There was a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald the other week you should have a read of, Don’t be rattled by the baby guilt trip by Nina Funnell.
Funnell was recently in attendance when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave a speech ‘about the ”crisis” of Australia’s ageing population and the various economic challenges we will face as a result.’ For context, Australia’s birth rate has been below the replacement rate of 2.1 since the 1970s and Australia is strict on immigration. After the talk, Rudd came to speak to some under-30s who had grouped together, including Funnell:
At that point one of my friends introduced me, dropping in that I am completing a PhD. At this, Rudd rolled his eyes and in a terse voice lacking any sense of irony remarked that is the “excuse” that “all” young women are using nowadays to avoid starting families. Since then I’ve come up with numerous one-line retorts, but in the moment I just froze in shock.
You should read the whole piece as Funnell takes this down beautifully. (‘Why do we assume it is the obligation of all women to reproduce? And why do we label them as selfish when they don’t? We never label career-driven men as selfish.’) I’m reluctant to tear apart Mr Rudd’s statement myself as, well, while the sentiment is pretty clear, what’s not clear from the article is what he said in full.
In any case, we can turn to the general sentiment. There are various harms in treating women as a monolith. I resent the assertion that not having children and at the “right time” is a bad thing. It holds women to be essentially baby makers who aren’t doing their duty to their country if they don’t follow the script – and this is something that needs an excuse. It also holds women responsible for the difficulties involved in pursuing higher academic study and starting a family at the same time. If Mr Rudd’s government, and governments worldwide, would be more supportive of those in that position, fewer people would have to face a choice between them. Until then, that some are put in this position is hardly their fault, hardly something for which women ought to be treated condescendingly.
What this script also does is assume that “avoiding” starting families (avoiding the right and inevitable thing, those naughty girlies!) is a choice for all women. Not every woman is able to reproduce or adopt or some such, or is able to keep their children if they do. Some women are actively forced into reproducing. And some women, rather than having this obligation to reproduce weighed on them, are considered to have quite the opposite obligation, to not reproduce at all. Disabled and poor women, for instance, are often discouraged – if not actively prevented – from having children. You know, supposedly for the good of society. Placing the emphasis on “avoiding” reproducing means adopting a monolithic view of women’s experience, erasing many. They’re written out of the script.
And, moving back to the idea that women who don’t reproduce according to the script owe excuses, I think it’s important to determine precisely to whom these women are supposed to be offering their justifications and apologies. Really, who? We’re autonomous human beings, we don’t need to go around with bowed heads and guilty expressions for doing as we please, or as we must, with our own bodies and lives. Women certainly don’t owe babies to society, or to politicians, or to those judging them, or to anyone at all.
Women’s reproductive choices should be ours alone. We ought to be accountable to our own desires in these matters, not those of onlookers who think they know better.
Next time, I’m going to return to Mr Rudd’s remark and some of its particular significance in Australia’s federal political context.
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