Moth­er­hood your way: Burst­ing the ‘self­ish woman’ myth

What­ever de­ci­sions we make about hav­ing chil­dren (or not), we’re judged – usu­ally by other women. Emma Brockes, a sin­gle mother to sperm-donor twins, has a few things to say about that

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My mother had me late in life, at least by the stan­dards of 1975. She was 42, al­most 43, and would like to have had more chil­dren, but it was still three years be­fore the first IVF baby, and I would re­main her only child. Thirty-nine years later, when I had my twins, as­sisted fer­til­ity – and with it older moth­ers – had be­come com­mon­place. The cir­cum­stances of my chil­dren’s back­ground are very dif­fer­ent from my own – I was raised in Buck­ing­hamshire, my chil­dren in New York; I had a mum and dad; my chil­dren were con­ceived via sperm donor and I’m a sin­gle par­ent by choice. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the word that is con­sis­tently used to de­scribe the choices both my mother and I, and every other woman I know, made about hav­ing our chil­dren: self­ish. Let’s see. Have a baby at 45: self­ish (you’ll die be­fore it grows up). Have a child at 17: self­ish (chil­dren hav­ing chil­dren). Have ‘only’ one child: self­ish (needs a play­mate). Have five chil­dren: self­ish (bad for the en­vi­ron­ment/costly to the tax­payer). Don’t have a child at all: self­ish. (You’ll have more time to lav­ish on your­self, never learn­ing the mean­ing of self-sac­ri­fice.) Have a child and work full-time/don’t work at all/draw ben­e­fits/hire a nanny: self­ish. And, ob­vi­ously, hav­ing an abor­tion: very, very self­ish. There is al­most no de­ci­sion

a woman can make in re­la­tion to when, how or if she has chil­dren that is en­tirely free from the risk of an­other woman (or man) call­ing her self­ish. I won­der why this is. When it comes to hav­ing chil­dren, men are rarely called self­ish, in spite of the fact they go on cre­at­ing fam­i­lies well into their 50s (Alec Bald­win), 60s (Steve Martin) and even 70s (Mick Jag­ger), while a lot of us look on and in­dul­gently chuckle.

My par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion hits a kind of moral­ist’s jack­pot: I had my twins un­der 40, which is con­sid­ered re­spectable, but I had them alone, which is not. I am in a re­la­tion­ship, which is good; but we’re nei­ther liv­ing to­gether nor co-par­ent­ing, which is not. It’s also same-sex which, de­spite the lav­ish af­fec­tion that is be­stowed upon men such as El­ton John and Ricky Martin, is re­garded in some quar­ters to be very far from ideal. And yet, while none of this can be called the re­sult of care­ful plan­ning, each choice I made seemed in the greater in­ter­ests of my chil­dren than the more con­ven­tional ones on of­fer. It’s the in­ter­ests of the child, of course, that are al­ways cited by those throw­ing around ac­cu­sa­tions of self­ish­ness. And while par­ent­ing styles have rad­i­cally changed over the past 70 years, some ba­sic as­sump­tions re­main the same: that chil­dren need two par­ents, one of whom is home when they get back from school. That nan­nies are bad. That for women at least, get­ting mar­ried and hav­ing ba­bies is an achieve­ment not a life­style choice and – too bad if they can’t con­ceive or hap­pen not to want chil­dren – no other achieve­ment can val­i­date them in quite the same way.

The nanny thing is par­tic­u­larly galling, not least be­cause in two-par­ent house­holds where both par­ents work, the dad is never im­pli­cated in the hir­ing of a nanny. A friend (who’s a work­ing mum) re­cently over­heard two stay-at-home mums dis­cussing a child mis­be­hav­ing on play­ground swings. “Nanny-raised,” hissed one to the other, and my friend’s tirade in the retelling of this – how stay-at-home moth­ers are ‘losers’ who model a state of fi­nan­cial de­pen­dency for their daugh­ters and the ills of he­li­copter par­ent­ing – went on for some time.


Why do we do this? More specif­i­cally, why do women crit­i­cise other women? Why do we po­lice each other’s be­hav­iour so ruth­lessly? The vast ma­jor­ity of my friends have sup­ported the way in which I de­cided to have chil­dren, but I have also, through back-chan­nels, heard my choices de­scribed as “prob­lem­atic”, “un-ideal” and, yes, “self­ish” – all as­sess­ments made about me by other women.

But I can’t com­plain be­cause I have done pre­cisely the same thing. When I first started try­ing to get preg­nant, I thought hav­ing a child alone via sperm donor was quite weird. But not as weird as, say, hav­ing a child us­ing an egg donor (ugh, a sec­ond­hand egg) or hav­ing a child with some­one you’re not that into, then split­ting up and sub­ject­ing the child to a cus­tody bat­tle or even adop­tion (at least my child would be bi­o­log­i­cally mine). And what about sur­ro­gacy? Su­per weird, right? And also prob­a­bly wrong, like sell­ing an or­gan but worse. I knew these thought pro­cesses were bad. But when you are anx­ious or

‘Why do we do this? Why do we po­lice each other’s be­hav­iour

so ruth­lessly?’

un­happy, de­spis­ing other peo­ple can de­liver swift and tem­po­rary re­lief and so I kept do­ing it. Worst of all, I judged women who didn’t have chil­dren. The ab­sur­dity and cru­elty of this still shocks me: that while, ap­par­ently, it is wrong to be a sin­gle woman and want a child, it is also wrong to be a child­less woman; and to ex­cuse my­self for the crime of be­ing the for­mer, I jumped in to dis­par­age the lat­ter.


