Old Mother Time

October 13, 2010 at 2:05 am (Uncategorized)

I don’t know what it’s like elsewhere in the world, but debates around motherhood are currently all the rage in Australia, and for me, soon to make the transition into motherhood myself, such discussions, particularly as they appear in the media, are increasingly fascinating. The cover story of the magazine insert in one of the Sunday papers  (euphemistically but accurately known as “rags” here – a truly great Sunday paper is one of the things we still miss about London ten years since coming home) over the weekend was entitled ‘Single Figures,’ and it reminded me that this subject was something I wanted to unpack a bit here.

I very nearly didn’t read the Sunday Life story at all, because the swamping headshot of Jennifer Aniston on the cover (the first of no less than six Aniston images around the piece), and the caption, made me think I was in for yet another vacuous, fawning celebrity profile, but Rachel Hills’s article is better and more intelligent than the aggressive, misleading packaging of it suggests. It takes as its focal point one particular dichotomy within modern womanhood – motherhood VS childless singledom – and because it doesn’t examine other permutations of existence (the married or committed woman who does not or cannot have children, say, or the single mother, or the dual same-sex mother, or the stepmother), it misses, I think, part of what it means to address, which is the curious, fractious space women occupy today.

I don’t think that feminist beliefs, for instance, are the sole preserve of the childless. Hills doesn’t suggest this either, by the way, but the implication of the article nonetheless seems to be that the lines are drawn between these two camps: the traditional domestic and the feminist independent. I’m immediately troubled and alienated by that cosmetic split because I believe that I – and many others – inhabit both spheres. I am married, pregnant, and fiercely committed to the rights of women. I am a very independent person who also happens to be in a committed partnership with another human being. We are soon to be three. I do not see any of this as contradictory. I am not about to start enacting some 1950s mode of living just because I am having a baby – and it insults my intelligence to suggest, however obliquely, that I am retrenching my identity and compromising my feminist principles by having a child. I just reject this categorically, and I think it’s a deeply unhelpful starting framework – lazy too, because it doesn’t begin to acknowledge the innumerable ways in which women both give care and don’t.


What I will say is that I am part of the first post-feminist revolution generation; Generation X was the first and perhaps will prove to be the only round of kids brought up believing, from the outset, free and clear, that boys and girls were “equal.” This fundamental belief underpinned the education that many of us received. This notion of “equality” didn’t just take root in the minds of all the girls – the boys took it on too, it was as basic as arithmetic, and as a result, countless men of my generation have always regarded women as peers. They do not question our place in the workforce, they do not doubt our intelligence, they do not dismiss our contributions. And it wasn’t just Gen X women who were in no hurry to race down the aisle – Gen X men thought there was plenty of time to decide about marriage and babies too, and that’s because that “equal” education we all received left out a really key piece of information: men and women are not “equal” at all.

Yes, we all knew about the biological clock on some abstract level the whole time, of course we did. But I can’t begin to tell you just how remote its machinations seemed when I was in my twenties. The world was ours for the taking, and that was a core message: don’t squander your potential. DO. ACT. BE. We were free and empowered, strong and independent – all of us, not just the girls – and this was a rare privilege, hard won for us in the mythical sixties before we were born, and we had a sacred duty to make the most of all our new and dazzling opportunities. And so away we went, young ladies merrily linking arms with the lads, and all of us having the time of our lives.

Meanwhile, for the girls and the girls alone, egg reserves and other fertility determinants were already on the wane. Tick tock. Who ever thought about those distant and stuffy Personal Development classes, where such facts of biology were last discussed? Not me, I can tell you that for sure. And whenever someone did get married and have children in their mid-twenties? Well, gosh, that seemed so appallingly early. Nothing could have been further from my mind at that time, even though I was seeing Llew at 24. And the same goes for him. We had things to do, places to go, people to meet, ambitions to achieve – separately and together – and children? Good grief. Not even on the radar. Parenthood was beyond my reckoning altogether – I just didn’t really think about it.

It was a lasting shock to enter fertility treatment and discover I am classified as “elderly” in fertility terms. We started trying to get pregnant four years ago, and I can honestly say I did not think it was a moment too soon. I was 34. It seems so naïve and stupid now that I know so much more about the reality – and that reality is deeply, fundamentally, inescapably unequal for men and women – but I truly didn’t imagine I had left things a little late. The truth soon became blindingly apparent: my side of the bargain was in real jeopardy, and that discovery was a very rude, very unpleasant awakening for us both.

There will be some sort of correction in the next generation – Gen X women won’t be able to help ourselves – we will want to warn those women currently in their twenties not to delay as long as we did that harsh reacquaintance with the way in which men and women really are different. I think that’s inevitable, the impulse to sound a note of caution, and it’s already happening. But is that desire to equip them with a fuller picture of what’s at stake promoting a return to more traditional homemaker roles, or an insidious insistence on the primacy of the conventional couple? NO. No, it’s bloody well not, and it’s really totally beside the point to insist that it is. All we can do is try to learn from each other and learn from our collective mistakes, and try to leave a better world for the ones who will replace us. I think it’s perfectly legitimate for Generation X to say, ‘Wow, turns out there’s a screaming timer on that whole baby question, and it completely blindsided us, so you might want to keep that in mind because some of us really stuffed it’ – because this isn’t an academic hypothetical, far from it; the consequences of paying no heed to the gender inequities of time are all too painfully real.


