Think before you breed

People are still expected to provide reasons not to have children, but no reasons are required to have them. It’s assumed that if individuals do not have children it is because they are infertile, too selfish or have just not yet gotten around to it. In any case, they owe their interlocutor an explanation. On the other hand, no one says to the proud parents of a newborn, Why did you choose to have that child? What are your reasons? The choice to procreate is not regarded as needing any thought or justification.

Christine Overall
(Canadian philosopher)

After thinking long and hard, Christine decided that she wanted to experience motherhood. Then she became not only a mother but also an advocate for conscious motherhood, which I find incredibly beautiful and inspiring. She is the author of the article “Think before you breed“, published in 2012 on the New York Times, from where I took the quote above.

 

Tove Jansson

I’ve lived in Sweden on and off for about 6 years, and this experience gave me the opportunity to hear about women whose lives I would probably know nothing about had I stayed in my faraway home country on the other side of the Atlantic.

One of them is Tove Jansson, a Swedish-speaking Finnish author, painter and illustrator who created a series of books and comic strips about the adorable and incredibly nuanced and subliminal Moomins.

When visiting bookshops in Malmö, I remember often seeing the hippopotamus-like-but-not-quite creatures on paper without having any idea of what exactly they were or meant.

Recently, upon researching documentaries about childless women for the Empty Uterus Youtube Channel, I came across Moominland Tales: The Life of Tove Jansson directed by Eleanor Yule.

Having recognized the characters, I clicked on play. And how happy I’m that I did, as it was an absolute pleasure to learn so much about Tove’s life in just under an hour.

I’d have watched the documentary regardless of her marital or reproductive status, but to my greater pleasure, it turns out that she was childless.

At some point, the documentary features a scene where the narrator reads out a passage of a letter that Tove wrote to her friend, Eva Konikoff, in 1941, when she was 27 years old. It was just a little paragraph, but the letter looked so interesting that I searched online for her correspondence and found a bigger piece.

So here go some of her thoughts on marriage and having children:

All the reasons I don’t want to get married came up. One man after another, and Pappa, Faffan, came first. The whole male solidarity and protective pedestal of privileges, their weaknesses, inviolable and fenced in by slogans, their inconsistency and charming disregard for the feeling of others proclaimed with no trace of nuance as they beat a big drum from morning to evening from the safety of their boys’ network and connections. I can’t afford it, I haven’t time to marry any of them! I’m no good at admiring and comforting. Of course I’m sorry for them and of course I like them, but I’ve no intention of devoting my whole life to a performance I’ve seen through. I see how Faffan [father], the most helpless and instinctive of men, tyrannises over us all, how Ham [mother] is unhappy because she has always said yes, smoothed over problems, given in and sacrificed her life, receiving nothing in return except children war can kill or destroy with negativity. A men’s war!

I can see what would happen to my work if I married. It’s no use; I have all these feminine instincts to comfort, admire, submit, sacrifice myself. I would either be a bad painter or a bad wife. And I refuse to give birth to children who can be killed in some future war . . . Can we not be together without making demands on each other’s work, life and ideas, continue to be free beings without either one having to give way?

And here goes the documentary.

 

Bacha Posh

Today I watched the documentary “She is my son: Afghanistan Bacha Posh, when girls become boys” and learned about the consequences of a deep-rooted belief, in Afghanistan patriarchal society, that “Every woman must have a husband beside her. If not a husband, a son will do.”

And what happens when a couple has only daughters and no sons? Apparently, the daughter will do, as long as she dresses in male clothing, has her hair cut short and uses a male name. By doing so, she is allowed outside the house by herself and she can start working to help the family make money. These girls are known as “Bacha Posh”, which means “dressed up as a boy”.

This is a documentary directed by Alexander Avilov, which is available on YouTube and on the RTD documentary channel. To those interested, I’d say: Stop reading this post, press play and watch it now. The whole thing. It is worth it.

In less than half an hour you’ll have a glance at the lives of four girls: Fazilya, Asiya, Najla and Amena. My head starting spinning from the very first minute. I was, above all, interested in what the girls themselves had to say, how they felt and how they coped with the imposed gender-swap, so I typed the words of a couple of them here (mixed with the voice-over of the narrator for context).

Narrator:

Asiya likes the freedom that her boys clothes bring her. Freedom that her female friends can’t enjoy.

