• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author
Article

The turn against motherhood

There is a difference between an individual deciding not to have children and someone embracing the view that there is something inherently wrong with motherhood and giving birth to children.

Individuals have always made choices about whether or not to have kids and about the size of their families. These were personal decisions rather than statements about the moral significance of bringing new children into the world. Yet today, a significant section of society presents the decision not to have children as a political comment. There is now a misanthropic ideology that promotes hostility towards those who choose to have children, alongside a growing tendency to paint motherhood in a negative light.

This anti-natal ideology is promoted in two separate but often interconnected ways. First, it is claimed that childbirth and childrearing are fundamentally negative experiences that ought to come with a health warning. Secondly, it is argued that having children is irresponsible because newborn babies constitute a threat to the environment. And it seems as if this ideology is having an impact: alarming new figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics show that the birth rate in England and Wales has fallen to its lowest level since 1938. In 2018, there were just 11.1 live births per 1,000 people – a record low.

Is motherhood natural?

One way in which the moral status of motherhood is delegitimised today is through the idea that society’s expectation that women should have children is an artificial and coercive imposition. This narrative calls into question what is sometimes described as ‘maternal inevitability’ and asserts that motherhood is not a natural role for women.

Writing about her film, My So-Called Selfish Life, Therese Shechter says she was interested in chronicling ‘the rise of a growing community of women who don’t want children and who reject the message that a woman’s most important – and most natural – role is to be a mother. Shechter’s ‘taboo-busting film’ is directed against ‘maternal inevitability’:

‘The film gives voice to a community challenging our most fundamental ideas about female identity, including a 19-year-old student determined to get her tubes tied, a woman “coming out” about her regret at becoming a mother, the founders of a childfree LGBT seniors’ community, and a repro-rights activist whose unsuccessful fertility treatments lead to a life transformation.’

Shechter says her aim is to challenge a world ‘where femininity is tied to childbearing’. Her film summarises the key points made by anti-natal activists. It suggests that motherhood has little to do with a woman’s identity, and it supports the claim that regret about becoming a mother is widespread. Finally, it hints at the superiority of childfree communities.

The anti-natality narrative seeks to portray motherhood as an undesirable and unpleasant trap. In recent years, numerous commentators have adopted the term ‘maternal regret’ to highlight the idea that many mothers pretend to be happy with their lives, but secretly they regret having had children. One Canadian article, titled ‘I regret having children’, argues that this sentiment is becoming increasingly common. It draws attention to a 9,000-member Facebook group, also called ‘I regret having children’. The author is delighted that ‘parental regret’ is a taboo that is finally being busted. This taboo has recently been brought to public attention by everyone from the BBC (‘100 Women 2016: Parents who regret having children’) to Marie Claire (‘Inside the growing movement of women who wished they never had kids’) to Today’s Parent (‘Regretting motherhood: What have I done to my life?’).

Some observers insist that maternal regret might be even more widespread than we think. They say that large numbers of women suffer from this condition in silence and feel unable to tell anyone about what a big mistake they made. A recent confessional article in the Daily Telegraph, by an anonymous author, was headlined ‘I secretly wish I’d never had children’. It is typical of the trend. The author writes of her disappointment with her predicament and tells of a time when ‘a little voice in my head whispered if I hadn’t had children I’d be living the life I dreamed of’. She added: ‘I feel so alone living with this secret.’

This word ‘secret’ is frequently deployed, no doubt to suggest that maternal regret is far more common than we suspect. It is also intended as a form of encouragement, to get more women sharing their stories. So at the end of the Daily Telegraph confession, the editors inserted the following: ‘Do you regret having children, and would you ever admit it? Join the conversation on the Telegraph Women Facebook group.’

Yet if maternal regret really is a secret, it has become a very open one. Maternal regret is now widely discussed across the world. In 2009, the French psychoanalyst Corinne Maier published her bestseller No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not to Be a Mother. In 2016, the BBC included Maier in its list of the 100 most inspirational women in the world. Germany has been particularly hospitable to the issue of maternal regret. Sarah Fischer’s book, The Lie of Maternal Happiness, offers a disturbing account of the supposed horrors of motherhood. Alina Bronsky and Denise Wilk’s The Abolishment of the Mother is directed against the traditional idealisation of motherhood in Germany. That the hashtag #RegrettingMotherhood was trending in Germany in 2017 suggests this concern resonates with certain sections of society.

In some cases, critics of the ‘normalisation’ of motherhood don’t only see themselves as exposing a dirty secret – they go a step further and actively try to help mothers to distance themselves from their decisions. Orna Donath, author of the 2015 book Regretting Motherhood, says the aim of her work was to help mothers who ‘wish to undo motherhood’. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that much of the commentary on maternal regret isn’t only describing this phenomenon – it is also seeking to normalise it. From the perspective of these observers, the new normal is not the association of motherhood with positive feelings but the association of motherhood with regret.

Estrangement from parenthood

The normalisation of maternal regret is connected to a wider trend – one that regards childbirth and the raising of children as an onerous burden, best avoided. The very idea of adults assuming responsibility for younger generations is regarded as an outdated custom, at odds with the lifestyles of busy and successful individuals.