  1. Lilian Nattel said,

    Di, I think there’s another piece of the puzzle that is missing from general education, then and now. And that is that infertility has always been fairly high. Historically about 25% of couples didn’t/couldn’t have kids. In previous generations adoption was informal and it was common for kids to be entirely raised or at times raised by relatives other than parents. I’m not advocating going back to that time any more than you are advocating going back to the 1950’s of course. I’m just saying that if those 20-something women rush to have babies before it’s too late, some of them are going to find out that it’s not all about age, and that infertility is much more common than the average person nowadays realizes. They might just have a lot more years of that roller coaster of trying to conceive. Among the adoptive families I’ve met, the majority were not late comers to the baby making effort.

    • doctordi said,

      Great point, Lilian, and that’s absolutely right – I was *amazed* to learn 1 in 5 couples experiences difficulty conceiving – that’s just not common knowledge at all, I don’t think (I didn’t distinguish adoptive parents from biological parents, although perhaps I should have). It’s definitely not just an age issue – there are genetic factors too, and conditions like endometriosis, which are sometimes asymptomatic. I am not advocating 20-something women ‘rushing’ to have babies – I just think the sobering reality of all these considerations should be revisited once it is more relevant (and biologically more pressing) than it is when we hear about fertility for the first time. It’s in one ear and out the other in high school, when many kids aren’t even sexually active.

  2. charlotteotter said,

    I think the binary questions (mother vs career woman?) make for better headlines, but as you say, that leaves out all the shades of parenting or not-parenting that happen.

    It’s our responsibility to keep pointing out, as you do here, and as I have often done, what those shades are and how they affect people.

    • doctordi said,

      Yeah, I think that’s part of it, Charlotte – there’s just so many shades that I suppose it’s tempting to try to seek clarity in opposition. Either/or binaries are a very standard way of addressing issues in Australia, both in media representation and in civilian conversation, across a whole range of topics. Llew and I have discovered it’s difficult to make ourselves understood politically for this very reason – people seem to need to categorise each other, and so many nuances are lost or squeezed out of the debate that it’s terribly frustrating.

  3. litlove said,

    I think motherhood is the one area where the feminists never got stuff sorted. Motherhood in the cultural imagination is like a leap back about 50 years in time. I was brought up that men and women were equal, had my son aged 25, and was astounded to find I was no longer equal at all. It’s really time that some proper analysis was made of the situation, rather than sensationalised newspaper articles (which with the best will in the world, don’t have much time or space for nuance, ambiguity, etc).

    • doctordi said,

      Strange, isn’t it? Yes, I would agree it’s a massive hole down the side of the Feminist Float. This article wasn’t sensationalised, which made for SUCH a nice change, but it did limit the terms of the discussion without acknowledging that there’s a much more amorphous reality out there being contested in myriad ways. I do of course appreciate the constraints of the medium, but I would have personally appreciated something at the outset that said, ‘I am looking at these two groups today, but boy, they’re the tip of the iceberg,’ because otherwise it minimises and indeed erases all these other categories from the conversation.

  4. Rachel @ Musings of an Inappropriate Woman said,

    Hi Di, Rachel-author-of-the-article here. I thought your response was really interesting, particularly the last paragraph, which really got the core of what the article was about.

    I think you’re right about (some) Gen X women wanting to warn Gen Y women about the fertility issue, just as (according to Haussegger) the generation before her warned her about the dangers of sacrificing everything to the altar of family (and just as other Gen X women I encounter warn me about the pitfalls of marriage). This shift in discourse may well have the effect of Gen Ys opting to have children a little earlier than Gen Xes because, as you said, we DO have that additional awareness – it’s been drummed into us since we were teenagers.

    The problem is that all social changes have unintended consequences, and while there’s nothing wrong with making people aware of reality, it has created a level of anxiety around the issue, which I think has also been used to feed into sexist and ageist agendas (the idea, for example, that female pulchritude peaks at 15 and is gone by 30 – utter bullshit).

    I agree with you that getting married and having kids is not inherantly anti-feminist: I will probably do both within the next few years, and in many cases, it seems to heighten people’s feminism.

    • doctordi said,

      Hello, Rachel, and welcome to DoctorDi. Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised at all – indeed, Sunday Life ran a story on the rise and rise of “young mums” (in their twenties, which just goes to show how significantly societal attitudes have changed in a few decades) only a few weeks ago – if the numbers do start to bear out a change in the childbearing habits of Gen Y as against Gen X.

