In 1978 aged 28 years and living in London, I conducted a series of interviews with ten young women about childbirth for a book titled “A New Life”. These women all had different experiences, including giving birth naturally, using an epidural, a forceps delivery, a caesarean section and a water birth, among others. However, what they all had in common I discovered on asking, was that disturbingly not one of them had seriously reflected on the responsibility of having a child. Most were partnered, also interviewing a couple of the men who similarly evinced no forethought about having a child. Seemingly, it was the thing to do when you were “in love” and settled into a comfortable relationship; a stereotypical norm that everyone pursued according to the social expectations of the status quo.
Fast forward five years back in Australia and I was pregnant, deciding almost instantly to have a termination at around six-eight weeks gestation. My reality was that I could not provide a child with the financial security, attention and love it demanded, wanting to continue working full-time as well as being on my own. Having a nanny, even if I was able to afford it, was not an option, believing that motherhood involved being a full-time mum, especially when the child was young. As the pregnancy was unwanted, I had a legal and safe abortion with minimal distress.
Two years later at 35, I consulted a male gynaecologist about having my fallopian tubes tied, believing I had passed my “use-by-date” for having a child and still on my own. Querying me intently about why I wanted the operation, I explained I did not want to fall pregnant again with contraception difficult, the Pill causing unpleasant side-effects such as bloating, low moods and weight gain. I also imparted that in having sex, a man using a condom reduced my sexual pleasure, while an IUD could manifest all manner of internal injuries. He then asked why I didn’t want to ever have a child. Clarifying that I was in no financial position to raise a child without economic support, I added it was a huge responsibility that dictated persistent hard work and as I was alone, it would be almost impossible to care for a child in the way it needed. His ensuing comment was very revealing, if not perturbing, telling me that it was a woman like me who should be having a child as I understood what was involved. Contrarily he stated as a matter of fact that most of his female patients had no idea about the responsibility or the hard work, both emotionally and practically, let alone a realistic sense about the financial cost of raising a child. In this perspective, I could only wonder why they were having children at all, given their lack of thought and understanding about a child’s needs, among other things. Suffice to say he agreed to the operation and I was very thankful, never regretting my decision.
Now, more than thirty years later, the plethora of articles about parents with children detailing disturbing facets of family life make me ponder again why people are having children so thoughtlessly and seemingly so ill-equipped to raise them healthily and happily. A myriad of surveys have documented that one in three young people suffer mental ill-health and are overweight and/or obese, just for starters. Should parents be accountable? Given that two-thirds of Australian adults are over-weight and/or obese, what example are they setting their children, and how are they feeding them? Moreover, many are also swallowing anti-depressants or anti-anxiety pills, and drinking excessively too, reporting their consistent inability to juggle work and family commitments without toxic stress. What are the ramifications for their children?
Of course, I can be dismissed for directing disdain at parents as I have never been one, but nonetheless I ask who should be responsible for children? As a young person, one spends most time with parents in the home learning, even absorbing unconsciously, how to behave, work, eat, sleep and live in preparation for independence and adulthood. While schools are now expected to instruct more and more in many diverse areas, it is ultimately parents who are the ones who instil values and a sense of morality into their children. Schools can only do so much, with research indicating they account for only about 30 per cent of academic outcomes, with attitudes to life determined by the home environment which shapes and influences young people more than anything else. This view seems supported by letter writer to The Australian, Adrian Jackson, of Middle Park, Victoria, who in August opined in response to young children’s poor performances in the 3Rs Naplan test, that “one area of concern is parents who are not supervising their children after school and after play time at home. Do these parents listen to their children, read to them aloud or do maths without a computer, for example?” Moreover, Herald Sun text talk scribe, Tom Dooley, of Bentleigh, raised the issues about parents with children who complain about having no “me time”: “maybe…(they) shouldn’t even have them”. Seems I’m not the only one questioning why people are having children so thoughtlessly.
