There have of late, in my corner of the blogosphere, been a number of brilliantly written and pensive posts (see links below) about the balancing, for women, of life and work, about creativity of both the Artist and the Offspring varieties, about choices made and chances lost, about what we choose and why we choose it and how we react when the gods step in and deliver some cruel, wild blow of chance.
The most recent of these posts is Ampersand Duck's heartbreaking tale of her recent days, and the end of what she says is her last attempt at having a second child.
A. Duck and I share a gynaecological peculiarity -- she's talked about it somewhere on her blog, but I can't find it -- that makes it considerably more difficult to have children and may explain, in my case, why I'm practically the only woman of my age I know who has never accidentally conceived. Or not, at least, to my knowledge; apparently, very early miscarriages can sometimes disguise themselves as a particularly challenging period, so you'd never know for sure.
I don't have kids, being from a generation of women for whom if you wanted to survive in academe it was almost fatal to get pregnant, and almost impossible to establish, develop and sustain the kind of relationship you'd want to be well into before you even thought about having kids. (Some years ago I wrote a whole essay about what academic life used to be like for women, and no doubt to some extent still is: it's here.)
By the time I got out of the academy, the maternal moment was well past; I think the day I realised that particular option had closed was the day the man in the furniture van delivered my new sofa, and I looked at its blinding, spotless whiteness and realised my subconscious had spoken.
I'd made a series of smaller situational choices along the way, choices about career and money and blokes and circs, but on the whole my non-maternal status had been an incremental closing-down, more like Gertrude Stein's line about her gradual estrangement from her brother: 'Little by little we never met again.'
The strange (normal for cats, though: I swear that this is true) malformation of the girly bits and the resulting limited capacity for (human) childbearing was only discovered in my late 40s when I went through a girly-bits reckoning with which I shall not bore you. Suffice it to say that when I looked back on the infinite time, trouble, money and mess involved over my decades of careful contraception, the irony of it struck me dumb for days.
Before this discovery, there was also the truly ghastly moment at which the gynaecologist, almost young enough to be my daughter, looked me sternly in the 47-year-old eye and said firmly 'Now, before we go on, is there any chance at all that you could be pregnant?'
I had opened my mouth to say 'Don't be silly, people my age don't get pregnant' when I remembered that she was, after all, a gynaecologist. The words died on my lips.
I thought about it.
Slowly and carefully, I lowered my head to her desk and banged it a couple of times. Hard.
Silently, she handed me a specimen jar and pointed down the hall to the loo.
Negative, of course. But in the interval between the head-banging and the test-checking, I faced a number of hard questions. Hypothetical father: impossible. Income: shoestring freelance. Age at the hypothetical child's 21st birthday party: 68. And yet, and yet ...
It wasn't the worst moment of my life, but it's on the shortlist.
But it's not really a matter of sadness or regret for me, not having kids. I would not have been the world's greatest mum by a very long way. I am absent-minded, and a bit over-anxious about the helpless and vulnerable. I dislike being financially or emotionally dependent on anyone else even for a short time, and I dislike being interrupted when reading or writing or thinking. Someone's had a lucky escape.
For those who think my absence of angst about this makes me an unnatural woman, I can only reply that what it makes me is an un-cultural woman. We live in a culture still deeply, deeply steeped in the notion that a woman with no children is some kind of pitiable freak, and a woman with no children who isn't hysterical about her childlessness must be evil as well. I've been fortunate in the circles in which I move, where those views aren't widely held.
Which brings me to my real point. Thinking about A. Duck's experiences and my own reproductive non-history brings to mind Virginia Hausegger, who is a former student of mine, so I am no doubt one of the traitorous feminists she blames for the fact that she has no children, because of 'the golden promises of our feminist foremothers' (NB: I don't know who she'd been reading, I'm sure) that she could 'have it all'.
But the very notion of being 'betrayed by feminism' is kind of bizarre. Those who live by any ideological framework and personalise it enough to be able to feel 'betrayed' by it when it doesn't meet their expectations were playing a mug's game in the first place.
My own take on this question is the exact opposite: feminism has helped me make my way through what has not, at this time and in this place, been a particularly typical woman's life. It's shown me that I had choices, shown me what they were, predicted (rightly) what the difficulties would be, given me a framework for understanding and dealing with those difficulties, and given me a vocabulary in which to think and talk about them. Institutional feminism, 20 years ago, provided for me a brand-new Equal Opportunity Officer with whose help I negotiated the crucial point in my academic career. Literary feminism, all my adult life, has given me an array of models for a thinking, reading, writing life without children: Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, Jane Austen, Christina Stead, Colette, the Simones Weil and de Beauvoir and countless others.
I don't know what my life would have been like if I'd had kids, or how different it would have been. I've seen and done enough in life to know just how chancy the whole reproductive business is. But anyone who'd like to see me wringing my hands and wailing about having produced no Pavlov's Kittens for posterity is going to have to wait a bloody long time.
Lest some ill-willed sod should ever turn up with a camera in one hand and an overblown sense of symbolism in the other, however, there's always fruit in my bowl. Just in case.
More texts for Life Management for Women 101. Perhaps an anthology ... :
Heroines, every one.