The Choosing: On Being a Young Mum Who Wanted Both Books and Babies

Does anyone else remember it? A poem by Liz Lochhead, called ‘The Choosing’. I read it in an old exam paper I was using to revise for my English GCSE, back in the late 90s. In it, the female narrator remembers how she and her friend Mary were top of the class in primary school, her friend probably the brighter of the two, better at maths, anyway. But the friend is from a family where education for girls is not valued, her Dad has something to do with greyhounds and doesn’t want her to continue at school, so she leaves. The narrator, it is revealed, has pursued book learning. The poem reports a recent incident, where the narrator, now grown up, has seen her friend on the bus, pregnant (at least, that is the heavy hint), with a husband who loves her. The narrator is on the same bus ‘with my arms full of books’. And the poem ends resoundingly: ‘I […] wonder when the choices got made, we don’t remember making’.

I’ve read a lot of poems since 90-whenever-it-was that I read ‘The Choosing’. I’ve got a PhD in English Literature, I’ve taught poetry to undergraduates. But this one I still remember, and it still bothers me. Probably because I remember thinking, when I first read it: I want to be both those girls. I want to have a baby and I want my arms full of books. And something like this is the point of the poem – to do with having it all, or to do with life paths being mapped out for us early and excluding other life paths, like the fig tree day dream in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: ‘choosing one meant losing all the rest’. But I feel like the main point of the poem is to wonder how smart Mary could have been had she stayed in school, not to wish that the bookish narrator could have babies too (although the poem, being poem-y, is ambiguous on this point). And I feel this accusing me, because of choosings of my own, because I know that it appears as though I chose babies over books, having children over having a career. I have behaved in a way at odds with someone of my education.

I did not mean for it to be an exclusive choice. If anything I wanted to prove to everyone that you can have babies young (or youngish – I was 25 when my daughter was born) and go on to do whatever it is you want to do. So I started my PhD when my first child was one, and when I finished my doctorate four years later I had another one year old. My partner stayed at home nearly full time while I studied, and we lived on my funding, extra cash I got from teaching, odd jobs he did. It was fine while it lasted. But now the funding and the PhD are finished, the academic job market is more nightmarish than it’s ever been, it’s hard for my partner to get back into a job market he was never really in, and we are poor. The Tories are turning the neighbours against us. I have started to think about the choices I do remember making.

There is an episode of The Simpsons where Marge tells Bart: ‘don’t make fun of grad students, they just made a terrible life choice’. When I talk to the middle class mothers I know, whose kids go to the same school as my kid (by total fluke we have ended up living in the catchment area of a “good school”. If my landlord knew he’d hike the rent up. Let’s not tell him.) I think that’s what they must be thinking: that I made a terrible life choice, or choices – a grad student and an impoverished parent? Even Marge wasn’t thinking of that. It’s not that I actually think I made a terrible life choice: my PhD hasn’t made me rich but it has made me think, and my children amaze me and make me brave, I wish I’d had them younger. I do know women who had their kids as teenagers, spent quality time with them when they were small, and then went on to have satisying careers. They were able to do this because of personal strength of character, sure, but they also came from strong communities and had firm social bonds to help them along. I am not naïve. I know that most people don’t: my own kinship and extra-familial networks are frequently on the shaky side.

Still, I get defensive when people imply that having babies stymies career progress. I accidentally berated a good friend when he said that he and his fiance didn’t want kids just yet because his career had got started late and he wanted to get further in it first. ‘I really disagree with that’, I burst out ‘because kids don’t stop you! If you want to have babies what is there to wait for!’ He stared at me like I was mad, and I realised that I did sound mad, like I was telling everyone they must have babies and I disagree with people who don’t want to. That’s not it at all. I don’t insist that people who don’t want babies should have them. And if people want to but not until they have proper swanky salaries, it’s all good. But my feeling is that if you do want them in your 20s, there shouldn’t be anything stopping you doing that either – certainly not an anxiety that you’ll never make a living or progress in your field if you have kids too soon. What I disagree with is the cultural insistence that kids ‘stop you’. My problem is that I have lived as if there was nothing to stop me: I could have babies and sort my career out later, my partner and I could negotiate the bread winning thing between us, those things could wait, so long as we found ways of getting by in the meantime. It would be bohemian. I would have babies and books.

