Sunday 22 September 2019

Why is it still taboo for a woman to NOT want a child?

A new book explores the lives of women who want a life without kids and the disparity going against a dominant social condition of worth can create...

Joanne McNally. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM
Joanne McNally. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM

Rosa Silverman

It is broadly accepted, if not always applauded, that in the Western world today, women may do with their lives pretty much whatever they darn well want. So why, when society has become so relaxed about a multiplicity of female roles and identities, does it still somewhat baulk when we reject just one in particular — that of motherhood?

Forget the idea that your womb is your business. We may have moved on since the days when childless women were quite often regarded as witches, but progress has perhaps not been as great as we’d like to think. This was a point recently highlighted by comedian Joanne McNally, who made TV3’s documentary Baby Hater, where she explored how she was 80pc certain that she does not want children and 20pc still curious.

It’s a seam Nicola Moriarty mines more thoroughly in her new novel, Those Other Women, a title that speaks to the incomprehensible “otherness” of those who make choices that are different from our own. In the book, Moriarty’s fifth, two friends who have opted for childlessness create a Facebook group for women like them who want a life without kids.

Set up in opposition to their local “mums online” group, “Non-mums online” brings together those who’ve grown tired of watching their colleagues fall pregnant and take months off work, only to return with their flexible working requests and smug smiles.

The story is a delicious pleasure to race through, but it throws up an interesting question, too: why are we still so bewildered by women who are childless by choice? I put this to Moriarty, a 36-year-old mother of two daughters aged nine and seven, when she speaks to me on the phone from her native Australia.

“Even though the world is changing and people are becoming more accepting of different types of family units, people will still [make assumptions about] women of a certain age. If they haven’t got children yet they’re going to ask why,” she says.

“There’s an assumption it’s one of the life goals. I wonder if it’s to do with that maternal instinct and the assumption that everyone must have the biological clock ticking, and because it’s all a part of us continuing to populate the world.”

As she points out, representations of women in popular culture and advertising tend to hammer the message home: once they are past a certain age, “everything you see is painting the woman as a mother. If we do see [a childless woman represented], usually it has to be all about a woman who’s focused on career. It’s never about someone who just wants to live her life and enjoy it.”

It’s assumed that “if you don’t want this natural maternal thing there must be reasons for it,” she adds.

And while the masculinity of a childless man is rarely called into question, motherhood is perpetually linked with femininity.

An OECD study shows that Irish women have the third-highest rate of childlessness in the developed world, at 18.4pc.

In Australia, where Moriarty’s novel is set, 16pc of women in their forties have no children.

In Hollywood, female celebrities who don’t have children — including Cameron Diaz (45), Renee Zellweger (49), Jennifer Aniston (49) and Oprah Winfrey (64) — tend to be heavily monitored by the press.

Yet our attitudes appear to be lagging behind the figures, prompting a backlash among some women not entirely dissimilar to the one Moriarty portrays.

The idea of a non-mums Facebook group, for instance, is not pure fiction: on the contrary, several such online communities exist in real life. One, called ‘Women Without Children’, features on its page a sardonic mock-up of a car sticker that reads ‘No baby on board, feel free to drive into me.’ Posts in the group include articles on scientific research showing mothers age faster than childless women, and a study showing women without children typically earn more than those with kids.

Another article shared between members asks, ‘why are women without children still stigmatised by society?’

“I recall before having children I did have judgements of other people, until I saw what it was like for myself,” she admits.

“I remember being part of the workforce and making judgements of other people and I have seen people make judgements of mothers having special privileges and [feeling that they’re] having to take up the slack.”

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