What Kim Cattrall said about parenting this week should not have been headline news. It should have been a sentiment that society was already deeply familiar with and considered both ordinary and laudable. But because of the media’s relentless fetishization of motherhood — particularly combined with celebrity and the sport of social-media shaming — the hammer of public disapproval came down swiftly on Cattrall for daring to suggest that she flexes maternal muscles without needing to have her own kids. The offending statement, made on the BBC’s “Woman’s Hour,” was:
“I am not a biological parent, but I am a parent. I have young actors and actresses that I mentor; I have nieces and nephews that I am very close to…. There is a way to become a mother in this day and age that doesn’t include your name on the child’s birth certificate. You know, you can express that maternal side of you very, very clearly, very strongly…. It feels very satisfying.”
A tide of parental martyrdom instantly washed up in comments sections everywhere, taking down her statement as wrongheaded and epitomized, perhaps, by this snide one from People’s site: “Only someone who is CHILDLESS would think mentoring is the same as parenting.”
More disheartening was the way the story was framed by actual media outlets, with online headlines passive-aggressively suggesting that Cattrall was, indeed, overstepping her bounds. ABC led with a statement that the actress was “raising some eyebrows,” while CBS’ piece concluded with a jab at her humorous comment about singleness. My favorite was this local news site, which incredulously informed readers that “Childless Actress Describes Herself as a Parent.”
Yes, there’s an argument to be made for semantics. Perhaps Cattrall ought to have more precisely described herself as a surrogate or a secondary parent, but the furious tenor of the backlash suggests something a lot bigger and darker. People seem outraged that Cattrall would dare to suggest there’s a middle ground between being a biological mother and being a childless woman separate from everything motherhood-related. The war of words between the two camps has, after all, been raging (not to mention lucrative in the media) for quite some time. (Most recently, enduring stigma about childlessness has been explored in Kate Bolick’s excellent “Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own” and in the equally great read “Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids.”)
For all the progress women in entertainment (and outside of it) have made, there’s still a firmly entrenched view that being a real woman equals having your own children, full stop. And that anyone who dares to question that black-and-white paradigm ought to be publicly shamed.
But Cattrall’s not the only one who’s publicly questioning it. Jennifer Aniston — who, more than maybe anyone, can speak to the obsession with stars’ “baby bumps” and speculation about when actresses are going to get one — made a similar comment about mothering in an Allure interview late last year:
“I don’t like [the pressure] that people put on me, on women — that you’ve failed yourself as a female because you haven’t procreated. I don’t think it’s fair. You may not have a child come out of your vagina, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t mothering — dogs, friends, friends’ children…. This continually is said about me: that I was so career-driven and focused on myself; that I don’t want to be a mother, and how selfish that is…. Even saying it gets me a little tight in my throat.”
There are several ironies in the public’s snarky reaction to comments like these. First, the only thing the media likes better than a baby-bump story is a story about the near-insanity many women feel when trying to balance motherhood and a career, especially one as all-consuming as acting jobs, which may have a performer on location for weeks at a time. Michelle Williams spoke to this in March, saying to Elle U.K. that “I feel like most of my life, I’m trying to do two things at once, both to the best of my abilities. So that leaves me feeling pretty exhausted.” And Sienna Miller, just a few days ago, also bared her feelings on motherhood, telling Vogue U.K. that “It’s actually been the shittiest year…. Obviously when you have a baby, it’s the most incredible experience, but your life is also catapulted into this chaos, and you are exhausted. That’s the curse of motherhood — we just run ourselves ragged. I’m just trying to get a sense of what that guilt is. I sometimes feel like it’s a totally invented emotion. It’s strange to be punishing ourselves this way. It’s not healthy.”
Also this week, Gabrielle Union gives an interview in Redbook in which she discusses the no-win situation of motherhood and career: “There’s a certain amount of shame that is placed on women who have perhaps chosen a career over starting a family younger…. The penance for being a career woman is barrenness. You feel like you’re wearing a scarlet letter.” And, at the same time, she says, “the reality is that women are discriminated against in the workplace for being mothers. As much as there are strides being made — you get pregnant, your career takes a hit. You can’t have a bad day.”
