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Childless by choice? Please don’t presume to speak for me

Annie_Kenney_and_Christabel_PankhurstI read an interview with Gloria De Piero, Labour’s new shadow equalities minister, yesterday, in which she said she had ‘never had that maternal urge. I’m 40 now and I’ve always said I don’t want kids, but that decision will be removed from me incredibly soon.’

In other words, she’s childless by choice. And that’s her decision and her right as a woman to decide what she wants to do with her body; I know lots of women who are childless by choice – indeed, I’ve written features on it, and I completely understand that some women simply don’t want to be mothers.

However.

I would question whether Gloria’s decision not to have children makes her best equipped to appeal to the mothers Labour so desperately needs to attract.

Because the fact is that when you’re a mum it influences every aspect of your life – and if you’re a working mum, that includes your professional life, too. You often have to fight, tooth and nail, to be treated as an equal, not only by male colleagues but by childless female colleagues too. That’s not to say all mums in the workplace support each other – sadly, as I wrote here, the opposite can sometimes be true. A woman who is a mum can understand and identify with the discrimination faced by women who are childless by choice; but I’m not sure the converse is ever really true.

And let me tell you, unless you’ve ever had to race home from work to collect a poorly child from school, knowing that it will earn you a ‘black mark’ in the eyes of your male and childless colleagues (and even some mums, ie those with live-at-home nannies); unless you’ve struggled through an intense day of meetings and presentations on two hours sleep; unless you’ve gone to work with breast milk still leaking from your nipples and baby sick on your jacket; unless you’ve witnessed pregnant women and new mums being made redundant simply because they’re seen as less valuable than their male or childless female counterparts; unless you’ve struggled to be treated as an equal and respected for your talent and ability in a male-dominated environment, you have NO IDEA how flaming hard it is to be a working mum.

In fact, I’ve seen plenty of discrimination against mums in the workplace – but I’ve never seen it against childless women (I would say that they actually get preferential treatment – particularly if they’ve made it clear they don’t want kids. CORRECTION: I have seen working mums take advantage of childless women, on the grounds they don’t have children, so can’t possibly need Christmas off, etc).

Nor can someone who is childless by choice really understand what it’s like to be a SAHM or a WAHM, either. To feel isolated and ignored; to feel that you don’t have a voice – and *shock horror* there are lots of of SAHMs and WAHMs who feel like this.

Being a parent gives you a unique perspective on life. You have to think about the needs of another human being (or beings) all the time, including health, education, and most importantly, keeping them safe, warm and fed. (NB: Of course I understand that carers also have the responsibility of always putting another human being first, regardless of whether or not they are mums, and this post is not meant in any way to denigrate that.)

Gloria says she wants to bring women’s views to the ‘top table’ of the Labour Party, ‘the sort of women not normally consulted’, which is great. But does she mean women who are not mothers, or women like herself? Does she mean working mums, or SAHMs? Because I’m really not convinced that someone who is childless by choice can speak for all women.

But perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps as a lifelong Labour voter I don’t want to see the party fall down in an area in which they should be able to succeed.

What are your views? I’d love to know.

NB: This post is NOT a personal attack on Gloria De Piero, on the childless by choice or carers (!); it’s raising the issue of how to appeal to the all-important mum voters. From over 25 years experience in the women’s press and parenting press, I know that mums often respond best to other mums – which explains the rise in popularity of parenting blogs and websites. So this post is simply raising the question of whether this appointment will help Labour to victory at the next election. All views on this subject are welcome, as long as they’re respectful.

I welcome comments but in accordance with the policy of this blog I will not publish anonymous comments unless there is a very good reason for doing so – nor will I publish comments which are personal attacks.

14 Comments

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  1. sarahhillwheeler October 18, 2013

    Trickey one. On the whole, however, I’d agree with a lot of the other comments. I don’t think not being a mum should disqualify de Piero in any way.

