Jeremy Elwood & Michele A'Court: What's mum-shaming all about?
OPINION: Husband-and-wife comedians and commentators Jeremy Elwood and Michele A'Court give their views.
Michele A'Court: Hey ladies, here's a thing we could do for each other - stop telling each other we're doing it wrong. Recently, in another newspaper's life & style section (always a rich source of "not like that, you fool!" tips) there was Anne-surname-withheld berating older mothers for their terrible life choices.
Having had an unplanned pregnancy at 19, Anne was obviously pretty chuffed at being 41 now and free as a bird. But her joy at how well things had turned out for her was outstripped by her feelings of antipathy to friends her age with toddlers.
As the headline screamed: "Having a child over 33? I'd rather have cancer."
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Clearly, Anne has never had cancer, but that's just the start of what's wrong with articles like this. Anne argues that women are making a big mistake by having babies later, that she "pities" middle-aged women having to contend with a young family because "they are trapped financially, physically and emotionally."
Anne expresses (albeit with unusual bile) one side of the argument about when women should have babies. Her version: find a guy, have a kid, get a job. Let's call that plan "rock". There's another option: establish a career first, then have a family. Let's call that plan "hard place". US statistics suggest women who follow plan "hard place" end up with higher salaries in middle-age. I can feel Anne-probably-not-a-real person sticking her middle finger up to that regardless.
And then there's the third option - plan "all you want but s**t happens". Hands up anyone who has never had a pregnancy that didn't involve some element of surprise? There is no right time to have children. They turn up (not entirely without invitation) and you do your darnedest to make it the right time.
Also, I'm not sure where to find the article about the right time for men to become parents in terms of avoiding career interruption. Business section?
We need to stop telling women the struggle to balance a career and a family is their fault, down to their bad (or lack of) planning. It's not something women are doing wrong, it's something our labour market isn't doing right.
Fifty years ago, most of the people who worked were men. Now half of the people who work are women. And most of them have babies. So close to half our workforce also create new humans and care for them. But we continue to arrange our workforce as though it is odd that someone who has a job also has a child.
It's not about being a mother when you're 19 or 33. It's about paid parental leave, flexible working hours, affordable childcare, and pay equity. This isn't about women getting it wrong, it's about us all catching up with how the world actually works, and adjusting the labour market to fit that.
Jeremy Elwood: Only a few years ago, my few friends who had children were outliers. We, being the childless majority, would politely smile and nod when they talked about them; we'd even coo and cuddle them if it seemed absolutely necessary, but behind their backs we'd shake our heads and sadly lament them as gone from the group, for good.
Then, the floodgates opened, and the roles were suddenly reversed. Seemingly overnight, everyone I knew was reproducing, and the main talk at bars, cafes and in tour vans was about their children.
I'd helped raise my stepdaughter to the point where she had left home so now, not having any desire whatsoever to have children of my own, I was the one on the outside; still smiling and nodding, but less politely, and I'm sure once I left the room, the head shaking was about me and what I was missing out on. Ironically, the people I know now who are most reliable to catch up with socially are those few from before, whose children are older, and require less full-time attention.
I don't begrudge the fact that other people's decisions have affected my social circle, though, for one very simple reason. It is absolutely none of my business.
When, and indeed if, any given person decides to start a family is either entirely up to them, or not, depending on the circumstances. It isn't up to anyone else, no matter how much others might want it to be. There are millions of grandparents around the world who didn't want to be – not now, it's too early, or too late, or inconvenient for whatever reason, but they don't get to choose. The same applies to uncles, aunts, workmates and friends – as much as you might think your opinion matters, when it comes to someone having a child, it doesn't.
Having children is, at least in our relatively progressive society, the most personal of choices. Women have fought hard for it to be so – the legal rights to contraception, adoption, IVF and, yes, abortion, have all been victories that came at a great cost, and in many cases far too late. As for potential fathers, yes we deserve to have a say in the matter, but we also need to recognise that the hardest work isn't, usually, going to be done by us.
So go ahead, friends, have your children whenever you want. Then call me in 15 years or so, and we'll grab a beer and you can tell me all about them.