I’m not even sure I should be writing this. I am, after all, a childless woman. Do I have enough of a stake in the future of our society to have an opinion? Can I really get my head around the complex, emotionally knotty issues of the day when my childless state means I’m incapable of understanding anything as profoundly as a mother can?
Her comments that she was more “directly” involved in the future of our country because she had children, while Theresa May had none proved to be the final nail in the coffin of her putative leadership bid. I wasn’t particularly surprised.
Remarks like Leadsom’s go far beyond the usual cut-and-thrust of the political arena and reveal how childless women are still viewed with innate suspicion . This, in spite of the fact that women in their mid-40s are now almost twice as likely to be childless as their parents’ generation. One in five women born in 1969 is childless today, compared with one in nine women born in 1942.
But there remains a taboo, a retrograde belief that we are in some way unnatural for not fulfilling our biological destiny . How else to explain the fact that the first question many people ask when I meet them is whether I have children, followed by an uncomfortable pause when I say that I don’t. “But why?” I can see them thinking. “What’s wrong with her?”
One in five women born in 1969 is childless today, compared with one in nine women born in 1942.
So whenever I hear something similar to Leadsom’s comments – and it happens quite a lot – it hits me like a suckerpunch. Because the truth is I don’t have children, but it’s not for want of trying.
It’s not anyone’s business is it? But then stuff like this happens and you think, well, if I don’t talk about it, it just perpetuates that unspoken sense of shame – the curse of childlessness hanging around your neck like the Ancient Mariner’s albatross.
In 2014, I had IVF after trying – and failing – to get pregnant for two years . I had two rounds. It was invasive and painful and emotionally draining. The hormones make you sad and vulnerable. One procedure was so painful I fainted on the hospital gurney. During my first cycle, a lugubrious Polish nurse told me I had responded so badly to the drugs there was no hope of continuing, all the while complaining about how her young daughter was misbehaving at school.
In the end, I did continue. I got one egg (most women in my age-group expect around 12). That single egg was fertilised but it didn’t stick. I lost it within two weeks.
The second round (five eggs; four fertilised; two replaced) produced the same dispiriting results. The consultant told me there wasn’t much hope; that to press on would be like playing a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey while blindfolded; that he was a father of three and, believe me, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and I should have seen his youngest having a tantrum in the supermarket this morning.
In fact, I got pregnant naturally a few months later. I had a scan at seven weeks that showed the baby’s heartbeat and was told the risk of miscarriage was now below five per cent. But I was one of the five per cent. I miscarried at 12 weeks. I spiralled into a period of numbness that I later realised was grief.
During my first IVF cycle, the nurse told me I had responded so badly to the drugs, there was no hope of continuing
I tell you this because it’s important to remember that childless women are childless for a whole variety of reasons. Sometimes, it is not by choice.
I still want children and I’m lucky that I have lots of them in my life – a beloved niece; eight wonderful godchildren; and many, many others – so I too have a substantial investment in the future of our society . Not being able to have a baby when you desperately want one gives you a profound degree of empathy and insight into other people’s lives. It’s an empathy distinctly lacking in our modern-day political process and it’s a quality I feel would serve any prime minister well.
But I’ve lost count of the number of times people have insensitively assumed I don’t want kids (“Oh, I thought you just wanted to focus on your career,” is a regular refrain) or that I’ve been told I’m somehow a lesser person because of my inability to procreate.
Elizabeth Day: ‘I still want children and I’m lucky that I have lots of them in my life’
There was the female wedding guest who recently told me in great detail about the magically transformative experience of having baby and how I couldn’t possibly understand what it was like until I’d been through it myself; that it changed the way you thought about everything because you were no longer living life just for yourself.
Then there are the brilliant, capable, successful friends of mine who don’t have children because they don’t want them. Some have never felt the maternal urge. Others have learned to value the benefits of a life unencumbered by sleepless nights or sports days or the availability of the local babysitter on any given evening.
To say that I or any of these other women are less invested in society or are somehow lacking is incredibly insulting and why Leadsom’s comments became so toxic, so quickly. Yes, having and raising of children is a major life event. But so is divorce. So is the death of a close friend. So is being made redundant. So is dealing with cancer. We are all shaped by events. There is no hierarchy of experience. We cannot measure how much our life has been altered by one thing and not another.
Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom: who do you trust, hmm?
Nor can we assume that just because a woman is a mother, her experience and her skills are the same as every other female who happens to have had a child.
I know some mothers who are capable and thoughtful and I know others who are smug and overbearing, just as I know some single women who are self-absorbed and others who put everyone else’s needs ahead of their own. I know some mothers who are capable and thoughtful and I know others who are smug and overbearing.
For every mother who might be better equipped to run a company or a country, what about the mother who finds it impossible to juggle, who gets stressed when she has to leave early for doctor’s appointments or parent-teacher evenings, who isn’t as devoted to her job as her colleagues because she places her children first?
And what about fathers for that matter? Why isn’t their childlessness perceived as a bar to the top offices of state? When (childless) Chuka Umunna put his name forward to run for the Labour leadership last year, I can’t recall anyone even asking the question.
There have been some excellent ripostes to the Leadsom interview on Twitter under the #asamother hashtag, which went viral when thousands of women poked fun at the idea they were qualified to be Prime Minister simply because they had children.
I’d love to offer an opinion on Leadsom quitting the leadership contest but as a childless person I’m just not invested enough in the future
I think what these women are saying is that motherhood might be a life-defining event, but it does not automatically confer a special pass, allowing VIP access into some exclusive club of deep thinkers.
I am not a mother, but the last time I checked my opinion was just as valid as my ovaries.