Childless: how women without kids are treated in 2016
About a quarter of Australian women now in their reproductive years will not become mothers. How are childless women treated in 2016? And how do they treat themselves?
In 1976, when I was 10, I was sold my first fertility fairy tale. The bearded prince wore lime-green trousers and a red-and-orange striped sweater. The princess was a cartoon hippie: blonde pigtails, purple-and-blue-striped minidress, cankles. “Here are the baby’s mother and father. They love each other very much. They have helped each other to have the baby,” were the words beside the illustration.
My mother had chosen How a Baby Is Made from a collection of books peddled at a sex-education film night at my primary school. A sense of awe at what I found in those pages lingers: a naked man and woman, flaunting anatomical bits and that rare artefact, pubic hair, showing the wonders of sexual intercourse. Nine months later, the happy couple tootle off in a green car adorned with love hearts to an orange-and-red hippie hospital for the birth of a cartoon cherub.
“When the mother holds the baby in her arms with the father beside her bed, they are very proud and happy.” There is so much certainty in this book, in those badly drawn characters; the woman got her baby and her man was steadfast, and a skinny, freckled 10-year-old girl absorbed a story with a happy ending.
I grew up and remained a child. At university, a friend and I drank cheap red and gossiped about our boyfriends. Under the influence on one such occasion, we described our fantasy families, right down to choosing execrably preppie names for our children. Later, my friend gave me a sketch: she’d drawn me with my fantasy family. She gave me a chic haircut and a self-satisfied set to my face. She put a baby in my arms and two button-eyed children at my side and a portrait on the wall behind me of a button-eyed bloke with love hearts dancing around his ears. My friend would have done better to tell me the truth about fairy tales.
I grew up a little more. I worked long hours and stayed out late and lived overseas and took detours past men of puny character and, all the while, hoped I’d stumble onto a smooth highway with a sign saying “nuclear family, next exit” that would lead me to the clichés: the man of my dreams, wedded bliss, happy family. I wanted several children. Sometimes I said I wanted enough children to make up a football team. I had no reason, I thought, to be seriously concerned that acquiring a family would be anything but an automatic progression.
It’s hard to believe, but in those blissfully ignorant days, women’s declining fertility was barely mentioned; the subject of men’s sperm seems to have been as much in the news as ageing eggs. Articles warned that tight pants, marijuana, aspirin, spas and hot offices could reduce a man’s sperm count. Headlines in The Sydney Morning Herald included “Rise in male fertility a puzzle” (June 1981) and “Sperm lazy when the heat is on” (September 1990). Until the late ’90s, there was only a trickle of stories about women’s fertility. The first I can find with any tone of alarm was published in The Age in May 1999: “Women urged to conceive younger.” By then I was in my early 30s and looking for my clichés. They remained elusive.
Now, I am grown up and I know I will not have children. I will never claim ownership of the word “mother” and scoop up all the tenderness and purposefulness it suggests. What’s mine instead are colder words: the IVF doctor might brand me “socially infertile”, the academic would describe me as “circumstantially childless”, and the statistician can point out that I am in a cohort of about 24 per cent of Australian women in their reproductive years who will remain childless – or “child-free”, as some prefer.
This is not the way my life was meant to be! I did not choose this path. Quietly, so as not to be seen, I shelter an emotion resembling grief and dare not look too far into the chasm lest I topple in and cannot ever find a way back out.
“Do you have children?” people ask and I mutter a reply because isn’t my answer an admission of failure? If I have failed to achieve something that for so long was so elemental to my vision of myself, am I not a failure?
I’m fortunate to have assistance in my self-abasement. Despite burnt bras, zipless fucks and female astronauts, the dominant culture celebrates two roles for women, each a function of female physicality: the desirable young woman and the mother. The drumbeat of the tribe wills me to believe that, even in the 21st century, I’m something other: selfish, empty, meaningless. On melancholic days, it’s not hard to see myself as the incredible disappearing woman, an outlier. I feel the sting of the suffix: childless. Less. Less of a person, it seems to say sometimes, a life that’s less.
