No children. No problem

Independent on Sunday, 19 July 2015

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is sometimes described as the most powerful woman in the world. She’s had a busy week, struggling with the Greek debt crisis, so she may not have noticed a magazine cover which shows her glancing regretfully at an empty cradle – empty except for a ballot box, that is.

Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who is on the same cover, did see it and was understandably irritated.  ‘Jeezo…we appear to have woken up in 1965 this morning!’ she tweeted. She later praised the accompanying article but described the image as ‘crass’.

If I were pushed, I would probably have guessed that none of the four women on the New Statesman cover – the Home Secretary, Theresa May, and the Labour leadership candidate, Liz Kendall, are the other two – has children. But I certainly wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that, no matter what else they’ve achieved, they’re all secretly miserable.

Of course we will never see a bunch of childless male politicians looking glumly at a rocking-horse, even though it would be easy enough to put together. Luxembourg’s prime minister, Xavier Bettel, who recently became the first EU leader to marry his gay partner, doesn’t have children, as far as I know; neither do the former Tory ministers, Eric Pickles and William Hague. But while statisticians collect masses of data on childless women in the UK – currently around one in five by the age of 45 – they’re not very interested at all in childless men.

Helen Lewis’s article in the New Statesman rightly identifies the greater pressure on women to have children or explain the fact that they don’t. She identifies a ‘motherhood trap’ that causes problems for both groups: working mothers are assumed to be less committed to their jobs, while childless women are accused of being selfish and less rounded.

But why is it ‘an uncomfortable truth’ that high proportions of successful women in politics are childless? Attitudes to motherhood vary dramatically, from women who passionately want children at one end of the spectrum to those who definitely don’t at the other. For centuries, this fact was obscured by the fact that sexually active women didn’t have much choice; my great-grandmother on my mother’s side had six children, my grandmother had four and my mother one. It’s a typical story of the impact of education and widening choices on women’s lives.

I don’t doubt that there are women who find infertility incredibly painful, while others don’t find a partner at the right time. But the picture is confused by an expectation that any woman who hasn’t had children should sound sorry about it, regardless of how she really feels; she’s supposed to say things like ‘I left it too late’ or ‘It just never happened’. It’s OK not to be a mother, in other words, but only if women express sufficient sadness about it.

Someone has to put a stop to this, so here goes: I chose not to have children, and I’ve never regretted it for a moment.

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