To Breed or Not to Breed – In Praise of Childless Women

There is great emphasis placed in most cultures on a woman’s fertility.  In some cultures if a woman is not married and pregnant by her early teens she is considered a failure and embarrassment to her family.   Women are often considered to only be of value if they can reproduce.  In Western society we have sanctified mothers and have Mothers’  Day (as well as Fathers’ Day)  as a special tribute to them.

In sports events such as the Olympics Australian commentators often comment on competitors as “supermum” and baby bonuses abound here giving women more reasons to feel good about having children.

In the midst of all this there is the neglected lot of the childless woman.  There is no celebrated day for them, no monetary rewards.  They live in the shadows of those who are fertile.

When our present Prime Minister, Julia Gillard first came into prominence much was made of her marital status (she lives with Tim Mathieson who is a hairdresser) and the fact that she has chosen not to have children.  When a prominent local magazine did a special spread based on her in her home, much was made of the  empty fruit bowl sitting near her on her kitchen table.  The psychological analysis offered was that she was barren and thus her bowl was empty.   Many cruel jokes have been bandied around about her personal life, and she was recently referred to by David Farley, CEO of Australian Agriculture Company as “an unproductive old cow”.    There are a whole range of  jokes on the internet about her, many of them not only sexist but also quite cruel.  I haven’t seen male politicians in this country questioned or analysed publicly about their reproductive habits or marital status to this extent.

Then there are the silent army of women out there who are unable to have children, for whom Mothers’ Day is a time to hide away and lick their wounds and every sight of a pregnant woman with a glowing face and round belly is like a knife in the guts.  These women often feel a great sense of shame and despair that they are unable to meet society’s pressures and the promise of their bodies remains unfulfilled.  It is not for want of trying as the figures for IVF and adoption affirm.  I know many who have long given up, but still mourn their unborn children and their future dreams.

Margaret Olley, a great Australian painter who was born in 1923 and died in 2011 at 88 never married or had children.  She once said she didn’t have time for children, but she was still painting up until the day of her death putting the finishing touches to her last exhibition  and she was twice the subject of the prestigious Archibald Prize for painting.  She was awarded the Order of Australia and made a companion of the Order, the highest Australian civilian order for her art as well as her philanthropy in the world of art and encouraging and supporting young, emerging  Australian artists.  She donated more than 130 of her works to the Art Gallery of New South Wales worth  AU$7million.    No-one could accuse her of being “an unproductive old cow” just as it would be unthinkable to describe Mother Teresa in such a dismissive way.

So let’s all give a thought to celebrating women as women, for who they are and what they achieve, not only for their achievements as a mother.  I am a mother and relish my status, but it saddens me to see other women denigrated in this way by women as well as men.    We should all be supporting each other not smugly congratulating each other for belonging to an exclusive group at the expense of others.

English: Julia Gillard
Julia Gillard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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