Nothing in this world can be said to be certain except death, taxes and that women will regularly be told they should not forget to have children. That badgering, a favourite of the press, particularly a rightwing press that trades in moral panics about modern life and its liberties, came round again last week in the form of reports about a women’s college at the University of Cambridge, where students have been warned not to leave it too late to have a baby, and will be having lessons on fertility.
It is a trope so old that pop culture satirises it in variations of a cartoon where a woman in distress says: “I can’t believe I forgot to have children!” The joke, of course, is that women can’t “forget”, because there are subliminal and overt reminders everywhere. Not having children is either a conscious decision, or the result of uncertainty and circumstance. For many women, “forgetting” is not absent-mindedness but, in fact, a constant malaise of ambivalence, a general sense of foreboding. It’s a prickling awareness that the introduction of a child into the wobbly equilibrium of your life will come with huge costs, in the absence of decent state support for childcare and mental health services, and flexible working hours. This state of “forgetting” is also a paralysis triggered by circumstances – a less than ideal partner or no partner, fertility issues that need more support than the NHS or employers are willing to provide.
But it’s everywhere, this recasting of inability and powerlessness as failures of focus, maturity and determination. It constitutes a huge transfer of responsibility from governments and corporations to individuals whose actions cannot offset the impact of the systems that they live in. This con can be summed up in the genre of news features that show you how a certain young person managed to save to buy a house by some improbable age, along with tips on how to do so which don’t quite add up, with a small buried detail about the inheritance they received from their parents. But that’s neither here nor there, of course: if you can’t afford to buy a house then you simply must stop eating so much avocado toast and start making your own coffee.
These shamings are heaped particularly on a younger generation of people who find their jobs more precarious, labour markets more deregulated and their ruling and opposition parties focused not on fixing the system, but in shouting platitudes about “levelling up” and earning their support as “working people”. The more vast our structural inequalities, the more we are told that everything is down to our personal responsibility. To the British generation that came of age in a post-financial crisis world and were slammed into a decade of rightwing government, the line was that the calamity was brought on by individuals overspending, drunk on cheap credit and affordable housing, when the reality was that the global financial system was (and remains) so unregulated that it turned people’s loans into gambling chips and literally bet their houses.
The assigning of culpability to the powerless can also be seen in the way the impact of our consumer habits in relation to the climate crisis is overemphasised. Only 100 private and state-owned fossil fuel companies produce approximately 70% of the world’s greenhouse gases emissions. But your average consumer is bombarded with high-profile campaigns about banning plastic straws, which constitute only 4% of plastic pollution on the planet. Little of this disproportionate focus is an accident. The fossil fuel industry engages in both greenwashing and shifting the focus to our own actions.
That hegemonic corporate power, combined with our shrinking ability to unionise, save or depend on state support in times of need, means that we constantly resort to the market as a remedy to soothe our unsettlement. We think we have freedom of choice, when really what we have is freedom of consumption. As a mother in England, you won’t get any meaningful subsidy for your childcare, but what you will get is cultural validation in a society that has fetishised parenthood – while offering little to cushion its blows. Women “forgetting” to have children sit between two contrasting worlds, one in which having a child feels economically and psychologically infeasible, and another where everything is drenched in bubblegum filters of postnatal perfection and media celebration. Just take a look at “mummy Instagram”. It is both the brightest place, alight with love and gummy laughter, and the darkest: an online performance of spotless motherhood, designed to pacify people’s minds in a world where community-based child-rearing has disappeared, and the state has not stepped in to replace it. When your identity is collapsed so fully into a child, then that child must become a trophy, because the alternative is that it is a diminishment.
Our societies are expert at turning the huge systems that distribute our freedoms unevenly into matters of personal volition. Last year brought us the largest global racism protests in history, triggered by a cry against institutional prejudice everywhere, from justice systems to the history we are taught as children. This profound demand resulted broadly in more empty corporate and political gestures, and an explosion in “self-improvement” anti-racism literature. The result is that the concept of a “micro-aggression” has become more mainstream, but overhauling policing systems to help marginalised people of colour remains a “radical”, “unrealistic” goal.
Bringing about a world of racial justice, sustainable population growth and a slowing down of the climate crisis cannot be done without the cumulative work of individuals pulling in the same direction. But we cannot do this when our hands are tied.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist