Yesterday, I published an article on the ABC about how International Women’s Day — a day that is supposed to celebrate women — rarely makes room for women with caring responsibilities. I received lots of wonderful responses from women who felt the piece reflected their experiences. I also received this email, which I would not share except that it give me a reason to talk about something I’ve been thinking about for a while.
dear ms riley
i have never written to a writer such as yourself before but at this moment i felt the need to find you and write once i read your op-ed piece about feminism. as a mature, childless by choice, single woman, i have no sympathy for what you describe. in fact, i am fed to the teeth, after being in the full time work force for more than 30 years, covering for my pregnant/new mother/mother colleagues- and never a work of thanks from any. i assume the following: to have a child was your choice, even if the pregnancy was unplanned?? where the expletive-deleted do you get off? you have CHOSEN to do this. you volunteered. you had months to change your mind but you went through with it. (you probably had to set out to do a few things deliberately as well to achieve this). and you expect/want even more than what has been very generously assigned? i would like to do some full time study once again- very useful to my work as well for as myself- i dont get time off work/paid/job held for me while i choose to do this. feminism is not about this, at all. having a baby in the current state of the world is the ultimate self-indulgence and yet you sound annoyed and aggrieved at the fact that your life is not as easy/straightforward as it was before you chose to do this??!!!! you didnt think to factor in the presence of an entirely dependent for years and years individual in your life?? WTF!!! this relates to feminism how?? entitled younger generation is what it is.
There’s much I could respond to here. First, the idea that childless women and women with children are each others enemies is tiresome and self-defeating. I’ve written about that before, but it’s always worth repeating.
But this is the part that I think is worth thinking about a little further:
“i assume the following: to have a child was your choice, even if the pregnancy was unplanned?? where the expletive-deleted do you get off? you have CHOSEN to do this. you volunteered. you had months to change your mind but you went through with it. (you probably had to set out to do a few things deliberately as well to achieve this). and you expect/want even more than what has been very generously assigned?”
It’s hardly a secret that my pregnancy was, in fact, unplanned. I was on the pill. But like many others, I didn’t realise how the risk of failure increases over time. In fact, in five years of typical use, 38% of women will fall pregnant on the pill. So when that second line appeared on the test, I had a choice.
But that choice is not made in a vacuum. My personal values and beliefs informed the choice that I made in this situation.
This is something I find it difficult to talk about as a feminist who is absolutely pro-choice: abortion is not something that I felt I could do. I have a certain personal beliefs about life and they were incompatible with me having an abortion.
I don’t think laws should be made based on those beliefs. I don’t judge other women for their decision to have an abortion. I think they should be entirely funded, legal and easily available. I support full decriminalization. While I did consider it a moral decision, I don’t think it is for everyone.
But it is for some people. And I think we should respect people’s decisions to personally reject abortion.
This is why I have a problem with talking about abortion as it is always purely a medical decision. No doubt, in many cases, it is. But in others, it is not and the consequence is that it’s it socially acceptable to demand women either have an abortion or live with the consequences — no matter how much those consequences are due to discrimination toward women. We’ve made child-rearing a *lifestyle choice* rather than something that is socially and economically valuable.
The choice to have a child is not the same as the choice to go on a holiday or buy a luxury car or quit your job and move to a commune. It is far more complicated than that. Demanding that the substantial number of women who fall pregnant accidentally every year (In the US, half of all pregnancies are unplanned) either accept the ways society fails to make accomodations for the work of parenting or get an abortion is not supporting women or choice. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the argument that if you can’t afford children, you shouldn’t have them. Forcing poor women to have unwanted abortions for financial reasons is not supporting reproductive choice.
I could make an economic case for the value of the work of raising children. I could ask who’s going to be your nurse and physiotherapist and librarian when you’re old and need the social support. But we shouldn’t have to do that.
We should absolutely support women to make the choices right for their lives. We should also understand that women should not be expected to accept the status quo outcomes of their choices.
I wrote a response to the letter writer — let’s call her K — but it bounced. Apparently she gave me a fake email address. So K, if you happen to find this, this is for you:
I’m sorry you feel that people in your life have not supported the decisions you’ve made. The way society treats single, childless women is often cruel and exclusionary.
I do not, however, think that mothers are the enemy. As women, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, as I have written about previously here: http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/news-and-views/opinion/when-it-comes-to-motherhood-women-cant-win-either-way-just-ask-gladys-berejiklian-20170124-gtxhlr.html
I do, however, take exception to the implication that as I did not choose to have an abortion, I should accept the way society treats motherhood. Abortion should be available to all women, but I do not believe any woman should be compelled to have one, nor punished because she didn’t. None of the consequences of having children I mentioned in my piece are inevitable. They exist because of how we have historically understood motherhood and the way our social and economic system has been built in response to that. But that does not mean they have to exist into perpetuity nor that they should go unchallenged.
I sincerely hope that the experiences of single, childless women like yourself, by choice or otherwise, improve as we expand our understanding of the roles of women. I would hope you could wish the same for women who are parents.