When women are no longer defined by motherhood



Here’s a couple of salient facts: for the first time in the history of humankind, globally, fertility is at its lowest, and there are arguments about how this will impact on climate change. Secondly, for the first time in history, half the women in Ireland, England and Wales have not had a child by the time they have reached 30. And that can herald fertility issues.

I am old enough to remember when a woman in Ireland wed and had children she had to give up her job in any of the State bodies. My mother’s generation were defined by having babies and looking after domestic chores. Back then, a woman who either did not marry or did not have a child was looked upon with a certain pity and talked about in hushed tones.

Then too, for women, there was the so-called biological clock. Not so much a desire for a child but an awareness that time could be running out. Many women then expressed guilt at not having felt ‘the longing’, as though an innate-seeming, visceral dose of baby fever was the norm and, in their absence of strong maternal feelings, they were deviating from it.

The jury’s still out on whether the desire for parenthood is down to nature or nurture, that both biology and culture are likely to contribute. We are social animals, and social pressure can be enormous.

Thankfully, women today are no longer defined by having or not having a child. Glass ceilings aside, women have come in to their own and are defined by many things other than motherhood; by confidence, by individuality, by career, by social standing, by just being.

Women now have choice. In the Ireland of old, with church rule and no contraception, women had no choice; were, in effect, automated baby machines. Or otherwise barren, and meaningless.

Women now have choice. They can have motherhood and they can have a career. Or choose one or the other. That said, there’s a whole other day’s debate on the issues of childcare in Ireland for women who choose both motherhood and career. Trying now to juggle everything daily, alas, means women, or indeed men, can not have it all.

The other week, the United Nations issued a ‘code red for humanity’ as leading climate scientists delivered their starkest warning yet about the deepening climate emergency. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report said global temperatures were likely to rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next two decades, exceeding a key target of the Paris Agreement.

Interestingly, scientists’ increasingly bleak outlook for the future of the planet is putting more and more people off having children, according to more than one survey.

Analysts at the US multinational Morgan Stanley said recently in a note to investors that the “movement to not have children owing to fears over climate change is growing and impacting fertility rates quicker than any preceding trend in the field of fertility decline”.

To support their argument, they pointed to surveys, academic research and Google data that shows climate change is directly and indirectly accelerating the decline in fertility rates. A study of 18,000 couples in China last year showed that climate change, and pollution in particular, was associated with a 20% increased likelihood of infertility.

Here’s another thing. All those daft categories, from ‘career bitch’ to ‘tiger mother’ to ‘spinster’, can’t sum up the complexities of how the women in my life — and there are many — live their lives. Even today, despite all ‘gains’ achieved by women, some without children may well need to ‘heal’. Some don’t. Some with children feel as existentially lonely as those without. Children are no guarantee of care in old age, or even company.

The feminism that respects individual choice, but seeks to improve the context in which these choices occur, is the one I see working.

My mother was only five when her own mother died. When I was born, the eldest of three, my paternal grandmother took two buses to come and visit, as my father was away working down the country. My mother was so glad to have another woman to talk to about her new motherhood.

When my grandmother was leaving, my mother said: “Please don’t wait to be invited. Call any time you want.”

To which my grandmother replied: “Listen here, I raised eight. I not about to rear a ninth.”

And from that day until the old bat died 26 years later she never again darkened our doorstep.

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