When I was pregnant the first time I was working a low-key job, packing lentils in a basement. It didn’t matter, because I wouldn’t always be doing this. Besides, I didn’t want to be distracted from the baby, when it came, by a job I actually had to think about. And this did work for a while, more or less. We juggled our low-key jobs and the newborn, money was tight by non-student standards, our rent not bad for London but still astronomical, but there was a feeling of freedom in that first year of our daughter’s life, while I waited to see if I would get funding to do a PhD. But I remember feeling depressed by a discussion on the Jeremy Vine show, about how much money women who have kids before they are 27 lose in lifetime income. It was something like a quarter of a million pounds. I remember too that the lyrics to ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ made me cry during that first pregnancy, and it wasn’t just the hormones. It’s a song about trickle down economics. ‘We gotta hold on to what we got, it doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not, we got each other, and that’s a lot’. This is about being ground down so badly you’ve got nothing to lose: ‘it doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not’, can feel more nihilistic than hopeful when there’s a possibility you’ll be on minimum wage forever.

It is still too easy for employers to discriminate against applicants with children, especially those who’ve taken time out to look after them. Either you declare, when you apply for a job, that this gap of however many years was because you were seriously involved in the childcare – thereby letting the cat out of the bag – or you leave a mysterious lacunae in your CV, one that effectively bars you from being called to interview. I’ve never heard any proposals to rectify this situation, which impacts overwhelmingly on women who have children before their careers are well-established, though in some couples (mine included) it impacts on the man too, if he is not embedded in a career by the time he decides to stay at home for the kids. Maybe tonnes of people are choosing, in an entirely self-determined way, to have kids later, but I think a great many of us are having this choice made for us, by the seeming impossibility of combining children with reasonable financial and exciting career prospects. We don’t ask whether choices would be different if the idea of starting a career postnatally was not made to seem so far-fetched, or if concrete social changes took place that actually made it near-fetched. You know, little changes, like affordable childcare and housing, and a genuinely family-friendly work culture.

Recently I was in a fury with Professor Robert Winston, hard to imagine as that might be. He was on the radio arguing that we mustn’t patronise women by telling them to have kids while they are young, because older women are younger now, and science will figure out how to prolong the child-bearing years. Then a woman (I didn’t catch her name: there’s probably a feminist point in this alone – or maybe I just tuned in too late) who was guesting on the programme with him said what seemed much truer to me: that we should be figuring out social structures that allow women to have babies younger without detriment to their careers. “Thank you” I shouted, alone in the kitchen. Because it’s not actually a view you hear very often. As if telling young women they can’t have children is less patronising than telling older ones to get a move on.

I’ve felt both patronised and stigmatised as a young(ish) mother, in odd ways, especially in academia. I go around having arguments in my head with successful women I know, who I imagine think I’ve betrayed the whole of feminism by prioritising basic biology, even for a moment, over the life of the mind, over what Lochhead’s poem calls ‘the prizes that were ours for the taking’. One colleague, only a year older than me but a great deal more established and glittery in career terms said to me: ‘you don’t seem…’ then stopped herself, and said instead: ‘do you wish you’d had kids later?’ You don’t seem what? I wanted to know. But I just barked defensively: ‘No, I always wanted to have kids young.’ This is true; they weren’t accidents, they were part of the life I wanted, and couldn’t wait for indefinitely. It’s not reactionary to want to have children in your twenties. In fact, in a field where it’s really not the done thing, it feels kind of radical.

One day Sarah Churchwell gave a seminar in my department. She’d recently written at least one article loudly lamenting the guilt and obloquy heaped on women who choose to have children later; damning the Daily Mail rhetoric that wants to portray older mothers as selfish career feminists. A female professor I knew went up to her after the seminar and whispered ‘thank you’. A part of me, and no small part, would quite like to have gone up and whispered ‘bah!’. It’s certainly true that the media demonises older mothers, demonises career women, yes. We could go further: the media hates all women, mothers or otherwise. Churchwell was only reading part of the evidence, blinkered by her own preoccupations. It’s ludicrous to think that older mothers are demonised more than young ones. Older mothers are wealthier mothers, younger ones are poorer. Since when did the rhetoric of the Daily Mail demonise people with enough money more than it demonises people without enough? And more than this: Churchwell’s article had passages all about how older mothers are in fact better, less crazy, more intelligent. Taking this tack involves accepting the fallacy that young motherhood means you don’t love achieving things, a nonsense every bit as pernicious as the fallacy that older motherhood means you don’t love your children.

Who is speaking up for young Mums, who might not have their shit together when they start, but will make it up as they go along (which is what everyone has to do anyway when children appear)? Someone should, because plenty of people can’t wait until they’ve got job security and a mortgage, because those things are never going to happen for us. Now that’s a choice I don’t remember making.

- CS