Mumsnot: If a woman doesn't have any kids, does she have any value?

The time has come for change, says Lulu Le Vay. We need to accept that a woman can live a happy and fulfilled life without children.

Coming to terms with not being able to have children has been the biggest challenge life has hurled at me, thus far. Having to embrace an identity as a non-mother has taken not months, but years. It has been three years since I was told my fallopian tubes were redundant and had one removed, and 12 years since my health troubles started. My entire thirties were plagued by uterine fibroids - non-cancerous growths - which resulted in a bumpy ride for my poor uterus. I underwent surgery to remove them and then more surgery to fix the post-op aftermath - undetected adhesions caused my organs to stick together. Irreversible damage had been done. It has taken nine operations and one determined surgeon to finally deliver me to a healthier, happier place. Now, at 42, I am the fittest I've ever been. I may have the resting heart rate of an athlete, but what I don't have is the offspring that women my age are still expected - under society’s scrutinising lens - to have tucked under their life belt.

On reflection I am amazed that I’ve been able to transition over to the other side. The woman who would burst into tears at seeing stranger’s baby bumps has gone. I still have occasional pangs for that life - wondering what it would feel like to carry a child and give birth; what kind of mother I would have been - but I’ve had to accept my non-mother identity and celebrate my body in a non-reproductive light, and have found other rewarding ways to channel my nurturing, maternal instincts. I am an inspiring aunt and teacher; a mentor and confidante. I impact on young people’s lives in another way, just not as a mother.

In modern society there is a space for us non-mothers to occupy - a world to have a fulfilling, independent and adventurous life. Women like myself have been forced to accept or are content to embrace a childless position - whether through personal choice, lack of finding a suitable partner, or reproductive malfunction - but the question is: has the world? Women without children are made to feel inadequate, marginalised. There’s nothing quite like being swamped by the ubiquitous mummy message to make women, like me, feel like damaged goods. The voice and visible presence of the non-mother struggles to get heard amidst the ever-increasing cacophony surrounding celebrity bumps and maternal story-lines. Not to mention the family pressures, expectations and the resulting disappointment that we are inevitably made to feel. The biggest sadness in my mother's life is that I haven't had a family of my own. For her, motherhood has been at the core of her identity, her value - she has had six children of her own and been a stepmother to a further five. 

The fetishisation of the maternal is continually being ignited, stoked and driven within and by our society. The frenzy around the impending royal birth has now taken the value (literally) of motherhood to dizzying new heights. According to the Centre of Retail Research (CRR) the imminent arrival is estimated to boost the British economy by £240m. The "Kate-effect" will raise the social and cultural capital of motherhood and the appropriation of babies as valued objects - a boost in this year’s birth rates, would come as no surprise. Royal endorsement to breed has officially been given. As the capital of children is on the rise, so, it must be noted, are the statistics of children going into care. Recent Department of Education data shows that in England alone there was a spike of two per cent last year, bringing the total figure of predominantly neglected and abused children to an unimpressive 67,050.

Replacing religion, the unstoppable surge of the media, particularly celebrity culture, has a lot to answer for. It's not rocket science that media messages impact on people's social construction of the world - what to think, what to believe, what to aspire to. The value of motherhood - and conversation of it - strikes from every media corner. The latest celebrity showing off her "happy objects" on the cover of Hello!; the pre-and-post baby bikini bodies dominating the gossip pages, through to the aspirational Hollywood movie narrative that shoots way past the happy ending smooch landing slap bang in the delivery room. Mom-com flicks such as Friends With Kids (2011) and What To Expect When You’re Expecting (2012) are saturated with this baby-frenzied happy horizon. It's within our reach, by any means possible - if not through natural conception, as the latter’s storyline suggests - then through IVF, surrogacy or adoption. No expense spared. As this movie’s underpinning ideology exudes - the happy glow is the baby glow, as character Wendy sniffles: "I just wanted the glow - the one that they promise you on the cover of those magazines”. The movie’s grand finale is when she finds it, not on her face but wrapped up in the baby package in her arms. Complete happiness and becoming "whole" arrives, apparently, at this moment. Only then can life begin. Well, I must protest: my non-mother friends and I enjoying an alright glow of our own. We are free to travel, to explore, to study and to pursue our careers - without the restrictions of parenthood.

This is not an anti-family, anti-mother rant. Parenthood is hugely rewarding and is an incredibly tough job, one that I’m not sure I could do even if my body enabled me - or perhaps that's simply an excuse, more preferable to admitting I'd rather, now, not sacrifice my freedom. I admire my friends who juggle work and parenthood, some of whom are alone. These women are my heroes and I am aware that the mother identity has its own set of problematic pre-conceptions and social stereotyping. But, where are the positive childless female characters in our movies, reality TV shows, soaps and sitcoms? The ones that exist are either lampooned as comical - usually single - failures (Miranda in Miranda, Liz Lemon in 30 Rock) or presented as tragic, drunk no-hopers; infertile and not fit to be a mother (Becky McDonald in Coronation Street).

Like other women I know steering this nappy-free boat, it becomes tiresome being grilled about one’s "no kids" status by a plethora of (mostly) men folk: cab drivers, decorators, work colleagues, dates. Last month a bloke inspecting my loft, a stranger in my home, quizzed me about kids within ten minutes of meeting me. He peered over his clipboard with suspicious and confused raised eyebrows. I wondered if he would have taken such a probing stance if I'd been a man. Others have similar tales. I have close friends who’ve been told over dinner by acquaintances they barely know that they’re selfish and abnormal for choosing not to procreate. Another friend, who has come to terms with not becoming a mother after failed IVF, has a kind but irritating elderly aunt who calls her every Sunday saying that’s she’s praying for her. She has managed to let it go, but it appears her family hasn’t. The pressure, the judgements and the expectation radiating from all societal and cultural corners is suffocating. No wonder poor Becky hit the bottle.

