Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Deal with Un-mothers

Why am I here? What is my purpose? What's the meaning of my life?

It's one of the big questions. Some of us will spend all of our lives searching for an answer. Some - the lucky ones - aren't cursed with this form of self-awareness, and don't think to ask the question. Some will answer that their purpose is to serve their god; others choose to serve their ideologies, their country, their ego, their addiction...

Many will answer that their purpose is to be a parent, to continue the family line into the future, to fulfil their biological destiny.

This week we celebrate Mother's Day, and I doubt that there is a more loving and generous and wise mother in the world than mine. (Happy Mother's Day, Kayeth!) I love Mother's Day, because I get to spoil my mother, and she can't spoil me back. 

I don't let her spoil me on Mother's Day, because I'm not a mother.  I won't be a mother. My biological imperative has been ignored, successfully, for so long that it's too late. I don't regret the circumstances that have brought me to this childless state, and only occasionally do I wonder at what I have missed. Childlessness is, for me, a perfectly fine state. I wouldn't want it any other way.

I know that being a woman without a child places me in the minority, although the latest statistics from America state that nearly 20% of women entering menopause have not had a child. 

Assuming the numbers are similar in Australia, that's close to one in five women who haven't had children. A minority, yes, but a significant one, and if I didn't know before, this week has made sure I'm aware of it. Yes, I'm a woman with no children, living with my partner. No budget-gifted middle class family entitlements here. No sweeteners here.

And then there's the planning for Mother's Day. Rob's done most of it this year, which is great, but is also a little sad. I enjoy picking out the treats for Mum, even if I have to wade through swamps of pink floral promotional crap to do it. It makes me feel just a little like I've failed the Womanhood test by not breeding.

Tonight, I saw a tweet pimping Mamamia's  article entitled Five Things Parents can learn from Non-Parents.  Huzzah, I thought! An article acknowledging that while we childless women might not have expelled babies from deep within our beings, we have some worth.  

Mothers and Non-mothers aren't different species after all, I thought. We have different experiences, different priorities, but we are The Sisterhood. We can share with each other, learn from each other. We don't have to accept the insults that Bill Heffernan and Joe Hildebrand hurl our way. We are not out of touch, or incompetent when it comes to maternal issues. 

All of these happy thoughts thundered at me in the time it took to open the link.

I was wrong. I am not wise or supportive or any of those things I'd hoped to be. Mia Freedman's article from 2010 is a superior little piece of sarcastic fluff, designed to give Mothers a smug, satisfied grin, while we unmothers shrink lower in our seats, stare blindly at our iPads  and promise ourselves that we won't cry. We WON'T.  


On behalf of the almost one-in-five, we're sorry, mothers of the world, for our ignorance of your struggles, for our flippant freedoms and our crass condescension. We apologise profusely if, in our inexperience, we lead you to believe that your lives would be easier than they are; that babies would sleep, that their poo would smell like vanilla custard, and that you would be perfect parents with perfect children.

Even those of us who struggle to find a maternal instinct with a map and compass are so terribly terribly sorry for failing to manage your expectations. 

But what the hell did you expect? Why did you think we'd know anything anyway? We haven't had the parenting experience. Don't ask us, and if by chance we accidentally offer some advice that we're clearly not qualified to give, please remind us that our wisdom in this area  is not of an acceptable standard.

And don't pity us, either. Most of us are, to quote Senator Bill Heffernan, deliberately barren.

On Sunday morning, when you're being served lukewarm tea with too much sugar, and burnt toast smeared with peanut butter and layers of sticky, gooey love, when you're being presented with cards made at school and flowers picked from your own garden, remember those of us who will never have that experience. You are part of a club we can never join. 

Our votes my not be worth buying, our words not worth hearing, and we'll have to get our own breakfast on Sunday, but here's the deal: We childless women will try not to be as unthinkingly supportive and ignorantly helpful, if you'll try not to undermine our very existence because we chose not to get knocked up.


This ABS release has the full breakdown on Australian families. 

The Psychological perspective in Psychology Today is here.


  1. Thanks Sal, on behalf of this member of the one-in-five cohort. When I hear the 'deliberately barren' or 'what would you know' sneers, there is a brief desire to hit back but I try to ignore them these days. The mamamia mothers don't quite know how to cope with someone who opted to not have children in order to save them from nursing a mother with a medical condition that would likely burden them with nursing me from a relatively early stage. Yes, I thought about parenting too, really thought about the implications beyond the cutesy-pie child years through to their adulthood.
    I helped my mother raise my brothers, I have helped friends look after their kids, I teach...I deal with young people all the time. Often it can be the dispasstionate, unencumbered observer who can offer the most cogent comments.
    Thanks as always for your openness and opinion, and congrats on being a finalist. *Truly inspired*

  2. You are right - that post is unthinking, judgemental and belittling but I think this is not just about women who don't have children.
    I think the wider problem is that so many people seem to think there is only one right model for what relationships should look like and they happily judge those who don't fit that model.
    The other day a caller to the ABC said he has never felt less proud to be an Australian than when he saw Julia Gillard lay a wreath on Anzac Day. The problem? Her "boyfriend" also laid a wreath. Apparently it is unAustralia to have a partner without being married.
    Then there is the outrage about the idea of same sex relationships and some belief that allowing single sex couples to marry would somehow threaten their "proper" relationship.
    I have been told by many a virtual stranger that I "can't" just have one child.
    Apparently that's a crime against the happy little 2.2 rule.
    And so it goes
    Don't let the haters get you down.

  3. As a mother of two wonderful children I have always respected women who choose not to be mothers. It is a choice afterall. There are many children brought into the world whose "mothers" think that having a child is something to tick off the things to do in life list. I for one always wanted children but i definitely support women who make the choice not to be a mother. Well Said Sal.