    It’s a fine line, but to suggest the minister for equalities can’t do the job properly if she isn’t a mother would, arguably, be discriminatory itself. And TBH given the crazy hours and working condtions of MPs I think it would be incredibly tough to balance those with being a mother…although I accept other female MPs manage it…I don’t think we can or should criticise de Piero for the choice she may (or may not) have made to be child-free…it is at the end of the day personal to her and the only valid question is does she have the right qualities for the job?

    I do “get it” that your comments aren’t a personal attack on de Piero and that however hard she tries she may not understand a working mother’s perspective fully because she is not one herself. But it will always be the case that an MP, or Minister, will have to represent and deal with people and situations diverse from their own.

    There’s no doubt in my mind that you only get the full-on experience of discrimination if you’ve been at the hard, receiving, end yourself. I agree with you there whole-heartedly. However, as Minister, de Piero would be acting in the interests of a broad range of people, not just mums. Personally, I think it more important that whoever takes this on listens to others and can identify with them empathetically, regardless of his or her own background.

    As to the lack of appeal to mums from an electoral point of view, isn’t that a tad cynical and patronising? I’d like to think we’ll judge a candidate on what they say and do, not whether they are are “moms like us.”

    My own experience is that sometimes some working moms can themselves be the biggest barriers to flexible working (a City partner with three children, an au pair and a full-time nanny at the firm I used to work for springs to mind). And Baroness Thatcher was perhaps the most famous working mom politican, need I say more?

  2. Kathryn October 17, 2013

    I’m a woman who doesn’t have children. Many of my friends are also women without children, though I’m delighted that some of my friends are also parents. As I’m sure has been pointed out to you, parents dont’ have the sole experience of being a carer – I’ve cared for relatives in the past and my husband cared for me when I had cancer. Of course, if he’d been a parent there would have been lots of lovely leave he could have taken. For a wife, not so much. When I returned to work after having cancer, I asked about reducing my hours (you know, that flexibility that all you working parents enjoy so much). After covering for a colleague’s four babies in five years, I was hopeful that a modest decrease in my workload (with an accompanying drop in salary, I hasten to add) might be forthcoming. I was told no, even though it was said quite cheerfully that if I’d been a parent asking, they would have granted it. In reality, they needed the steady backstop of us childless folk in the office to provide cover. I’m now delighted to be self employed. I could spend ages showing you examples of friends who looked after dying parents, one who’s struggling with a parent with Alzheimer’s – where’s their leave, their flexible working? I wish Gloria del Piero every success in her new role and don’t think for a minute that her family circumstances should be of any one else’s business but her own. What else does her childlessness make her unfit for? Education – because she has no children in school? Health – because she will never have to decide about whether to have the MMR jab? Transport – because she does not have to take a buggy on the Tube, or use Parent and Child spaces in the supermarket? I find it far more iniquitous that we are still trotting out male politicians (including it has to be said Labour ones) at elections and party conferences with adoring wife and beaming sprogs in tow behind, as a sort of token of viriility. You should also know and be aware that many childless people do not enjoy having their status constantly questioned – it’s perfectly possible that a bland “it hasn’t happened yet” or “the decision will be removed soon” are phrases which are used when the person doesn’t wish to discuss very personal circumstances e.g. fertility treatment etc. I would never assume choice in the matter based on one interview.

    • Liz Jarvis October 17, 2013

      Hi Kathryn,

      Thank you for your comment.

      Firstly, please can I reiterate (again) that this post was not in any way meant to upset anyone who is a carer, and I am sorry that your employers weren’t more flexible. I agree wholeheartedly that there should be more support for carers looking after the elderly or anyone else.

      However, you raise a couple of interesting points I’d like to respond to. Firstly, you talk about the ‘flexibility’ that ‘you working parents enjoy so much.’ Unfortunately, my experience of the workplace as a parent has been no flexibility whatsoever. As an example, when I took three days out of the office because my son had lost consciousness after an asthma attack and had been hospitalised, my then boss was so nasty to me I felt completely bullied. I went back to work 12 weeks after giving birth because I didn’t qualify for anything longer than statutory maternity leave and if I hadn’t, I would have lost my job. I know lots of women who have had similar experiences, some very recently indeed.