An article in the Herald Sun on July, 23, 2019, which detailed a report by The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, called “Please Just Say You’re Proud of Me” and funded by the Federal Department of Education and Training, found high school students sometimes felt “pressured rather than supported by their parents”. Ninety-three students from Years 10, 11 and 12 across Australia were interviewed and suggested parents’ own expectations and dreams for their students could “act as barriers to success”, elaborating they wanted their parents to be “understanding, empathetic and offer practical guidance.” More alarmingly, the report asserted “Students’ comments suggest that their parents did not always have the skills, understanding or the time to assist them with their education…; most students talked about the importance of positivity, acceptance without judgement (and) genuine listening…, (as well as wanting) the love, approval and encouragement of their parents…, (needing) to know that parents were proud of them and their efforts.”
Why then are these young people not receiving what they want and need? It is certainly understandable some parents might lack the skills to assist their children scholastically, but the reality that these young people want “positivity… (and) genuine listening” indicates a serious lack of skills as well as ignorant attitudes beyond the classroom. If parents aren’t listening to their kids, why not? Are they really interested in what their kids think and feel? Are they so preoccupied with their own personal problems and project what they want onto their kids without regard for their personal individuality? This report raises the question as to why parents are having children in the first place as it seems their wants and needs are more significant than their kids. It’s the “what’s in it for me” syndrome without considering their children as individuals with their own particular interests and needs. It’s a disturbing report, albeit only with 93 students and I can only conjecture how representative they are of the majority of students.
Another article in the Herald Sun the previous day, July 22, 2019, headlined “Silent Treatment”, narrates research commissioned by Old El Paso of 1000 adults that found that “almost half of Australian families struggle to find enough to talk about over dinner, and may end up arguing instead of conversing…” Staggeringly, 80 per of families sometimes sit in silence, with 92 per cent saying their digital devices stop them talking to each other. Overall, seven out of ten families don’t sit down together for dinner every night, and four in ten parents say their families “find it hard to connect and share conversation at dinner time with television, mobile phones and tablets, and tiredness, the biggest barriers.” What’s really perplexing is that parents reported “they would like tools such as conversation cards to boost table banter”, implying they don’t even know what to talk to their kids about. What conversational skills do they have with each other I can only ponder too? How can young people even learn conversational skills when their parents seemingly lack them? Furthermore, the fact they can end up arguing connotes a level of disagreement and discord that may adversely affect the children. How many of today’s families are actually compatible, even amicable? This research also reaffirms my unanswerable question as to why these parents are having children at all when they seem totally incapable of creating even simple conversation. I strongly believe that if you’re genuinely interested in another human being, especially your own children, questions reflecting that interest would flow naturally and spontaneously, without “conversation cards” needed at all. It seems tragic for both parents and children.
Indeed, someone told me recently about a single mother aged 57 with a son, nearly 15, who recently discovered to her shock that her son was no longer a virgin with a girlfriend whose house he often stayed at. Working full-time, the woman often arrives at home late, with her son making himself dinner. Priding herself that he is independent and can fend for himself, it is sad to me that she is so ignorant about what he does, who he sees, or how he lives, among other things. Furthermore, she learned about his sexual experience and relationship when her own mother, who also lives with them, asked him directly during dinner at a restaurant whether he was a virgin. Why his mother never asked him, or discussed the issue with him, is also tragic, returning to my first point of ponder, why did she have a child at all? Apparently, she fell pregnant to a young man she knew briefly during a “drunken fuck”, desperately wanting to have a baby. It didn’t seem relevant that he would grow to be a young man, telling our mutual friend that her son would always be her “baby”, detailing memories of him gurgling and cuddling him so well. Maybe she needs to grow up! Moreover, her son is over-weight and she is obese, also having taken anti-depressants and an anti-anxiety pill during his earlier years while they were living interstate. She no longer takes this medication, but is a very heavy drinker. Having attended an all-girls’ private Catholic school and with a university degree, she is no “bogan”, also having travelled overseas several times and with a well-paying job. What more is there to say?