In Queensland high schools, circa 1979, girls were taught to aim for the stars, and how far apart the rails on a crib should be so babies’ heads couldn’t get stuck. In grade 9, while the boys were in woodwork, girls studied mothercraft. We practised putting nappies on a doll. We learnt about baby nutrition, layette essentials and baby bowel movements.
For homework we had to cut pictures of babies out of women’s magazines and glue them into a scrapbook. I daydreamed then about what I might become. I knew what I did not want. I did not want to become Miss B, the thin, coiffed teacher who always wore stockings and high heels and was rumoured to have lost her fiancé in a war. I didn’t want to become old Miss D, who powdered her wrinkles until she was white and wore a green wool suit and hat. I would have liked to have become someone like Miss S, our history teacher. The boys were mad about her. She was young and beautiful and when she walked her bottom and wide hips swayed in a ludicrously luscious fashion.
I feel the sting of the suffix: childless. Less. Less of a person, it seems to say sometimes, a life that’s less.
At school, the lessons about the desirable forms of womanhood, mother and maiden, were straightforward but, after hours, my mother’s teachings were confusing. Education, independence and travel were immutables. Better to be on your own than with the wrong man, she counselled. The Female Eunuch was on a bookshelf. But I don’t believe she ever read it. Like multiplication tables, her fairy tale – meeting my princely father, their courtship, an elegant wedding – was drilled into me. I took from her story that there would be a prince for me too and, implicit in that, children.
Rebecca, a 51-year-old business development manager from Melbourne, also daydreamed. “I always wanted to have children, always wanted to be a mother,” she tells me. She thought it was her birthright.
She started going out with Man A when she was 17. He told her he didn’t want children. She thought she might persuade him otherwise. Rebecca left him when she was 30. He went on to have two daughters with another woman.
Rebecca met Man B soon after and married him when she was 36. He told her she would be the woman he would have children with. “It was hearts and flowers. I was going to make beautiful children with him. I believed it. I really believed it.” Man B prevaricated. Michael Beard, the key character in Ian McEwan’s Solar, is like Man B. At one point in the novel, Beard reflects on his young partner and his own behaviour: “She was at that age when a childless woman should be in a hurry. If he would not step up to perform his duties, he should bow out.”
Rebecca bowed out of the marriage with Man B when she was 38: “He decided at the 11th hour that he didn’t want to have children.” In the gloaming of her fertility, she investigated sperm donation, IVF and freezing eggs but eventually realised it was not viable for her to have a child on her own. (Egg freezing was then in its infancy; even now, the number of women who have given birth to a child using their previously stored eggs is small. In Victoria in 2013-2014, only 12 of 53 women whose frozen eggs were used in their fertility treatments succeeded in having a baby.)
Rebecca married again, and she and her new husband explored IVF. “The only way they’d take me was with a donor egg,” she says. She was 43 and judged to have no satisfactory eggs of her own. Her voice trembles. “Oh, I get a bit emotional about this, it was quite difficult.” She visited websites where women advertise for donor eggs but was distressed by what she saw. “I thought, ‘This is crazy!’ I just couldn’t do it. The idea of advertising for an egg donor seemed just too desperate and sad.”
Mostly, her grief is contained. Sometimes not so. About 18 months ago, Rebecca and her husband went to the first-birthday party of a friend’s child. “I said, ‘It’s too much, I have to leave,’ and I cried all the way home. It was just the cacophony of children and parents, talking about children and parent-y things and I’m there thinking, ‘Well, what have we got to talk about?’ ”
The most tedious and censorious of the baloney spoken about women who have not had children is that they are selfish and put their careers first. But the fact is, many of these women wanted children. Of the 776 women aged 25 to 44 who were involved in one recent Deakin University study into the lives of childless women, 21 per cent had not had children through circumstance, such as the no-show of an appropriate partner. About 8 per cent were “involuntarily childless” due to fertility issues or other medical conditions. About a third had chosen not to have children. Another third were either planning to have children or undecided.
