Scared of being Mother

Why has procreation become such a turn off?

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

Since marrying Pete and celebrating her twenty-ninth birthday, Julia is extra-careful to remember to take her contraceptive pill in the morning. Could she be suffering from tokophobia?

Not likely. Unless, that is, she has been talking to a certain Dr Kristina Hofberg. Dr Hofberg, reportedly the UK’s leading expert on tokophobia – a morbid fear of childbirth – has discovered the headline-hitting fact that at least one woman in six (or seven, depending on which news reports you read) is so terrified of becoming pregnant that she induces a miscarriage, or avoids becoming pregnant altogether.

Dr Hofberg’s statistics need taking with a pinch or two of salt. Dr Hofberg drew her conclusions from interviews with 370 childless, non-pregnant women – almost one in seven of whom, according to one report, ‘reported a morbid dread of childbirth sufficient to postpone or avoid pregnancy altogether’ (1). Dr Maggie Blott, a consultant obstetrician at London’s King’s College Hospital, is sceptical. ‘If it was as many as [Dr Hofberg] says, we’d all know someone who suffered from it’, she told the Sun newspaper. ‘It’s also virtually impossible to induce a miscarriage.’ (2) Indeed.

But the tokophobia idea has resonated – because, even if significant numbers of women are not suffering from a medical syndrome that puts them off having kids, they have certainly been put off by something. The fertility rate is plummeting throughout the Western world, and in England and Wales in 2000 reached 1.66 children per woman (3). That doesn’t just mean that women are having fewer children – a growing proportion of women are remaining childless.

The UK Office for National Statistics has projected that almost one quarter of women born in 1973 will be childless at aged 45, compared to about 15 percent of those born in 1953 (4). Meanwhile, the age at which women do have children is getting later and later: hitting an average of 29.1 years in 2000, compared with 26.2 in 1972 (5).

So what are we scared of? Because, when it comes to explaining why fewer women are having children, and why those that do are having them later, fear is the only explanation that really makes sense. It’s not tokophobia, but a more generalised unease about procreation and parenting, which has afflicted this generation of twenty-/thirtysomethings quicker than you can say ‘condom’.

But wait! cry the suited City professionals, playing hard at the bar after a long day’s work. It often seems that many women today are delaying motherhood for the most positive of reasons. Previous generations of women were expected to settle down and start families early, to the detriment of their careers and social lives. Now women have more control than ever before over how many kids they have and when they have them, and if they use that opportunity to have a life before they have children, what could be wrong with that?

‘I’m happy with my life at the moment’, says Sandy, 27, a well-paid lawyer in the City of London. ‘There’s no hurry.’ It would take a pretty extreme pro-natalist to argue that Sandy should rush to give up her career, salary, and contented lifestyle to have kids right now, just for the sake of it – when she can easily do that 10 years down the line. And let’s not forget that, however acceptable it is today to be a ‘career mom’, the practicalities of working and parenting are still difficult to negotiate: the cost of childcare, the inflexibility of work, and the blow to a woman’s career path that can still happen once she takes time out for the kids.

But none of this convincingly explains why, today, relatively few women are having relatively few children. The ‘positive reasons’ often cited to explain this trend are all to do with women’s lives getting better, fuller and more equal – that women have more choices than ever before. Yet within this context of more choices, among professional women the trend is developing towards taking just one choice: to have kids later, or not at all. Of all the options available to us, it seems, having children seems one of the least attractive.

On one level, the ‘put it off’ mentality seems entirely sensible, given the extent to which modern parenting has been pathologised. Look at the rash of ‘mummy lit’ that has hit the bookshop shelves over the past couple of years: professional women, many of them post-feminists, who write much-publicised books about their experience of mothering as if to warn us not to go there.

In Misconceptions, the American radical Naomi Wolf documents, in wincing detail, how the medical profession bullied her out of having the kind of birth she wanted, before going through the angst and isolation of bringing up her new baby (6). The novelist Rachel Cusk writes a book-sized whinge about how motherhood is not only ‘A Life’s Work’ but pretty hard and horrible work too (7). Various other self-help and cod-sociology books drive a similar point home – proving the point made by Frank Furedi, whose own book on parenting is the exception to the whinge-rule, that there is a paranoia surrounding parenting today, which presents the reproduction of a new generation as increasingly risky, complicated and emotionally traumatic (8).