      Oh yes, I completely agree with you about the ways in which the anxiety has been harnessed. Definitely. There’s a real ‘tut tutting’ coming down the line particularly from the Baby Boomers, or just pre-BB – a kind of sick gleefulness I’ve personally detected about how my generation dropped the ball by being so ‘selfish,’ and now we’re paying the price.

      No, neither is anti-feminist, and it would be great if one of the shifts in feminist discourse paid more attention to both marriage and children as legitimate expressions of a feminist ethic.

  5. Fiona Wood said,

    We so strongly rejected the idea of being dictated to by biology, we stopped paying it enough attention. But you’re right: giving it due emphasis mustn’t be at the expense of all the hard-won freedoms. Parenting still needs a massive dose of re-imagining.

    • doctordi said,

      It does need a massive dose of re-imagining, Fiona, that’s a good way of putting it. And yes, I can see how that happened – and how the pendulum inevitably had to swing back. It would be nice not to oscillate so wildly from the start, but that’s rarely the mark of revolution.

  6. Pete said,

    Very interesting post, Di. I’ll be interested to see whether the new generation embraces all the complexity and nuance of fertility, parenting and equality issues. Obviously some societies are more enlightened than others so it’s difficult to generalise. But I would like to see these issues highlighted a lot more.

    • doctordi said,

      I hope and believe they will – there’s no question our own generation benefited in incalculable ways from everything previous generations had done, so I think Gen Y is in a good position now it’s their turn, because they’ve watched Gen X, and I think they are constantly taking stock of what they’ve seen.

  7. Grad said,

    Not to put too sharp a point on it, but I’ve noticed that younger generations (i.e. younger than mine) tend to over-intellectualize everything. The issue of fertility is organic – there’s a “sell by” date on it. If one wants children one has a window of opportunity to slip through. Although I was raised in the 50s, I never felt I was a lesser person than my brother; I had the same expectations placed upon me by my parents. I never felt I had to choose. Of course I would marry. Of course I would have a career. Of course I would have children – one way or another. I guess what I’m saying is that although I went through all the usual angst of growing pains, the idea that I couldn’t have it all was never planted in my head so it never grew there. But high school biology class told me there was a time limit to some things – and it was just as simple as that.

    • doctordi said,

      Graddikins, you may be onto something there! But your experience also sounds unusually progressive for the ’50s – unless all the literature and history-keeping is false, you sound like the exception rather than the rule!

      Yes, high school biology did tell us the facts, but those facts were quickly shouted down by other concerns, and never really got another word in until the day the music died.

  8. Grad said,

    Di, maybe it’s because I went to all girls schools (both in high school and most of college) which were almost exclusively run by women, most of them nuns with no children (one would hope) who were dedicated to the education of women. Although I always got the sense that the role of wife and mother was respected and honored, a career in business, or the arts, or a profession was not considered incompatible. They had “great expectations” for us, which included all of the above. I’m grateful.

  9. davidrochester said,

    It is very interesting — I have many female friends in their 40s who have young children after having done a lot of things they wanted to do in their 20s and 30s … and who wouldn’t have been emotionally ready to be parents at a younger age, so it’s a good thing they waited. But it’s also true that having a child at 40 is very different from having one at 20 … a different commitment at a different time of life; it’s harder physically, and there is a greater chance of the parent not being around to see the true flowering of the child’s own adulthood. What I really hope is that the current generation of children parented by older parents will be more emotionally and psychologically secure — will be parented and raised better, in the light of knowledge a lot of our parents didn’t have — and will have children in their late 20s, which is, IMO, a good time to do it.

    It’s interesting to me to be with the Amazon, who has two adult children, having gotten married at 21, and having been pregnant at that time. There’s such a huge contrast in her life focus and view of herself, as compared to my two friends who are exactly her age, but who have four-year-olds. It’s like they’re living their lives directly in reverse … my friends are missing the more self-focused lives they used to have, and the Amazon, who started raising a family when she was barely out of adolescence, is having to learn how to focus on herself and what she wants, since nobody needs her 24/7 now. It’s hard for all of them, just in different ways.

  10. Jodie said,

    I’m glad you mentioned how this kind of debate does tend to miss so many people out of the discussion (like the woman who can’t have kids). One other group to consider here is also that there are also those women who want kids, but aren’t married/in a relationship around peak having kids time. I think as a generation we Yers are marrying, or settling into our long term relationships later and later, but lots of us are still strapped to the idea of kids after marriage – sometimes for religious reasons, but more likely because marriage is when you move into your permenant house, rather than flat and start combining incomes, so are able to imagine supporting a kid. I’m 25 and only a few of my friends are married, many are in long time relationships but want to be married before they have kids (not that everyone does, or needs to get married before they have kids that just seems to be their preference). Some of them aren’t ready for kids, for reasons beside their careers – so sometimes it’s not about waiting too long, it’s about wrangling everything into place so you can get to kids.

    And I think these arguments are such a pain for both sides of the cosmetic split. As a woman who doesn’t want kids it’s so frustrating to be artificially set in opposition to other feminists with kids – divide and conquer, that’s what the administration wants to do.

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