Nicola, a 45-year-old Brisbane office administrator, simply hasn’t met the right man. “I am a magnet for complete idiots,” she says. She wanted two or three kids but has realised “the white-picket-fence dream isn’t a reality for everybody”. Roberta, a Sydneysider who works in the food industry, didn’t meet her partner until her mid-30s. He was older and ambivalent. They didn’t use contraception, but still it didn’t happen. She is now 54. Erin, a Perth bookkeeper, married late and conceived naturally when she was 43. But she has Crohn’s disease and doctors told her there was a high risk that the steroids and immunosuppressants she took could hurt the foetus. She and her husband made the most difficult of decisions. Erin had always assumed she would have a child. She’s now 52. “Well, seriously, what’s the point?” she asks herself sometimes.
Maria, a former dancer from Sydney, was 32 years old and five months pregnant when her former partner pushed her down a flight of stairs. He left her there, haemorrhaging. She was critically injured. She lost the baby. “I think about how my life would be – it was a little boy. I always wanted a little boy.” Maria is 52 now, but still remembers how, years after the tragedy and in a new relationship, she hoped to have another child. “It did feel like a craving,” she says. “It’s in your stomach. It’s a deep, deep yearning.”
If my mother’s story told me a prince was coming around the corner, my grandmother’s told me I had plenty of time to wait for him. She married my grandfather when she was in her late 30s. She was 39 when she gave birth to my mother. That number, THIRTY-NINE, was on my mind when I turned 30 and ended a relationship that had spluttered on years past its use-by date. It consoled me through my 30s and a series of dismal liaisons. As long as I wasn’t 39, I could hold that thought.
In 2004, when I was 38, I moved from Hong Kong to Melbourne to be with a man who had told me he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. He had a health issue and one of the first things we did on my return was visit a specialist to discuss his fertility. But without the romance that Hong Kong had lent our relationship’s start, we were finished quickly. At 39, I found myself visiting an IVF clinic alone. I wanted to know my options. They were unpalatable. The specialist told me that Victorian law prevented single women and lesbians from receiving IVF treatment. I would need to travel across the border into NSW, a clucky outlaw, for access to donor sperm and the treatment. (In 2008, the law changed to give single women and lesbians in Victoria equal access to IVF.) Around that time, clutching a glass of wine, I face-palmed through a current affairs program about anonymous sperm donation. The donor interviewed, a most unappealing character, had fathered a dozen or more children.
It is only when almost every other woman you know is a mother and your own time is nearly done that you fully understand the implications of being a non-mother. You see then that your pain will not be confined to a lament for an absent child. You realise that the rites of parenthood – the playground chats, the mothers’ groups, the Saturday sidelines – will exclude you from a gang that most of your generation have joined and from which they can, if they choose, build networks of support and society. “Sometimes I feel like I’m not in the club and I’m a fraud,” says Rebecca.
I talk to two elder stateswomen of Australian feminism, Eva Cox (mother of one daughter) and Anne Summers (who did not have children). Their insights make it clear that we are in a new era of pro-natalism.
Once, says Cox, having a child was just the thing you did: “It wasn’t seen as an achievement.” But in the past three decades or so, the celebratory narrative surrounding motherhood has intensified.
When women moved into the workforce and the Pill allowed them to make choices about their fertility, pro-natalism intensified. A woman likely worked for some years before having a baby. Perhaps she had to leave a brilliant job, or struggled to conceive and endured IVF. Perhaps, because she was older, the physical demands of pregnancy and childbirth added weight to the experience. And maybe she discovered that, even if she went back to work, she was still her family’s primary care-giver and that the cost of childcare consumed chunks of her income.
“There’s so much more invested in it; it becomes a much more intense experience,” says Cox. “You are going to make it important.”
