Sunday, October 30, 2011

When a man doesn't want children, we assume it's because he's having too much fun. When a woman doesn't want children, we think she's an aberration

By Jennifer O’Connell

Did you read that recent article about poor, childless George Clooney? No, of course you didn’t.

The words “poor” and “childless” simply don’t belong in the same sentence as the name George Clooney.

I thought about this as I read the latest baby rumours concerning ‘tragic, childless’ Jennifer Aniston. (Rumours which are totally true this time, except for the part where she is not pregnant.)

I may be missing the point here, but Aniston strikes me as anything but tragic.

She has a career she loves, and which has made her disgustingly wealthy; a $42 million home in Beverly Hills and an apartment in New York; hair and a body to die for; an apparently close circle of female friends, and a string of eligible male consorts. She seems to spend roughly the same portion of her life frolicking on a beach in Mexico as most other women her age spend standing at the school gates in the rain.




Yet, no profile or interview with her is complete without an unflattering comparison to the fertile-as-the-Nile-Delta Angie, or a reference to her ‘longing’ for children.

At least once a year, Aniston’s PR people feel compelled to issue a statement along the lines of this one, from last February: “Jennifer is not adopting a baby from Mexico, nor does she have a nursery in her home and she has not hired a nanny.”

And yet, we still simply refuse to believe it, as though we can’t come to terms with the idea that a woman of 42, with so much else going for her, might simply choose not to raise a child.

Society and popular culture has always fetishised motherhood. From the Virgin Madonna right up to Michelle Obama, with several rom coms in between, motherhood is seen as the ultimate happy ending; the most natural expression of what it means to be a woman. Newspapers are full of warnings about ‘not leaving it too late’ to embrace your destiny, and heart-wrenching parables about Kylie’s or Jen’s ‘baby agony’ to illustrate the point.

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It is ironic that the pressure to procreate has never been more intense, at the precise moment when large numbers of women are opting not to.

The latest CSO figures reveal that there are growing numbers of people – some of them sane, well-intentioned, compassionate, successful, selfless and even, dare I say it, perfectly normal – who are in their 30s or 40s and have no children.

More than one in six Irish women now have no children at the age of 45. The statistics also show that the higher a woman’s educational attainment, the later she will start having children – and the fewer children she will have.

This echoes a trend being seen right across Europe, where the birthrate is in steep decline. A major study in American estimates that one in five women will never have a biological child.

Some of this is involuntary: for various biological, sexual and social reasons, there are people who are deprived of the opportunity to become parents. But for a growing number, being childfree is a state they have chosen; a state they value and work hard to maintain.

If a man says he doesn’t want children, we assume – usually rightly - that it’s because he’s having too much of a good time. We look on them indulgently – even men like the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, who cheerfully described himself as a “horrible mistake by Darwinian standards” because he has no desire to reproduce.

But a woman who says she doesn’t want children is expected to offer a better explanation – an explanation that she can expect to be met with suspicion, incredulity, condescension, or even pity.

The actress Cameron Diaz, who is 37, has been vocal about her ambiguity on the subject. “Children aren't the only things that bring you gratification and happiness, and it's easier to give life than to give love, so I don't know. That kind of change would have to be either very well thought out, or a total mistake,” she has said.

The typical response to this is to insist that she’ll change her mind – or worse, that she’ll regret it.

In her final interview with Marian Finucane, the late Nuala O’Faolain was utterly candid in her despair at facing up to her imminent death. But what struck me most was the way she talked about being relieved, in what were her final weeks of life, she had decided not to have children.

If O’Faolain was ever to regret her childfree state, she might have been expected to do so then. But she didn’t.

Likewise, Helen Mirren, Lionel Shriver and Oprah are all at an age where – popular wisdom has it – women who ‘selfishly’ decided not to have children when they were younger end up rueing their foolishness.

But none of them looks to me to be burning up with regret about all the babies they didn’t have.

In the main, though, female role models for the happily childfree remain few and far between – and is it any wonder? Stating a desire not to have children – or even admitting to feeling unsure about the prospect – is, in this parentcentric society, the ultimate taboo.

It’s hard to understand why this is. Deciding to shoulder responsibility for the health, happiness, emotional development, and general care of someone who interrupts your sleep, spends all your money and addresses you mostly as “Can I have...” clearly isn’t going to be for everyone.

If it’s for you, then I salute you. I can’t put into words how much pleasure my children have brought me, and I’ve no intention of boring you by trying.

Happy as I am with my choice, though, I’m not about to start trying to convert every passing, unencumbered thirty- or fortysomething woman to the cause. It’s not as though there aren’t enough of us already.

But – and there’s no easy way to say this - I can’t help feeling that the ‘childfree by choice’ are at least part to blame for some of the negativity and incomprehension directed towards them.

In internet chat forums and magazine articles, they throw around terms like ‘breeders’ and ‘crotch-fruit’; they carp about Bugaboo-pushing mothers running them off the pavement; they make the rest of us feel self-conscious and boring with their stories about holidays in Zanzibar, and their frozen smiles when the subject of children comes up.

A little bit more understanding on both sides probably wouldn’t go astray.

The reality is that - like marriage or civil union; like renting or buying; like driving a car or riding a bike - being child-free or deciding to have children are merely different life choices. One is not more valid or more worthwhile than the other.

In the meantime, let’s all keep our fingers crossed for that poor, childless Simon Cowell.

This column first appeared in the Irish Independent Weekend magazine on Saturday, October 29, 2011

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