'Tis the season for tipsy truths and one of these is that women do better when they focus on their careers
As Christmas approaches, I find myself thinking about a monumental turkey: Jennifer Aniston’s 2010 rom-com The Switch. The movie also featured a turkey baster, deployed by Aniston’s character—a single, 40-something, sadly childless woman—to achieve something akin to an immaculate conception. This plot device may have seemed a little edgy in Hollywood terms but the messaging was as traditional as figgy pudding: to make sense of her life, Aniston becomes a mom and completes her family unit by hooking up with her child’s biological dad.
Heart-warming? Not so much for the many women and men who by choice or happenstance are living their lives without children and as a result find themselves by turns pitied and demonized. Aniston is one such herself, childless despite her celluloid mommy role and the speculation that for years has reliably attended the slightest curvature of her abdomen. A persistent tabloid narrative holds her up as a totem not of female success but of failure; she couldn’t keep Brad and may be leaving it too late to have kids. Now she has bitten back. “I don’t like [the pressure] that people put on me, on women—that you’ve failed yourself as a female because you haven’t procreated,” she tells the fashion magazine Allure. “This continually is said about me: that I was so career-driven and focused on myself; that I don’t want to be a mother, and how selfish that is.”
Aniston’s interview is juxtaposed with photographs of her in diaphanous gowns. The roles available to her, on-screen and off, tend to be limited. To gain and keep attention, women in entertainment must either appear as sex kittens or their comically voracious counterparts, cougars; as kind friends; bitches; or, of course, madonnas. Aniston recently seized on another, rarer, option—playing ugly—and is generating Academy Award buzz with her raddled turn as a painkiller addict in Cake. If she hoists the gold statuette in February, you can bet a familiar serpent will nestle among the accolades. What price Oscar glory? How barren Aniston’s victory? No matter that the instance of women who remain childfree at the age of 45 has risen sharply across industrialized nations, encompassing about a fifth of the female populations of the U.S. and my home, the U.K., our cultural assumptions remain entrenched against the possibility of happy, balanced childlessness.
At no other time of year do these prejudices get quite such free play as during the so-called festive season. Childless by choice, I have often found myself gently resisting the impulse of fertile colleagues to enlist me to be on duty over the Christmas break, either because they assume themselves more entitled to family time or, at least on one occasion, because a kindly coworker imagined work would help to fill my bleak December days. Another annual tradition sees friends and relatives downing enough Glühwein to mutate into tipsy detectives and slurring shrinks. Their interrogations used to focus on my reproductive intentions but these days more frequently look for signs of secret woe.
To deny such woe by word or deed, as Aniston knows, is tantamount to admitting to a character defect or, more accurately, to an absence of character. Motherhood is synonymous with many very real virtues and to abjure its joys is to call into question your capacity for unconditional love, selfless care for others, dedication to the wellbeing of future generations and service to your country. (The French President for decades awarded gold medals to women who produced eight or more babies, raising them “appropriately” within a marriage. A more politically correct age has not scrapped the award but simply extended its eligibility to men.) To choose not to have children, as I have done, or merely to appear contented with the childfree life is, as Aniston complains, to hang a sign around your neck: “selfish”.
The childfree tend to trot out well-honed ripostes. We point out that we have nurturing relationships with many people including children. We talk about the ecological burden of overpopulating the planet. What we rarely do is to accept and embrace our selfishness. Perhaps we should start.
Because here’s the thing: being without children does mean we have fewer pressures on our schedules and our wallets. We are less likely to be elbowing our way through crowds in FAO Schwarz or Hamley’s or gritting our teeth at the prospect of sitting through this year’s top turkey Saving Christmas, even if we are more likely than the reproductively active to have the disposable income to do so. We enjoy the freedom to make more varied—and interesting—use of our time, now and throughout the year.
For women, who continue to lag behind men in earning power and professional attainment, this is a freedom to relish. Maternity all too often marks the start of that divergence, because men and women still rarely share parenting duties equally. Many of my close friends are mothers and delightedly so, but few of them, though feminists and in relationships with men who call themselves feminists, have escaped a career hit.
Some of these friends used to join in the seasonal pastime of quizzing me about my childlessness. This year it is more likely to be their daughters who come up to me at Christmas parties clutching glasses of gin (known to Brits as “mother’s ruin”) and wanting to know whether I really have no regrets. This is what I will tell them. Give yourself a present this year: unwrap the prejudices that determine your decisions. There is no surer route to regret than trying to mold yourself to the popular ideals of womanhood. If you want babies, have babies. If not, not. Whatever you decide, pursuing your goals with a determination that in men would be lauded as ambition risks labeling you selfish. Go right ahead. Be as selfish as Angela Merkel, Helen Mirren, Park Gyeun-hye, Dolly Parton, Gini Rometty, Diane Sawyer, Betty White, Oprah Winfrey and Jennifer Aniston. Selfishly I’d like to see women rising in 2015 and beyond.