Other parties have contributed to this highly charged atmosphere: the advertising industry, the fairy-bread-brandishing cheer squads of smug mummy bloggers, and, of course, politicians. “One for mum, one for dad and one for the country,” treasurer Peter Costello trumpeted after overhauling the baby bonus in 2004.
Don’t underestimate the importance of the baby bonus, says Anne Summers, author of the 1975 book Damned Whores and God’s Police, reissued this year. “Once the government started paying women to have children … that was a very big deal.”
Summers marvels at how deeply conservative Australia remains; how “God’s police” – a 19th century expression for wives and children – are still ascribed almost preternatural qualities. “We have not disavowed that motherhood is still the central, preferable and most admired option for women. We might not overtly punish women who are not mothers but we have our ways of letting them know they have fallen short of the ideal.”
Recent Deakin University research led by PhD candidate Beth Turnbull has confirmed that childless women experience stigmatisation and social exclusion. “It was really devastating reading a lot of the data,” says Turnbull. “Some women felt that they were excluded from society and that it affected their mental health daily. They felt mothers were valued and that women with no children were not.”
The devaluation can be in the form of a careless aside from someone close to you – “That’s because you’re not a mum,” an interstate friend said to me recently during a phone chat when I expressed surprise at a particular child-rearing custom – or a glib piece of political language. (“Mum and dad investors” and “your children and grandchildren” were hoary favourites through the recent federal election campaign.) Think of Bill Heffernan’s 2007 sentiment that Julia Gillard was unfit for leadership because she was “deliberately barren”, or British prime ministerial aspirant Andrea Leadsom suggesting, just a few weeks ago, that “being a mum” made her a better candidate than her childless opponent, Theresa May.
The women I spoke with all have felt the sting of exclusion in both language and practice. Rebecca helped her brother, a single father, bring up his daughter, but things became difficult when she offered advice. “You don’t understand, you’re not a mother,” he told her. “Because I didn’t physically have a child, [he meant] I had no empathy. I was gutted.”
Her experience concurs with Beth Turnbull’s research. Many childless women, Turnbull says, have felt their views and expertise invalidated. “They described others’ beliefs that they lacked knowledge, emotions, abilities and attributes that women acquired only upon becoming childed.”
Maria, the former dancer, feels marginalised when people ask her if she has children, or wants children. “I find it deeply intrusive. I don’t believe any man gets asked that,” she says. “It feels for me, when someone asks that question, that my presence in the world is only validated if I’m married and/or have children.”
On a winter’s night in 2010, I sat in a Darlinghurst bar with a gay friend drinking beer and shelling peanuts. Momentous events were afoot. Julia Gillard had just announced she would challenge Kevin Rudd for the Labor leadership. And I was about to ask my friend if he would consider donating his sperm to me.
We drank more beer. I was nervous and squirming but somehow manipulated the conversation into fertility territory. Maybe I said that, as another birthday loomed, babies were on my mind. Did I go so far as to say that I still harboured thoughts of trying to have one on my own? I don’t recall, but whatever I said, he wasn’t biting. In the flash of a peanut shell, I judged his answer would be no and that, by even asking the question, I might shroud our friendship in interminable awkwardness. I turned the discussion back to politics.
For me, there seemed to be no other options. A friend’s experience had deterred me from the idea of adoption: she and her husband had been unable to conceive and so had gone through the inter-country adoption process but, after years on waiting lists, they abandoned the process. (The number of Australian children offered for adoption each year is limited.) Adoption agreements with different countries vary from state to state; some refuse to consider single parents.
And no matter which option I worried over, I could not shake a fear that having a child on my own seemed both a practical and emotional Everest. I had little support in Sydney, where I had lived for only a couple of years. How would I care for a child and pay my mortgage? Was I strong enough to cope if it had a birth defect or developmental issue? How much time could one person endure pushing a child on a swing in a playground?
