While shopping at a market many years ago, I found and fell in love with a smoky blue pinafore dress with patchwork pictures around the hem and bib. I wasn’t pregnant – or even in a relationship – but I bought it with the confidence of someone who just knew she one day would be.
I was with my cousin at the time, and proudly showed her my purchase. She cooed over it, then suddenly announced, “I don’t want to have children. And please don’t tell me it’s just a phase.” I didn’t. But I was sure it was. I assumed that she, like all women, secretly wanted children more than anything else in the world; she just hadn’t realised it yet. A child, I believed, completed us – not just as women, but also as human beings.
The pinafore dress remained wrapped in tissue paper, like a treasure in the corner of my wardrobe. Six years later, after being warned by a friend that it was “tempting fate”, I gave it away to my goddaughter. The dress was gone; the longing for a child was not. Many years – and two major relationships – later, I was 40 and living with a man who promised if we were still together in 12 months he would have his vasectomy reversed. Stupidly, I waited. When at last he called it off, my fertile days were pretty much over. By the time I found a man who wanted to have a child with me, it was too late. In her book What, No Baby? ($29.95, Fremantle Arts Centre Press) ethicist and researcher Leslie Cannold suggests that I sit somewhere between two groups of childless women that she labels “thwarted mothers” and “waiters and watchers”.
Thwarted mothers, according to Cannold’s extensive research, include those unable to access or succeed with donor insemination or other assisted reproductive technologies. They’re often nearing the end of their reproductive years and are wanting to be mothers, but
are either without a partner, or with a partner who doesn’t want children. Some will eventually leave the relationship and try to bear a child, only to find it’s too late.
The waiters and watchers are very conscious of what it takes to be a good mother. They want children at some stage, but are cautious of the impact a baby will have on their lives, so they wait for the right time, the right partner, and the right support. By the time all three factors align, if ever, their time is up.
Cannold estimates that only about one in seven Australian women who remain childless do so voluntarily. I now realise, 20 years later, that my cousin was a member of this small but determined minority. She now has exactly what she always wanted: a highly rewarding job, a loving extended family, an adored pet, and a good number of loyal friends – and is happy with her choice.
The outside world, however, often expresses dismay that women can make such a decision. Dr Melissa Graham, a senior lecturer specialising in women’s health at Melbourne’s Deakin University, points out that a large number of both sexes seem to be of the view that “womanhood is synonymous with motherhood, and that women who do not have children are somehow deviant.”
The fact is that nowhere are women more sexist against their own gender than on the subject of motherhood and career. Cannold believes this vitriol is the direct result of working mothers’ own deeply felt frustrations.