Sunday, June 7, 2009
Babies or brains?
I was on standby last week to speak on Radio National's Life Matters in response to a couple of articles that appeared in the Guardian earlier this year: Rachel Cooke's Dummy Mummies (which was reproduced in the Australian Magazine--you may have noticed it) and Polly Vernon's Why I Don't Want Children.
Unfortunately the producer couldn't get the "key talent" (always nice to know where you stand!) to come to the party, which is a shame, because I had prepared myself for what could have been a really meaty discussion on the children versus no children debate--if such a thing exists, which for these women it clearly does. Both these articles raise loads of questions about what they see as society's current obsession with babies.
I understand that women who do not want to have kids feel that society treats them as abnormal. This word "selfish" gets bandied about--which to me seems as absurd as describing the decision to have babies as a "selfless" one. Of course it's true that once you have kids, your own needs and desires are forced to take a backseat a lot, in fact most, of the time. But to say the urge to have children is a selfless one just seems a ridiculous over-simplification of what is usually more a complex primal and physical urge than a lofty, well thought-out decision to step off centre stage or to give back to society or some such thing.
Similarly, it would be a misguided person who has a baby to make them happy. We all know there are plenty of good reasons not to have kids; all the stats tell us as much. But happiness can have a pretty limited definition, and I suppose a lot of the meaningful things in our lives offer both great joy and big risks and the potential for great despair.
On an issue as big and loaded as having babies, surely we can all respect each others' decisions and be a bit kind to one other? Can't we?
I have to admit, for all the sympathy I have for her frustration, I recoil at the vitriol that Polly, in particular, reserves for modern mothers, as she sees them. In her article, she writes:
I really don't like what parenthood does to grown-ups. This latest generation of parents - oh, it's odd, isn't it? I like the ones I know. Mostly. They're OK, because they're my friends - I chose them, they are by definition better than those parents I don't know. (Even if they aren't - I know for a fact that they were better, once, back before they had children, and I reckon they'll resume something approaching normal service once the buggers have gone to school. Won't they?) But modern parents en masse? That pampering cult of Bugaboo-wielding, Mumsnet-bothering dullness?
Spare me. Spare me the one-track conversations. Spare me the self-righteousness, the sense of entitlement (you, with the toddler-on-wheels: astonishing news just in! You don't have pavement priority over the rest of the world!). Spare me the pretensions of martyrdom and selflessness. (It's my experience that parenthood doesn't make anyone less selfish. Humans simply extend the sphere of their selfishness when they have kids, so that it embraces the kids and dishes out a fierce battering to the rest of the world. Also - no one has a baby out of selflessness. You really want to be selfless? Adopt, lover.)
"...something approaching normal service..." Jeez, I know she's being witty and all, but what a way to think about friendship!
Surely just as bad as thinking that all women who don't have children are selfish, over-ambitious monsters is the assumption that all mothers had a lobotomy in the birthing suite.
Also, isn't it the case--and this is more in response to Cooke's piece--that people who talk of nothing but their kids, and have no way of gauging the interest (or otherwise) of the person they're talking to, is no different to the person who can talk of nothing but their job, with no sensitivity to their audience? In short, boring and insensitive people are boring and insensitive people, aren't they?--no matter what they bang on about; and interesting people are interesting people. Even after they have children! That is my experience, anyway.
I think the issue of childhood and raising children is a fascinating and very significant one, for all of us. We all have to live in this society with other people after all, and all people were once children raised by adults, thinking or otherwise.
Basically, I think it's fucked that a woman can't, in this day and age, choose not to have children without feeling a target for some kind of judgemental attack. But why the need, then, to turn around and pass similarly simplistic, scathing and defensive judgements on those of us who do have kids? I'm all for healthy debate, but I have to admit it also saddens me that women seem to have this infinite capacity for turning on each other.