Thoughts and ideas to inspire, uplift and affirm the childless and childfree, by circumstance and by choice
Made curious by the buzz around Gillian Guthrie’s recently released book Childless: Reflections on Life’s Longing for Itself I had been looking forward to reading it. I’d mistaken the title (a line from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet) for a phrase with a clever double meaning, imagining that it could refer both to the longing to create a human life and to the longing to live one’s own life fully and without children. I liked it. But as I read on, it became fairly clear that the title had no double meaning, despite the fact that the book’s cover implies relevance to the lives of non-mothers generally.
In fact, the blurb on the back of the book offers several heavily loaded statements:
“One-quarter to one-third of Australian women are now, and will most likely remain, childless. Here is a book full of intimate insights that take the reader beyond the many myths about why women are going without and how they feel about it.
Forget selfish, ambitious, uncaring and tough. Childless: Reflections on Life’s Longing for Itself is about longing and loss, grief and resilience. In it, Gillian Guthrie delves deftly beneath the childless woman’s armour of top job, financial independence and oh-so-exciting lifestyle options, finding more often a sadness that is seldom shared – a silent longing for the intangible presence of a child that never was and never will be.”
Because, in my opinion, the blurb somewhat misrepresents the book, I want to critique them separately.
The implication in the blurb that such a large proportion of Australian women are silently longing and privately grieving their non-motherhood makes an obviously ill-founded statistical leap. It is also tiresome that it presents no other avenue for the life of the childless woman than the ‘myth’ of uncaring ambition or else an assumed reality of grief-laden resilience.
But the most insidious part of the blurb, in my opinion, is the reference to “the childless woman’s armour”. What a reductive, demoralising, miserable way to negate the choices and discredit the accomplishments of women who are not mothers, representing our achievements, interests and passions as something we have donned merely to cover an underlying lack. Is it grief-masking ‘armour’ when men who are not parents rise to the top of their fields and achieve financial success? Is it not possible to argue, if you’re comfortable with second-guessing other people’s contentment, that babies are armour under which failure to succeed in other fields might lurk? Would it be acceptable to refer sarcastically to the choices of mothers as “oh-so-exciting lifestyle options”?
There are good odds, I think, that Guthrie did not write the blurb presented above. It is not a good match for much of the content of the book which, though it presents a very particular angle on childlessness, does not really pretend to do otherwise. The author describes and analyses her own unhappiness and relates very personally to many similar feelings she finds among the women she interviews.
To her credit, she includes some of the incredibly leading questions she posed to her interviewees, which provide some useful context for the material she presents.
“And what about fulfilling your body’s potential?”
“Have you ever thought that not having children reflects badly on your personal worth?”
“So what went wrong? Because that was part of your reason for not having children, wasn’t it?”
“You don’t feel as though there’s a lack in your life?”
It seems fairly certain that a researcher wishing to present a positive angle on the issue of non-motherhood may well have been able to do so with a different set of questions. But to point out obvious bias is not, in itself, a criticism of a book which must, after all, be written from an angle of some kind. And it is important to note that Guthrie does consider the experiences of some women who are genuinely happy not being mothers. They come across as the exception to the widespread underlying grief she emphasises, but then perhaps they are.
I would have loved, however, to find some discussion in the book of the enormous personal and political implications of the views of Dr Kristine Mercuri, a consultant psychiatrist at the Centre for Women’s Mental Health at The Women’s Hospital in Melbourne. Her expert opinions are cited, without critique, a number of times throughout the book. Dr Mercuri states:
“ ‘I think when people make a decision not to have children it’s really important to think about where that has come from, because the female body is designed to reproduce … At a very basic level that’s how we’re built. Therefore the conscious decision to override that basic biological given is often related to things that have happened since birth.’ Among those things could be a difficult, ‘dyssynchronous’ parent-child relationship, a significant death in the family, or severe emotional, physical or sexual abuse – the latter in particular, she says. All are examples of what might contribute to a decision to negate our natural tendency towards motherhood.”
I actually despaired a little to read this – to find women’s lives reduced so unquestioningly to their biology and to find women so easily and readily pathologised for stepping outside of gender norms. And not by some stuffy academic of the 1960s trying to undermine the idea that women really are sane and rational beings, capable of making real choices and decisions that might sometimes be at odds with the expectations of the society around them. The quoted ideas were expressed very recently by a person currently providing mental health services to women at a reputable institution in a large Western city.
Grief with some healing seems to have been Guthrie’s experience of childlessness and though my experience is different, I respect hers entirely. I also feel certain that there will be lots of women within the quarter-to-a-third of the population of Australian non-mothers who will value the validation of grief around childlessness very deeply. However in my view, neither this book, nor the non-mothers of Australia, should be judged by its cover. And certainly, no woman should be judged according to what Dr Mercuri regards as ‘our natural tendency’.
If you would like to check out some seriously impressive ‘armour’ do feel free to look here :).