“Meghan Markle’s baby news is great but women are more than just mothers”

With Meghan Markle’s pregnancy in the headlines, writer Anna Brech says it’s time to rethink the way we talk about women and motherhood

Kensington Palace has announced that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are expecting a child today: cue a slew of baby-related trivia for the next nine months and beyond.

Interestingly, Harry will play very little role in this. Instead, it will focus around Meghan: her health, her birth plan, her “motherhood dreams”: and enough fawning coverage of her “blooming” baby bump to set your teeth in a permanent grind.

The baby news is great, of course, but the scrutiny is a problem. Why? It reduces women to motherhood when we stand for so much more.

A disturbing history

The weight of history looms large here. Throughout time, a woman’s worth has been weighted in her ability to bear children.

Henry VIII sent his first wife packing when she was unable to produce a male heir, and a few hundred years on, infertile women were still regarded as “broken” (delightful, we know).

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If we rewind just 70 years, we can see single women in the 1950s were decried as “sexually warped” and lacking in a “feminine instinct”. Meanwhile, women who had babies out of wedlock were even worse off.

The message from history is clear: marry and have a baby (preferably male) or you are not a real woman, and you have no use. Ludicrous it may be, but that is the legacy that we start from.

Moving to modern day

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The NYT reviewed the book this weekend ????

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Happily, things have changed in the past few decades — but perhaps not fast enough.

In her book No One Tells You This, New York writer Glynnis MacNicol (above) details her struggle to find modern-day success stories of women that don’t end in marriage or babies.

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“Culturally there is a lot of messaging out there that after the age of 40 if you have not acquired a partner or child, you are sort of in a no man’s land of invisibility and things will probably be horrible for you from here on out,” she writes.

“I look forward to the day when women — single, married and otherwise — no longer need the words ‘husband’ and ‘baby’ to act as a special lemon juice squeezed over our lives in order to make them visible.”

The motherhood paradox

For women who choose (or are able to choose) motherhood, the picture is equally mixed. Although the UK now has a system for shared paternity leave, just 2% of couples have taken it up; women are still the primary caregivers, to an overwhelming degree.

This widens the gender pay gap and leaves women shouldering problems around workplace maternity discrimination before grappling with whether a return to work is worth sky-high childcare costs.

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So, women — far more than men — quickly become consumed by parenthood. It is women who most likely will cut off from work and women who put their identity on hold in the name of motherhood.

Naturally, lots of women want to throw themselves into that role anyway, which is great.

But motherhood can still (unwittingly) be a tool to chip away at a woman’s standing in the world, and this fact is made worse by the reductive dialogue we use around Markle and others like her.

Choosing what you want

In today’s world, more women are living solo than ever before. We’re also getting married later or not at all (occasionally we even marry ourselves).

At the same time, we’re looking at different ways to find fulfilment, creating lives that expand beyond a traditional narrative of babies and marriage.

Travelling the world has become a top priority among single women in their 30s and 40s, along with career progression and financial security.

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Take adventurer Phoebe Smith (above), who spends her days wild camping in some of the UK’s most remote spots; that’s when she’s not busy writing books and editing Wanderlust magazine.

“I have so many passions and ideas I want to do it all and cram a ridiculous amount into every single day,” she tells the blog Love Her Wild. “I use every bit of time I get to work on the things that I love.”

Choice is key here. We can have babies, or not, or look to other options if we can’t. We can bed beneath the stars, develop a business or do whatever it is that fires us up.

But crucially, women are no longer tethered to motherhood. Just like men, the decision to become a parent shouldn’t define us. Let’s stop talking as if it does.

Images: Kensington Palace, Instagram, Jenna Christina/Unsplash

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