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Don't be rattled by the baby guilt trip

By Nina Funnell - posted Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Ever had a moment when someone has deeply insulted you but you only come up with the perfect retort later? You kick yourself, wishing you had been faster, feistier and less tongue-tied. The French have an expression for this: L'esprit de l'escalier - staircase wit - or the frustrating experience of thinking of a clever comeback too late, when one has already left and is half-way down the stairs.

I had one of those moments recently with the Prime Minister. I was at a function where Kevin Rudd was giving the keynote address. He talked about the ''crisis'' of Australia's ageing population and the various economic challenges we will face as a result.

Arguments were made about superannuation and the strain on healthcare. But there was a deeper message: young people (women in particular) are failing in their civic duty to reproduce. Apparently, gen Y is to blame for the inverted population pyramid.


There were hundreds of people in the room but only a handful under 30. As one of the under 30-crowd, I shuffled nervously, hoping no one would recognise me - and my empty womb - as the deeply unpatriotic and traitorous felons that we are.

After Rudd came off stage, he spoke to me and the few other under-30s (we had congregated for strength in numbers). He extended his points about the problems with the ageing population and the financial problems gen Y will incur when the baby boomers become pensioners.

At that point one of my friends introduced me, dropping in that I am completing a PhD. At this, Rudd rolled his eyes and in a terse voice lacking any sense of irony remarked that is the "excuse" that "all" young women are using nowadays to avoid starting families. Since then I've come up with numerous one-line retorts, but in the moment I just froze in shock.

But there are some serious points that should be raised in response, even after the moment.

For starters, even if we ignore the fact few people go on to complete PhDs (and of those who do, the majority are men), Rudd's argument that all too many women are using their further education or their careers as an ''excuse'' to avoid having children is wildly problematic.

Why do we assume it is the obligation of all women to reproduce? And why do we label them as selfish when they don't? We never label career-driven men as selfish.


Women should be seen as more than mere baby incubators who procreate for the benefit of the nation. Despite what some might think, women can contribute in a variety of ways which do not involve their uteruses. Just ask Julia Gillard.

While at this point I have no children, I believe that - given the right support - women can and do balance having children while pursuing their own education or careers. And if anything, this balance is to be encouraged. After all, studies show that children benefit from having one or more tertiary-educated parents and it is also beneficial for all parents to have an identity outside of being a caregiver.

That is not to say that stay-at-home mums or dads are doing anything wrong by their children. But parents - and mothers in particular - should not be repudiated for also desiring a life outside the family home.

Similarly women who do not wish to have children should also not be punished or labelled non-maternal. As a young woman I find it frustrating to see women like Gillard constantly attacked and ascribed derogatory labels like ''empty fruit bowl'', as though her worth is a sole function of her ability and inclination to reproduce.

I find it even more frustrating when her arguments are dismissed by the likes of George Brandis, the Liberal frontbencher, who recently attacked her ability "to understand the way parents think" because she has no children of her own. What rot.

Women should not be treated as baby factories. It's high time politicians realised that young women's uteruses are not public property and that the government has no right to make a claim to them.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on February 15, 2010.

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About the Author

Nina Funnell is a freelance opinion writer and a researcher in the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. In the past she has had work published in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age, The Brisbane Times and in the Sydney Star Observer. Nina often writes on gender and sexuality related issues and also sits on the management committee of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre.

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