Support 100 years of independent journalism.

2 February 2004updated 24 Sep 2015 12:01pm

Nobody has the right to be a mother

Amanda Platell explains why fertility treatment is not for her

By Amanda Platell

One of the things I regret about my early career in newspapers is a big poster I had on my office wall when I was deputy editor of Today. It was one of those 1950s cartoons of a glamorous brunette, with a speech bubble saying: “I can’t believe I forgot to have children.”

I regret it because I think it reinforced a myth that career women do forget about babies – until it’s too late. And for me, nothing could have been further from the truth. I didn’t forget. For me, children were just never one of life’s gifts.

I thought about that poster the other day when I heard Suzi Leather, the chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, calling for a change in the law to make it easier for single and gay women to get fertility treatment. It triggered the usual debate on the role of fathers in families. What it also did was imply that, with modern treatments, all women can have kids. Somehow the right to be a mother has become inalienable.

I know from experience that a woman has about as much right to motherhood as she has to happiness. It’s neither a right nor an obligation, but the current debate swirling around Leather’s comments seems to suggest both.

The implication behind a change of law that gives every woman, whatever her circumstances, the right to fertility treatment is that there is an obligation to take it up. That being a mother is the be-all and end-all of a woman’s existence.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

I don’t think I’m being oversensitive. I’ve spent my life with people assuming that I placed ambition above motherhood, that my career was more important than a child. It’s a cruel assumption, and one that many successful, childless career women suffer in silence. I only know this because I recently made a throwaway comment on Woman’s Hour, saying that people assume I chose not to have kids but it was one of the great tragedies of my life that I couldn’t. I’ve lost count of the women who phoned or e-mailed or simply came up to me and said: “Thank you for saying that.”

Content from our partners
How automation can help telecoms companies unlock their growth potential
The pandemic has had a scarring effect on loneliness, but we can do better
Feel confident gifting tech to your children this Christmas

There are lots of us about. A quarter of 40-year-old women in this country don’t have kids. You’d be making a big mistake if you assumed that this was by choice. As did one woman I had just met. She asked if I regretted not having kids, as if I had a choice in the matter. I said, as it happens, I couldn’t. She replied: “There are lots of different ways of being a mother, you know. You can have IVF or donor eggs, or you can adopt.”

Well, call me selfish, but I only ever wanted to be a mother one way, with my own child born into a loving relationship with its father. I never thought that being a mother was just about my fulfilment.

I hope I’m living proof that a woman can have a fulfilled and worthwhile life without children; that there is love to be got and given. Recently I was discussing this with my sister-in-law, Ingrid, a doctor and the mother of three terrific kids. “It’s great being a mum,” she said, “but you end up being defined in terms of that. You, on the other hand, have been able to fulfil yourself as a woman. You’re not defined in terms of anyone else.”

Well, I guess that’s true, but I also know that if God came down right now, sat beside me and offered to change one thing about my life, it would be that I could have had children. No, that’s not true, my first wish would be that my brother Michael had not died. But my second wish . . .

And at least one person is glad about it all. Ingrid’s eldest daughter and my niece, Ariane, says: “I don’t ever want you to have kids, Auntie Mandy, because then you’d love me less.” And love her I do, with a passion, as I do all my five nieces and nephews. Being childless doesn’t mean being loveless or unloved. But it does mean you have to work harder on those relationships. No love is your due when you are but aunt or friend.

I suppose what really worries me about the stand Leather takes is that while it proclaims it is the right of every infertile woman to have fertility treatment, it also implies, ever so subtly, that there’s something wrong with a woman who doesn’t go down that path. Something wrong with a woman who chooses not to have IVF, with its 75 per cent failure rate and still largely unknown long-term effects on both mother and baby. Something wrong with a woman who, if her own eggs or her partner’s sperm aren’t up to the job, chooses not to carry a stranger’s egg or a stranger’s sperm and, consequently, a stranger’s baby. Something wrong with a woman who chooses not to have a baby without a father.

One of the reasons I have spoken so little about this is that I never wanted to be defined in terms of my childlessness. Nor have I ever thought of myself as being blissfully child-free, as some women happily do, and good luck to them. But the truth is, not being able to have kids has not defined me, but it has defined my life.

I’m just a girl who grew up dreaming that one day she’d be married – hopefully to that nice Alan Drake-Brockman (the only double-barrelled family in Applecross) – and have a houseful of kids. And when I finally discovered that there would be no houseful of kids, I tried to make the best of what I had. And I’ve had a lot.

The last word will go to my 13-year-old niece, Ariane: “Ok u r different coz u don’t have children, but that doesn’t mean that’s a bad thing. coz i tork to u bout stuff which i wudn’t tork to mum about and u cum and do r hair and put on make up and stuff and take us shopping and we tell u everything. we’re ur children at heart. so i guess ur like a kool auntie mandy mum person.”

A cool Auntie Mandy Mum person – yes, that sounds like a fine thing to me.

Topics in this article: