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.

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.