This is nuts and needs to stop. The only rea­son the do­mes­tic choices I make are per­ceived to de­value the do­mes­tic choices you make is that both of our do­mes­tic choices are over-val­ued in the first place. And, by the way, know­ing this added a layer of guilt for even want­ing chil­dren in the first place. I didn’t want to be that 38-yearold woman bang­ing on about her ovaries. Yet there I was, in my late 30s, liv­ing in New York and des­per­ately want­ing a baby.

His­tor­i­cally, women in my po­si­tion have con­ceived via trick­ery, co­er­cion or set­tling for some­one, none of which seemed de­sir­able, be­sides which I was in the early stages of a same-sex re­la­tion­ship and the en­tire man thing was be­gin­ning to ap­pear moot. But all the other op­tions looked ter­ri­fy­ing.

It didn’t mat­ter that New York is full of asym­met­ri­cal fam­i­lies or that, on the ev­i­dence of the peo­ple I know, these un­usual fam­i­lies pro­duce happy, healthy kids. (This is borne out by the data. Early stud­ies show that chil­dren raised by sin­gle moth­ers by choice or by gay cou­ples per­form the same as or bet­ter than chil­dren raised in tra­di­tional het­ero­sex­ual fam­i­lies, and that’s across every met­ric.) All that mat­tered was what my friends and fam­ily might think. I told my dad at the last pos­si­ble mo­ment, as he was driv­ing me to the air­port af­ter a trip home, that when I got back to the States I was go­ing to start fer­til­ity treat­ment. That I had cho­sen an anony­mous sperm donor and, since my in­sur­ance wouldn’t cover it, I would be pay­ing for it my­self. That, in spite of my re­la­tion­ship, I would be do­ing it alone.

I didn’t say that I was afraid of every as­pect of this process, start­ing with the pos­si­bil­ity that it wouldn’t work and I’d be child­less, and end­ing with the pos­si­bil­ity that it would work and I’d be hav­ing a baby alone. My dad, mean­while, didn’t say much. It’s how he tends to re­act to big news, but a day later, he called to say he would sup­port me in ev­ery­thing I did.

Al­most a year and a half later I gave birth to twins. It sounds like a cos­mic joke, a case of the uni­verse pun­ish­ing me for my hubris, although of course from the mo­ment I saw their hearts beat­ing on the ul­tra­sound, I was so hope­lessly in love all I could do was wring my hands and weep with grat­i­tude. Two! Two! I thought of my mother then. It goes with­out say­ing that to be the sin­gle mother of twins is the height of all self­ish­ness. Still women can’t win. My mother, not ex­actly a shrink­ing vi­o­let, suf­fered from the dis­ap­proval of oth­ers. But I couldn’t have wished for a bet­ter mother and the con­fi­dence I have – in life, in gen­eral and in the spe­cific case of hav­ing had my chil­dren this way – is thanks in large part to the ef­fect of her moth­er­ing on me. Yet I know she felt shame; she was ashamed of hav­ing had a baby so late and she was ashamed that there was only one of me. “I wish you’d been twins with auburn hair,” she would say to me some­times, some­what wist­fully and in ref­er­ence to her own colour­ing. I try not to get too ‘woo-woo’ about this, but where my own hair is dark brown, like my ma­ter­nal grand­mother’s, my twins are both flam­ing red­heads.


And so one re­turns to the ques­tion: why when it comes to hav­ing chil­dren (or not) do women crit­i­cise each other? Why do we dis­par­age each other’s choices when there is noth­ing to sug­gest they cause wider harm? Clearly it’s be­cause these are the terms – whether we’re in a re­la­tion­ship or have chil­dren and, if so, how many – on which the world still val­ues us and there­fore on which we value our­selves. Hence we com­pete, seething with guilt and tear­ing each other down for things that half the time we have lit­tle or no con­trol over. “You can only do your best,” my mother would say when I was lit­tle, and it seemed to me at the time a rel­a­tively mod­est life les­son. I see now that it wasn’t. It is a hard, hard thing to stop favour­ing one’s own way of do­ing things while de­spis­ing oth­ers for the way they do theirs. The world is made more hos­tile for my chil­dren, not by any­thing in­trin­sic to our cir­cum­stance – let’s face it, grow­ing up white, loved and af­flu­ent in up­per Man­hat­tan is to win a lot­tery of sorts – but by the way in which it is painted by oth­ers. We can all, surely, do bet­ter; be kinder and let’s give each other a break.

‘It is a hard, hard thing to stop favour­ing one’s own way of do­ing things’

Solo mumPar­ents di­vorcedIVF babyOne of five

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