Asiya:

In Afghanistan people don’t have the same rights. In other countries men and women are equal, but that’s not the case here. Maybe that’s why I became a Bacha Posh. Women aren’t able to do what men are. Even sports! A man can play sports, but if a woman does, people say it’s a disgrace. A woman must stay at home and take care of children. People don’t want women to work like men. At school, they don’t let me be.

Amena:

Even though I’m a girl, I must become a boy. I want to do something good for my family, for my father, that’s why I’m a Bacha Posh.

Narrator:

Dressed in boys clothes, Amena goes to the center everyday to sell water. Outside of her father’s hearing, she confesses that she hates the job. It’s hard to hide from passersby that she is actually a girl. (She is bullied in the streets)

Two years ago, there was some hope to Amena’s parents. Mohammed’s wife gave birth to a boy. The family of modest means had only two months to celebrate the heir before he tragically died. Amena’s mother can’t have more children now, meaning that she will have to remain a boy for a few more years.

The person behind the camera asks Amena’s father:

How long do you want Amena to stay a Bacha Posh?

Amena’s father:

Until her sister grows up to the age of 11. Then I’ll make her a Bacha Posh and Amena will be able to continue her education.

Narrator (talking about Najla):

Girls dressed as boys is an Afghanistan tradition. It’s concealed but not taboo. But when Bacha Posh girls come of age, they go back to dressing as girls and their parents try to marry them off. Usually to a relative. Is a rare exception who refuses to start a family and have children. She wants freedom. And in Afghanistan only the men have that.

So many questions in what is now my very dizzy head. The biggest of all being: “Why?

Deep down I already know the answer and “The Second Sex”, by Simone de Beauvoir, comes to mind striking like lightning.

Thankfully, the book is carefully and proudly shelved in a special section of my personal library, which allowed me to quickly find the passages I was looking for:

Simone de Beauvoir:

In truth, to go for a walk with one’s eyes open is enough to demonstrate that humanity is divided into two classes of individuals whose clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, gaits, interests, and occupations are manifestly different. Perhaps these differences are superficial, perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that they do most obviously exist.

If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through ‘the eternal feminine’, and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question “what is a woman”?

Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being.

(Note to self: must read The Second Sex again)

 

Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit (Photo by Jim Harrington)

After I finished listening to A field guide to getting lost, by Rebecca Solnit, I was curious to know what she sounded like when not reading her own books.

A couple of online searches later and I ended up downloading one episode of the podcast called “On being” presented by Krista Tippett, where she had Rebecca as a guest. To my complete surprise: they were discussing her new book, which was published last year and that, among other things, explores the question of motherhood and cultural expectations attached to it.

I was about to type the passage where they talk about this topic, when I noticed the transcript was already readily available on the website. How wonderful (and what a fantastic team behind this production!).

I’d listen to the whole thing, if I were you, but if you are short for time, here it goes:

Ms. Tippett: I’d just love to have a conversation with you about this piece that was in Harper’s not that long ago, about about the choice not to have children.

Ms. Solnit: Oh, yeah. It’s called “The Mother of All Questions.”

Ms. Tippett: “The Mother of All Questions.” And part of what you were reflecting on, or a jumping-off point for your reflection, was the fact that people are so curious about that and, in fact, so presumptuous about it. And I think you make the case very quickly that it’s a valid and life-giving choice, not to have children. But in fact, the piece, like so much of what you write, becomes a reflection on the vast expanse of what it is to be alive. And so there’s this: you said, “People lock onto motherhood as a key to feminine identity in part from the belief that children are the best way to fulfill your capacity to love, even though the list of monstrous, ice-hearted mothers is extensive. But there are so many things to love besides one’s own offspring, so many things that need love, so much other work love has to do in the world.”

Ms. Solnit: Yeah, exactly.

Ms. Tippett: And you say: “There’s so much other work love has to do in the world.” I just feel like that’s so worth just putting out in public life and reflecting on.

Ms. Solnit: Yeah, and it’s partly — we overemphasize this very specific zone of love. It’s as though we’ve hyper-mapped it and obsessed about it and shone lights on it and things. And then there’s this whole other territory of relationships, to the larger world in particular and to public life, to — I hang out with a lot of climate activists, and there’s this profound love they have for the natural world, for the future, for justice. And that really shapes lives and gives them tremendous meaning. And it benefits all of us that they have this and that this motivates them, because they’re acting on behalf of all of us. And we should call that love.