      As I said at the start of my post, I have interviewed many women who are childless by choice; I believe Gloria has made it clear on several occasions she is childless by choice (or as someone said to me earlier, ‘childfree’). Not all women want children.

      I have also interviewed countless women who can’t have children because of infertility, which is a very different situation entirely.

      But I would argue that actually, if you don’t have experience of having kids at school in the UK at the moment and it’s a good 15 or 20 years since you left, you’re probably not the best person to be Education Secretary, shadow or otherwise (or in the case of Michael Gove, even if you do); if you’ve never taken public transport, you’re probably not the best person to be Transport Secretary, shadow or otherwise. That’s not to say there’s no place for you in the Shadow Cabinet or Cabinet; it’s just there may be a role more suited to your background and experience. I have no experience of being a plumber or electrician, for example. I doubt very much you’d want me to try and unplug your sink or rewire your house.

      I agree with you about the adoring wife being trotted out at party conferences but I guess that comes down to the Obama effect – Michelle is seen as a huge asset to Barack on the campaign trail.

      Although I think it’s probably fair to say in the US politics play out very differently, there is a percentage of the British electorate (let’s call them Daily Mail readers) who like to see the people they’re voting for presented as happy smiling mixed-sex couples, even if behind closed doors nothing could be further from the truth.

      One of the reasons I have always disliked Tory governments is that they practice ‘do as I say, not as I do’. All too often, their experiences are so far removed from those of the electorate, that they seem completely out of touch and removed from the rest of us, and yet there they are, telling us how to live our lives or raise or children and making decisions that affect the majority without any concept of or interest in the consequences. I would hate to see Labour go down this route.

      I’m actually a fan of Gloria del Piero, I admire her tremendously. But I have to come back to the main point of this post, which was, will her appointment attract the mum voters Labour so desperately needs?

      Thank you for your comment :)

  3. Sarah October 17, 2013

    I have to say I disagree – she is the shadow equalities minister and it would be impossible for her to “be” all the types of people that she is responsible for representing – she can’t be gay and straight, black and white, male and female, childless and a mother. Her job is to work for equality for everyone, not to represent mothers. As long as she does her job properly, she is just as able to represent mothers as a man would be – and I suspect that you would nto be criticising a childless man who was in the same job.

    • Liz Jarvis October 17, 2013

      Just to reiterate, I am not criticising Gloria, or her ability, in any way shape or form, I’m simply raising a debate about whether or not she was the right appointment for this position to appeal to the ‘key’ mum voters who didn’t vote Labour in the last election and may need persuading to vote for them in the next one. Anyone who is interested in politics must surely be aware of how important this target demographic is.

      I would have no hesitation in criticising a man, childless or otherwise – as an example, do see the numerous posts I’ve written about Michael Gove ;)

  4. Tattie Weasle October 17, 2013

    As a WAHM I do feel isolated and I do not feel that I am represented politically. I think all parties have good and bad ideas. Will I vote for the party I feel most represents me and who I feel reflects me as a WAHM – yes.
    But there are just too few women in politics who can do that. I therefore have to go with policies and hope and pray that what is written in the manifesto is not some great spiel to be dropped at the first opportunity once the party in question is in power as is all too often the case.

  5. Jo Hill October 16, 2013

    As a working mother I wholeheartedly disagree with your position on a number of levels. First – she is the Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities – not the shadow Minister for Mums. Do we require her to be black, disabled and a Sepahrdic Jew before we accept she can represent all equalities interests? Why are the very real challenges of parenthood (whether working out or at home) confined to ‘women’s issues’? This particulalrly infuriates me. When are we going to start bringing working fathers and stay at home dads into the discussion? It also displays a distinct lack of understanding in how a decent Minister should work – basing policy on the views of experts and society in general through consultation NOT on your very particular experience of life. That’s why we can have Ministers (and Shadows) changing portfolio at every re-shuffle. As a working mother I have never experienced any of the situations you describe. I hope I never do. I would never expect one person to hold the same views as me and have my best interests at heart purely based on how they had used their womb. And I ceratainly do not believe the principle qualification for being a Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities is that she has pro-created. I hope she is intelligent, open to discussion and reasoned argument, empathetic and that she has some integrity. Those seem like good qualities to start with. She breastfed her child every 3 hours for the first 13 months? Irrelevant.