Headlined “How We’re Ruining Our Kids”, another Herald Sun article of July 20 exposed “a decade long epidemic of damaging parenting” in Australia, according to educator, step-father and internationally renowned, young adult fiction author, John Marsden. He opined that “parents need to take a good, hard look at themselves for the ‘emotional abuse’ they’re inflicting on their children.” Marsden has written a new book, “The Art of Growing Up” , saying he couldn’t care less about criticism he may attract for his strong condemnation of modern parents. “Everywhere I look I see awful mismanagement of young people, and the results are toxic and the consequences are dire; and we see the damage that causes in schools and lots of other areas of life, too.” Certainly, he acknowledges parenting is “difficult territory”, elucidating that one of the problems in the past decade “has been that people are afraid to speak directly about parents and how they need to manage their responsibilities…What I’ve seen needs something more critical and urgent…we have a real crisis going on- and I don’t use that word lightly.”
Marsden continues that “parents need to address their own individual anxieties and mental health issues to be able to respond rationally to their children’s issues…and helping them understand and experience the world as it really is.” Conceding “it’s not all doom and gloom”, he adds “it’s time to drop the endless ‘meaningless’ positive slogans and the stereotypical parental mantra of simply wanting a child to be happy. To have a realistic understanding of life you need to understand solace; you need to understand emotions and feelings, and be able to communicate. You need to be able to recognise the colour of truth is grey….”
Clearly Marsden is talking strong stuff, simultaneously appreciating there are “good enough” parents, but he fails to question why people have children at all. Moreover, he doesn’t address why the “awful mismanagement of young people” occurs or posit any profound analysis except to say they need to address “their own individual anxieties and mental health issues…” Pertinently, I contest modern parents are a “toxic consequence” of how they were raised themselves , without realistic skills and strategies to cope and a reluctance to entertain their inadequacies. They too seem to have had children without thinking or being cognisant of the responsibilities involved, and more sadly, are bereft of practical knowledge about what their children really need comprehensively. Marsden is spot on about parents needing to help their children “understand and experience the world as it really is”, but that presupposes they actually understand themselves what it is in the first place. It seems they are unable to acknowledge the world as it really is or they would be reflecting on the realistic responsibilities of having children, first and foremost. Furthermore, if a parent can’t face their own anxieties and mental health issues, indeed, if they can’t help, even love, themselves, how can they parent in a genuinely loving manner? Perhaps Marsden doesn’t dare raise the issue about why so many people are having children so thoughtlessly and ignorantly because potentially that is too fraught; too controversial and contentious to consider, even inimical to the accepted social norm of parenthood. It could threaten the status quo.
On August 7, the former Victorian premier and chairman of beyondblue, Jeff Kennett, also wrote in the Herald Sun that “we’re over-protecting our children from the normality of life…shielding the young from risk and experiences that can boost their resilience.” Asserting he is worried about their reaction to physical injuries, “I am more worried about the psychological impact on their self-belief as they move through life.” He poses the question: “how do they build resilience if they are never exposed to the risks associated with living a full life as young people?” Referring to risks such as cutting himself while helping his father garden or falling over at school and scraping his knees or elbows, or even suffering concussion playing sport, he doesn’t discuss the nature of risk itself, as I believe parents need to inculcate an understanding in their kids about risk itself; what risks one might reasonably take compared to others that may have far more long-term and serious consequences. Learning about risk, and even making mistakes, should be part of a young person’s experience at home. After all, some so-called risks may not even be that but regarded as such contextually due to an unexpected and injurious outcome, incurred playing sport, running fast and slipping over or just not holding a knife properly in the garden. Certainly, I did not perceive these things as risk when I was young, but if parents today are over-protecting kids from these enjoyable pastimes, why are they doing this? Is their over-protection based on fear, some imagined harm for their children that they entertain irrationally? Again, I ponder why they actually have children if they’re going to wrap them in cotton-wool and divorced from real life. As Kennett concludes: “A politically correct, no-contact, no-risk world, is not going to prepare our children for the reality of life”.
