For any mother reading this, of course the answer to the question 'To have or not to have' children is that it is now a fait accompli, enjoy and/or get on with it.
But I was fascinated to be sent this link on the 'Childfree Debate' by a friend the other day. I haven't even heard the Women's Hour debates yet; simply reading the comments was enthralling. (an aside: they were far more considered and polite comments than I have seen on the topic of mothers and children in the press: I wonder what made the difference?)
The gist is that a woman's decision about whether to have or not to have children is all too often seen as public property. In the main it is women who are asked whether or not they want to have children, are pregnant yet, told they must have children, or told they are unwomanly if they do not yet, cannot, or choose not to.
As more than one commentator pointed out, however, the converse is also true: the second a woman is pregnant, she and her burgeoning body are also up for grabs, sometimes literally, and by strangers. Apparently this is society's idea of welcoming women into the fold.
Essentially I see this set of intrusive, judgemental questions as on a continuum with all the other intrusive and belittling questions that are asked of women as they make their impeded way through life, from girlhood onwards. Men's bodies are whole and complete, needing no questioning, only perfecting. Women's bodies are seemingly riddled with inconvenient and questionable apertures, which cause anxiety unless they are put to social use.
What has changed of course is that women can now choose whether to have children or not. So now the question marks over women's labour have shifted ground to a contested borderline between the labour that earns women money and status, and the labour that earns women exactly the opposite. And lo and behold: women are now expected to do BOTH, and fit one inside the other. Result.
My fears about what would happen to my career and status if I had children were borne out in splendidly predictable ways. I was made to choose absolutely between family and career by a Head of Department who shall remain adjectiveless. I have swum on the choppy seas of exhaustion, career change, loss of status, inflexible employer family-friendly policies, extortionate childcare costs, inefficient State aid mechanisms, and eventually just conformed [lowpaid woman who has compromised her career for her children, who now has a job rather than a career]. But I seethe, how I seethe.
Children don't belong to their parents, they belong to themselves and the future. Mothers don't raise children on their own, it takes, if not a village, then quite a few other people, including fathers, grandparents, teachers, ladies on buses, men in newsagents, teenagers who pick up toddlers who have fallen over, and park keepers who retrieve little ones who have strayed. We are not monads. As one aunt pointed out, children are a joy if you can give them back — but aunts don't know what joy they give when they share the load, however momentarily.