Our politicians talk a lot about “families”, but what do they really mean when they use this term? What does a modern Australian family look like and how does it compare with ten, 20 or even 30 years ago?
In this ten-part series, The Conversation examines some major changes in family and relationships, and how that might in turn reshape law, policy and our idea of ourselves.
Australian women experience marked social exclusion if they choose to remain childless – and it’s the choice part of the equation that leads to their deviant status. While all childless women experience some exclusion, women who have rejected the traditional ideal of motherhood are at the greatest risk of social disconnection. It is the very act of making a conscious and public choice to reject the role of mother that is overtly or tacitly criticised.
The so-called lifestyle pages are full of articles by women trying to redress and reclaim the dialogue around the choice not to have children. These narratives and other contemporary writings on the choice to remain child-free parallel the research and challenge the dominant story that women who choose not to have children hate little people, want to save money and can’t give up their holidays.
The research evidence tells a different tale. It’s not children childless women hate, or even the terrible cost of having children, the lack of available childcare, parental leave or the loss of superannuation that’s taking up the lion’s share of their decision. Instead, it’s the degraded state and overinflated expectations of motherhood most are not keen on. And, of course, some women simply want a different kind of life.
Several recent studies point to an increased social acceptance of women who choose to remain child-free in societies with greater gender parity. In other words, the larger the space women can occupy, the more opportunity there is for a variety of life choices for women. In places where women have greater power, there is less policing of the role of mother and room for a more inclusive view of how to be a woman.
Women who are childless by choice often mother in other ways, ways that can go unrecognised by all but those who benefit from them. They step mother, allomother (where women other than the mother help take care of the child), actively aunt or foster. Anyone who has ever shared the burdensome role of parent or been mothered by such a voluntary mother will understand how desperately necessary this kind of mothering is.