Indeed, it seems some or many are not, as another article in the Herald Sun on August 11 reported a survey by youth mental health group, Headspace, that found almost two-thirds of those aged 18-24 reported high or very high levels of stress. (It doesn’t say how many in this age group were surveyed, so it could be misleading). A separate survey by Medibank also found that age group most stressed, with more than 430,000 youngsters using anti-depressants and youth suicides up by 40 per cent. Also alarmingly, parents aged 35-49 who were juggling children, jobs and ageing parents were the next most stressed, according to Medibank. Other surveys recorded those aged over 65 years were the least stressed.
Experts pinpoint social media and digital devices as sources of stress for young people, but given an earlier article I quoted from, these are not just barriers for parents themselves, but also inhibiting genuine communication between parents and their children. Why should we think the children will be any different to the parents and able to “live meaningful lives…” as psychologist Dr Christine Bagley-Jones highlighted. Young people she said were feeling they weren’t living meaningful lives, often with “no contact with others face-to-face…(and) under the watchful eye of social media, (they are) comparing themselves to others, experiencing status envy, feeling they are not having as much fun or doing as well as others. It’s having an effect on wellbeing…”
While social media may contribute to a more pervasive malaise, I can only say in my young years I also compared myself to others, felt envious and did not always enjoy a good sense of self. There were no surveys conducted then that I was aware of, but I was resilient enough to muddle through and develop confidence and self-belief by my early 20s. I can only wonder what young people are absorbing from their parents, particularly their mothers, albeit unconsciously, as how many mothers are really content with themselves. If you check out some of my other posts, you can read how many have serious psychological and practical problems. (see Having It All)
That notwithstanding, another article in the Herald Sun on May 11 this year, a day before Mother’s Day, presented a very different scenario of motherhood, celebrating “mothers working and raising families against the odds…(and) the record-breaking women who have refused to stick to the status quo” as revealed in a new book “Badass Mums” by Sarah Firth. The introduction to the article stated “they’re…mums proudly showing their offspring that confidence, determination and strength will take them places.” The women in the article are all famous in different areas, including NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Adern, the country’s 40th PM and the youngest in over 150 years. Unmarried but with a partner, she discovered she was pregnant between winning the election in October 2017 and taking office. Criticised by a “stroppy columnist…that ‘a pregnant Prime Minister isn’t feminism…a country shouldn’t have to compete for your attention with a colicky toddler'”, Jacinda retorted “I’m pregnant, not incapacitated.” “I’ll be a prime minister and a mum,” she said after returning to work six weeks after giving birth. But the salient fact is her partner, Clarke Gayford, happily agreed to being a stay-at-home father, prepared to let Jacinda attend to politics while accepting being the primary carer. It’s only a minority of men who do this.
Tennis champion, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, was another mum in the article, achieving her second Wimbledon title as a mum in 1980, nine years after her first triumph. In 2012, she founded the Evonne Goolagong Foundation, which aims to use tennis “as a vehicle to attract indigenous girls and boys in order to promote and help provide quality education and better health through diet and exercise.” Obviously, not all mums seem bedevilled by depression, anxiety or stress, but it’ll be interesting to see how their young children develop.
