While A Quiet Passion may not be the best biographical film out there, it has its moments.
# 1 (Because it made me so angry)
Emily asks her father permission to write during the night for quiet’s sake. He agrees. Then she asks him to contact a friend who is the editor of a newspaper that publishes poetry. He does so, and soon after Emily submits some of her poems for consideration.
When Samuel Bowles, the entitled editor of the Springfield Republican, writes back, he starts by condescendingly informing that he has decided to publish one of her poems which shows “some wit“, and ends heart-wrenchingly by saying: “But I must confess that the genuine classics of every language are the work of men, not of women. Women, I fear, cannot create the permanent treasures of literature.”
#2 (Because it captures her wittiness so well)
Emily’s father:“Will you come to church, Emily? Your soul is no trivial matter.” Emily: “I agree, father. That is why I’m so meticulous in guarding its independence.”
#3 (Because it made me think about the concept of family; the family we don’t get to choose, and the one about which we have a say, should we wish to form it).
Emily’s friend:“Will you marry?” Emily:“I suppose in time I shall. Isn’t that what we all do in the end? I don’t know. I can’t imagine myself beyond my family. Among strangers.”
The absence of doll babies in my toy chest didn’t seriously influence my later decision not to become a mother; rather, I disdained Hasbro’s Baby Alive wetting doll because I was already the kind of girl who would grow up to be childless by choice.
I’ve lived in Sweden on and off for about six years, and this experience allowed me to hear about women whose lives I’d probably know nothing about had I stayed in my home country on the other side of the Atlantic ocean.
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 so, as it was a great 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 exciting that I searched online for her correspondence and found a more significant piece.
Here are 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?
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, that, among other things, explores the question of motherhood and cultural expectations attached to it.
I was about to type the passage where they talked 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 in case 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.
I watched Battle of the sexes 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 an excellent way to start, but if you wish to learn more about her, here are the titles of two books she wrote:
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 terrific 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 lets his mother continue to think he is gay when he is not. She started thinking he was gay after he played a gay character in a play.
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 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 the same, I felt like putting them together, putting their lines together, because the theme was the same: being yourself, or finding out who you genuinely 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 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 about becoming mothers. It’s, in a way, an acting exercise and they too are playing a role.
It’s my type of movie, but not the type of role I want to play in life.
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.
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.
The project Empty uterus is a blog and a book in the making about childless women around the world.
The blog A library where I archive parts of my research about the process of reflecting and deciding on not becoming a mother. Here you’ll find reviews of movies, books, podcasts, plays, magazine and newspaper articles I’ve come across since I started the quest to better understand the childless path.
The book A collection of interviews with childless from several countries, still in the making.