‘Who here has children?’ No hands raised.
‘Who here has a cat?’ A smattering of hands…
This was Jody Day’s opening gambit at the Who’s Afraid of the Crazy Cat Lady? session at the WOW Festival a couple of weeks back. I had baulked slightly at the title. I knew it was tongue-in-cheek, but really? Are we not done with that stereotype yet? It seems not. Last week, while I was still writing this post, The Telegraph used a photo of Holly Brockwell cradling a cat as the main image in its story about her sterilisation at the age of 29. Lazy, predictable, patronising photography.
Day went on to say that: “the most shamed stereotype is a single unmarried woman over 40 without children”. As someone who ticks all four of those descriptors I don’t like this statement and I’m not sure I really agree with it either. For sure, in certain sections of the media, independent women seem to be feared and are therefore pilloried, but to be dubbed the most shamed feels a little strong. While I wouldn’t say I have ever felt shamed, people certainly make huge assumptions.
The predominant assumption is that women who don’t have children must have wanted them. A few years back at a previous WOW Festival, Day, who runs a network for childless women called Gateway Women, introduced me to the terms childless and childfree; childless refers to women who wanted children but either through medical reasons or circumstance did not have them, while childfree is the term for women who made a distinct choice that children were not for them. But whether a woman is childless or childfree, it really isn’t anyone’s right to question or provide opinion unless the discussion has been invited. Nobody can know what emotional or physical struggles may exist behind a single or partnered woman not having children.
A frequent slight levelled at the childfree is that we are selfish. If recognising that the change to my life as I know and love it would be seismic and unbearable, and I would likely resent a child, makes me selfish, then I will live with that label. And if my decision means our overcrowded world and stretched public services feel the ripple effect of my selfishness, then I will suck that up too.
The suggestion that does sting is that a life without children is somehow unfulfilling or incomplete. A complete and fulfilling life is the one that is best for the person living it, not the one that’s best for the person sitting in judgement. There are many things in my life that make me deeply happy and personally fulfilled (including this blog) and I am involved in things that I think make me good for my community and the wider world. I am unspeakably proud of the business I run and the difference it makes to disadvantaged people and communities in the UK and around the world.
One of the most fulfilling things in my life is the role I am able to play in the lives of other people’s children. You see, not wanting your own children doesn’t mean you don’t want children in your life. There is an African proverb that I love and subscribe to – ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’ – and I take my role in that village very seriously. Children need role models living different lives and adults they can trust outside of the immediate family. I have said to my friends that I want my home to be the safe place that when the inevitable teenage tension kicks in the kids can ‘escape’ to, while the parents can (hopefully!) be reassured that the kids will be OK. And when they’re are ready to have their first solo adventures in London then I hope it will be my spare room they crash in. I have an Auntie like that and her role in my life has been transformative.
It’s the politics of the issue I am most interested in. Today, 20% of women aged 45 are childless or childfree and there are 1.5 million women in their 40s and 50s who do not have children. It is likely that this percentage will continue to grow. Yet political rhetoric and policy generally speaks to ‘hardworking families’. Who is speaking to or thinking about us? And it’s not just about children, it’s about being single too. Ten percent of adults aged 25 – 44 now live alone. That is a huge section of the voting population whose votes are pretty bloody important.
The last time there was such a large population of women in the UK who were single and without children was after WW1 when the number of casualties meant there were two million more young women (known as The Surplus Women) than young men. The war ended in 1919. It had only been in 1918 that women over 30 had won the right to vote and it would be another decade before there was parity in voting age for men and women. The Surplus Women had limited political power. We have greater potential to be a force for change.
This month saw the release of Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. It charts social progress in America and looks at how it has been influenced by changing marriage patterns. Day quoted a segment from the book that evidences the impact the single woman vote had on Obama’s victory. The book concludes that through the decades single women in America have been the primary drivers of social change.
Of course, one of the biggest game changers for women and their decision around marriage is shifting attitudes towards sex. In an interview about her book Traister spoke of how previous generations of American women “were reliant on marriage as a way to have a sex life that was socially sanctioned”. Singled Out by Virginia Nicolson documents the lives of The Surplus Women and quotes a ‘sex philosopher’ as recommending the single girl “keep sex in a strong-box, with other interests sitting on the lid to hold it tight”.
Happily, I don’t have to put sex in a box or get married to enjoy it! Of course, sex and living independently is not always an easily navigable thing. You’re horny on a Sunday afternoon but by Tuesday when you have a plan you’re more interested in eating pasta and pesto and watching The Night Manager on iPlayer. You arrive back in the UK from a work trip the day after a lover leaves for a month in America. You’re excited to see one of your favourite people to be naked with but then hormones get the better of you and you cry-talk for three hours and then realise it’ll probably be another fortnight till your diaries match and you can suck his cock. A partner becomes uncomfortable that his wife’s secondary partnership has ended and even though she tries to allay his concerns he still ends your fledgling relationship.
But aren’t there hiccups, hormones and hurdles to get over however you carve out your relationships? I am much more comfortable having my own space than sharing it and I don’t want to be anyone’s priority or to have to consider anyone else in the decisions I make about my own life, so these arrangements work for me. And I am happy. Day closed her talk by making the point that despite all the progress we have made, a woman in her 40s or 50s who is happy being single is still seen as countercultural but, she said, “you cannot shame me with my singleness or my childlessness.”