made it clear to me that there were some people who would accept no reasons as good enough for stubbornly refusing to long for children while presumed to be in possession of two ovaries. I had cited health reasons, and career reasons, which in my eyes at least are not frivolous excuses – and yet my perspective had remained unacceptable. They were written off as the thoughts of a damaged and broken woman. Instead of giving reasons, I would simply have to make it clear that my reproductive choices weren’t up for debate, and weren’t something I cared to explain.
* * *
Most of the sexism I’ve personally experienced in my life came from Christians and Christian beliefs. Because that’s what I had most experience with, I truly believed (as I said in a previous post) that the secular world was also a vastly less sexist world. However, I soon began to see that these attitudes towards women and baby-making aren’t just held by the religious, but also by the non-religious, albeit with different justifications.
Take Peterson, for instance. Although he is himself a Christian of some sort (a highly idiosyncratic sort), he has won significant popularity among atheists and the non-religious. Given some of the things he has said (and “just asked questions”) about women, it’s truly disheartening how eagerly he has been embraced by men (particularly young men), as it shows that they don’t recognise or simply don’t care to recognise sexism when they see it. Even worse, they may support it. Consider this video starting at about 0:54:
In this short clip, Peterson either dismisses out of hand, or gives obviously logically flawed responses to, these serious objections to human procreation: The depth of human suffering, the overpopulation crisis, feelings of doubt and unease around having a child (and if he really did react to a client the way he claims to have done in this video then that raises serious questions about his professional conduct). Then he asserts that any decent mother follows the example of Mary mother of Jesus, and “offers her son to be destroyed by the world” because ‘That’s what you do”.
In dismissing thoughtful objections to having kids, Peterson echoes the attitude of the church leader: No excuses allowed.
Peterson goes on to praise the courage of women who choose to raise children, and tells a rather endearing anecdote about his own mother, a woman he seems to hold in high regard. Clearly, he thinks he is elevating mothers. However, when you dismiss the reasons women give for not wanting to become one, you imply that having children is just what women are supposed to do. People talk about motherhood this way all the time – as though women are just supposed to have kids because that’s what women are for – and I don’t think they realise how belittling it is to the challenges that motherhood brings, and how much it takes to overcome them. These same people will – as Peterson does – claim that they deeply admire mothers for the sacrifices they make. However, when you dismiss women who choose not to make that particular set of sacrifices with a wave of your hand, you show your true feelings about women in general, and the value of a mother’s efforts in particular.
* * *
Peterson gets one thing right: sacrifice is the word that best describes motherhood. Bodily sacrifice is a part of motherhood for all women, whether it’s a C-section scar, morning sickness, or an agonising labour. More seriously the World Health Organisation tells us that 303,000 women died in childbirth in 2015. A recent study showed a correlation between having a child and cellular ageing of 11 years, and according to Mother Jones,
“Childbirth is, to be sure, far safer now than it has been for most of human history. In the 18th century, roughly 1 in 100 women died in the process—today in the United States, it’s about 1 in 4,000. But nonfatal injuries that wreak havoc on a woman’s quality of life remain surprisingly prevalent. Depending on the study, 50 to 80 percent of women who give birth experience tearing of the pelvic skin and muscles. For more than 1 in 10, the tearing is severe enough to damage the anal sphincter muscle, which often leads to the loss of bowel and bladder control. In a 2015 Canadian study, a whopping half of all new mothers were still reporting urinary incontinence a year after the birth, and more than three-quarters had residual back pain.”
Most women will never hear the full story of the potential toll that pregnancy and childbirth can take on their body from medical professionals, but we certainly hear about it from our girl friends: I can’t sit down yet. Sex is excruciating. I lost so much blood they didn’t know if I’d make it. In this Love, Joy, Feminism post, blogger Libby Anne describes how after giving birth to her first child, she permanently lost much of her her hearing. She notes that her condition, otosclerosis, affects many as one in ten caucasians, and is often caused by pregnancy, yet she was not informed that she risked hearing loss until after she had undergone her second pregnancy.
Aside from the physical costs of childbirth, there is the possibility of postnatal depression, postpartum psychosis, and birth trauma. Then there’s the toll that being a mother takes on a woman’s career and her finances, not to mention that new parents are deprived of sleep, and women still do the majority of unpaid work, and the majority of housework even when they also work full-time, which becomes a much heavier load when a new child joins the household.
When having a baby comes with so many risks, many of them very serious, why is it so often treated as something that women should want to do above all other things? Why is the default assumption that women will want to do this thing to themselves and their bodies – and if they don’t, well, there must be something wrong with them? Why can’t we weight up our options, without being told that we are defective for doing so?
People are often offended by the attitudes of the childfree and those who aren’t interested in parenthood, but the truth is that they tend to be the ones who have truly clear-eyed recognition of the many sacrifices involved in parenthood. The attitude that really belittles the sacrifices and courage of motherhood is the one that says “all women should do this. It’s just natural”. True achievements aren’t dismissed as “just natural”. It’s this attitude that demeans all women by treating our health, welfare, and achievements unrelated to motherhood as expendable, but it demeans the achievements and courage of mothers in particular.
