Feminist Sunday: The Children Question

feministsundays2Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme created at Books and Reviews. The aim is simply to have a place and a time to talk about feminism and women’s issues. This is a place of tolerance, creativity, discussion, criticism and praise. Remember to keep in mind that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, although healthy discussion is encouraged.

As a non-native English speaker, I usually find myself surprised at how easy words can be created in the English language. One of those words that has recently called my attention is “childless”. I have seen it all over the web in good and bad contexts and it is always surrounded by a morphological debate: Why child-less? It implies a fault, a void that may no exist for the people who are said to be childless or, on the contrary, a avoid that it’s too painful to talk about. Also, last week about Helen Mirren’s interview for Vogue quoted everywhere– another outspoken lady, could it have to do with our name? 😉 – where she talks about her being asked the very same question about not having had children her whole career.

As a young woman, I have issues with the word and the whole discourse surrounding it. I have been dating Mr.B&R for a long time now and my extended and lovely family know him and so do my acquaintances. So, whenever they find me playing with one of my amazing nephews or nieces – or let’s be sincere, merely out of the blue – the inevitable question comes. And it does not come in a polite way, as in “What do you think of having children?” but something more in the lines of “you are getting older, when are you having children?”. I am known for being an outspoken person and you can imagine how disappointed, angry and defensive I get when asked, if I tell you my mom usually grabs my arm to try to soothe me. It works, sometimes, and I try to excuse myself for not being old enough, for not having a house or a job yet and the like, because really, experience has taught me that’s the easy way. Other times  I say “never” to try to shut them up, when I really want to say “it is not any of your ******* business”. But apparently, that is not a polite answer to someone who is meddling with your private life, so I save that to myself, vent my anger with Mr.B&R and he tries to make me laugh at it so that we can move on, something I will be forever thankful to him.

It is not the question that bothers me, although partly it does because people do not ask me about other aspects of my life that matter to me right now as much as they do about a possible motherhood. It is the discourse behind the question, the idea that a woman in a stable relationship has to want children, because, why wouldn’t her? I am not saying I will never have children, neither am I saying I am dying to have them. But, as a young woman and as a feminist who loves working, who gets pretty good grades and feels at her best when at school (be it lessons, a meeting or just talking to my classmates and professors), I wonder what do people really think of me. And with “me” I mean what I stand for, which is a European, middle-class, white, heterosexual, young, hard-working woman.

As a feminist, I think motherhood is one of the fields where more work needs to be done because it has been culturally constructed in ways that have not proven healthy and I think it can be an amazing experience; but I’ll devote yet another Feminist Sunday to it. I am in no way suggesting that motherhood should be not talked about nor am I promoting anti-motherhood feelings; today I am just talking about being asked the question. Because maybe it is time for people to see more in a woman than a mother. And especially when that woman is young, when there are so many options in life and motherhood can come in so very different ways nowadays. What if the woman or her partner suffer from a medical condition and cannot have children? What if it is a daily struggle for them? Should they feel compelled to tell everyone asking why they don’t have children? What if they just simply do not want them? Or, what if they are hiring a surrogate mother or adopting a child? Does the “have children” in the question mean the same, then?

Extending the question out of the matrix of heterosexual couples: Would the same question be asked to a homosexual – be it gay or lesbian – couple? Would they ask the same to a single woman? Or more importantly, would they ask a single man about the possibility of adopting a child? The gap of expectations between different people, with different sexualities and different emotional situations, is huge and it is harming us a society. By setting these “standards” we are opening and closing different life paths to people depending – mainly, although not always – on their sexuality and their love lives. And it’s not fair for any of us because feeling the expectations to do something is as harmful as being told you will never have such an option in your life.

So, let’s talk! Have you experienced these kind prejudices? Have you been asked “the question”? I would love to hear from you all – men and women – and especially how your perception of this issue has changed, or not, in time 🙂

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10 thoughts on “Feminist Sunday: The Children Question

  1. Great post, Elena, I hope this brings some really interesting discussion points.

    As someone who was single for eight years before I met my husband, I can tell you that single women ‘of a certain age’ (late 20s/early 30s) are asked the question ALL THE TIME and I found it infuriating. My response was always that I didn’t want any and, in case anyone wanted to take issue with my reasoning for that, I used to add that I taught other people’s all day and I didn’t want to go home to more, I neither have the energy for it nor did I want my life to be restricted – as I see it. However, that was always followed with, ‘You’ll change your mind, I/my sister/friend/aunt felt the same when she was your age and one day she was desperate to have them’. I always argued, I should’ve known better – you can never win because people don’t believe you.

    Now I’ve got two step-children who are both wonderful. One’s 19 and away at university so needs very little from me; the other’s about to turn 8 and lives half the week and alternate weekends with us. He’s a pretty good kid and the arrangement we have with his mum and step-dad means we all get to spend part of our time living a ‘child-free’ existence while the other couple bear the responsibility.

    However, since meeting my husband I still get asked when I/we’re having a child of our own. ‘We’ve got two,’ I always reply. And I’m quite happy to tell people that I’ve never desired any of my own but now I have two great step-kids who I can support while continuing to do my own thing.

    The problem’s that of the person asking the question and their acceptance of age old societal beliefs rather than mine. All of us – female OR male, regardless of what our answer to the question might be need to keep challenging those asking. I think ‘Why do you think it’s acceptable to ask me that question?’ would probably be enough.

    1. You just nailed it, Naomi. When I say it’s not the time to think about it, or just try to shut people up saying that I don’t want them, I get the same answer you did: “Oh, you’ll change your mind” which I think it’s a valid answer, because I have the right to change my mind as many times as I want, but never – ever – would I like to discuss those changes with anyone but my partner.

