Friends of mine and I were talking about something we’d seen on the telly the other day. We were taken aback by a straight couple’s story of ‘failed maternity’, a woman’s desire at age forty to have a child after having panned the idea as a younger woman, and her devastation at the impotent outcome of their IVF treatment.
Notwithstanding the program’s presumption of the woman as sole bearer and rearer of children, we all observed the weirdly materialistic and privileged nature of their ‘wanting’ narrative, without wanting ourselves to buy into any Freudian demonising of women as self-obsessed consumers.
One of us pondered the numbers of kids with high physical or mental needs – or indeed kids whose basic needs can’t be met within their ‘birth family’ – that would benefit from a few extra adults suitably equipped to care for them one afternoon a week. I wondered if these prevalent stories about fertility and middle-class women reflected some kind of ‘womb fetishism’, where the womb is reified and reduced as the only site of childbirth and parentage (something produced with the patriarchal notion of woman’s biology as subjugated destiny; and the heteronorm that assigns inferior status to queer family life). This fetish could well bear a kinship with the foetus fetish that right-to-lifers are fired by.
I want to have children. I’ve wanted this since I was about twenty-one, and it’s only gotten worse with the years. It’s known as cluckiness, and I do experience it as a kind of primality: a pull in my abdomen, around my arms in the nook of my elbows, and on my decisions about the future. So I deeply understood and resonated with the physical maternal urges of the woman on the telly; the space she was making in her body and her life for a child.
At thirty, my biological clock is making a hell of a racket. And I wouldn’t be a neurotic academic feminist if I wasn’t analysing this to the hilt. Oh yes, there are things to consider and I am hesitating. Not, primarily, because I fear career curtailment or social suicide, though I have many reasons to buy into both those notions. It’s not even because I abhor mainstream contemporary mothering culture (and I do – mother’s groups at the playground, babycinos on the shopping strip, maternity wear, baby showers et al are already giving me morning sickness). It’s not that I fear a co-parent’s or caring community’s under-performance. It’s not discomfort with bringing new life into a world full of war. Well, not exactly. It’s not because I want to shelter any new little ones from such phenomena. It’s because I feel something of an obligation to shelter the current little ones. Many social and environmental indicators would suggest that we don’t need more children as much as we need more parents.
My desire to bear a child from my own body is itself, then, vulnerable to ‘womb fetishism’ and the privilege that middle-class white women in hetero relationships have to decide when, how and if we will give birth (from freezing our eggs to using contraception and abortion without fear or favour). There is something more to this in that we are also considered to be the ideal parents, the ones who fit the institutional criteria for parenting children who are removed from their families, which has its own continuing history in settler-colonial Australia.
I wonder how those of us with the disposition for parenting might be invited to consider ways of doing so that are not restricted to the carefully planned pregnancy, perambulator and private school that is currently ascendant in normative middle-class circles.
Indeed, women who are devastated* about being ‘infertile’ who then choose to foster or adopt speak with warmth and wonder about the kind of parenting their life has pushed them towards. Women I have known from nuns to ‘childless’ social policy bureaucrats have said they see themselves as practicing ‘non-biological’ parenting. If DDT or fluoride or synthetic sweetener (or the ZPG imperative) doesn’t get to us first, perhaps us ladies who do produce restless ova can also direct our desires and energies in this way. Maybe such redirection could co-incide with men and trans and intersex folks not having their parenting capacity overlooked by virtue of womblessness or presumed womblessness. With the ceasing of forced sterilisations and other womb-based weaponry. With women who don’t make babies or nuclear families being treated as whole human beings in the nationalist media discourse. Such redirection should not, I hasten to add, replicate ideas about Indigenous kids or poor kids being better off in white, middle-class homes.
*(We are compelled to feel this devastation by the pornography of IVF clinic advertising and the naturalness (and therefore goodness) that is ascribed to birth mothers in this imagery, which has its ‘other end’ in mother-blaming; or the shame that still surrounds miscarriage and stillbirth, not to mention abortion. At another point, it manifests in the medicalisation of queer families).
I’m not suggesting it’s our duty to give up our desire for birthing ‘our own babies’, as though said desire is a distasteful bourgeois romantic notion of childbearing and rearing that requires you attend my re-education camp.
I am thinking that, perhaps, the heartbroken IVF stories could, if our social and cultural co-ordinates were more generous and creative, take forms that positively transform the lives of both children and adults in the parenting equation.