COMMENTS from TV presenter on when women should have children reveals sensitivities in a key debate, writes Tiffany Jenkins
The Location, Location, Location presenter Kirstie Allsopp is well-known for her traditional views. Type her name into Google and the search engine suggests adding the following words: crafts kits; stationery; husband; dresses.
But this week she overstepped the mark of what is considered an acceptable opinion to hold, when she gave an interview to a national newspaper in which she said we need to speak “honestly and frankly” about fertility. The incendiary part came when she said she would tell a hypothetical daughter: “Darling, do you know what? Don’t go to university. Start work straight after school. Stay at home, save up your deposit … then we can find you a nice boyfriend and you can have a baby by the time you’re 27.”
Social media erupted, criticising Allsopp as anti-feminist. Prominent experts were called upon to pontificate on how wrong she was. One of the nicest comments called her “patronising”. Elsewhere, the pro-vice chancellor of Sussex University pointed out: “Family and university are not mutually exclusive”.
Appearing on Newsnight, Allsopp underlined her comments, saying: “Nature is not a feminist. Do whatever you want, but be aware of the fertility window. Make your choices in an informed way. This has been a taboo topic. People have not discussed it.”
I don’t agree with her. Although it is true that fertility declines after our mid-30s, it is not the case that we are not aware of this – far from it. There have been a number of scares about declining fertility, so much so there are increasing numbers of women in their late 30s and 40s having abortions because they had wrongly assumed they were too old to become pregnant. And having spent a fair part of my adult life studying and working in universities, I am not on board with her suggestion that young women postpone higher education, that they go after they have had children. It’s not realistic for most women to start a career in their mid-30s; a career takes time to build. But it should also be possible to say university isn’t for everyone – female or male. This is something that we should be able to discuss.
But Allsopp is not wrong in highlighting issues with how we reproduce and organise our lives. More people get pregnant much later than they used to and not all the reasons for this are positive. Having a family is seen as such a difficult task that this could be scaring some people off. Allsopp made valid points and raised reasonable questions. And yet the anger and ridicule directed at her, often from other women – the supposed sisterhood – were nasty and unhelpful. We are in trouble if we cannot have a sensible discussion about how we produce and raise the next generation.
Now that the outrage has subsided, we need to ask: why did her comments cause such a furore?
One reason is that she disturbed a vocal community who (rightly, in my mind, even if they could be less hysterical) believe in the importance and priority of a woman’s education and career, both of which were once regarded as secondary to child-rearing. But I also think there is more to it. A recently published book – Parenting Culture Studies – sheds light on significant developments in how our culture thinks about parenting and child-rearing. In a series of chapters, academics from different fields explore in depth the contemporary obsession with parenting. Far from a neutral term describing raising children, parenting is now considered an important but potentially risky sphere of social life. The editor, Ellie Lee, writes: “Parental action, in most areas of everyday life, is now considered to have a determining impact on a child’s future happiness, healthiness and success.”
Partly because of this, everyday issues about how parents bring up their kids – how they feed them, talk to them, play with them or discipline them – have become public and policy debates. So breastfeeding or schooling is the subject of discussion not just between family and friends, but becomes hotly debated more broadly.
And it means parents are under constant scrutiny. Because, make no mistake, most of the messages from child-rearing experts or policy advisers is that the impact parents will have on their kids will be a negative one, one that they need to do everything they can to address.
One of the most important developments in recent decades is that any discussion about parenting or how children should be raised is that it is taken to be a personal expression of fundamental values. I expect we have all experienced this in some way. Anyone who has spoken about how they parent, or why they are childless, how they raise their children, or how they think others should, will know it ends being a fraught and emotional discussion. It is like walking in a minefield.
Raising the next generation is the future and about love, so we are bound to experience it as important, but something else seems to be going on. How we parent, if we parent – anything to do with fertility or children at all – is imbued with a heightened level of insecurity and sensitivity, as if it says something incredibly meaningful about us. This transforms ordinary questions and everyday problems such as how and when people raise their kids into decisions of great magnitude. Needless to say, as a consequence, talking about having kids, or choosing to not have them, is something we become defensive about, whatever choice we make.
There are discussions we need to have, such as: why are people leaving it so late to have children? Can we make it easier for people to raise a family? Can we alleviate some of the anxiety? Can we improve childcare, make it more affordable? Can we depoliticise parenting? But in order to do so, we all need to be able to have discussions and disagreements about maternity, paternity and raising kids without it being taken as a personal attack.
Honest and frank conversations are what is required. On that, Allsopp has a point.