Ms. Tippett: And it’s a passionate love, right? It’s a passionate love.

Ms. Solnit: Absolutely. It’s just — it’s ferocious, and it’s protective the way that mother love can be. And if anything’s going to save the planet, it’s that love. But mostly we don’t even acknowledge that it exists, and so we have these blank spots on the map of who we are. And I want to try and fill those in and encourage people to go there, to recognize that actually, their lives can take place or are already taking place there and that this will give them this bigger sense of self.

Source: On being podcast with Rebecca Solnit, in Dec 2017.

 

Billie Jean

I’ve waited and waited for the movie Battle of the sexes until I finally watched it last night and it’s fair to say it’s been a while since a movie touched my heart so profoundly. This time it wasn’t the movie itself – which is well produced and has fine actors – but the details of Billie Jean’s story: a tennis player who, back in 1973, put everything she had conquered (dozens of titles) on the line, hoping that, by winning a match against a man, women would be seen and respected as athletes, not as “female athletes”, and, therefore, “less skilled”.

Billie Jean’s contribution to women rights is massive, has been continuous and happened both inside and outside the tennis court.

This movie is a good way to start, but if you wish to learn more about her, here are a couple of books she wrote:

 

Audiobooks

I was listening to Anaïs Nin’s essential words uninterruptedly on Audible, while making a cup of coffee and tidying my place, when it hit me. The freedom now available to me, or should I say finally noticed by me?

The mobility, the lack of attachment to a room, a sofa, a bed or a chair. The no longer needed quiet corner, for Anaïs’ voice would muffle the external sounds. From now on, I could not only walk all around the house, but also leave it and take her with me. She would whisper her many adventures in my ears on my way to work, while I wait for the tube or travel somewhere nearby or far away. She would help me sleep by telling me a story or singing me a lullaby, when my arms are too tired to hold the heavy books I keep buying and for which I rarely have time.

It would take adapting and open-mindedness. It would mean leaving behind my conservative view about reading – one that always made me so proud, but that now, I finally understood, was based on ignorance and prejudice about new technologies for readers. Truth is that I, deeming myself a true book lover, held on for too long to the desire to turn and smell paper pages, and was blind to the most recent ways of getting to know new words and revisiting old ones.

Reading books in digital format was the first step I took away from bulks of paper bound together, and The Diary of Anaïs Nin was the first thing I read on my Kindle – at the time, still quite cynical about how natural the reading experience would feel, until I finally surrendered.

So, in a way, it is no surprise – and serendipity comes to mind – that one year after getting acquainted with my electronic reading device, my first audiobook was also by Anaïs. She seems to take me further every time we meet. To guide me into the unknown. Her thirst for new ways of living, of loving, of being. My empty glass getting fuller the more I get to know her, no matter the path through which her words reach me.

 

 

The Unit

the unit, childless

I haven’t read The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist yet, but this synopsis got me very interested in making time for it.

Who is dispensable?” That’s the chilling 1984-esque question that Holmqvist poses in her near-future novel. Childless women aged 50 (and men aged 60) must leave their homes and enter “the unit,” where they will live out their days participating in government experiments and donating their organs to younger, more “productive” members of society. When Dorrit arrives at the unit, she is ready to accept her fate, but when she unexpectedly finds companionship in another “dispensable,” she discovers a reason to live. Indie bookstore Orinda Books says, “A taut, creepy, yet thought-provoking page-turner, The Unit is a meditation on the consequences of complacency, the value of human life, and what we’re prepared to give up for security and comfort.

Source of the text: Literature at every latitude

 

Iris Murdoch

If my memory doesn’t fail me, about 7 years ago, while still living in Sweden, I watched Iris. A beautiful movie in which Judi Dench and Kate Winslet share the heavy loaded mission of acting Iris Murdoch uncommon and sublime life in two phases. Ninety one minutes was all it took me to fall completely in love with Iris.

A couple of years later, I found a job in Dublin and moved to Ireland, her home country. I remember how excited I was at the prospect of being in places where she had been, of seeing what she had seen; I knew I would buy every book, every diary she has written for the possibility of scanning her brain through her own words, memories and twisted lies. I knew I’d read her works chronologically, as a timeline, and backwards, as a palindrome.

To my complete surprise, for 3.5 years, whenever I entered a bookshop and asked for Iris Murdoch books I’d get a shrug, or a “I’m not sure we have them”, or a “Check the women’s books section”. I assumed she would have her books printed in gold at the front of every Irish bookshop or library, but no, Joyce and Yeats was all they seem to care about.