Add to this the fact that an official policy of parenting classes and continual parental advice presents bringing up children as an achievement beyond most people’s capabilities, and it’s no wonder we’re a little nervous about joining this particular club.

Even so, if today’s twenty-/thirtysomethings really wanted children, it would take more than this to put them off. We don’t listen to the government when it comes to drinking, saving money or anything else, and people without kids generally avoid parenting books like the plague. Another major factor in today’s baby-avoidance is that, when it comes down to it, we still feel like kids ourselves.

‘I just don’t want to imagine myself getting old’, says Rebecca, 33, who has recently taken the leap from the safety of contraception into the abyss of possible pregnancy. ‘I still think of myself as quite young, but with a baby….’ Slippers, shopping trolleys and early nights are one aspect of it – the other is responsibility, and the lifelong commitment involved in bringing up a child. In a culture that celebrates the playful nature of youthfulness and worries itself sick about committing to anything without an exit strategy, shackling oneself to the needs of a dependent child seems like a scary prospect indeed.

And it’s not like the immediate rewards offered by a lifestyle-as-mom seem all that appealing. For many women, a baby’s giggle or a toddler’s cute saying does not appear like much of a trade-off against the challenge of work and the entertainment provided by grown-up conversation. There’s nothing particularly new about this – while parents have always loved their own children, many of them were never attracted to vocations like nursery-nursing or primary-school teaching, which involves a love of or interest in children-in-general.

But procreation was never just about gratification in the present. It was, fundamentally, about raising a new generation for the future. The focus, in the parenting discussion, upon the immediate difficulties facing women when starting a family – from loss of wages to shifting priorities to coping with lack of sleep – avoids the more fundamental issue, of society’s increasing ambivalence towards procreation, and what this says about the future. Women deciding whether to have children today do so in the context of a society so lacking in confidence about itself and its future that it cannot even embrace its own reproduction.

‘As adults we may have learned to live with the permanent present – that day-to-day flux of complexities and contingencies that inhibits our capacity to formulate visions of a future and better society’, wrote the father-and-son media team Laurie and Matthew Taylor, in a perceptive article in the UK magazine Prospect. ‘That’s life, we say to ourselves. But do we really want this hesitancy in the face of the future, this disconnection, to be the only legacy that we leave our children?’ (9)

Today’s twenty-/thirtysomethings are a product of a time in which the norms and certainties of the past have gone, to be replaced with the moral relativism and political uncertainty of the present day. There is no sense, now, of a confident orientation towards the future, of any distinct goals that society is aiming for. Rather, as reflected in discussions about everything from health to parenting to personal relationships, the dominant mood of our times is anxiety about how we are coping with everyday problems that we face in the here and now.

The childless revolution is a consequence of a society so ill-at-ease with itself that it has turned parenting into a pathology, while indulging a fantasy of life-long adolescence. This filters down to women, who should be in a better position to ‘have it all’ than any generation before them, yet who find themselves pulled between their desire for children on the one hand, and their fears of taking that leap on the other.

In all the angst-ridden discussions that surround everything to do with parenting and kids, it is easy to forget that, once the leap has been taken, parents cope with it fine and they enjoy their children. That’s life, after all.

Read on:

Jennie Bristow’s review of the cult of mummy lit in the New Statesman, Monday 17 December 2001

spiked issue: Parents and kids

(1) Observer, 16 December 2001

(2) Sun, 17 December 2001

(3) Office for National Statistics, 28 June 2001

(4) Social Trends 30, 2000 edition, Office for National Statistics, p44

(5) Office for National Statistics, 28 June 2001

(6) Misconceptions: Truth, Lies and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood, Naomi Wolf, Chatto & Windus 2001. Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(7) A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother, Rachel Cusk, Fourth Estate 2001. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

(8) Paranoid Parenting: Abandon Your Anxieties and Be a Good Parent, Frank Furedi, Allen Lane The Penguin Press 2001. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

(9) Prospect, June 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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