There are many troubling things about Andrea Leadsom’s recent comments on motherhood. In response, I wrote some words, both personal and political.
In a seemingly never-ending series of political storms sweeping the UK this summer, the latest is to do with having ‘a stake in the future.’
Following the surprise referendum vote to take us out of the European Union, our Prime Minister has resigned, handing over responsibility for actually delivering this result to whoever will succeed him. After the initial voting, the remaining contenders for leader of the Conservative party are the more or less equally vile Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom.
So we will soon have a female Prime Minister for only the second time. I take no joy in that fact. When Margaret Thatcher became our first female Prime Minister I was a child, and entirely uninterested in politics, feminism or anything else of that kind. In retrospect, yes it was a significant milestone in gender parity. But that doesn’t alter my opinion of Thatcher or her legacy for this country (clue: I’m not a fan).
So although I had no actual optimism about either of these candidates (both of whom seem about as reasonable, humane and decent as Thatcher herself), it was nevertheless disheartening to find within two days of the race being declared female-only that the big issue is… motherhood.
In an interview with the Times, Andrea Leadsom claimed that having children gave her a stronger stake in the future than childless Theresa May.
Mrs Leadsom is very angry at the article, claiming to have been misrepresented – but her words speak for themselves. At best, she has shown naivety in not anticipating how her comments would be received.
You can read a transcript via the BBC.
Mrs Leadsom said:
I don’t really know Theresa very well but I am sure she will be really really sad she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’ because I think that would be really horrible.
But genuinely I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.
She possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people, but I have children, who are going to have children, who will directly be a part of what happens next.
The obvious first objection is that these same ‘arguments’ are never used when discussing and comparing the merits of men. When was the last time a male politician was judged on his parental status? When was it even suggested that a father would make a better Prime Minister than a man without children?
That underlying double standard is central to this whole debacle, but there are two specific points in Mrs Leadsom’s statement I would like to explore in more detail:
- Women who don’t have children are sad.
- Women who don’t have children have no interest in building a strong, successful future.
Mrs Leadsom’s first point is a thorny one – because some of the time it’s true. I speak from experience. I have failed to have children, and I’m sad about it.
I chose my words with care just then. I have failed. You can’t fail unless you tried. Hell, I tried. I only recently admitted defeat and stopped trying.
I am sadder than I can tell you. Sad every day. Sad every time I see someone else’s joy or pride or even frustration in their children. Which, of course, is many times every single day.
But not everyone tries. Many people, for many and various reasons, don’t want to have children. They are not sad about it. They made a decision. Their lives are happy and fulfilled just as they are. Projecting your own values and opinions on those people is arrogant and ignorant.
Like Andrea Leadsom, I know little about Theresa May. I don’t know whether she ever tried to have children. I don’t know whether she’s sad that she didn’t. If she ever was sad, I don’t know whether she still is. Theresa May is 59. Her potentially child-bearing years are long behind her. By the time I’m her age I certainly hope to be over the worst of my disappointment.
Mrs Leadsom’s sympathy (if that’s what it was) is inappropriate and patronising.
But what about that second point? Having children gives Mrs Leadsom a greater stake in the future.
Does it really?
In the immediate sadness of accepting you will never have children there is hopelessness; there is despair. There can be depression, a skewed world view that sees everything going to hell. At the same time a lethargy, because nothing matters. There is a greyness, a blandness, an emptiness lurking behind every ostensible joy.
I’ve been battling with that for the better part of two years now. But it is lifting, slowly, gradually. There are still days I don’t know why I continue getting up in the morning, getting in my car, driving to work, going through the same motions… When all I feel like doing is lying in bed and staring at the wall. But I do keep doing it. I keep putting one foot in front of the other, and moving forwards – and maybe there is some light up ahead. Maybe.
When that darkness recedes, when the light feels attainable, do you know what is my strongest emotion? Determination. Determination that I have to make my life matter some other way. I can’t rely on my genes marching forward into the future, providing a link in an unbroken chain stretching back millions of years and potentially reaching forward for millions more; to determine the fate of our planet, to travel the stars, to colonise new worlds…
I have failed to be a part of that great enterprise.
But what can I do? I can try to influence those who are taking part in that march. I can try to affect the world around me during my lifetime. I can try to leave the world a better place than I found it.
I am acutely aware that any legacy I leave is entirely up to me and my actions and how I influence the world. I have to strive. I have to achieve. I still have something to prove.
If you think I have no stake in the future, you are very wrong.
Theresa May might or might not be anything like me, but my point is broader than that. Being childless can mean many things. It can mean different things to the same person over the course of their lifetime. There is no valid label you can slap on a childless person, male or female, due to that single trait.
In my view, Andrea Leadsom has already failed a test of leadership potential. In a historic contest between two women to be the leader of the UK, almost her first action was to bring the argument down to reproduction, to traditional women’s roles, traditional values – undermining the progress in feminism that has allowed her to achieve the position she has.
Get a proper argument. Compare real achievements, not a thing so personal, so emotive, so dogged by unfair judgement – and so irrelevant.