Then today, in my last week living in Dublin, I went out to buy a new sweater to help me cope with the rather bleak Irish weather and, by taking a new path to town, I came across a rare book shop I had never seen before.

There I went, opening the door, and gazing at dozens of old and colorful book covers. The woman inside asked if she could help. I said “Yes”, she asked me if I was looking for something, I said: “Do you have anything by Iris Murdoch?”. She went: ”Iris M… Yes, I have. Only one, though. But it is a signed copy!” My heart skipped a bit.

  • How much?
  • Err… let me see. 150 euros.

I tried not to act as surprised as I was. Then I rapidly converted the value into my own home country currency in my head… 150 EUR is something like 550 BRL, which is roughly 50% of  a minimum wage in Brazil. Damn.

After living abroad for almost ten years I still convert everything into Brazilian Reais. It is as if, no matter where I go, “my currency” continues to be the base for financial decision making, which, of course, makes no sense whatsoever considering the very different economic contexts of both countries and that I’m paid in Euros, but still, the mind goes where it goes.

  • I’ll take it.
  • Do you want a bag?
  • Yes, please.

Of course I wanted a bag. A bag to put and protect the most expensive stack of paper I ever bought in my life from the constant drops of rain coming from the skies above in Dublin. “But it is a signed one”. I repeated the woman’s line in my head. Not that I needed convincing, I didn’t. I knew the value of it, to me. The chance to touch pages that Iris had touched, to have a copy of the first edition of one of her books, a book that was made and bought in Ireland, where she was born and lived.

Who knows, maybe there is an Irish woman signing books as Iris and making a fortune thanks to fools like me. Who knows, maybe the fraudulent woman is not even Irish. Who knows?

Who cares. I don’t. I knew what having the book would do to me. This is the stuff that dreams are made of. This is the fuel to believers, to faith, to hope. All that I’ve been looking for and that I need to start and finish my own books in this life.

Back home I went, feeling like a casket of happiness, carrying a pulsing body that is starving for more stories like hers and for more time to read all the stuff I buy, however much it costs. By the time I reached my doorsteps, I had this post written in my head, from the very first word to the last dot.

 

Hello, I must be going

Hello, I must be going is a lovely movie with a simple, relatable, insightful and well-written script — with some beautiful drops of humor thrown here and there — beautifully delivered by very good actors who look, sound and behave like regular people in everyday situations.

My favorite line, which was not said by the childless woman in the movie, but by a young man, is:

Sometimes it’s just easier, you know, to be like other people want you to be. Rather than fight it.”

He tells this to the childless woman, with whom he is having an affair, when explaining why he let’s his mother continue to think he is gay, when he is not. She started thinking he was gay after he played a gay character (he is an actor).

She is really into being accepting, so I just let her think I’m gay. And she gets to be accepting.”

Fast forward 5 min in the movie, after this scene, and then it’s time for Amy (the childless woman) to say:

Don’t do it. Just don’t do it if you don’t want to do it. It’s your life, right? It’s nobody else’s.”

I could explain what she was referring to in the scene, but does it matter? Not really. As I think this line could apply to anything in life.

Even though the topics discussed in the two scenes mentioned above are not exactly the same, I felt like putting them together, putting their lines together, cause the theme was the same: being yourself. Or finding out who you truly want to become.

This young character let his mom and other people believe that he was gay and that he enjoyed being an actor. He hated it. All of it. He really did.

Some women, for whatever reason, maybe simply because it is easier for them, do the same. They prefer to let people think they are going to have a child one day, so that they don’t have to talk about their lack of desire, infertility or ambivalence in relation to becoming mothers. It’s, in a way, an acting exercise and they too are playing a role.

This is definitely my kind of movie, but not the kind of role I want to play in life.

 

Arundhati Roy

Indian writer

To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget… another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

Arundhati Roy
(Indian writer)

 

Dana Delany

A friend of mine sent me the link to this interview with the incredibly beautiful and talented actress Dana Delany. You can read more about her life and her work here, but the reason why I was sent this link is because Isabel knew I’d be happy to know about one more childless woman who seems to be having a great life!

