Nothing made Sydney-based journalist Gina Rushton question her choice not to have children until she faced the possibility that she might not have that choice at all after an emergency surgery.
To answer the question once and for all, she took nine months asking questions about motherhood, reproductive rights, financial responsibilities as well as the emotional cost of bringing a life into the world.
Her new book looks at the forces that push and pull women from the decision to have children in her new book, The Most Important Job in the World.
Rushton’s beliefs on motherhood were shaped by her feminist upbringing as well as years of reporting on reproductive rights and seeing the irony of politicians who idealised motherhood but didn’t support policies which would help mothers.
“I think that really shaped some of my views around motherhood in that it held up a lot of the contradictions around how we value parents and how we value labour.”
Her feminist upbringing taught her that women should devote their life to a meaningful career, she says.
“I really think the sheen has worn off that option. Most women I know now are kind of realising that the idea that you’ll find complete fulfilment and liberation and whatnot in the workplace, like there is some issues with that as well I guess.”
But what shocked her was realising she did care about the prospect of not being able to have children after she had to undergo an emergency surgery.
“Much of the feminism that I was definitely raised on was really quite anti-maternal and was really focused on the decision or protecting or fighting for the right to be able to prevent or discontinue a pregnancy which are of course important rights.
“But something I really wanted to focus on in the book was that there is a flipside in that there are more expansive forms of reproductive justice, which include the rights to have a child.
“I’d love to see a definition of reproductive rights that is just as much about the right to have children and to not have [children].”
Rushton says she hopes we can move towards a feminism that does not degrade motherhood as a copout from the workforce, but values the labour of it.
Millennials weighing up motherhood are anxious about issues facing this generation – climate change, housing, and the nature of our work – but they also have the same decades-old questions about gender roles, Rushton says.
“Even for the chapters that weren’t about climate change, it came up in basically every interview I did.
“It’s shifted from the kinds of conversations I was having earlier in my 20s, which were these kind of very guilty conversations about carbon footprints and individual responsibilities and not wanting to add another waste-producing human to the climate, and I think that guilt has really shifted into an anger.
“That is a bit more ‘well, why does that responsibility rest with an individual who can make less change than a government or corporation?’”
Some parents she spoke to put forward the case that perhaps having children was the utmost expression of hope for the future.
“Not to say people without kids can’t be hopeful and engaged and all that stuff, but there was one person Mark O’Connell … he had a son and went through this whole guilty [phase].
“There’s a guilty part in his book, where he thinks ‘am I using my son I guess to find my own hope? Like is he being the sacrificial lamb here so that I can find hope in the world?’”
Another fear people had in weighing up the decision to have children was how their parenting would play out in the next generation as well as the emotional and mental labour involved, Rushton says.
“I actually say like this is a very general thing and not all of men [are like that], but I think that what I was hearing from a lot of friends in heterosexual relationships was that the decision of parenthood is fraught because they felt like they were already mothering in certain ways.”
On the other hand, Rushton says we also don’t do enough to celebrate women who don’t have children.
“There’s [archetypes of] the infertile woman who culturally we hold up as an object of sympathy, and then there’s the career woman, who we potentially hold up as selfish and uncaring and non-maternal, or like the hedonist, who was too selfish to have kids and wanted all of life’s pleasures.
“I think that there needs to be recognition that there is having life definitely beyond the ‘having kids’ and ‘having a career’ binary.
“We all know people that don’t have kids and lead lives that go beyond these really strict archetypes that we have.”
In her search for an answer to her question on having children, Rushton says she came to acknowledge that the decision goes beyond intellectual and rational thinking and is tied up with how a person sees themselves.