At a historic time, Theresa May takes on the mantle of the second ever female prime minister with the duty of leading our country through a critical period. Her former rival Andrea Leadsom inadvertently accused her of being less able to lead with the commitment of someone who had had children. But, in the 21st Century, do we need to be having children to have a real purpose in life and effectively leave our mark on the world?
My grandmother died a couple of weeks ago. Her soul focus and purpose in life was my Mum, her only child. Whilst she may not have achieved great things in the eyes of the world, she was a dedicated mother whose meaning in life was created by having a daughter. There is a spectrum of choices and at the other end of the scale are those women who don’t have children, who find meaning and purpose in focusing solely on their career or other aspects of life.
Below I’m sharing an extract from my (yet unpublished) book, Behavioural Big Bang. When it comes to parenthood, our more basic emotional brain tells us to reproduce and this inadvertently influences the views of society. But in our advanced world, is that really necessary? Women who remain childless create a cultural conundrum, which reflects the mismatch between what the evolution of our brains left us with, and the world we live in.
“….how does society react to women who choose not to reproduce?
American blogger Laura Scott is married but has decided to stay child-free. She is part of a growing movement of voices across the media and the internet who are ‘childless by choice’. Scott’s blog posts have expressed frustration about the stigma attached to not having children: ‘Childlessness is perceived as being selfish, with a tragic outcome – you’ll die alone with 10 cats’. She takes specific issue with the portrayal of childlessness in Hollywood movies. After seeing the film ‘Four Christmases’, a 2008 blogpost argued that the movie perpetuated four unhelpful stereotypes:
1) Childfree couples are shallow, jet-setting DINKs (Dual Income No Kids).
2) Childfree couples are in denial: they secretly want a child but they are too fearful or too dysfunctional to step up to the plate and be real adults in the world.
3) They are allergic to kids, or just plain don’t like them.
4) When one half of a couple wants a child and the other one doesn’t this dilemma is easily solved by just having a kid— she, or he, will come on board once the kid is here.
One Hollywood insider who has encountered such stereotypes ad nauseum is the Oscar-winning British actress Dame Helen Mirren. She has spoken about becoming increasingly angry and impatient with constant journalistic questions about not having children. When once advised to get on with having children before it was too late, she snapped, ‘No, fuck off!’ In an interview with an American magazine, the American Association of Retired Persons, Mirren said: ‘I never felt the need for a child and never felt the loss of it, I’d always put my work before anything’. We can speculate that her survival-driven urges to reproduce were not as strong as other women. But regardless of that, she has made a meaning-driven decision to find fulfillment in her creative career instead or having children. She refused to conform to a barrage of social pressure and so represents those women who today choose to remain childless.”
“….women’s advance in the workplace in an undeniable positive. However, it would be better if they didn’t have to justify it. As a society, we haven’t quite fully acknowledged that meaning of life is now more complex than simply passing on our genes. The insistence of reproduction is the remnant of hunter-gatherer societies in which the survival of the group hung in precarious balance. Now that is no longer the case, women, as well as men, have the ability to find purpose in what they do and to make a difference across society as a whole.”
What does this all mean? Being childless doesn’t make someone worthless, far from it. In our complex and dynamic world, there are multitudes of other alternative and critical ways in which to give back that add just as much value and meaning as being a parent. And when it comes to leadership (an area I know a lot about) you cannot identify whether someone will be better for having children or remaining childless. Separating out survival drivers from rational thinking, it is clearly about how someone is driven that matters: what values they have and what that they choose to give back to the world that really matters.