Motherhood has started to make more impact politically, too. The vocal chords of online mummy powerhouse Mumsnet, which receives over eight million views per month, is currently booming, her matriarchal voice not just enveloping online, but now being invited into political debate by scoring an invite to the recent EU Parliament in Strasbourg. They also ranked seventh on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour Power List, beating shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman. The mother's voice is being communicated loud and clear, and having influence in the process. But what about the non-mothers? What about Mumsnot? Where and when will we be heard?

Myself and my circle of Mumsnot mates are, to be frank, bored of having to justify our existence and having to explain why we are in the position we are in. The time has come for change. I strive to be a role model for the next generation of young women, to offer an alternative way to embark on life’s big adventure, which can be a happy one - without children. Due to my own experiences and circumstance I am driven, and feel a social responsibility, to provide a voice for the non-mother - not just by spilling my personal story but by taking my argument into academia as the focus of my PhD. This is where, I hope, changes can be made and a voice will be heard. After all, I have no children, which means I must have more time on my hands. So, what else is there to do? 

The voice of the mother is being heard loud and clear, but what about women who don't have children? Photograph: Getty Images

Lulu LeVay is a sociologist, feminist, writer, DJ and fitness fanatic.

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Gender pay gap: women do not choose to be paid less than men

Care work isn’t going anywhere – and it’s about time we recognised which half of the population is doing it, unpaid.

Is it just me, or does Mansplain The Pay Gap Day get earlier every year? It’s not even November and already men up and down the land are hard at work responding to the latest so-called “research” suggesting that women suffer discrimination when it comes to promotions and pay. 

Poor men. It must be a thankless task, having to do this year in, year out, while women continue to feel hard done to on the basis of entirely misleading statistics. Yes, women may earn an average of 18 per cent less than men. Yes, male managers may be 40 per cent more likely than female managers to be promoted. Yes, the difference in earnings between men and women may balloon once children are born. But let’s be honest, this isn’t about discrimination. It’s all about choice.

Listen, for instance, to Mark Littlewood, director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs:

“When people make the decision to go part time, either for familial reasons or to gain a better work-life balance, this can impact further career opportunities but it is a choice made by the individual - men and women alike.”

Women can hardly expect to be earning the same as men if we’re not putting in the same number of hours, can we? As Tory MP Philip Davies has said: “feminist zealots really do want women to have their cake and eat it.” Since we’re far more likely than men to work part-time and/or to take time off to care for others, it makes perfect sense for us to be earning less.

After all, it’s not as though the decisions we make are influenced by anything other than innate individual preferences, arising from deep within our pink, fluffy brains. And it’s not as though the tasks we are doing outside of the traditional workplace have any broader social, cultural or economic value whatsoever.

To listen to the likes of Littlewood and Davies, you’d think that the feminist argument regarding equal pay started and ended with “horrible men are paying us less to do the same jobs because they’re mean”. I mean, I think it’s clear that many of them are doing exactly that, but as others have been saying, repeatedly, it’s a bit more complicated than that. The thing our poor mansplainers tend to miss is that there is a problem in how we are defining work that is economically valuable in the first place. Women will never gain equal pay as long as value is ascribed in accordance with a view of the world which sees men as the default humans.

As Katrine Marçal puts it in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, “in the same way that there is a ‘second sex’, there is a ‘second economy’”:

“The work that is traditionally carried out by men is what counts. It defines the economic world view. Women’s work is ‘the other’. Everything that he doesn’t do but that he is dependent on so he can do what he does.”

By which Marçal means cooking, cleaning, nursing, caring – the domestic tasks which used to be referred to as “housework” before we decided that was sexist. Terms such as “housework” belong to an era when women were forced to do all the domestic tasks by evil men who told them it was their principal role in life. It’s not like that now, at least not as far as our mansplaining economists are concerned. Nowadays when women do all the domestic tasks it’s because they’ve chosen “to gain a better work-life balance.” Honestly. We can’t get enough of those unpaid hours spent in immaculate homes with smiling, clean, obedient children and healthy, Werther’s Original-style elderly relatives. It’s not as though we’re up to our elbows in the same old shit as before. Thanks to the great gods Empowerment and Choice, those turds have been polished out of existence. And it’s not as though reproductive coercion, male violence, class, geographic location, social conditioning or cultural pressures continue to influence our empowered choices in any way whatsoever. We make all our decisions in a vacuum (a Dyson, naturally).

Sadly, I think this is what many men genuinely believe. It’s what they must tell themselves, after all, in order to avoid feeling horribly ashamed at the way in which half the world’s population continues to exploit the bodies and labour of the other half. The gender pay gap is seen as something which has evolved naturally because – as Marçal writes – “the job market is still largely defined by the idea that humans are bodiless, sexless, profit-seeking individuals without family or context”. If women “choose” to behave as though this is not the case, well, that’s their look-out (that the economy as a whole benefits from such behaviour since it means workers/consumers continue to be born and kept alive is just a happy coincidence).

I am not for one moment suggesting that women should therefore be “liberated” to make the same choices as men do. Rather, men should face the same restrictions and be expected to meet the same obligations as women. Care work isn’t going anywhere. There will always be people who are too young, too old or too sick to take care of themselves. Rebranding  this work the “life” side of the great “work-life balance” isn’t fooling anyone.

So I’m sorry, men. Your valiant efforts in mansplaining the gender pay gap have been noted. What a tough job it must be. But next time, why not change a few nappies, wash a few dishes and mop up a few pools of vomit instead? Go on, live a little. You’ve earned it. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.