Why is the happily childless woman seen as the unicorn of society?

Non-mothers are often told they'll "change their mind when they meet the right person". Between that and being forced to worry who will visit you in your old age, it's no wonder society seems to believe the happily childless woman is more myth than realit

Being a parent isn’t always a walk in the park, according to the World Happiness Database unveiled in Rotterdam this week. In fact, it could be bad for your mental health: one of the activities which sends happiness levels plummeting, according to the research, is having a child (although, it hastens to add, your happiness increases when they grow up and leave home - which hardly seems a glowing recommendation for having them in the first place). Meanwhile, it was reported by the BBC that China has just passed what it is euphemistically calling the "Elderly Rights Law", a piece of legislation that makes it compulsory for adult children to visit their parents in a country with a rapidly ageing (and lonely) population. In other words, you sacrifice happiness to parenthood in the prime of your life, enjoy a brief but halcyon retirement, then are abandoned in your twilight years to the extent that the government has to force your children to pop in for a cup of tea. No wonder we’re all procreating less.

But the fact remains that the "childless by choice" - or, as some prefer it, "child-free" - are still looked upon as dangerous oddities, possibly with some sort of social disease. Even worse is the female half of the dreaded "childless by choice" couple, all settled down with someone they love in a perfectly good home with a spare bedroom that could be easily transformed into a nursery and just downright refusing to warm up a bun in her oven. "Tick tock", publications aimed at thirtysomething women sing-song, as you scour the magazine rack for something that doesn’t make you want to throw up, move countries, cry, or all of the above. "Your ovaries are getting old! Your eggs won’t last forever! You’ll change your mind in a few short years - and where will you be then?"

It’s beyond comprehension to most of the media, of course, that women without children might not end up crying outside the local school-gates every morning before being shooed away by the caretaker. The "evolutionary science, hideously misapplied" brigade have been banging the "naturally maternal" drum for decades as an explanation for all possible facets of female behaviour. Through this lens, the female role in a heterosexual relationship is to become your male partner’s new mother, helpfully cooking and cleaning and facilitating his life for him while he has fun and plays with his friends outside. The "maternal instinct" apparently inherent in all women has been used as a way to keep mothers out of the workplace and discriminate against fathers who want equal custody of their children. The belief that we are essentially born to be baby incubators crops up again and again amongst anti-abortion debaters, and is one reason why new mothers often report feeling ashamed of postnatal depression. After all, if you’re supposed to be in your element but you feel like crap, then surely you’re a Darwinian failure of the first order - never mind if you opt out of having the baby altogether.

All of this contributes to the idea of the happily childless woman as the unicorn of society. A dedicated bachelor is a good-time guy, and a married man without kids is hardly a talking point. But a bachelorette is more likely to be seen as tragic, bitter, yearning for the family that she hasn’t yet had the opportunity to create; her coupled-up counterpart a perpetual mother-in-waiting. And why should this be the case, on an overpopulated planet with a surplus of poverty, starvation and greenhouse gases? Really, it shouldn’t be the child-free who have to justify their position - it should be those who choose to bring others into the world without good reason beyond "I JUST WANT TO SEE MINI-ME". Yes, your unfortunate nose might look hilarious on an unsuspecting infant’s face - but is it really worth the extra carbon dioxide and the toe-curlingly boring hours spent poring through stacks of GCSE retake papers? After all, the lifetime cost of raising a child in the UK is now £222,458, which is a hell of a lot of luxury holidays and stiff gins down the drain, not to mention the damage those little darlings can do to your nether regions on their way into the world.

Women we’ve spoken to through The Vagenda have told us that their own doctors have made it difficult for them to undergo sterilisation by condescendingly insisting that they will "only want it reversed in a few short years", as if they had chosen the procedure on a whim. Others have been told by relatives that they’re not performing their "womanly duty" by shunning motherhood - seriously - and still more have contended with the mind-bending accusations that they’re "being selfish" or "will get bored in your marriage if you don’t". By far the most common amongst our Twitter followers, however, was experience of the smug assurance that "you’ll change your mind once you meet the right person", as if a Baby Alarm will go off in every woman’s mind the moment they meet their God-given soulmate and embark upon Happily Ever After. This is apparently now wheeled out more often even than the old and reliable, "Who will look after you in your old age?", which still persists despite the fact that very few of us are living on isolated farmland dependent on continuous manual labour in countries without some semblance of a national health service.

So how to stop the constant barrage of criticism if you are to live life as a contented child-free female human being? Firstly, ignore all magazines aimed at the thirtysomething demographic: there are far too many allusions to "Fertility O’Clock" and "foods to maximise your spouse’s sperm count". Secondly, have faith in social progression: a recent survey covered by the Washington Post found that the belief that "mothers are more natural parents" is much more prevalent amongst older groups of society, as it fades in the younger (two-thirds of women aged 65+ agreed with the statement, compared with about half of woman in younger age groups.) Meanwhile, grit your teeth while people loudly worry about who’s going to visit you in your nursing home and own the choice that’s right for you. Because £222,458 later, who’s to say that THEY’RE not the ones who’ll be left wanting to change their minds?

Now read Lulu Le Vay's call for "Mumsnot", in which she asks whether if a woman doesn't have any kids, she still has any value.

The happily childless, or child-free, woman is more common than you think. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear