Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Four days ago, an article of astounding bigotry appeared in a national newspaper. A prolific journalist called Carol Sarler had seized on a survey carried out by Dr Caroline Gatrell, which reported that company bosses were refusing promotions to childless women. These freakish creatures were, according to the good doctor, seen as ‘cold, odd and somehow emotionally deficient in an almost dangerous way.’ Employers are apparently loathe to have women working in their offices who ‘lack an essential humanity’ (and really, who could blame them? It would be like working with lots and lots of cross-dressing Dick Cheneys.). Ms Sarler was overjoyed; at last, she too could come out of the closet and admit that she too thought childless women were bizarre beyond words. She was giddy with relief and delight. She now had permission to state proudly what she had long been thinking: when she looks at a woman who chooses not to have a child she thinks: ‘Lady, you’re weird.’
For four days I have resisted writing about this. It’s partly that I am so damn bored of the confected mothers vs non-mothers divide that the media seems determined to keep chugging tiredly along. It’s partly that, old feminist that I am, I really hate attacking other women, even ones who write insane columns telling me how weird I am. It’s partly that almost all of my time has been taken up looking for my essential humanity (I could have sworn I left it down the back of the sofa).
I think if Carol Sarler had confined herself to the weirdness remark, I might have left it, and gone and done something more interesting. I might have shrugged my selfish shoulders and muttered about free speech and everyone being entitled to an opinion. But in the last line of her piece, she officially Went Too Far. ‘So three cheers for the employers who are catching on, who don’t want to people their workplaces with the cold, the calculating, the sad and the mad.’ This is so far off the reservation that I can stay silent no longer: I must speak. I must say: how would you like your prejudices Ms Sarler, over easy, or sunny side up?
Let us have clarity: I am not carelessly throwing words about. A prejudice is an unfavourable opinion formed without knowledge, thought or reason. There are no empirical studies that I can find which demonstrate women who have no children to be ‘cold, calculating, sad or mad.’ There are some studies which suggest that women who do not give birth actually have a slightly higher level of mental health than mothers, and the same or better ‘life satisfaction’ but these are quite small scale, and I would not necessarily find them definitive. The only absolute proved characteristic of the non-mother is that she is statistically likely to have a university degree. The number of graduates not having babies hovers around the forty percent mark. This much we know, this can be mapped. Everything else is pure, irrational supposition. It is blind, here-be-dragons, flat earth partiality.
Mothers, as we all know, come in all shapes and sizes. There are kind mothers and drunk mothers and funny mothers and mothers who can’t get through the day without a fistful of Xanax; there are organised mothers and academic mothers and confident mothers; there are tactile mothers and strict mothers and mothers for whom guilt is a way of life. I know very few saintly mothers, but I expect they exist. You could take all those descriptions and apply them just as easily to non-mothers. Women who decline to breed can no more be herded under one simplistic umbrella than can those who long for nothing more than tiny pattering feet. There are twenty-seven excellent reasons for not having children, not one of them on the Cruella de Vil scale; ‘I am evil and I hate sweet chubby little babies,’ is not necessarily the deciding factor.
What is so odd about the cold calculating mad sad vs selfless and filled with essential humanity argument is that it is so reductive. Working by Ms Sarler’s assumptions, we must conclude that Jane Austen and George Eliot and Louisa May Alcott and Helen Mirren are radically worse human beings than Katie Price and Kerry Katona. By this logic, we must infer that Angelina Jolie is six times finer than Oprah Winfrey. To follow this reasoning to its conclusion, we must state frankly that Kylie Minogue, Renee Zellwegger and newly famous singing sensation Susan Boyle are clearly inhumane, drunken, sex-crazed bitches. (Ms Sarler has a lovely little riff in her article that it is not the mothers who are bitching and coming in with hangovers and making eyes at the boss. You see, mummies don’t drink, cannot even see other men because they are so blinded by love for their husbands, and never have a common thought or mean.)
I could go on. I would quite like to explain why it is that not having a child is not a definitive act of selfishness. I might tempt you with a diverting little rant on over-population. But the awful thing is that this whole argument is boring me so much that I am losing the ability to type. There are women, they are different, they make different choices, some of them are nice and some of them are nasty. There are some females who like Play-Doh and some who don’t; it is not a mark of moral courage or higher integrity. So could everyone just stop with the stereotypes, and stop, stop, stop putting the child-full and the child-free into invented conflict, and calm down and have a nice cup of tea. I, obviously, will not have time for the tea part. I still have to locate my essential humanity. I am almost sure I left it in my coat pocket.