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.

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.