Andrea Leadsom, wannabe Prime Minister, today said a stupid thing. As furiously as she back-peddles, the audio recording confirms she really did say the stupid thing. But I’m not lining up to throw a rock at her, she let out an incomplete and unguarded thought and if all my stupid comments were published in the papers, I’d be hated too. Her comment though is out there and has the high probability of hurting folk like me who have no children so we’re going to deal with it. Here it is:
Question: “Do you feel like a mum in politics? Why and how? How does it affect...?" Ms Leadsom replies: "Yes. So really carefully because I don’t know Theresa really well, but I’m sure she will be really sad that she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be 'Andrea’s got children, Theresa hasn’t' – do you know what I mean? Because I think that would be really horrible. But genuinely I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country. A tangible stake.” 1
Okay so even in my best attempts to be fair-minded and non-judgemental I want to throw something across the room right now and invent whole new swear words to describe her. But I won’t and truthfully I’ve heard versions of this statement from lots of people. It’s the unguarded nature of her comment that makes it so worth looking at; it is likely to be something many people have thought, even for a moment, that ‘the couple without children over there must be so selfish’. I’m one of those people who’ve been silently judged. After eight years of marriage none of our children have survived to full term so it’s ‘just the two of us’. What comments like Andrea’s do is to step on that constantly-painful gaping wound in your life that already daily accuses you of having no value.
What comments like Andrea’s do is to step on that constantly-painful gaping wound in your life that already daily accuses you of having no value.
Simply saying that Andrea is wrong doesn’t work though, as uncomfortable as it may make us, throughout human history children have meant future. Without them your name dies out and with it any trace of you, they were and are a means of living on. The great Judeo-Christian story begins with an elderly childless couple who are told they will become a great nation and the madness of Henry VIII in his desperation for a son is how we remember him. Yet it is only on the lunatic fringe that a person would say their lack of children meant they didn’t care for the future. True story; my wife once worked with someone who claimed just this, he didn’t care about the environment because he had no children; the kind of view that only breeds in asylums and in this case a university. But how do we bridge this gap between what we feel and what seems disturbingly true? What value can the childless actually have?
Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and survivor of the concentration camps once counselled a patient of his through the pain of childlessness. This man’s six children and wife had died in the camps and his second wife was infertile, without children he could see no meaning in life. “I [Frankl] observed that procreation is not the only meaning of life, for then life itself would become meaningless, and something which in itself is meaningless cannot be rendered meaningful merely by its perpetuation.” 2 Although that’s a bit of a mind twister of a sentence it has been deeply significant for me. When I first read it I realised the intense pain of our not having children was itself the clue to the intense meaning of our lives; if life were not valuable then there would be no value in having children. The repeated loss of life has shown us how valuable it is.
If life were not valuable then there would be no value in having children
Childlessness is no virtue on its own. It can forge bitterness, resentment and even enormous debts as expensive fertility treatments demand another mortgage. It can also soften and shine light on the high value of life. This has been my own experience. When we married I thought the timing and fact of children was our choice and if we had gotten our way I would have made the kind of unfeeling comments that Andrea did. Instead, as childlessness moved from fear to concrete reality, I found myself more aware of those who were hurting and excluded than I ever would have been. My edges became softer (no fat jokes) and my eyes more outward looking. Parenthood changes people too, of course it does, but like any experience it is not an automatic virtue. Andrea’s poorly formed thought betrays little more than an extension of the selfishness that comes so naturally; her argument goes that her care for the future is only because she has children, the natural conclusion of which is that she only cares for her own genetic pool. Contrast this with many childless folk we know who instinctively speak up for the left-out and many of whom have adopted; they love those outside their genetic pool as their own. Neither childlessness nor having children make you a good person in themselves. It’s not the blessings nor the pain that determine who you are becoming but what you do with what is given to you.
It’s not the blessings nor the pain that determine who you are becoming but what you do with what is given to you.
To our readers who have no children, I want to give you a big hug today. You are no less valuable than anyone else, a terrible thing is happening to you and there is nothing more to it than that. Your life is as important as anyone else’s. You are valuable, your pain testifies to that and your pain could actually become the source of a more meaningful life than you would have had otherwise. Ignore the stupid comments, your story matters, so tell a good one.
1 – The Independent, Andrea Leadsom on Theresa May and motherhood – full transcript, 9th July 2016, www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/andrea-leadsom-interview-theresa-may-mother-tory-leadership-campaign-a7128331.html
2 – Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 2008, Rider, pp.122-123.