Dana is 60 years old (can you believe it? I am still in shock) and said her secret for looking young is, and I quote: ‘I’ve never been married, I don’t have kids, I do yoga everyday and I drink a lot of wine’. I am sure there is much more to it than she reveals, but, hey, why don’t we try it ourselves?

There is a yoga course waiting for me starting next week, and a half-full bottle of wine in my fridge. Off I go, ladies. Wish me luck and please let me know if this works for you too, hu? The comments section is open!

 

Molly Peacock

We live in a pronatalist culture, so when you decide not to have children, you find yourself at the far edge of the bell curve. How do you live happily there? Well, you live happily there if you are comfortable with your own nature. And that requires talking about how to separate motherhood from female identity. It’s still a taboo subject — not even discussed in women’s studies programs. And endlessly fascinating to me, especially as the Census Bureau tells us we will be seeing increasing numbers of people making this decision.

Molly Peacock
(American-Canadian poet, essayist, biographer)

 

Kim Cattrall

Kim Cattrall

Fantastic interview with Kim Cattrall by Jane Garvey at BBC Woman’s Hour special program Kim Cattrall takeover. The whole thing is worth-listening to, but I have transcribed the part about not having children here for you, ladies:

– Jane Garvey: You have talked very openly in the past about not having children, which, I have to say, is a subject that I find difficult to raise with people. Particularly the women who appear on Woman’s Hour. In fact, I shy away from addressing the issue unless the person has come on specifically to talk about it. And so it is important to emphasize that you wanted o introduce not having children into the conversation. I haven’t used the term childless or, at least, I don’t think I have because that is offensive isn’t it?

– Kim Cattrall: Well, it is the “less” that is offensive, isn’t it? Child-less, it sounds like you are less because you haven’t had a child. I think that for a lot of people, for my generation, it wasn’t actually a conscious choice. It was a feeling of I am on this road and things are going really well. And I am very happy. And I’ll do it next year. I’ll do it in two years. I’ll do it in five years. And then suddenly you are in your early forties and you think maybe now? And you go to your doctor and she says to you, well, yes we can do it, but you’ll have to become a bit of a science experiment here because we have to find out how you can stay pregnant. We can get you pregnant but you have to stay pregnant now because your body is not producing. So it was a feeling of: well, do I really want to do that now? And I just thought: I don’t know if I want it that much. What also comes with having a child is: is this the partner that I want to spend the rest of my life communicating with in a very intimate, intimate way throughout the child’s life. So, for me, timing-wise it was was never right.  I have been married and I enjoyed very much been married, my two marriages, but we never really got to the point where it seemed a natural progression in our relationship that we would become parents.

Jane Garvey: so you didn’t become a parent and…

Kim Cattrall: not a biological parent. But I am a parent. I have young actors and actress that I mentor. I have nieces and nephews that I am very close to so I think the thing that I find questionable about being childless or childfree: are you really? I mean, there is a way to become a mother in this day and age that doesn’t include your name on a child’s birth certificate. You can express that maternal side of you very very clearly, very strongly. It feels very satisfying (…). There are many different ways to be a mom in the world.

 

Empty Uterus

The project
Empty uterus is a blog and a book in the making about childless women around the world.

The background
In 2009, hoping to find an answer to whether I wanted to have children or not, I decided to start a blog with the primary intent to dig deeper into the possibilities and share all the material I could find about the process of reflecting and deciding on becoming a mother and the childless option with other women who might be looking for the same information.

Over time, my interest for the theme grew immensely, as did the scope of the research, and what started as a personal journey revealed itself as something much bigger: a book about women who live without children of their own. Now, both the blog and the book are called Empty Uterus.

The blog
A library where I archive parts of my research: reviews of movies, books, podcasts, theater plays, magazine and newspaper articles I’ve come across since I started the quest to better know and understand the childless path.

The book
A collection of interviews with childless women from several countries. Still in the making.

The intent
To create a virtual living room full of material for women who chose not to have children, who are childless by circumstance or who are ambivalent about motherhood.

The visitors
You can claim your seat in two different ways:

  • by visiting this blog, as regularly as you wish, reading the posts and exploring the different pages (on the top menu) filled with books, movies, podcasts, etc. about the childless life.

or

  • by requesting a place in the Empty Uterus book and telling me your story (if you wish to know more, contact me via email, social media or comments in one of the posts).

Either way, what matters the most is that you got here.

I hope that the content carefully created and curated for this blog will prove useful to you somehow and I wish you the best of luck in your self-discovery journey.