According to journalist Angela Epstein – whom I hadn’t heard of until five minutes ago, when I happened to tune into 10 O’clock Live – feminism has “spooked” a generation of women into not having children. Blimey! Poor women, and bad, bad feminists. What will they think of next?
Epstein was debating “feminism” (as if such a thing is debatable) with Christine Hamilton and Laurie Penny. Epstein has children, the other two do not. Epstein is anti-feminist, Hamilton and Penny are not (I know! Christine fucking Hamilton!). In such a situation, it’s clear that Epstein sees herself as the only person qualified to discuss what motherhood does to women and why certain women are missing out. This is total bollocks. Funnily enough, having children does not make a woman an expert on why other women should or shouldn’t breed.
I know this because I have had children (yeah, Epstein! Two can play at that game!). I may be a feminist but I also have little people who live with me and call me Mummy. To be perfectly honest, I’m not 100% sure why I had them, or rather, if I could pinpoint one reason, it’s because I got broody after a trip to Ikea. Plus I find babies rather cute. These are, let’s be clear, pretty flimsy reasons for changing the whole of one’s life and adding new people to the world. Even when pregnant I kept thinking “god, what if I regret this flat-pack furniture-inspired moment of madness?” Today I know that having children is the best thing I ever did but not all women feel that way (and not just because their children aren’t as ace as mine – although that is of course true as well).
So why don’t more women have children? There are, clearly, practical disadvantages. The main ones are failing to climb to the top of the career ladder and having to put up with all these bitchy feminists saying how crap you are and … only kidding. Some real disadvantages relate to work, certainly, but most of them are to do with discrimination and dealing with structures which prioritise those who don’t have domestic responsibilities (especially if they’re male). There are issues relating to the expense of childcare, a lack of support for stay-at-home mothers and an absence of support networks for mothers who work shifts. If you choose to have children (and for some mothers, it isn’t a choice), unless you are wealthy and well-supported, you lose financial and personal independence, and whatever is said about equal parenting, this is much more true for women than it is for men. And financial and personal independence aren’t luxuries. It’s not a question of smashing through the glass ceiling; for many women, it’s about being safe and healthy. If you have children and this hasn’t affected you, perhaps it is hard to understand (but it really shouldn’t be).
Maybe Epstein assumes that since, like all mothers, she also has experience of what it was like when she didn’t have children, this makes her an expert on “both sides”. It doesn’t. The trouble with having children – and a major reason not to have them, unless you’re 100% sure – is that you can’t un-have them. You can put them up for adoption, obviously, but unless you’ve decided this from the outset (and even if you have), you get quite attached to the buggers. The irrevocability of having kids is terrifying. It really isn’t something to be done simply because you might regret it later. It’s not a one-off event. You have two paths to choose from (if you are lucky enough to have a choice), and you can’t switch routes later. Unfortunately, if you’ve had kids and wished you hadn’t, it’s not really the done thing to get too vocal about it. It upsets people (not least your kids). It’s far more acceptable to mourn the kids you didn’t have than it is to curse the ones you do (and that’s how it has to be).
It is surprising, given the degree to which feminism has occupied itself with making the personal political, to see it boiled down to “feminists only want you to have a career”. That women should have to choose between financial autonomy and motherhood is, without doubt, a political issue. Thus far, the only movements to engage with this seriously have been those related to women’s rights (whether or not they call themselves “feminist”). This is something we should be supporting. It matters to all of us, whether we want to have children or not. And yes, if you want to have them yourself, rest assured, the feminist elders have granted you permission.
To see a woman posing as someone who knows what’s best for all women – simply because she is a mother – really sticks in my craw. If anyone makes motherhood appear strange and frightening, it’s someone like Angela Epstein.