      I am so happy that you’ve found happiness with your step-children, although knowing about them I was also curious about you and your husband being asked the question of “your own” children, as if only biological children mattered. That is another thing – also mentioned on the post – that infuriates me, because I don’t think people include such options as adopting or marrying someone who already has children as “having children” when those kids still are kids in whose lives you want to participate.

      Thanks for a sneak-peek on your private life. If we ever want to share it, it should be this way 🙂

  2. Really interesting to read this post. It’s a very personal and important subject and you’re absolutely right to try to unpack what’s going behind this question – especially as it is one people naturally feel inclined to put to women especially those who are as Naomi says ‘of a certain age’. While most people who ask it probably mean it innocently enough it seems like we should all put more thought into what this question is saying about our assumptions about women and the expectations we place upon women in our culture.

    As a man I have been asked that question myself especially as same sex marriage is becoming legal here in the UK – along with the question When are you getting married? There is a lot you can unpack from this question as well. I’ve also had women say to me in an offhand way “Oh I can have your baby for you!” It seems to me really perplexing that some women want to casually “lend” me and my partner their womb since we don’t have one between us. I don’t think they are really serious though I know some same sex couples do enter into arrangements with friends to conceive. It’s obviously something that’s complicated and needs to be thought out.
    On the whole, I think men are less likely to be asked the question – especially heterosexual men because the plain truth is that our culture doesn’t place children as a life priority for men in the same way as it’s placed upon women. In most cases I think the primary life goal people are more inclined to ask men about is regarding their career.

    I did put the children question to a female friend of mine once. She hesitated for a moment and then answered shyly that she and husband of several years had difficulty conceiving. I instantly felt really guilty and apologised for intruding upon her privacy. Of course, since she’s been a friend for many years it’s only natural to talk about personal things. But I suddenly realised how difficult it must be for her as she is probably asked this question a lot and has had to decide how to answer it by either going into what might be a painful personal issue or deflecting it in some way. After that it made me think more about how to broach the subject with friends – although generally I don’t feel inclined to do so and I would especially never ask about the possibility of children of someone I know only casually. Although I don’t think it’s necessarily “wrong” to ask it I think we should stop and ask ourselves why we’re asking it before we do.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Eric. And I don’t think your friend was offended or anything you being a close friend of hers, but the problem is the difficulties she has to face when asked by other people. Disclosing your medical condition is not always easy and it’s nobody’s business, but sadly, people sitll ask this question too often.

      I was also very intrigued by how much homosexual couples get this question, so thanks! I have a few homosexual relatives who never get asked the question, but I thought it was probably a thing in my family. I didn’t know if those arrangements among friends were that common or just a Hollywood thing (a Jennifer Aniston movie comes to mind), but they are new reproductive practices with new ethics attached to them and they certainly need to be known so that they can also be respected.

  3. I hate the term child-less too, I think child-free is a better alternative but I don’t see why we need a label anyway.

    I hated the constant questions about when I was going to get pregnant. I got married almost three years ago and the questions started pretty much straight away. It’s no one’s business and there was no way I was ready to be pregnant three years ago. When we actually did start to try it took almost a year and I hated getting asked “when are you going to have one too?” when we were trying and failing, if you know what I mean. It’s a question I never ask anyone because it’s too personal.

    And the questions don’t stop when you become pregnant. Now I get nosy pointed questions about breast-feeding, and am I disappointed it’s not a girl, and how long will I wait before I have a second, and am I having pain relief at the birth? I can ignore most of it but the one that does upset me a bit is the judgement around going back to work. I will return to work when the baby is around 6 months old, I’m going back to work because I want to, but would have stayed off for a year if finances had allowed it (they don’t). People keep saying “don’t you want to spend more time with the baby?” and it’s so annoying.

    1. Thanks for a different perspetive, Sam and thank you so very much for sharing your story, it means a lot.

      If you say things gets worse when you get married, I really don’t know if I will stop myself from “annoying” people anymore. I do not know why they think it’s their business and in cases like yours, I am so terribly sorry you had to go through all the questions while trying-and-failing. I am sure it must have been a difficult or stressful time and people were not really seeing the damage they were provoking.

      And as you point out, things do not stop there, do they? I hope you can get away most of the times with a smile, because one thing is you chose to share it and another – and a very different one – is to be questioned about it. You know we do not ask about here, but remember we are very willingly to listen if necessary 🙂

  4. I think what really bugs me about that particular question is that it could really hurt people who DO want children and for whatever reason can’t have them/are having difficulty. It seems such an invasion of privacy, but for whatever reason, all things surrounding having and raising children seem to be open for discussion in the minds of many people, whether they have any business sticking their noses in or not.

    1. True. I once told a relative “did you ever think that maybe I can’t have them even if I wanted to?” and he said he was sorry. Obviously I’m still too young, but I think that “educating” people around you not to ask the question is what works best.

  5. Such a good post!

    I find I am constantly asked when If I have a boyfriend by family, and I somehow have to justify my singledom. Guys never have to justify being alone, why do I? Because naturally as a woman in my late 20s I should be wanting a boyfriend I can potentially have babies with before my ovaries shrink and I run the risk of an ‘unhealthy’ child. Right? If I didn’t have to be polite to these people I would scream.

    Personally, the thought of giving birth to a child does nothing for me, I have no urge. Adoption, however, I would consider that.

    1. That is yet another offensive and intrusive question, Alice and I’m sorry you get asked about it. I mean, we are in 2014 and people still do not understand that not everyone wants a stable, leading-to-marriage relationship as if life had not any other thing to offer young women! I hope you find ways to politely but assertively answer people 😉

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