Should The Decision To Have Children Be Taught In Schools?
My first career counselling session came at the end of Year 8 when I had to choose electives for Years 9 and 10. History or geography? Was I a ‘science’ kid or a ‘humanities’ kid? What did I want to study at university and what did that mean about what I might do for the rest of my life? Why do we force young people to make career decisions before they finish high school without discussing the most important career decision they might ever make: whether or not to have children?
We start talking to young people about their future careers at school because we know what we want for them. We think we know best for them because our age and experience have taught us so; because being prepared for the future can’t hurt. The trouble is, we’re leaving out a huge part of their futures. In all our tiered educational institutions we never talk to young people openly and frankly about family choices. We have sex education in (most) schools, but that’s where people learn about how babies are made – not the ongoing effects they have on your life, self and (if relevant) partner.
Since turning 25, more than one person has told me “not to leave it too late” but when considering the choice of motherhood all I think about is that I love my work too much. My work defines me, it is me, and I don’t know how childrearing would affect that. How have I travelled from kindergarten all the way through to finishing university and been left so incredibly unprepared to make this monumental career decision?
My friend, Lorelei Vashti, just gave birth to her second child and also finished her second book, How to Choose Your Baby’s Last Name: A Handbook for New Parents. (I know what you’re thinking, and yes, she is an amazing goddess of both productivity and life-giving-ness.) Her education about motherhood was similar to mine: it was completely absent.
“I don’t remember it really ever being talked about!” she says. “In a way, maybe that’s because it was presumed…” Lorelei was able to keep working part-time through pregnancy and child-rearing partly because of her partner’s support and partly because her work is flexible. “At the time of the birth of my first child I was finalising the edits of my first book, so when my daughter was born the book was released and I was working (promotion, publicity, marketing etc.) in the first five or six months of her life.” As a freelance writer and editor Lorelei can design her own work schedule to fit her family life, but in most jobs that just isn’t possible.
Imagine a “life skills”or “home economics” class where adults spoke about the ramifications of deciding to have one versus three children – real wisdom about the struggle to juggle a job and a family. It strikes me as manifestly irresponsible to teach young men and women that they can all work hard and achieve their dreams, when in most families with two parents (let alone one) it’s simply not possible to have children and have both parents be at peak job performance. Someone needs to compromise, and in Australia that someone is normally a woman.
We do have a choice
Another friend, Jen, is an artist in her early forties whose partner has two young children. Jen told me that if she had the type of reproductive system to “slipperily and easily fall pregnant” then she “probably would have been knocked up at the age of 23”. That’s not how things worked out, and she’s thankful for it. “I experience many moments now where I tip my hat to the universe for making my reproductive system a complex one for sperm to navigate,” says Jen.
“My friends are mostly artists and I remain furious about the male artists I know who seem to be able to shoot out a few kids and carry on being a sexy rock person or sullen, tempestuous painter, roaming the world yet returning in a flurry of concerned cooing to the nest whenever the mood takes them. The women artists I know who are also parents struggle to maintain their creative practice, their sense of self as an artist, and the ability to make guilt-free choices about putting their career choices first.”
Would young men have more realistic expectations of parenthood if they knew the stats on how hard it was to re-enter the workforce after paternity leave? Consider what this kind of education could do for the damaging “breadwinner” stereotype. If we’re truly educated about household incomes when starting a family, paid parental leave could be much more normalised; in just a few years, new young voters might think our current system is ridiculous.
I asked Lorelei if there was something I was missing; if I was imagining this elephant in the room. She didn’t understand this archaic prudishness either.
“Having just had a second baby, I see how much the toddler wants to nurture and help take care of him (I’m certain it’s not just ‘because she’s a girl’ either. I have seen boy toddlers just as interested in nurturing younger children until that interest/inclination is removed from them by gender role expectations). Small children are around actual babies all the time but I guess teenagers aren’t really necessarily. Is that why we don’t talk to them about it? It’s weird… I would definitely prefer my kids think about it and be aware of all the facts.”
The current system
The current education system teaches teenagers biological reproduction and encourages direct pathways to university, traineeships, and years-long employment, so Year 11 and 12 can’t be considered “too young” to talk about families. Most importantly though, the conversation around having children should be re-shaped because that’s the only way we’ll get to a point where people truly realise that children are a choice. A lifestyle and career choice. A personal choice. A choice like any other.
Jen said that when she was at high school “it was always assumed that marriage and motherhood were the next obvious steps” in her group of friends, but she had always been a happy outsider. Years later, when a close friend of hers died from breast cancer at 36, she wondered what the meaning of her life would be if she didn’t have kids. “It made me more determined to live altruistically, to make art that helped and healed people, to leave a small but lasting mark. One that didn’t have to involve me bringing yet another person into the world. I’ve come to this position over many years and it’s made me a giver and it feels like being the opposite of selfish.”
Where to from here?
It makes me feel angry that Jen had to lose a friend and grapple for years before she realised she could be a contributing member of society without having children. On the flipside, I’m so happy that Lorelei can keep working because her profession is flexible and she has a supportive partner. What about women ten years older than I am now who have neither of those things, just years of a calcium-like gradual build-up of presumed motherhood?
The slow and steady march of progress has seen us gradually opening up to young people in an educational setting about things like substances, racism, gender, and privilege, and we know that when we do this, young people (and society more generally) benefit from it. There’s so much to gain by everyone getting the facts and being informed. I sure wish I knew more about it.
Bri Lee is a Brisbane-based writer and the Founding Editor of Hot Chicks with Big Brains. Her first book, Eggshell Skull will be released in early 2018.