There’s a commonly believed myth that evolution “designed” us or gave us a purpose, which is to pass on our genetic material to the next generation; therefore people who don’t want kids are failing on some kind of fundamental level to be properly human. But this is a misunderstanding of what it means for something to evolve. To say something is natural, or a result of evolution, is not to say that it is good or right or the only desirable outcome. Besides which, just as evolution has no purpose or goal in mind, so it doesn’t make mistakes. Nothing in existence is “unnatural”, and that includes the lack of desire to reproduce. Even if it is “normal” and “natural” to want kids, especially as we get older, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong not to.
You may have thought I was too tough on Jordan Peterson’s video appearance earlier. That’s understandable given that his public oration is (in)famously susceptible to differing interpretations. If that’s the case, then here is a further diagnosis from the doctor:
The insult is more stark this time, particularly when you contrast it with Peterson’s approach to young men. Peterson appeals to young men because he treats them as dynamic beings who are capable of great things, if only they start to take responsibility for themselves. He talks to them as though they are intellectually capable, provides them with a narrative and a framework that ennobles their characters and aspirations, and explains their anger and depression as at least partially the outcome of a society saturated with oppressive “postmodern neo-marxism”; a complex explanation.
Young women, on the other hand, are angry not because of any structural or social oppression directed against them, but because they are merely bovine creatures who can simply be quieted by taking part in the care of infants. And no, I haven’t watched countless hours of his lectures, but this tweet in particular outs him as being like all other misogynists in his assumption that the interior life of women is duller and vastly less rich than that of men. Although he is hailed by his fans and a few of his detractors as a great public intellectual, his view of women and motherhood is essentially the same as my youth pastor’s: When a woman doesn’t want kids, it’s a personal failing. Women who don’t have children are defective. Women need to have children or at least want to have children so as to be worthwhile people.
What of this female anger that he references? I think I’m on fairly safe ground when I assume that he’s referencing feminism. Here’s the thing, though: I wrote at the start of this post that I never had the desire to have a baby. I always assumed that I would be childfree. However, now that I’m engaged, and my fiancé and I have a home that we recently renovated together, we are talking seriously about having a child. My feelings have changed because I have the security of a home, a business, and a man who I feel confident would be a great father. I’m also at an age where I want to settle down properly and just be part of a community. More importantly, it wasn’t so long ago that my sister-in-law had a baby, and I spent a lot of time looking after my beautiful new niece. Having finally gotten that “infant contact” that I was supposedly craving on some level so deep I had no idea it even existed, I started to feel that although looking after a child is tedious almost beyond endurance, in some ways it’s also very rewarding. The change happened the day I picked my infant niece up off the floor with my bare arms and held her, even though she was naked and had had a diarrhoea attack three seconds earlier, just because she was bawling her eyes out and I didn’t like seeing her upset. In that moment, I knew I could almost certainly provide adequate care and affection to a baby, keeping it alive until it was 18 and no longer my responsibility. After that experience, the idea of having a kid repelled me much less, although I still wasn’t convinced until I got engaged (and even now, yes, there are doubts).
So, did the realisation that I’m open to motherhood make me less of an “angry feminist”? No. In fact it’s the total opposite; the more I see of motherhood and the variety of women’s experiences with pregnancy and childbirth, the more I see the incredible value of feminism, and the angrier I feel at injustice towards women, particularly reproductive injustice. I’m strongly in favour of women’s rights and opposed to those who would take them from us, because thinking seriously about motherhood should make it clear to anyone that it has to be a choice. Women have to be treated as fully human, with a variety of hopes and aspirations and desires outside of having kids, because that’s what we are. Motherhood shouldn’t be treated as just what women do. And no, it’s not our God-ordained lot in life to suffer a fistula, or lose our source of income. It’s not a personal failing to prioritise another desire over having kids, or to be nearing the end of your fertile years and still feel that you aren’t at a place in life where having a baby would be a good or desirable thing. People are very different and the varieties of their experiences and perspectives are innumerable; that’s what makes them interesting.
Medical establishments have to be clear with women about what pregnancy might do to them – no one should undergo two pregnancies without ever being informed that pregnancy is the reason they are going deaf. The potential consequences of pregnancy have to be considered part of making an informed choice, rather than treated as just what women have to suffer. Men shouldn’t assume that women will see the rewards of having children as worth the enormous sacrifices women make for them, nor that if women don’t want to make those sacrifices they are somehow defective. Will having a baby placate me? Will it soothe away my malcontentedness, as Prof Peterson seems to believe? Actually, no. Especially if I have a daughter; I will only be more determined to make sure she knows she has choices. It’ll make me angrier at the structural and social forces that would take those choices from her, whether it’s the expectation that she will have kids no matter what, or policies and attitudes that make motherhood less desirable and attainable for women who really want it. So thanks for the reminder that it’s OK for a woman to have kids, but I’d like to remind people of something, too: There are no excuses not to want kids. There are only reasons, and they’re none of your business.