Andrea Leadsom’s ambitions of being the next Prime Minister are in ashes: whatever your feelings about her, you could see, as she bowed out of the Conservative leadership contest yesterday, that she was giving up on a dream. But before the whole saga becomes yesterday’s hooha, it’s worth reflecting on what impact her comments about motherhood have had.
Leadsom’s assertion that having children means she is more invested in the country’s future have hurt a sizeable section of the voting public. 1 in 5 women over 45 will not have children in the UK, and that will soon become 1 in 4. There are no figures about male childlessness from the Office of National Statistics, but it’s estimated at around 23%.
We all know that in political terms, children are used as a metaphor for the future: they represent progress, prosperity and purpose. But in doing this, politicians infantilise the electorate. When ‘hardworking families’ come to be a shorthand for ‘all of society’, it marginalises those who do not fit the nuclear family model and robs them of a voice. Society is poorer for it.
Here’s a surprise for those who think like Andrea, and she is not alone. Those who wanted to have children, but who can’t, never stop thinking about the future. Andrea was speaking from a position of pronatalism – the idea that having children is a socially good and necessary thing for a nation to continue. We have never lived in more pronatalist times. And the pronatalist script that society hands us – that having children is the single most important and fulfilling task that any human can have – is an idea that the childless have to continuously battle with their own lives, every day of their lives.
The childless think about the future, and their legacy, all the time. Passing through ‘the fire of childlessness’, as Gateway Women founder Jody Day puts it, certainly focuses the mind. If I’m not raising a biological family, then what? The love that the involuntarily childless have for their unborn children is still there. It just gets channelled in different, powerful and creative ways.
The love that the involuntarily childless have for their unborn children is still there. It just gets channelled in different, powerful and creative ways.
I know, because I belong to communities of passionate, compassionate, talented, childless women and men: Gateway Women, Saltwater and Honey, and The Vine, a group I helped set up to support childless Christians. I really don’t see them living selfish or meaningless lives, focused only on the present. They are trying to build a future they didn’t want or expect, but one that is valid and meaningful and that will have a legacy.
I hope no politician will ever again be tempted to think that people without children can’t empathise. That has never been my experience. In fact, if you’ve gone through infertility and childlessness, you find yourself empathising with all sorts of people: the grieving, the marginalised, the voiceless. Loss razes dreams to the ground, but new shoots can grow up from the rubble: something Andrea Leadsom will, I’m sure, discover.
Leadsom’s pronatalist comments have not only damaged her political career, they have helped to chip away at social justice in this country. They have also shone a light on the unhelpful way politicians use childbearing and the family for political motives. We need to demand that politicians think more broadly, in ways that do not further disenfranchise an already disillusioned electorate.
Meanwhile, childless people have a unique and vital part to play in society, and their voices deserve to be heard in workplaces, in churches, in families, in politics and in the arts. If they aren’t, our communities will be all the worse for it.
I agree, and not only me, but Mrs Leadson also agrees with you, apparently. But so anxious was she to recommend herself to the journalist that grasped at the straw of pronatalism and the idol of the Hardworkingfamily that politicans are always referring to. Seems that her attempt at appealling ended up appalling instead. Doesn’t that in itself demonstrate what we all know, that nobody really thinks having progeny is any kind of advantage or credit in caring about the future? If anything I suspect Leadsom was afraid it would be seen as a disadvantage to her career, and was clumsily trying to refute that. In vain, as it happens, as she never had any chance of overhauling May, it has all been a charade.
Thanks, Andy. If the ‘hardworking family’ is idolised as you say then surely politicians do think it is a way of appealing to most of the electorate, and that’s what I am questioning. I think Andrea Leadsom was using her mother status to differentiate herself and give herself an edge, and then backtracked as she realised it was coming across as a personal attack on May. It’s my experience that motherhood can be used a special status in our society, particularly by the media. Motherhood in general is celebrated, fetishised, and commercialised far more than it was in my mother’s generation. Look at the celebrity covers of Hello magazine and the obsessive reporting over whether Jennifer Aniston is pregnant or not. That makes it a lot tougher for non-mothers, who have to justify themselves continually that they are as empathetic or invested in the future as mothers. One positive of this episode is that at least it is creating a debate.
I agree, but this is not a new attitude, although probably has been more widely spread by social media. I am a single woman and therefore as a Christian childless, I have had a happy and successful career in education, and am now a retired nonstipendiary priest – but retired doesn’t mean waht it does in the non church world, it just means that you continue to minister in the church but with a different arrangement with the Bishop. I have never had the yearning for children per se that some women have, but had I married I would have liked a family and if I couldn’t have children would have adopted some. However throughout my life I have heard that women with children make better teachers – despite the fact that we often have to support children damaged by mothers who can reproduce but not care! Not marrying is seen as a failure “Couldn’t you get married ?” asked one twice-divorced woman,.So do I not have a stake in the future? Of course I do – I want the best educational opprtunities for all those children who struggled to learn to read. I want the best and most fulfilling career opportunites for the students I helped to become teachers, I want the most caring and proficient NHS for the families and friends to whom I ministered as they ended their days in hospice or care home. I also have the freedom denied to those with responsibility for child care, to be available any time day or night someone needs ministry.
And to those wjho have told me that “You must be lonely being on your own” – I’m not, I am fulfiiled, content, at peace because I live in the every present love of God who loves every person on earth for themselves. Can’t we just try to emulate him?