In contrast to all this, Cattrall’s flexing her maternal muscles by helping care for other people’s kids is in line with what many social scientists suggest would make society function a lot better: in a word, altruism. Anthropologist Helen Fisher, in Yahoo Parenting, praised Cattrall as having “played an important role in helping to raise other people’s children, which is a very primal, instinctive thing and central to hunter-gatherer societies. Language is supple and can change, and she’s broadening the definition of parenthood so it’s more inclusive.”
But the action of choosing to help raise other people’s children isn’t as click-baity as baby bumps, or motherhood martyrdom, or wondering if celebs who don’t have kids are secretly miserable. Which, I imagine, is why we tend to read nothing about it in the media, although New York magazine bucked the trend last year with a round-up of great quotes from childless celebrity women who nonetheless see themselves as good and thoughtful caregivers. Among the most notable are:
“Nowadays, why get married? Nobody else does. It’s not like I want to have children…. It helped me because now I work with all kinds of children all over the world. Brain damaged children and I work with kids with AIDS and that’s how I’ve rationalized [not having kids]. I was meant to do something else.” -Liza Minnelli, ”Access Hollywood Live,” April 2012
“I definitely don’t want to have kids…. I don’t think I’d be a great mother. I’m a great aunt or friend of a mother…. I don’t want to have a kid and have it raised by a nanny. I don’t have time to raise a child.” -Chelsea Handler, “The Conversation With Amanda de Cadenet,” April 2013
“It’s unconscionable to breed, with the number of children who are starving to death in impoverished countries…. The fact is that I have chosen not to have children because I believe the children who are already here are really mine, too. I do not need to go making ‘my own’ babies when there are so many orphaned or abandoned children who need love, attention, time, and care. I have felt this way since I was at least eighteen and I had an argument about it with a childhood friend…. I figured it was selfish for us to pour our resources into making our ‘own’ babies when those very resources and energy could not only help children already here, but through advocacy and service transform the world into a place where no child ever needs to be born into poverty and abuse again. My belief has not changed. It is a big part of who I am.” -Ashley Judd, Sunday Mail and her memoir, “All That Is Bitter and Sweet,” 2006 and 2011
And then there are some — a rare, proud few — who don’t mind saying that they just chose another path, and leaving it at that. (And, of course, it’s never been an issue for male celebrities, whose declarations that they don’t want kids are never relentlessly analyzed and questioned.) Helen Mirren has spoken often and loudly about never having questioned her choice not to have children. And just today, Patricia Clarkson, in a highly delightful interview on Word and Film in which she discusses her love of Beverly Cleary, Louisa May Alcott, Nancy Drew and Doris Kearns Goodwin, also speaks to the usual treatment she gets in interviews when she says she never longed for motherhood or marriage.
“Getting married and having kids was never my plan…. I am a free spirit and I have been since I was a very young girl. I am the goat going up the mountain and I like being alone on the mountain. We women who have never been married and who don’t have children are a subclass. We are still a category that is marginalized sometimes and in subliminal ways that are shocking to me. That’s why I talk about it. I am proud of the fact that I have never married. It’s an odd thing to me that interviewers — often female interviewers, actually — have a quiet hesitancy when the topic comes up. [Imitates an interviewer] ‘Let me put on my gloves before asking you this question. So you’re, you’re [whispers] single?’ [Cackles.] It’s as if they might catch it!”
Finally, I think it’s also worth pondering why we currently have so few female characters on TV, of mothering age, who are proudly childless. Without going back to Cattrall’s character on “Sex and the City” (who suffered at least one notable humiliation for her distaste for children) I’m having trouble coming up with any. Is our culture backsliding in this respect? Please, convince me otherwise in the comments.