May 20, 2024


Science It Works

As a science journalist I’m reconsidering having kids. I’m not the only one | Books

Walking in the park the other day, I overheard a conversation between two women. “I’m running out of time, but I’m also not gonna be like, ‘I’m having a baby for the sake of having a baby,’” said the younger of the two. “One thing I would recommend,” replied the older woman, “if it’s an option: freeze your eggs.”

As a woman, you get to a certain age and babies – hypothetical, expected, realised – suddenly seem ubiquitous: in friendship circles, on social media, in targeted advertising for pregnancy tests and public health messages. But for women of my generation, the decision whether to have children feels more existentially fraught and morally complex than ever before.

I have always wanted kids. I have always felt an uncomplicated joy at the chubbiness of babies’ limbs and the infectiousness of a child’s laughter. I never used to feel the need to rationalise this desire, but I have grown increasingly ambivalent about the prospect of raising children in an era of climate collapse. And I am not alone: a 2019 survey found that one in three Australian women under 30 said they were reconsidering having children because of a worry about “an unsafe future from climate change”. In 2021, a survey of nearly 23,000 millennials and Gen Z-ers in 45 countries found that more than 40% of respondents believed the world has “already hit the point of no return when it comes to the environment and that it’s too late to repair the damage”.

As a science journalist, I have reported extensively on the climate crisis. Future predictions are more dire than present reality, which is already dire enough; recent weeks have brought unprecedented rain and floods in the eastern states, record-breaking heat in Western Australia, the driest summer in Tasmania in 40 years, a sixth mass bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, unusually high temperatures at the poles, and the collapse of the Conger ice shelf in East Antarctica.

Given this state of affairs, there is a flurry of new books that each grapple with having and raising children now. The climate crisis and the question of what “we owe to the planet when it comes to adding another human to it” is one of the key considerations in Gina Rushton’s new book, The Most Important Job in the World. Rushton, an Australian journalist who decided years earlier that she did not want children, is prompted by a medical emergency to interrogate her choice with journalistic rigour. She spends precisely nine months interviewing, reading and reflecting on the exigencies and implications of motherhood: on reproductive rights and justice, on its physical and emotional costs, on whether it is possible to “let ourselves imagine any future without being overpowered by despair or manipulated by hope”.

Gina Rushton.
Gina Rushton, the author of The Most Important Job in the World. Photograph: Sly Morikawa

The Most Important Job in the World examines both personal and collective responsibility. “We know that more than a third of all greenhouse gas emissions since 1965 can be traced to just 20 fossil fuel companies,” Rushton writes. “The idea that we should abridge our desires for the size of our families and communities before transforming our energy systems is peculiar, and yet I know if I was to have a child, I would be scrambling to shrink its footprint before its feet even hit the ground.”

The 2019-2020 Australian bushfire season – which killed or displaced nearly 3 billion animals, and temporarily depleted the ozone layer – “will be average by 2040 and cool by 2060”, the climate scientist Dr Joëlle Gergis tells Rushton. A regional GP to whom she speaks recalls babies born during bushfires coming prematurely. “The placenta is normally pink and healthy and comes away easily during birth but these were grey and grainy, as they are in pack-a-day smokers, requiring an operation to remove them,” Rushton writes.

In a pessimistic mood, it is not difficult to imagine that those babies’ future lives might resemble that of the son in Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road, born in a world ravaged by firestorms and shrouded in ash. Will my generation have to describe to our children the delight of spotting a koala balled up high in the gum trees, and explain that we let them go extinct through inaction? Or what the crackling of a healthy coral reef sounded like, because we let the waters warm too much? It is unsurprising that people of reproductive age in Australia are having fewer children than ever before: fertility rates hit a record low of 1.58 births per woman in 2020.

And yet. There is an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance in wanting to bring children into an increasingly uninhabitable world, but often it is not enough to nullify the wanting. This was the case for Sian Prior, a writer and broadcaster who worked for the Australian Conservation Foundation in the 1980s. Her new memoir, Childless: A Story of Freedom and Longing, conveys the sense of “failure and disappointment” familiar to women who want to have their own biological children but are unable to. She describes the sensation of “solastalgia” – the existential distress of environmental collapse, or “how you feel when something in the natural world is being destroyed before your very eyes”.

Childless by Sian Prior

“Why create people you love and condemn them to an uncertain future on an overheating planet?” one of Prior’s campaigning friends asks her. “It was hard to argue against this logic,” she concedes, but she wanted children dearly anyway: Prior’s memoir details three miscarriages and subsequent unsuccessful fertility treatments.

For Prior, being stereotyped as a “selfish career woman” (recall Julia Gillard being accused of being “deliberately barren”) or “helpless victim of peer pressure” rankles. She overhears a new acquaintance on a group holiday talking about her: “‘Childless women,’ the woman says, ‘are usually so selfish.’”

I would have liked to see a more robust dismantling of tropes about childless women as objects of pity, suspicion, or scorn. The US writer Ann Patchett, who knew from a young age that parenthood was not for her, is matter-of-fact in an essay in her recent collection, These Precious Days. At age 30, she was told by a successful male writer that “until you have children, you don’t know what it means to love”. She writes: “People want you to want what they want … Does my choice not to have children mean I judge your choices, your children? That I think my life is in some way superior? It does not.”

