“Women who don't want kids are seen as unnatural” Caroline Criado-Perez on the right to be child-free

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Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st Century context. This week, journalist and activist, Caroline Criado-Perez, discusses why - in an age when we have so many choices - women are still criticised when they say they don't want children.

Feminist Caroline Criado-Perez says:

When Holly Brockwell wrote an article for the BBC about her attempts to get sterilised, she expected to be called selfish. After all, she’s been called that for as long as she’s known she doesn’t want kids. She expected to get messages from people telling her she was wrong, she was too young to know, that she’d change her mind, regret it. She’d heard all that before.

What she hadn’t expected was the abuse. The rage. The messages that flooded her twitter, her Facebook, her Instagram, her email, even her LinkedIn page, telling her that she was sick, that she needed psychological help.

One man called her a “media whore”; another helpfully told her he wouldn’t want to “fuck her” — so that’s at least one impregnation she’s ducked. People told her they were glad such a “horrible, self-righteous, don’t give a toss about anyone else woman” hadn’t reproduced (in which case their anger seems rather misplaced — surely they should have been happy?).

People were taking this very personal decision, made by a person they didn’t know, extremely personally. That much was clear. But why?

There is still something deeply taboo about a woman announcing that she doesn’t want to procreate.

We expect it from men. The assumption is that women will have to “trick” a man into having children. That they will want to “tie him down” with their hysterical baby urges. And once a man has been “trapped”, that’s the sad end of a previously carefree seed-sowing devil-may-care life.

There is, of course, a grain of truth in this latter point: having children does change your life. It does make it less free. It does mean you can’t drop all your plans and rush off on a last minute holiday or night out. It does mean that changing jobs is no longer a decision that affects only you. It does mean your money is spent on school shoes rather than that new pair of heels you’ve been lusting after.

I know this, because I’ve seen it happen to other people. I’ve seen it happen to friends, I’ve seen it happen to family. And I’ve added it to my list of reasons I’m not sure I want kids either. So call me selfish too.

The odd thing is, while we frame the change into parenthood as being the most extreme for men, the reality is, it is women who experience the greatest shift.

They are the ones who are most likely to have to move to part-time work, or to miss out on job opportunities. They are the ones who are most likely to be shouldering the majority of the care burden. This is not to say that no woman chooses to put her children over her job — merely that she is most likely to make that choice, whether freely or not.

So why are we so surprised when women look at this reality and think, “no, thanks, not for me”? And not just surprised — angry? 

I rather suspect the answer is simple: it’s because we think women are naturally predisposed to care.

Women are meant to be selfless, to put others before ourselves. To choose a career over a life where we develop the potential in someone else, is to go against what we think of as “nature”. No wonder then, that what for men is seen as “dedicated”, “driven”, “ambitious”, is in women, “selfish”. Something to be condemned. Because it is unnatural.

Unnatural or not, it’s certainly an option that I am increasingly considering.

While I am not as sure as Holly, I am also shying away from the idea of motherhood. I adore my nephew and my cousin’s little boy. I love playing with them, cuddling them. But I also love my job. I love my life as it is. I see the sacrifices involved in having children — and I just don’t think I want to make them. 

I shouldn’t be demonised for that. Holly shouldn’t be demonised for that. After all, we’ve accepted this ambivalence about children from men for centuries.

Not to accept the same from women is just pure sexism.

Send your feminist dilemmas to stories@stylist.co.uk and we'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.  

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