I am in awe of the women who, in growing numbers, choose to go it alone. At Monash IVF Group for example, the proportion of single women undergoing IVF treatment increased from 7.95 per cent to 9.6 per cent between July 2015 and March 2016.
Is a woman’s urge to have babies a biological imperative or cultural construction? It is, in evolutionary biologist Robert Brooks’ view, an unresolvable tension. “Our urges and motivations, including those that operate beneath our conscious understanding of ourselves, are evolved traits that propel us to do the things that made our ancestors good at becoming ancestors,” says Brooks, director of UNSW’s Evolution and Ecology Research Centre. “So the urges to find good mates, to woo them, to have sex, to have babies, and to care for them are all partly biological motivations that we inherited from our ancestors.”
But he adds, such urges are context-dependent, and vary between individuals, ages, and individual circumstances. “So feminism has long, and for excellent reason, baulked at ideas of essential mothering instincts. The most common response has been to point at the variability and context-dependence of urges as evidence that they are ‘culturally constructed’, and the implication of that is that they are in important senses not really ‘real’.”
I am encouraged by other thoughts on the matter that I find in an article published in Scientific American in 2013. “We care about ourselves and others as persons, not as a gene menagerie. Humans create our own meanings,” wrote physician Lawrence Rifkin. “Reproduction and genetic survival may be the meaning of Life, but it is not inescapably the meaning of your life.”
The other night I had a dream about bathing a baby. At some point I returned it to its mother. Babies are evidently still on my mind, but time has made its mind up for me.
A friend and I lunched one day recently and, as we settled in with a second bottle of wine, I revealed to him this personal history. I talked of my wistfulness at the unintended destination at which I have arrived. He shared his own information: in a vial in some medical facility, he has his sperm stashed. I’m welcome to it, he said. I reminded him of the big birthday coming up for me, and how I like my sleep.
I might have been a shocking mother. I might have been a good one. But even then, life is hard and rarely goes to plan and there are no fairy tales. I can see the joy a child can bring and that it is a love like no other, but I can see, too, that motherhood is a more mammoth challenge than ever before; a frenzied, risky business of guilt, blame, pressure, sleep deprivation, mess, homework projects, disobedience, arguments, digital devices, chauffeuring, sport, parties, play dates, tears, tantrums, insolence, allergies and stinky school bags. And most often, a woman has a job to go to as well.
My life would have been different with children. But it would not necessarily have been better. The women I have talked with have reached the same conclusion. Rebecca has realised it means a life of freedom. “We get to travel. We don’t have to worry about school fees, we don’t have to have a heavy mortgage.” As she explains how her new life-coaching business will allow her to mother in other ways, I hear her replacement “children”, her two Staffordshire terriers, in the background.
I’d like to get a dog. Not so much a cat, although it’s true: one day recently I found myself on the NSW Cat Fanciers Association website. I might yet pursue the idea of fostering a child. But I’m not propelled by any overwhelming urge to nurture. I will not shed cat hair and disappointment. I have come to know myself and my need for space and peace. I travel and read and cook for people I love and my work is all-encompassing and takes me to places in my mind that I could not be without.
And I look to strong, interesting, childless women through Australian history who have made remarkable, big lives for themselves. I particularly like Ethel Cooper, who was born in Adelaide in 1871 and died in Melbourne in 1961 and, in between, studied music in Germany, wore a black jacket and tie when she played the trombone, did relief work in Thessaloniki after the First World War, and kept a pet crocodile called Cheops in her Leipzig apartment. A “wicked gypsy”, one colleague said of her.
I find wisdom too, in places I should have looked long ago. “It takes a great deal of courage and independence to decide to design your own image instead of the one that society rewards, but it gets easier as you go along,” wrote Germaine Greer in that book on my mother’s shelf. Increasingly now, I can lean over into that chasm of grief without becoming dizzy, without tumbling into its darkness. I look down and see what I have lost. I can also see what I have gained.