• Emma Palmer

What's at stake?

Updated: Aug 12, 2019



The Conservative politician Andrea Leadsom feels that being a Mum means she has a very real stake in the future of the country, more so than fellow Conservative Theresa May who's not a Mum (and, presumably, the rest of us without children). Yesterday she revised her words, apparently horrified by the reporting of her interview with the Times journalist Rachel Sylvester. Speaking outside her home yesterday, the BBC reported that Leadsom was "disgusted about how this has been presented"...."I want to be crystal clear that everyone has an equal stake in our society and in the future of our country". I'm unsure why she's horrified, having listened to the recording of the interview, which seems pretty accurate. You can listen for yourself here.

When I listened I personally don't think her intention was to take a direct pop at Theresa May, more that she fell into asserting her societally-affirmed supremacy as a mother. Her words and intonation speak for themselves. Whilst pointing out that Theresa May may have nieces or nephews, Leadsom states "but I have children, who are going to have children who are going to directly be part of what happens next". My emphasis here reflects the emphasis in her voice at that moment.

Yesterday I was disgruntled with Leadsom's comments. Business as normal; the childless and childfree are seen as second-class citizens. I woke up feeling differently today. Don't get me wrong, I'd much rather this issue hadn't come up in this way during the Conservative leadership campaigning. Leadsom was voicing eloquently the pro-natal position of consensus reality. We're here to have children, we take that seriously, which gives us a stake in the future, because our children are the future. She even assumes her own children will have children - intergenerational pro-natalism, I guess we could call that. This is the stuff most of us of child-bearing age in our thirties and forties were brought up to think, implicitly or explicitly, in terms of the prevailing social norms and assumptions. (One or two friends say that the pro-natal pressure is easing for women in their twenties - I do hope it's true).

Leadsom's right, I guess, that she has a direct stake in the future in terms of her effect on her children's lives. The bit I don't agree with or understand is how that automatically gives her a more significant stake in the country's future, particularly in a country in which a growing number of folk feel deeply and act for people and the planet through not having children, or fewer of them, or having one and adopting another. There are also, of course, the Mums, Dads, carers - many of my good friends amongst them - who care about people and planet beyond their own family.

Leadsom was also certainly upholding well the Conservative agenda of family values, individualism, looking after one's one and not thinking much beyond one's own clan - after all, caring for the earth and other elements isn't something for which the party has a great track record.

This morning I was surprised to realise that I felt a shred of sympathy for Leadsom. This sympathy sprang from a few places. The first is that whatever you say in public life, you're leapt upon. There's been so much of that leaping in the last two weeks that I've no need to give an example here. Words are often twisted. I don't think Leadsom's words were twisted by the Times, but I have seen them lifted out of context and sensationalised in other places. She was originally asked 'Do you feel like a Mum in politics?' To which she replied 'Yes'. The interviewer then quickly responded: 'Why and how does it affect you?' This despite the fact that she had apparently made it clearer earlier in the interview that she didn't want to talk about her children and family as part of the campaigning.

My main sympathy for Leadsom is that we're often damned if we do and damned if we don't. We're criticised if we're mothers, we're criticised if we're without child. The shadow of pro-natalism is that although we're encouraged to bear children, mothers are then criticised for getting it wrong, not doing this, saying that, not buying this product etc etc. The pressure is on. Opinions, comparisons (for example, Leadsom comparing her maternity to May's childlessness) and judgements abound - I've witnessed friends being baffled by this as they grown into motherhood. There's pressure on Dads, too, but I think the pressure may be slightly less? Or at least, different. As an aside, I certainly think we don't take seriously men's desire to talk about the decision as to whether or not to have children, let alone taking seriously the child-bearing of the gender fluid.

The childfree are often criticised, not taken seriously, or stereotyped. The childless are pitied or faced with awkward silences or a chivvying along. Leadsom's comment 'I'm sure she (May) will be really really sad that she hasn't had children' is that sort of comment. Having just said she hardly knows May, Leadsom jumps to a conclusion about her current feelings about her childlessness, rather than sticking to the knitting and talking about her own maternity; the business in hand. Maybe this just shows her lack of experience and nous as a politician rather than something intentional.

If the current leadership sparring had been between two men I sincerely doubt that the subject of childlessness would have arisen at all; another huge topic for another day.

The pro-natalism of our culture, well, the pro-anything-at-all of our culture means that everyone suffers in the end, as polarities are set up between the assumed 'right way' to live and the rest of us! Those who are 'right' end up running the risk of being out of touched and unaware of their own privileges (David Cameron calling the European referendum springs to mind) whilst the rest suffer the consequences of marginalisation.

Years ago a trainer I greatly admired pointed out that we have two ears and one mouth - and to use them in that order. I've never forgotten that and it seems like now more than an ever we could do with practising that - me included. Let's listen to one another, take each other in, absorb and digest before responding. Sooner that than the current culture; a world which (sadly) run on sound bites, tweets, half-listened to comments, leading to half a picture of how things are.

Maybe one day a politician will turn round and, rather than criticising the press, as Leadsom did, will apologise, admit they mess up like the rest of us, maybe saying that in the heat and pressure of the moment their words didn't come out quite as planned. It's fine by me that Leadsom is passionate about being a mother, and cares for the future of her children. I long for the day when whoever is to be prime minister recognises that everyone has the potential to have a stake in the county's future. I say potential because of the structural barriers which mean that many don't necessarily feel they have a say, a voice, a stake, due to racism, classism, sexism, able-ism, amongst other factors, including the intersectionality of these. The greater the range of experiences and voices, the better for each of us and the health of the wider world -both human and other-than-human.

To read more about Kamalamani's thoughts on childlessness and her book 'Other than Mother: Choosing Childlessness with Life in Mind' click here.