Hello, and thanks for commenting. I agree, the media has done a lot to idolise motherhood. I would like to question why does society continue to buy into that? I’m sorry you have had to listen to unhelpful comments that mothers make better teachers – that makes me feel sad. There are thousands of childless people doing amazing work out there and what is lacking is affirmation of people in non-mothering roles. We need to celebrate childless role models like you. Too often they are ignored by the media. (Gateway Women has put together a Pinterest board of childless and childfree role models which I think is a really good thing: see https://uk.pinterest.com/gatewaywomen/gateway-women-childless-childfree-women-role-model/.) But yes, Jesus is the best role model, I agree, whether we are single, married, childless or a parent.
I like a lot of what you have to say here, but I want to challenge the inherent ‘pronatalism’ in the notion that only those who have gone through loss can understand/empathise, etc. I’ve never particularly wanted children, but feel I have a lot to contribute to society, and to shaping the society that godchildren, nieces, nephews and every other person will grow up in!
Hi Bex. Thanks for your comment. Good point; I genuinely didn’t mean to imply that only the involuntarily childless can empathise, so I’m sorry if it came across that way. I can only write from my own perspective of being involuntarily childless and knowing that the grief that comes from that can be transformative in that it can be channelled in positive ways. The experience of wanting kids but not having them can result in complicated grief – there is no actual person to grieve, no ritual, generally, to ‘say goodbye’ to someone that never existed. Working through that can be transformative if people are supported and listened to although there will always be a sense of loss. However, I totally get that you don’t need to have gone through that to be empathetic, engaged, or invested in the future. If we are created in God’s image, I believe we are hardwired to be in relationship, and to to love others, whatever our life circumstances.
Inspiring article. I am a “passionate, compassionate, talented, childless woman”. Please read my article in the Daily Mail where I describe my care for the elderly, comparing it to a mother’s care
I also care for my disabled husband and am nanny to my young nieces. I have a PhD from Oxford too. I don’t have children but I have a lot to give! My twin sister (mother to the 3 nephews and nieces) and I would make a great twin study. She would agree that I have a lot more time, energy and inspiration to offer to the world as she rightly cares for her babies.
Hi Helen, thanks so much for your reply and I’m glad you found the post helpful. I’m going to read your article properly before I reply, and I have to dash out now. I will get back to you today.
Hi again Helen, thanks for the response. I found your article very interesting and thought-provoking. I’ve also sometimes felt that the elderly get overlooked and need speaking up for in my own church, which calls itself family-orientated but sometimes that just feels young-family orientated. The elderly are there but seem quite invisible. Personally I have always found the elderly great to be with, maybe because my mum was a geriatric nurse, and definitely because they say what they think!
With babies there is again the idea of future potential and it’s delightful to see their development, which is very, very appealing for a lot of people; maybe some shy away from working with older people because it reminds them of their own frailty and mortality. It’s a complex thing, perhaps because many of us don’t like to think that we ourselves will grow old and frail and die. But it is not just about future potential but shared humanity. What makes us human is the need to connect with others, whatever their age. Some feel more called to do that with kids, others with different age groups. What you are doing is fantastic and if others aren’t affirming you then I certainly will here, on this blog. Thanks for sharing your point of view.
Thank you for your article.
It does resonate with me quite a lot. I am childless and I care deeply about the protection of the environment. I got involved in my local Transition group before my infertility struggle started. The fact that I may not have children doesn’t make absolutely no difference.
Obviously being confronted to infertility does not make a better person per se. But I know, from experience, that it has made me more sensitive to injustices and difficulties people encounter in their lives.
I’ve written about it here: https://medium.com/@amandinlondon/why-i-cried-for-theresa-may-191561c3374b#.jubb9wes4
Thanks so much for your response. I am sorry to hear you’re going through a tough time. Your article was brave, beautiful and so incisive. I loved the bit about being your best. Thank you, I’m sure others will find this very encouraging.
This article touches a profound issue – how having children matters, or does not matter, in our world. There are many different responses to it from different societies world-wide and it matters that we understand them if we are to influence them in any way.
Why would we want to influence them? In this instance, the grief of childless couples, there is a need for those couples to find other ways of feeling valued by and valuable to society. And it is in the interests of any compassionate society to learn from and facilitate this.
So we need to discuss in its own right the value of having children – something in this age of overpopulation and carelessness with our fecundity we can no longer take for granted – and whether this reveals any steps we should take to influence the birth rate.
Hi Garvin, thanks very much for taking the time to comment – very thoughtful points. I agree, a discussion of why we have children in the first place would be very helpful. It is often treated as a given, something everyone does, the natural form of things. But that isn’t helpful to those who choose not to or cannot have children. I really like your point about the compassionate society. Personally as someone who wanted children but cannot have them, I am in unchartered territory; there’s no map and I need to find a way of making meaning and creating value in another way. That’s why it’s so important for people who are on the same path to share their stories – to encourage others and to show that there are other ways of being.
Agreed. She also insulted those of us who choose a life where having children isn’t an option – in my case, I’m a Religious Sister having vowed celibacy. I’m also working in Middlesbrough, where child poverty is at the highest rate in the country. Which requires a lot of hard work to help improve the self-esteem of the kids and encourage them to behave well so they can do well at school and hopefully gain employment when they’re older (which won’t be in Middlesbrough, or maybe even the North East, the way things are going). There are more ways to invest in the future than Mrs Leadsom seems to have thought of.
Thanks for your reponse – and sorry for the slow reply – it seemed to have found its way into my spam. It sounds like you’re doing really important work. The commitment and care and compassion of everyone who ahs replied, including yourself, is inspiring. Thank you x