Evidently there's a monstrous taboo facing women (even now, in 2013) concerning child-bearing, and those who choose not to have kids still must explain themselves. So says Helen Mirren in a Telegraph interview that has great merit for other reasons. First Mirren:
When a woman reaches a certain age, she is expected to start thinking about having children. If she doesn’t, society demands an answer. But why doesn’t she have children, people will whisper. Isn’t she able to have children? Doesn’t she want children?
In the past, Mirren has answered with defiance. “I have no maternal instinct whatsoever,” she once said. “Motherhood holds no interest for me.” In her latest interview, however, Mirren, who has been married for 15 years, admits that she always expected to be a mother. “It was not my destiny,” she says. “I kept thinking it would be, waiting for it to happen, but it never did, and I didn’t care what people thought.”
Women, she adds, never gave her a hard time: “it was only boring old men. And whenever they went 'What? No children? Well, you’d better get on with it, old girl,’ I’d say 'No! F--- off!’”
OK, so some old men from a previous generation have given her guff on occasion, but that's not exactly a leading indicator of current attitudes -- in fact she says women haven't bothered her. In fact, it would seem that between Planned Parenthood, Cosmo magazine, grrl power merchandise, and college statistics (where women outnumber men), motherhood isn't a top priority to most women these days.
One shouldn't overlook the sleight-of-hand in Mirren's comments, who says she's not maternal, then that she always expected to be a mother, and then that she found out that she couldn't have children. That's a monumental amount of information that leaves us with more a taste of "sour grapes" than "I did it my way." She's all over the map because her life has been complicated by many factors, not the least of which has been her position as a highly successful actor in an industry deeply conflicted about cultural norms.
Now that we have her personal story out of the way, there is a fascinating summary of the lives of women near the end of the piece:
A woman’s reproductive career has many phases, all difficult to negotiate. The beginning is not easy, because she has to accept the idea that, for better or worse, she is sexually active. Then she has to work out what she should do to protect herself and her fertility from sexually transmitted infection and her future from the arrival of an unplanned baby.
Just how hard this is can be guessed from the number of morning after pills dispensed to young women. They shouldn’t be having unprotected sex, and they know it, but they are more concerned to please the man they think they love. Among the things they can lose at this precarious stage is the chance of having a baby further down the line.
The next phase is when a woman finds herself in a committed relationship. The decision about when to have children is one she and her partner should take together, but there are no guarantees they think the same way. She may have to force the issue, or she might be too decent to do that, and end up waiting too long. Dame Judi Dench produced her one child when she was 37; many women who try for a baby at that age will fail.
When a woman ceases to take precautions, with or without telling her partner, the outcome is in the lap of the gods. As the biological clock ticks down she may decide to ask for help in getting pregnant. She may even put herself through the expensive ordeal of IVF; her partner may stay the distance, or he may not. The decisions are hard and the circumstances keep changing.
Ah, welcome "choice." You'll notice in that summary that sterile uncommitted sex is the baseline for modern women (which is presently at the heart of the anti-mother sentiment). Women who pursue sexual "freedom" are at the mercy of their fertility, their hearts (which seek to please men), their career trajectories, the biological clock, the ravages of hormonal regimens combined with promiscuity, the lack of commitment from men, STD's, and the vagaries of technology.
This is the world that women have made for themselves -- indeed, they have insisted upon it. This, they claim, is far better than motherhood as a default option, marriage for life, the stability of traditional families, and habitual virtue. In fact, the choice to avoid motherhood isn't made in a vaccuum, but must justify itself with a little venom towards those who choose differently:
Their reasons for not having children are varied, often deeply personal – and sometimes, like Mirren’s, circumstantial. The author Lionel Shriver is one of a growing number of women who are childless by choice, also known as “child-free”, or – as she puts it – an “Anti-Mom”. In response to criticism of her 2005 novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which some labelled “hostile to family”, Shriver wrote a series of articles justifying her decision not to have children. “I’ve had all the time in the world to have babies,” she said. “I am married. I’ve been in perfect reproductive health. I could have afforded children, financially. I just didn’t want them. They are untidy… they are ungrateful. They would have siphoned too much time away from the writing of my precious books.”
Most importantly, as Catholics, we must look at the feminine vocation in all its permutations and discover what is wrong with women who choose not to have children. It's not so much that they are not physical mothers (which can certainly be for a variety of reasons) but that they reject the maternal side of women as demeaning, a sign of weakness, or a patriarchal trap. The difference between a mother and and an "anti-mom" (to use Shriver's term) is the disposition of a woman's heart. A mother looks outwardly at others as persons who may benefit from her feminine gifts; an anti-mom looks inwardly, primarily at her own desires, but also how she can use her gifts to manipulate others.
There are plenty of mothers who manipulate, and plenty of gifted women who share their talents, but neither of these serve the needs of others -- as persons. Authentic motherhood is the gift of self -- not a writing talent, an ability to act, or business acumen. Motherhood may inform these things, but in themselves they are not motherhood.
Alternately, there are many women who don't have biological children who are tremendously maternal, who can read hearts and live compassionately. It's not about the babies, but the disposition of soul. Unfortunately, Mirren might have been a far better mother than she thought she would be (the grace comes with the vocation) but she turned her heart from motherhood and seeks to help others do as well.
In 2007, Dame Helen told the famously intrusive Australian talk show host Andrew Denton that she had been deeply affected by a film on childbirth that she saw as a teenager. “I swear it traumatised me to this day. I haven’t had children, and now I can’t look at anything to do with childbirth. It absolutely disgusts me.”
The fact that modern women still feel that they are living in a world devoted to motherhood, and that they are on the ropes to define their choice to avoid children is fascinating. Since devoted mothers throughout the Western world feel as though THEY are constantly being marginalised in every quarter of society, I would have to wonder if it's an ingrained mental construct that will not leave the "anti-moms" at peace.
All women are called to spiritual motherhood, to live in complimentary relationships with men, and will be most fulfilled by a true gift of self. Ultimately, this may be the feminine form of "God haunted."