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To be or not to be a mother: a woman’s right to choose

12740142_sRecently, Jennifer Anniston spoke out in the media about how she was feeling about being constantly asked about not having children. She’s a highly successful actor who has not combined that with motherhood. So what? Are male actors harassed in this way if they don’t have children? Why is there an expectation from society that you are not truly a woman until you have become a mother?

Some women are childfree by choice; others are childfree by circumstances, social or medical. Either way, that’s their business and they are no less a woman.

Most people would agree women’s bodies are their own, and as adults can choose to do with them what they want. From styling their hair, choosing their clothes, body piercings and tattoos, to consenting for sex. But when it comes to whether or not to have children, the whole world wants to have their say on our bodies,

My pregnant wife’s bump was apparently an invitation for strangers (men and women) to cop a stroke.”

I am constantly expected to justify my reasons for not wanting or having babies and put up with people telling me that I will change my mind.”

[Everyday Sexism Project, 2014]

Regardless of choosing to, or not to have children, women’s choices are questioned and unsolicited opinions offered. From contraception to abortion and baby weight to childlessness, the common misconception that women’s bodies are public property is never stronger than when the subject is reproduction. Women who choose not have children have their decision questioned. It’s assumed you haven’t met the right man yet, which is heteronormative as well as plain rude.

I want to live in a world where every child born is a wanted child, born by choice into a loving home with a willing parent. There is well-documented evidence that women who have unwanted children are more likely to suffer from mental health problems such as post-natal depression.

There is an expectation that women will want to be mothers, and the Labour Party is no exception. When seeking parliamentary selection, I know I’m not the only woman who was asked how I would juggle raising children with being an MP – and I don’t have children. I remember asking if they had asked this question to the men seeking the selection (many of whom were fathers). They hadn’t. Why do we see motherhood as such an essential part of woman’s identity and yet at the same time fail to value fatherhood?

When talking about women in politics we talk about “family-friendly” politics, we talk about extending childcare; we talk about wrap-around childcare and education policy. Surely all these things should matter as much to fathers?

As someone who was raised by both my mother and father ,I can say that both had a positive role to play in my childhood, teenage years, and continue to support me. My dad was just as good as my mum at helping me with homework or taking me to hospital after some mishap. He cooked family meals as well as my mum and it’s his roast dinners I look forward to when I visit now. (And I don’t just say this because he’s a Tribune reader.)

With the obvious exception of breast feeding in the early months, there’s no reason why men cannot match women with parenting skills, so when we talk about family policies we should expect fathers to take as an active role as mothers.

So here’s what I want to see. I want our policy discussions on teenage pregnancy to talk about the young men as well as the young women “falling” pregnant, as if it was something she did all by herself. I want women who choose not to have children to be valued equally and not have their choices seen as “selfish” or worthy of pity because of a presumption she “left it too late”. In the workplace, 30,000 women lose their jobs every year because of pregnancy discrimination, yet a man can have children and no one questions their ability to do his job.

The choice to be a parent is a deeply personal one and both motherhood and fatherhood should be equally valued.

This article first appeared in Tribune

Image Copyright: kenishirotie / 123RF Stock Photo

One Comment

  1. Chris says:

    “Are male actors harassed in this way if they don’t have children?”

    No, because the women who write for Heat etc. aren’t that interested in male actors’ personal lives.

    “Why is there an expectation from society that you are not truly a woman until you have become a mother?”

    I know many women who aren’t mothers. I don’t think anyone thinks they aren’t women.

    “But when it comes to whether or not to have children, the whole world wants to have their say on our bodies”

    I think you’ll find that actually most people don’t care. Certainly most men don’t.

    “My pregnant wife’s bump was apparently an invitation for strangers (men and women) to cop a stroke.”

    How this counts as “Everyday Sexism” is beyond me.

    “Regardless of choosing to, or not to have children, women’s choices are questioned and unsolicited opinions offered.”

    People do this to all people and about all aspects of life. It’s human nature for at least some people to do this.

    “It’s assumed you haven’t met the right man yet, which is heteronormative as well as plain rude.”

    Why shouldn’t society be “heteronormative”? Heterosexuality is the norm. Gay people accept that.

    “There is an expectation that women will want to be mothers”

    That’s because the majority do want that.

    “Why do we see motherhood as such an essential part of woman’s identity and yet at the same time fail to value fatherhood?”

    We don’t. Culture praises both motherhood and fatherhood in many ways (Father’s Day, the introduction of paternity leave).

    “When talking about women in politics we talk about “family-friendly” politics, we talk about extending childcare; we talk about wrap-around childcare and education policy. Surely all these things should matter as much to fathers?”

    Normally it’s women who do the majority of the childcare and men who do the majority of the breadwinning. The extent to which that’s true has varied over time and certainly men and women should be able to organise family life as they choose, but that’s the way human beings tend to live.

    “so when we talk about family policies we should expect fathers to take as an active role as mothers.”

    Fathers do have an active role, but it’s primarily in keeping the mothers and children fed and clothed. I think that’s what most women want.

    “In the workplace, 30,000 women lose their jobs every year because of pregnancy discrimination, yet a man can have children and no one questions their ability to do his job.”

    I don’t want any woman denied a job because of pregnancy or possible pregnancy and such discrimination is rightly illegal, but employers aren’t being totally irrational here. There’s a good chance that a woman will spend long periods on maternity leave or go part time after pregnancy, whereas there’s basically no chance a man will.

    I think you need to look again at how most men and women really live. Obviously everyone should have equal rights, but different sex roles are unlikely to ever go away.

    I think as well that a lot of what you focus on is fairly unimportant. I mean, who cares if friends or colleagues ask when you’re going to have a baby? Strong people should be able to brush that off.

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