At the same time, it seems more Australian women are deciding against having children, with News Corp journalist and author, Tory Shepherd writing a new book, On Freedom, detailing her decision not to have children. Interviewed about the book in the Herald Sun, on June 1, she explained that “it was never a negative thing about kids, it was just an absence of wanting.” She quotes statistics showing “Australian women are now having 1.74 children each-which is obviously below replacement level…Women are leaving it later, having fewer children-and increasingly- having none. But the stigma sticks….” She was then asked the question: “Do you think …having kids is what we’re told we should want?” This question itself seems to affirm my argument that having children is just what you do as a female, a social norm that sadly, few even think about profoundly and responsibly and Shepherd’s answer is a simple “Yes,” stating “…everyone was telling me I’d be so happy if I had one. I thought I would feel like I’d done the normal thing…But when I tried, it was the only time I was happy to see my period. And that told me wanting to want wasn’t enough because I didn’t really want it.” She continued that “at the turn of the century (I think she is referring to the 20th century, not 21st) we had a birth rate of about four babies per woman…(but the decrease) has happened as women’s equality has improved. They have more choice-not to have them, to leave things later, to prioritise work, to only have one…” Having mentioned a stigma about being childless (which I certainly copped too), she replied to a question about the “worst things people have said to you” appreciating that “Mostly it’s strangers who push it. You get pity or condescension.” She elaborates to say that people with kids “like to think they’ve made the right and normal life choices, so they feel threatened by people who’ve made a different life choice.” “Being selfish,” she adds, “is one of the most common accusations…You could equally argue that people use children as a status symbol…everyone is selfish, in that they make decisions based on their specific circumstances.”
The concluding question is as more women are making the choice not to have kids and are still being judged for going against the norm, what do we do about it? “The heart of the issue is separating women’s identity from their motherhood status…society needs to realise they shouldn’t judge women on whether they’re childless, pregnant, a mother, a partner, a wife, a housewife…There’s a big shift on, but intelligent discussion about it is-barren.” Her response seems to support my contention that no one is raising the issue of why have children, even Marsden. I can only hope intelligent discussion about it ensues in the future, but I’m not holding my breath. While more women may be deciding to stay childless, it seems one in ten men are also opting out of the child-making circuit. According to a survey of 609 men, aged 28-34, conducted by Deakin University psychology research assistant, Imogene Smith, reported in the Herald Sun on August 26, the “negative stories (from family, friends and work colleagues) about their children….was a deterrent” for them. Such is some people’s joy with children, sarcasm intended!
Further to my assertions about the role of schools and parents, a letter in The Sunday Herald Sun on August 18, by founders of the Fitzroy Community School, Philip O’Carroll NS Faye Berryman, suggested that while “Convention says parents raise the children and teachers give them skills…things have changed over the decades…School is now, by default, the extended family….” How has that actually happened? Moreover, in another Herald Sun article on July 25, a Herald Sun investigation reported other research findings that while “today’s teenagers are shunning sex, drugs, alcohol and cigarettes…they are experiencing greater mental health problems and difficulty learning social skills…(with) social media and increased screen time…meaning young people are unable to maintain personal relationships, affecting everything from their education to job prospects.” Just more research indicating great stress and discontent among young people, suggesting more conjecture about the mental health of parents and why they have children and how equipped they are to raise them. It’s quietly horrifying.
According to Australian Catholic University Senior Research Fellow, Kevin Donnelly, writing in the Herald Sun in June, “instilling resilience, courage and the ability to cope with and accommodate anxiety, self-doubt and depression is the best and most effective way to deal with the inevitable suffering, pain and loss associated with life.” Similarly to Jeff Kennett, Donnelly believes “today’s children are wrapped in cotton-wool and raised by parents in a no-risk environment….,” advocating as Margaret Thatcher did in Britain that “…people must look to themselves first.”
With all the articles commenting on parents, their children and some of the problems now extant in this society, perhaps people must look to themselves first to learn and understand life wasn’t meant to be easy and that at times, most of us can feel psychologically distressed, sad and even anxious about the choices we make and the ensuing consequences. Transcending adversity is paramount, but that involves appreciating life’s complex and sometimes presents confusing challenges and conflicts, whether we are 14 or 40 or a parent or not. Maybe the truth is life itself is a perplexing puzzle that demands a sense of responsibility, moral integrity and respectful values to ensure we can arrange the pieces of the puzzle into a pleasurable and peaceful position, without experiencing too much dysfunction, self-destruction and decay of our human spirit. It is after all indomitable if we want to live life to the full.