May 9, 2005
The Age

Childlessness – the revolution we had to have

We know Julia Gillard is a weirdo (single, childless, empty kitchen – how weird is that?) but she had ’em howling with laughter at the National Press Club last week. She invited the “boys” troika of Abbott, Costello and Howard to try walking “in the high heels of Australian women” just for a day. Would they – as women – have made the same life choices and decisions, she asked. Would they have married, had kids, and still believed they could one day be prime minister?

If Peter was really “Petra” and Tony was “Antoinette” – both mothers of three – would they have been forced to downgrade their career aspirations? While the audience mused over this for a moment – with the flash of Alexander and his famous fishnet moment in the collective mind – Gillard warned not to push the “if-he-were-a-she” analogy too far: “I won’t ask you to imagine the Prime Minister as a woman,” she said, “because there are some places to which the human imagination should not run.”

But let’s flip this around for a moment. If Julia were, say, “Jack”, would she be leader of the federal Labor Party right now? Quite possibly.

When the gender dogs began barking in January, after Julia Gillard was photographed in her empty kitchen, I – no doubt along with many women – was gobsmacked by the overt and shameless patriarchy at play.

Like Gillard, I also am childless. But unlike Gillard I’m not ambivalent about being childless, nor am I disinclined to discuss it.

When I first outed myself on this page, back in 2002, as being miserable, frustrated and even angry about finding myself childless at the age of 38, the public and media outcry was extraordinary. One of my most vocal critics recently suggested that article “got nearly as much attention as President Bush’s declaration of war on Iraq”. The difference being – I might add – that unlike Saddam, my critics did harbour WMD in the guise of letters to the editor, comment pieces, rants on radio, etc. I was profiled as the woman “some love to loathe”; called “perverse”, “petulant” and a “brat”. In summary, I was told to shut up and stop whingeing. Funny isn’t it how a man’s complaint is an “argument”, and a woman’s complaint is a “whinge”.

But at the core of this issue “childlessness” emerged as a perplexing subject of taboo. Now, nearly three years later, we are mystified by this growing army of childless women. What to make of them?

Right now the troika is using the debate over IVF funding to remind women that motherhood is akin to national goodness. Sure, a back-down of sorts takes the heat off – for a while. But the entrenched value systems that direct policy to take punitive measures against women who don’t breed when they should – those who don’t “get going”, as the Treasurer puts it, in their most fertile years – haven’t gone anywhere. Just into political hiding.

But why this Government, community and media preoccupation with having babies anyway? By now, we’ve all heard plenty about Australia’s declining fertility rate. And we know what a fiscal and financial nightmare an ageing population that doesn’t reproduce itself poses. But why the fear of childless women?

Maybe because we’re in the midst of an unacknowledged “childless revolution”, with one in four women remaining childless, and every expectation that proportion will grow. But so silent is this revolution that many of its foot soldiers don’t even know they’re part of it.

When I outed myself as childless, I suggested – among other things – that I felt foolish and daft for taking the word of my feminist foremothers as gospel, foolish for believing female fulfilment came with a leather briefcase. For this I was castigated for “driving a stake into the heart of the sisterhood”. While intellectually lazy, that response showed the dangers of questioning a dearly held and long-loved ideology. It makes us all uncomfortable. But most importantly, my sisters’ anger simply missed the point. This is not about blaming feminism as a set of ideas: it’s about recognising its shortcomings in the lived experience of women right now. Spirited argument among feminist theoreticians may clog our email, but it does little to address the urgent need to examine where younger women are now taking their cues about babies and breeding.

For demographers and governments in developed countries around the world, fertility delay is a modern “mystery”. Which is pretty funny really – given for most women it’s no mystery at all.

We know affordability and a committed relationship are key to a woman’s decision to have a child. But we also know the workplace – in which most fertile women spend most of their time – also works as a long-lasting prophylactic.

Many of us have worked out the best way (some might say the only way) to succeed in the world of work – is to morph into men. Women who aren’t having kids – or are wondering about having kids – continue to look on horrified as we witness the despair of the working mothers juggle-struggle; as we see the humiliating thump when they hit the mummy-ceiling; and we see the identity crisis some women suffer when a once-proud job description is replaced with an embarrassed: “Me? Oh, I’m just a mum.”

We all know this country is riddled with family-unfriendly workplaces – despite the rhetoric.

Australian women are responding to the world and the circumstances in which they find themselves by voting with their trump card – their fertility. The “childless revolution” is perhaps the revolution we had to have!

Virginia Haussegger is author of Wonder Woman: The Myth of 'Having it All'.

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