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.