    • Liz Jarvis October 16, 2013

      Hi Jo,

      Thank you for your comment.

      My point is really, how can the Labour Party appeal to mums, who we’re constantly being told are such an important target group for political parties in the next election?

      I am glad you have never experienced discrimination in the workplace because of being a mum – although I should stress I have known women working in other industries outside mine who have also experienced discrimination, particularly after giving birth; and I agree that we can’t expect anyone to hold the same views of us simply because we have the same organs.

      My biggest fear is that Labour won’t win the next election because they’ve failed to make the kind of appointments that could have helped them to victory. So the original point of my post was to question whether this appointment is a step in the right direction – or a missed opportunity.

      It’s good to get your views :)

      • Anna October 17, 2013

        Liz, as you’ll probably have gathered, I agree with Jo. I take your point about the Labour party needing to appeal to mothers, but I think the way to do this is through their policies as a whole, not through any particular ministerial appointment. I suspect most potential Labour voters will neither know nor care whether Gloria del Piero has kids or not.

        • Liz Jarvis October 17, 2013

          I really hope you’re right Anna, but I am concerned that Labour isn’t speaking to this key demographic at the moment. It will be very interesting to see how things pan out.

  6. Luigina Ciolfi October 16, 2013

    I think this is a great post and I really empathise with the discrimination that mothers often are subjected to in the workplace. However, the situation for childless women can also turn very nasty: I have seen in more than one occasion childless women bullied into doing jobs that are not their responsibility, or that are beyond acceptable working times and places because they have “nothing important to do at home” (and this sometimes has been said by other women, to my horror). I have seen them deemed “unfulfilled” and ‘failed”, or “embittered” in front of colleagues in response to them speaking their mind.
    I think the important thing to keep in mind is that women are normally judged for whatever decisions and choices they make with their own heads. The common prejudice is that women are irrational…so whether they choose to have a family or not, that choice is always deemed “judgeable” on the premises that it was not made very smartly anyway…
    We must be very vigilant in the workplace, whether we have children or not.

    • Liz Jarvis October 16, 2013

      Wow, that is truly shocking Luigina – yes if I think back, and as I’ve blogged before, I can remember times when colleagues with children have taken advantage of those who don’t by booking up the best holiday times, etc. We should all treat each other with respect, regardless of our personal situation.

      Thank you for your comment :)

  7. Anna October 16, 2013

    She’s the shadow minister for women and equalities, not the shadow minister for mothers. The minister has responsibility for women, sexual orientation and transgender equality issues. It would be pretty difficult to find someone who was representative of all those groups to fill the role.

    Quite apart from that, though, I don’t agree that a woman who is not a mother is incapable of standing up for the rights of mothers. In fact, in general, I don’t agree that only people from particular minority/vulnerable/however you want to define it groups are capable of standing up for the rights of those groups. Nor do I agree (speaking from experience as an employment lawyer) that there’s no problem with sex discrimination in the workplace in relation to childless women.

    TBH, I think your post is an example of the kind of thinking that draws unnecessary divisions between women. Just as I’d like to be judged on the basis of my abilities, not the fact that I have a child, Gloria del Piero deserves to be judged on her performance, and not her decision not to have children.

  8. Eliza_Do_Lots October 16, 2013

    In addition to the outward pressure from your peers and colleagues you have also a tremor, never absent, of terrifying guilt, and question yourself on whether you ought to be there, whether you’re up to par, whether you’re letting yourself, your children, your employer, down and there’s always a fear, when you wake at 3am and tuck a fretful child back in, that you’ve forgotten something vital, missed something key, and it follows you like a miasma. The questioning of myself to such a degree is something I never anticipated.

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