First published by The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 February 2005

What, No Baby?

By Leslie Cannold

Curtin University Books, 333pp, $29.95

When I told a close friend that this book was about how women need real freedom to choose both motherhood and a career (not one or the other), she quickly sputtered out: “But that’s just being greedy!”

This friend is one of the sharpest and feistiest individuals from a particularly creative and quick-witted circle. A full-time mother, her reaction confirmed to me how astonishingly successful the conservative voices have been in convincing even the brightest among us that feminism has gone too far – duping a whole generation of childless women into thinking they can “have it all”.

We’ve all followed the debates about the need to breed. But after a spate of books and opinion pieces that have laid blame at the stilettoed feet of “selfish” career women, it’s a relief to finally read a book that refuses to harangue young women. Instead, Leslie Cannold, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, points out that childlessness is a fate a growing group of women would rather not have to choose.

The majority of women still want to have children, she says: in fact, the more educated a woman is, the more children she usually wants. It’s just that too many hurdles, such as family-unfriendly workplaces, a lack of quality childcare and equivocating men, are tripping them up.

What women want now is simply what men have always taken for granted, she writes: “Opportunities that allow them to reach out and grab the very stuff of life: a partner and a chance to contribute to the community in which they live, both through work and through the raising of children, without sacrificing all they’ve earned in the past.”

After five years of interviewing Australian and American women, she has identified two distinct groups: the “thwarted mothers” and the “waiters and watchers”. Thwarted mothers are intensely aware of their biological clock’s countdown (she cites Kylie Minogue as one high-profile example).

The waiters and watchers observe their friends’ struggles with motherhood questions, and weigh up costs and benefits carefully.

Any attempt to promote the birthrate by reviving the male-breadwinner/full-time mother/ white-picket-fence ideal is only going to backfire, Cannold argues. Too many women recoil in horror.

High-achieving women are additionally stymied by expectations that their partners should be at least as well-educated as they are. By the time they have finished their studies, spent a year or two running immunisation programs in developing countries, and a few more exploring their sexuality with a handful of Mr Wrongs, they find themselves in their 30s with a dearth of men.

Their male peers’ reproductive timetables are running at a leisurely pace, and many men baulk, not unreasonably, at filling the main breadwinner role, particularly in a precarious job market.

Cannold’s most radical solution to the low birthrate is a 30-hour working week. Not just for parents, but for all workers – to avoid resentment against parents and part-time career cul-de-sacs, and to allow the childless time to travel, study, care for elderly parents, form relationships (perhaps even contemplate having children themselves). She calls for a coalition (the women’s and men’s movements, unions and exhausted grandparents) to challenge the way work favours a small group of men who can afford to keep at-home wives, giving them an unfair advantage at 7am meetings.

At this point, I can imagine many readers gasping that the economy would fall to pieces. But Cannold compares the comparatively booming birthrates and healthy economy of Sweden, with its family-friendly workplaces and generous parental leave, to the baby strike by women in the family-unfriendly workplaces of Greece, Italy and Spain.

Women’s workplace aspirations aside, she also points to recent research showing children crave more time with the absent parent.

Like all good feminist texts, this book will be avidly read by women relieved to see their personal position placed in a political context, but it really needs to be read by men. It also needs to be read by political and business leaders, whose power too often rests on their minimal familiarity with child-rearing.

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