The pathos of Prior’s heartbreak thrums through her memoir. “At the supermarket,” she writes, “I search out my usual deodorant (baby-powder scented) and some sunscreen (for kids) and a pink moisturiser (especially for baby), products that make me feel safer.” The book’s title is telling: where the term “child-free” is used by people who have voluntarily decided not to have kids, “childless” emphasises Prior’s lack. While she eventually finds a bittersweet freedom without children, Prior is ultimately an ambivalent non-parent.

‘A second shift of unpaid labour’

Out next week is Mothertongues, “an experimental book of bio-autofiction about motherhood” co-authored by Australian-based writers Ceridwen Dovey and Eliza Bell. It is formally eclectic, bringing together an assemblage of recollections, notes, messages, songs and poems. The vignettes – which both recall and explicitly mention Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation – parallel the life of a mother to young children, which is “made of non sequiturs, fragments, interruptions, stories that go nowhere”. Environmental worries feature, minorly: “They found a plastic bag at the bottom of the Mariana Trench’’; “how about we talk about … what it feels like to have a child when the apocalypse is on the horizon?”

Mothertongues by Ceridwen Dovey & Eliza Bell is out 12 April 2022 through Penguin Random House

Climate anxiety is one consideration in deciding to have a child; another is the time-intensive work of parenting, particularly of young kids. In Mothertongues, conversations play out between two mothers, between virtual assistants (Alexa, Siri, Cortana) reimagined as embodied people, and in absurdist theatrical scenes. They discuss “the transition from having a body that belongs to you … to having a body that belongs to others”, what Simone de Beauvoir described as “the Sisphyean torture” of housework, and the difficulty of juggling parental responsibilities with paid and creative work. “Virginia Woolf may have wanted to become a mother early in her life but later, years into her marriage, she embraced being child-free … She knew exactly what motherhood would have stolen from her,” Dovey and Bell write.

Their characters accept their lot, which is the frustrating reality for many Australian women: they will shoulder the majority of the burden of domestic labour, leaving them “too tired to ask questions about the wider structures that dictate how their lives are lived”. When questions are asked, they are rhetorical: “What would it feel like to live in a society where … our heroine, is raised up and celebrated not through vacuous statements about the importance of producing children for the survival of the human race but through actual financial, logistical, emotional, day-to-day support?”

“Stubborn statistics,” Rushton writes, “show women continue to arrive home from full-time work to perform a second shift of unpaid labour – globally, women and girls still perform $10.8 trillion worth of unpaid labour every year.” The 2021 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia report found that women in heterosexual couples, with dependent children, do 21 hours more unpaid work a week than men.

A more equal division of labour in queer families offers alternatives to roles dictated by heteronormative strictures, as Natalie Kon-yu points out in her edifying and galvanising book, The Cost of Labour, which was published in February. Partly a memoir about her own traumatic first pregnancy, the book seeks to “get people to think more carefully about the systems we enter into when we decide to have families”.

an writer Natalie Kon-yu, the author of the Cost of Labour, out through Affirm press in Feb 2022.
Australian writer Natalie Kon-yu, the author of The Cost of Labour. Photograph: Affirm press

Kon-yu examines the ideological and historical contexts for policies that affect pregnancy, reproductive autonomy, and the labour of parenting in Australia.

“There has been a huge ideological shift that has occurred in the postwar decades,” she writes. “Prior to the 1960s, there was a cultural assumption that the primary definition of a woman (whether she wanted to get married or not, whether she was queer or not, cisgendered or not) was as a wife and mother.”

Women today have far greater freedom to define themselves beyond the biological imperative, yet mothers incur both financial and workplace challenges and “fathers who ask for more flexible work time, or who deviate from the male breadwinner role, face punishment in the workplace”.

A statement of hope

Given all this – the accelerating climate crisis, the structural inequities, the difficulty of juggling career and parenting – why bring a child into the world? In Notes from an Apocalypse, Mark O’Connell questions “whether having children is a statement of hope, an insistence on the beauty and meaningfulness and basic worth of being here, or an act of human sacrifice … You want to believe that it is you who have done your children a favour by ‘giving’ them life, but the reverse is at least as true, and probably more so.”

But while having fewer children may be the greatest impact an individual can have in reducing their carbon emissions, we should also be wary of the way in which big polluters have seized upon personal guilt to distract from their own outsize culpability. And it is a privilege to be able to deliberate on the decision to have children, when reproductive justice is denied to so many women. It is worth noting the insidious link between reproductive control, and racist and classist notions of who should be encouraged or allowed to reproduce. “You can pick almost any family planning organisation older than a few decades to understand eugenic influence on the birth control movement,” Rushton writes.

The Most Important Job in the World by Gina Rushton is out April 2022 through Pan Macmillan

Having children, by and large, is still viewed as a moral imperative. Books on the choice to become a parent often don’t treat it as a choice at all, but the default state to be pined after, lamented or improved. Less often are the freedoms and ramifications of not doing so considered.

But with or without children, eking out a meaningful life feels necessarily grounded in a collective endeavour to improve humanity’s future. For Rushton, “imagining the end of procreation should not be easier than imagining a world in which we can transform the forces that make creating new life so fraught”. The decision need not be an unresolvable burden, “but an opportunity to ask not just what we want from our own lives but what kind of world we want to move towards whether we parent or not.”

  • The Most Important Job in the World by Gina Rushton ($34.99, Macmillan Australia), Childless: A Story of Freedom and Longing by Sian Prior ($34.99, Text Publishing) and The Cost of Labour by Natalie Kon-yu ($32.99, Affirm Press) are out now in Australia. Mothertongues by Ceridwen Dovey and Eliza Bell will be published on 12 April ($34.99, Hamish Hamilton).