The parent trap: why is it still seen as selfish to opt out of being a mother?

·7-min read

A new documentary says society is biased in favour of those who have babies. The film’s maker and others explain why they have chosen to be child-free


Western society has enthusiastically shaken off lots of the old, restrictive taboos that once policed behaviour. In fact, today the very idea of being “normal” has been exposed as a bit of a sham when it comes to sexuality, brain type, or even “life goals”. But there is one area where the pressure to conform is still woven through our expectations and conversations, as well as through the marketing images that surround us all: the ideal of motherhood.

Now the American film-maker Therese Shechter is tackling what she believes is a pervasive bias in favour of women having babies. Her provocative new documentary, My So-Called Selfish Life, has already been admired at festival screenings, with Ms magazine describing it as a “striking and imaginative documentary, which addresses [an] oft-overlooked facet of reproductive justice”. On May 6, it will go out to the wider world on Show&Tell, a streaming platform for documentaries.Although Shechter never disparages parenthood, she knows it will ruffle feathers.

“I don’t relish making anyone angry, but that’s what happens when you have an opinion. And this is important to talk about,” she says. “I am not evangelical in the least, and I’m not negative about people who want children.”

Shechter describes herself as “anti-pronatalism”, which means she is opposed to the defining templates imposed on women, but not to the basic notion of raising a family. “It’s important to talk about this thorny question without pitting parent against non-parent,” Shechter adds. “It is just that women should now be treated like adults who know what is going to be good for us. At the moment we don’t have full body autonomy. There’s interference coming from what society values, from religious beliefs and from some bad science. All of it says it’s our job to have babies.”

Shechter herself chose not to become a mother and, from this perspective, she interviews several women who feel the same, from the crusading 1970s feminist Marcia Drut-Davis, to Shanthony Exum, who has opted to live with a group of friends, rather than start a family.

As BBC Radio 4 prepares a new reading to celebrate Bridget Jones, the fictional 90s “singleton” who had such entertaining neuroses, the pressure on young women remains strong. Last summer the British writer Emma John’s book Self-Contained came out to acclaim, while the columnist Nell Frizzell, author of 2021’s The Panic Years, launches her debut novel, Square One, this summer. A comedy, it focuses on the looming targets still set for women. Frizzell has also just made a radio documentary, Mother, Nature, Sons, about how her concern about climate change has affected her own view on parenthood. Is it actually selfish to consider having children when the future of the environment is so troubling?

The whole guilt-ridden debate feeds directly into one of Shechter’s main arguments. “There are so many ways women are called ‘selfish’ or ‘narcissistic’, usually for doing what they want to do,” she says. “The attempt to limit our choices is also a good way to control society. Women are often accused of putting themselves first when they don’t want a baby. Yet then they are asked, ‘Who will look after you when you are older?’ as if that isn’t a selfish concept.”

Some of the unconscious policing is done by what Shechter calls “concern trolling”, whereby women without children are offered sympathy, whether they need it or not. “Of course, there are many women who want children and cannot have them. I can’t speak for them, but I don’t think it helps for society to keep saying that having a child is the single thing that makes people the most happy.”

Her film questions whether it can be coincidence that the idea of a ticking biological clock arrived just when women began to enter the workplace. In the 1970s any rejection of what Shechter calls a phoney biological imperative was regarded as radical and dangerous. Drut-Davis’s belief that motherhood was not going to be for her led to being interviewed for the leading US TV news show 60 Minutes on Mother’s Day in 1974.

She was filmed telling her in-laws that she had decided not to have children, in a broadcast that changed her life. “I never regret what I did because I’ve learned through challenges,” she says this weekend. “I wish I knew more about pronatalism and how editing can affect how I was perceived. My then husband hardly was heard, although he was very animated during the long interview. He was edited out! I was the mean bitch breaking in-laws’ hearts, when he was equally in acceptance of the child-free lifestyle.”

Emma John
Emma John, who has written about being child-free, realised when nursing her mother that she does have a caring side. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Drut-Davis recalls the show ending with the presenter apologising into the camera lens: “Pardon our perverseness in airing this on Mother’s Day.”

In her book, John faces down the same insistent call to duty and the fear of an internal ticking clock. “I thought I’d got through my 20s and 30s without too much worry about being single or motherhood. But then I realised I had always thought of myself as just ‘pre-married’,” she says. “In my 40s there were a lot of internal narratives I suddenly had to deal with. Marriage and having children are the markers of adulthood. If you step off this conveyor belt, does that mean you are infantile? Are you irresponsible because you are not taking care of anyone else?”

But then came an “eye-opening experience” for John in lockdown, as she cared for her parents during her mother’s final illness. “My sister was nine months’ pregnant with her second child and so a lot of it naturally fell to me. This is in many ways a traditional role for an unmarried daughter, but it also showed me a caring side to my nature and I realised I was not so selfish.”

John points out that even today women are regularly celebrated only as wives or as mothers. And Shechter’s film also looks at this pernicious side of the traditional ways that women are validated. Her own mother, who appears in the film, does not approve of Mother’s Day, it is revealed, because it raises one woman above another. “My mother is a self-effacing person and she grew up in Europe, where the tradition was not such a big thing,” says Shechter, who is based in New York, “but she also rightly feels it is a problematic day for lots of people for many reasons.”

The dressing up of motherhood in ribbons and bows, for Shechter, is tantamount to coercion. Fertile women, she argues, are placed on a pedestal by society as a way of duping them into accepting the difficult and limiting world of child-bearing. It is akin, as the pioneering American psychologist Leta Hollingworth set out more than a century ago, to the way that men are prepared for war. “In her brilliant essay Hollingworth showed there was also the same emphasis on service and sacrifice in compelling someone to enlist for something that was likely to lead to the loss of their life, since childbirth was the biggest killer of women at the time.”

What then lies ahead today for a woman who does not stake her security in old age on creating a new family? For Exum, one of Shechter’s powerful screen interviewees, the prospect of growing old among friends is a more reliable one.

“The assumption that a child-parent relationship will be perfect or easy is false,” she says, in explanation of her choice to live a childless domestic life with friends. “Like any relationship, it takes work to truly understand the other person and patience and openness to communicate and truly listen. I know some people who have fabulous relationships with their parents and children, while some have more fraught ones. Nothing is guaranteed, so I feel the assumption is the dangerous part.”

My So Called Selfish Life (watch.showandtell), made by Trixie Films, is the third in a trilogy of documentaries by Shechter, each intended to dismantle common beliefs about womanhood. Her first was about power and feminism, and the second, sex and virginity

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