First published on 21st April, 2013 in The Star
SOMETIMES (most of the time) it’s probably wiser to resist commenting on Facebook posts. However, although I am, at 46, much calmer and less of an idiot than I was at 26, I still can’t resist the chance to give my two sen worth.
In the last week or two there have been posts, written by two Facebook friends, about women who admit to regretting having children. You can imagine the responses, including to my comments saying that I can relate to such feelings*. It’s just not the done thing to admit that parenthood may not be the smartest choice you’ve made. We go on about how it’s OK to make mistakes, but heaven forbid that the mistakes should be baby-shaped. I may be wrong but it also feels like that it’s especially shocking if a woman says that she’s doesn’t like being or doesn’t want to be a mother. Why she might as well be admitting to infanticide.
Even my beloved harum scarum Jo March (from Little Women) becomes totally domesticated, marrying an older man (in Good Wives), running a school and playing mother to a whole brood of children (in Little Men and Jo’s Boys) and committing the unforgiveable sin of keeping an ex-student and her niece, Bess, apart because she feels the working-class lad is not a suitable match for the prissy young lady.
There is Nan, a young girl in Little Men, who remains unmarried and goes to medical school, but characters like her are rare and don’t get much space on the page.
New fiction continues to be full of female characters who spend a great deal of time wondering when their prince will come. Codename Verity is a recent exception, but the girls in that book seemed more interested in one another than in men. It’s as if lesbians are the only women who might safely avoid being married with children. In fact, as I’ve mentioned earlier, young women who don’t desire motherhood and marriage are often viewed as freaks. It’s unlikely, the authors of YA and children’s fiction think this way, but they are, by and large, products of a world still very much fixed in its ideas of gender and gender roles. Also, romance (and sex) sells. The problem is of course what Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls the “danger of the single story”: if just one version of something – a people, a culture, a religion etc – is portrayed then it soon becomes the only version that is believed and accepted and taken for granted as the truth. The “danger of the single story” is that it creates and reinforces stereotypes. So, in terms of describing what girls want, it just supports the already firm belief that we are naturally maternal creatures who crave the love of a good man (or any man, really) and the cosy feeling of a child at our breast … or simply being asked to the prom and being kissed by the time we’re 16.
I’ve just thought of a female character who resists the conventions of marriage and motherhood to go to university: Mattie Gorkey from Jennifer Donelly’s A Gathering Light is more interested in reading than dating. For Mattie, words are the key to a new life and to freedom. I wish there were more female characters like Mattie. Also, more female characters who have more interesting things to think about than romance; female characters who grow up and don’t get married and are happy; female characters who choose to be childless and never regret it. These women exist, we know they do, they just need to appear more in books that’s all.