The desire to opt out of parenthood is often blamed on financial difficulties. In Spain and Italy, so-called ‘empty cradle syndrome’ is put down to the financial and time commitments that come with having children. But this doesn’t stack up, because in many parts of the world the contemporary estrangement from natality is as pronounced among financially secure individuals as it is among less well-off people.

South Korea, which has the lowest birth rate of the OECD countries in the Asia-Pacific region, also has a vociferous #NoMarriage movement. A new network called EMIF – Elite Without Marriage, I Am Going Forward – reflects this sentiment. Not surprisingly, this year the number of people dying in South Korea is expected to be greater than the number of those being born.

In China, couples who choose to be childfree are often described as DINKs – ‘double income, no kids’. It is reported that couples who believe children would only cramp their lifestyles are on the rise in China. The term carefree has become synonymous with this childfree outlook.

Historically, women were confronted with the expectation that, when they became adults, they would embrace motherhood and give birth to children. This expectation is still widespread. However, it now competes with a negative vision of motherhood that suggests having babies will thwart a woman’s ambitions and diminish her quality of life.

Twenty-first-century society’s estrangement from having children is often said to be driven by women’s aspiration for greater independence. Sometimes the ascendancy of anti-natalist sentiments is linked with the influence of feminism. These things may have contributed to the crystallisation of the anti-natalist climate, but there are other, more powerful forces at work here.

Numerous aspects of human existence have been pathologised. Young people, in particular, have been subjected to a form of socialisation that encourages them to view the problems of existence – pain, disappointment, pressure, anxiety – through the prism of psychology. They have been brought up and educated in a way that tends to insulate them from pressure and from challenging or unsettling experiences. Instead of cultivating children’s capacity for acquiring independence, the current regime of socialisation encourages the young to be ‘aware of their vulnerability’.

In such circumstances, young people often become distracted from the aspiration to grow up, to take on adult roles, to embrace duty and responsibility.

This is one of the reasons why many young women – and men – in their early twenties claim that they don’t want children. Ever. No doubt many of these young people will change their minds at some point and opt to have children. But the assertive and confident manner with which they declare their anti-natal predilections suggests that right now they believe that avoiding the burden of parenthood makes perfect sense.

The anti-humanist movement against childbirth

The estrangement of sections of Western society from motherhood is underwritten by an anti-humanist doctrine – one that regards humanity not as the solution to the problems of the world, but as the cause of them.

In recent decades, much of the environmentalist movement has adopted a radically misanthropic rhetoric. According to some environmentalists, humans are a kind of cancer on the environment. Deep ecologists claim humanity has degraded the planet via our human-centred ideology that treats nature as a utility for people. The denigration of humanity is often vitriolic. There is a tendency to depict humans as parasites, and this is not confined to extreme and marginal individuals. Michael Meacher, a former minister in the New Labour government, referred to humans as a ‘virus’ infecting the Earth’s body. James Lovelock, the well-known originator of the ‘Gaia hypothesis’, says humans ‘behave in some ways like a pathogenic organism, or like the cells of a tumour or neoplasm’. Consequently, we have grown in numbers and ‘the human species is now so numerous as to constitute a serious planetary malady’, says Lovelock. He concludes that ‘Gaia is suffering from Disseminated Primatemaia, a plague of people’.

In the West, the population-control lobby is busy castigating those who have large families, branding them ‘environmentally irresponsible’. Having children, especially lots of children, is treated as an eco-crime. Prince Harry, via the issue of Vogue edited by his wife Meghan Markle, pushed this idea this week, with his promise only to have two children in the name of eco-sustainability.

From this perspective, another human life is just so many extra carbon emissions. Which is why it is preferable, apparently, that these new human lives simply did not exist.. As the Optimum Population Trust – since rebranded Population Matters – once put it, ‘A non-existent person has no environmental footprint; the emission “saving” is instant and total’.

And now there are the climate-change activists who have formed the ‘BirthStrike’ movement. They have decided ‘not to bear children due to the severity of the ecological crisis and the current inaction of governing forces in the face of this existential threat’. BirthStrike’s website features personal statements from individuals who think it is wrong to give birth. Aletha, aged 39, says:

‘The priority of my husband and I is to avoid bringing another child into intolerable future conditions such as heatwaves and drought, considering children are already dying from heatwaves in India and Pakistan this year.’

The idea that giving birth is some kind of crime against the environment is now even endorsed by celebrities. Miley Cyrus says millennials ‘don’t want to reproduce because we know that the Earth can’t handle it’.

The BirthStrike movement is merely the most extreme and depressing manifestation of an anti-humanist culture of pessimism. It is not simply these activists’ deep attachment to the environment, but also their misanthropy that leads them to the conclusion that the world would be a better place if humans stopped having babies. Their view of babies as polluters of the planet seamlessly meshes with a sentiment that treats parenthood as an undesirable and ‘problematic’ goal.

Until recently, babies were seen as a blessing. Now, far too many people argue that not having a baby is a blessing. Ultimately, the reason for this loss of faith in the human spirit is neither economic nor environmental. Rather, the main driver of this anti-natal movement is the difficulty that sections of society have in giving meaning to life today. Recovering our confidence in the human spirit and in age-old human virtues is the best antidote to the turn against giving birth.

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