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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue