In a press conference this week, Filipina-Australian actress Anne Curtis-Smith was asked when she and husband Erwan Heussaff plan to start a family. Her response was a breath of fresh air for childless women the world over. “The press should stop asking that to any woman, because you don’t know what they’re going through.
“For me, it will happen in God’s time, and I think at any time I’m ready for it. But I’m speaking for every woman. You don’t know what they’re going through. I hope you guys don’t take this the wrong way, but I think in respect to every woman, you should stop asking when they’re going to get married, why don’t they have a baby, or when they are going to have a baby.”
Quite apart from highlighting the double standard – I cannot remember a single occasion when a male celebrity was asked about his procreative plans – Curtis-Smith raises a pertinent point.
The decision of when, or indeed whether, to have a child is intensely personal – nobody, male or female, should have to justify that decision, or lay out a timeline for the benefit of others. Having reached the grand old age of 38 without having produced any offspring, I am well aware of the unease that such perceived barrenness instils. Women who do not fulfil their maternal "destinies" are treated as if their actions somehow defy the natural order of the universe.
From the lovely ladies at my local nail spa, who are forever lamenting my childless state, to the taxi drivers who ask how many children I have and then stare in perplexed disbelief when I explain that I have none, to members of my own extended family, who treat my refusal to pass on the Denman DNA with a mix of pity and disappointment – there is a quiet but steady stream of judgement being directed towards my inactive ovaries.
I am routinely warned against “leaving it too late” – the insinuation being that once my eggs have dried up into sterile husks and having a child is no longer an option, I’ll slide into old age with only regret and loneliness to keep me company. But I’m pretty sure that having a child on the off-chance that one day you’ll regret not having had a child is not a good enough reason to bring a new life into the world.
“Who will care for you when you are older?” is the other standard argument, but everybody who lives in a different country to their parents and feels those pangs of guilt every time they go home and realise how rapidly their folks are ageing, knows there are no guarantees your own children will be around to care for you in your advanced age.
There are many reasons why people do not have children. Some women would love to, but haven’t met the right person to have them with. A worrying number of my friends have suffered miscarriages, in some instances under highly traumatic circumstances. Others have battled for years to conceive, undergoing endless rounds of IVF. Their inability to have children is an open wound – and every time someone asks them about their “family plans”, or what they are waiting for, they are rubbing salt into said wound. As Curtis-Smith says: “You don’t know what they’re going through.”
“I have a lot of friends who may be trying, and medyo nakakasakit [it kind of hurts] when people keep asking them, ‘When are you going to have a baby?’ Maybe they just don’t want to have a baby,” she added.
Indeed, as difficult as it is for society to accept, there are plenty of women who simply don’t feel the urge to be a mother. That mythical maternal instinct is not a genetic given. And nobody should be made to feel as if that is unnatural or selfish or unacceptable. The choice to not have children is just as valid as the choice to have them.
I have the utmost respect for parents – for taking on the most difficult and important job in the world and being able to juggle child-rearing with the countless other responsibilities of modern-day life (when I can barely manage to get into work on time most days).
But because it’s such an important job, it shouldn’t be entered into lightly – and it certainly shouldn’t be a given that everybody is equipped to do it. Endless societal pressure is not helpful and neither is your slightly judgmental concern about my child-bearing plans. So next time we meet, how about you ask how my dogs are doing, rather than wondering when I’ll finally get around to doing the “done” thing and getting myself impregnated?