Over the weekend, Mumsnet Bloggers’ Network posed the question:
Catch up on @jabberworks guest post on not having children. Is shunning motherhood the ultimate taboo? http://t.co/ysSlqBbPnR
— Mumsnet Blog Network (@MumsnetBloggers) September 7, 2014
There is a simple answer to that question: no. Of course it isn’t ‘the ultimate taboo’. For goodness’ sake, there are so many more important issues to raise awareness of.
To me, it felt like a non-issue because I couldn’t see why someone’s personal choice should be an issue. However, any matter that generates debate is an issue – especially when someone then feels like they have to defend their beliefs as Sarah McIntyre, the author of the original guest post, wrote in her response.
That said, I fail to see why a woman’s rational decision to not have children becomes bait for public debate and judgement.
I know many women who have not had children for one reason or another. Some have decided children don’t fit in with their lifestyle – fair enough. Some haven’t been in a relationship with the right partner.
Newsflash: it’s no one else’s business.
Actress Maxine Peake has been quoted as saying ‘having children is very selfish’. This story seems to be the inspiration for the introduction to the guest post. In a classic case of reading the headline out of context with the rest of the article, many (including Mumsnet) have ignored that the actress has said she has ‘admitted defeat’ after enduring IVF and two miscarriages.
She is said to have commented that friends have thanked her for speaking out about her infertility, because “it is often viewed as something shameful.”
This is the crux of the matter: An issue becomes a taboo when it is not possible to have an open and honest discussion about it. Taboos can therefore be damaging because it often means people suffer in silence, worrying what people might think and how they will be judged if they ‘come out’ and speak about it, whatever it is. Taboos and stigma go hand-in-hand, and thrive in that silence.
Infertility is a huge taboo. It shouldn’t be – many couples experience infertility for all sorts of reasons. I experienced unexplained fertility for two years before conceiving my baby. Infertility can often feel like something shameful because it felt to me like I had failed. Just like the decision to remain childless, many people had (well-meant) opinions about it, and liked to quiz me on the subject. I had reached my mid-30s without ever having been ‘with child’: “But I thought you loved children!” “Are you still trying?”
It was pretty irritating, no matter how well-meant it was. It was irritating because people are asking you to discuss the intimate workings (or, more to the point, how they’re not working) of your reproductive system, and about your sex life. It’s not that I was bashful in talking about it, it’s because it was too often according to someone else’s agenda, and at a time I just didn’t feel like talking about it.
Again – it is no one else’s business.
Infertility shouldn’t be a taboo because, of course, it’s not a failure. There might seem to be a double standard here: “You say taboos can be broken by openness, but you don’t want to talk about infertility.”
I am happy to talk about it, but by being more open about infertility we can help the infertile feel more comfortable about discussing it, and empower them to encourage the questioners to ask more sensitive questions in a more tactful way.
Death in general is a taboo, with baby loss in particular being an issue that all too often is not openly discussed. Many of us like to think (as I did before losing my son, Hugo) that baby loss is something that happens to someone else. The issue often gets shoved under the carpet. One consequence of that is that it can mean people do not know what to say, leading to silly and hurtful (whether or not they are intentional) comments, which can in turn lead to an increased sense of isolation for the bereaved.
I have been seeking to break down the taboo of baby loss by being open about the loss of my son, what it feels like to be a bereaved mother, and suggesting ways others can help bereaved parents.
Perhaps, as outlined in Sarah McIntyre’s response, the ultimate taboo is actually those who have children and realise after having them that they don’t want them. There are probably all sorts of reasons for regretting having children, but the comment highlighted in her post hit the nail on the head about why we should never judge others:
I don’t think not wanting to have children is a taboo at all. The real taboo is HAVING children and not wanting them… nobody talks about that feeling! I’m a mum to 4 kids who I love very much, but there were times when they were little that I felt so overwhelmed and tired that I considered giving my very difficult but DD away to a friend who I thought would do a better job of bringing her up! Of course I now know that I am absolutely the right and best person to be her mother and I’m glad it was no more than a passing thought, but if it had been ok to say “I don’t want children… but I’ve got some!” I would have felt so relieved to be allowed to admit it and get help. So I think THAT’S the taboo that needs talking about. Mums need to be able to be honest about their feelings without fear of being branded cold and heartless. Mums need help not judgement when they feel that way or they’ll keep their feelings inside and, as we’ve seen too often in the news, that can end in disaster.
Many mums who feel this way about their children are suffering from a form of postnatal mental illness. Like all mental ill health, this is yet another taboo. These women need help and support, not judgement.
Another thing that bothered me about the question posed by Mumsnet is that a personal decision was used as click-bait and as an invitation to provide judgement.
We should be supporting each other and praising those who are brave enough to be open about how they feel – whether it is a decision to not have children, struggling with your children, mental ill health, the sorrow of infertility or the heartbreak of losing a baby.
We should be creating places where people feel safe expressing their decisions, or talking about challenging experiences without fear of being judged, receiving negative feedback, or being trolled. This openness will help others by showing they are not alone.
It will help break down taboos, and reduce pain, hurt and isolation.
‘Shunning motherhood’ is not the ‘ultimate taboo’.
Infertility, baby loss and mental ill health are bigger taboos.
These are the issues that need open discussion, and increased awareness.
Then these issues would not be taboos at all.