Lizzie Marvelly is a musician, writer and activist, she writes columns for Weekend Herald.

Lizzie Marvelly: Don't get caught in the parent trap

Little girls encouraged to lavish love and care on plastic dolls during their childhood will likely grow up  to regard childbearing as an inevitability.
Little girls encouraged to lavish love and care on plastic dolls during their childhood will likely grow up to regard childbearing as an inevitability.

Earlier this week, Amanda Gillies and Mark Richardson discussed their experiences of infertility on The AM Show. It was an emotionally charged conversation, during which Gillies disclosed that she probably won't be able to have children. "It's heartbreaking," she said. "Because as a woman, you do feel like a failure."

Her words reverberated in my mind for a long time afterwards. There was nothing particularly surprising about them - she was merely echoing the long-held societal notion that motherhood should be a woman's first priority - but hearing it expressed so baldly gave me pause. Then it made me feel incredibly sorry for her.

I didn't want to pity Amanda Gillies. I wanted to say to her, "you are a talented, intelligent, capable, lovely woman who could never be judged a failure in any regard". I felt guilty for the wave of sympathy that flooded through me, then I started to feel angry at the way people are made to feel about their infertility struggles.

I can't think of a paradigm less suited to a success/failure binary than getting pregnant. For as long as human beings have been around to reproduce, there have been people who have been unable to conceive. There have also been many who have conceived and died as a result of it. There's no skill involved in making sure a spermatozoon meets an ovum - other than a basic understanding of human anatomy and what to do with it. It works for some people. For others, it doesn't.

We also need to get rid of the idea that having children completes us. It insinuates that until we procreate we are somehow lacking, that we're empty vessels in need of filling. It reduces us from complex, nuanced beings to breeding stock to be poked and prodded into fulfilling a biological function that, if we were to split hairs, is actually hastening the destruction of our planet.

I'd argue that it's harder for women. We grow up pushing dolls around in mini prams, for God's sake - or in my case, the surprisingly tolerant and somewhat dense family cat. We are conditioned to love and look after plastic babies when we're little more than babies ourselves. Childbearing is presented as a kind of inevitability to many little girls.

The pressure only intensifies with age, as Gillies illustrated when she went on to give young women a piece of advice. "I say to girls, particularly young girls, have your children early if you can," she said. "I waited, I shouldn't have. And so I say to them, career - you'll always come back to it, children - you can't, so do it early."

I'm probably of an age at which she could've have been talking to me. Admittedly, at 27, the thought of having a baby isn't something that occupies much space - if any - in my mind. I can barely look after myself - adding a tiny human into the mix would be an exercise in utter chaos.

Personally, I don't feel like my life is lacking in any way without children. If anything, I feel the reverse. I feel no sense of emptiness or need - my life is full of people I love, work that stimulates me and causes that I feel passionately about. I feel immensely grateful.

While we've come a long way, it's a simple fact that the workplace environment can still be difficult for parents to navigate.

When it comes to babies, my position is one of ambivalence. If I have children, I'm sure the experience of parenthood will be wonderful, but if I don't, I won't feel that my life has been any less successful or worthy than those who had kids. There are many paths to fulfilment and satisfaction; having children is just one of them.

The important point, however, is that women shouldn't have to choose between one or the other if they don't want to. While we've come a long way, it's a simple fact that the workplace environment can still be difficult for parents to navigate. Too often, mothers and fathers are expected to prioritise their work ahead of their family lives, or else.

Why, in 2017, shouldn't women be able to have babies and continue to excel in their careers? The digital world has made working remotely alarmingly easy (speaking as someone who can't seem to escape from work, no matter where in the world I am) and the uncomfortable truth is that many workplaces could likely afford to implement family-friendly policies if they would only make it a priority.

It seems ridiculous to me that we're creating an environment in which we expect people to delay parenthood for so long that they eventually undergo costly and physically demanding fertility treatments - often at the expense of the taxpayer - when we could instead be allocating resources to rethinking the way we work.

It's also undeniable that many more women opt out of work to take care of children than men. We don't force would-be fathers to choose between climbing the career ladder and having a baby. Though pregnancy and antenatal recovery will always be shouldered by women - until scientists come up with mechanical wombs, that is - there is no physical reason why fathers can't be primary caregivers while mothers go back to work. Other than the old chestnut that that's just the way it's traditionally been done.

It's a tradition that I think is wildly outdated. Of course there will be women who would love to stay home with their children - who should be supported in their choice - but that option shouldn't be presented as the default. My own mother was back at work within days of my birth - both because she couldn't afford not to be and because she loved what she did.

We need to give women options so that they can make decisions that are right for them and their families. The only failure in this situation lies in an out of date system that needs fixing.

- NZ Herald

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Lizzie Marvelly is a musician, writer and activist, she writes columns for Weekend Herald.

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