At the present moment, having a kid kind of seems like a nightmare. As a brunch server, I see children at their worst — throwing pancakes and eggs, ripping open sugar packets, crying incessantly for an unknown salve. But maybe the worst offense a child poses to me happens after the parents leave the restaurant: the total and utter lack of alone time. A child isn’t a noisy roommate you can shut out and ignore, but a fragile being whose care is under your watch. For a very long time.
This hesitancy is part of the reason I wanted to talk to Gina Rushton, an Australian reproductive rights journalist whose new book The Parenthood Dilemma: Procreation in the Age of Uncertainty discusses seven topics weighing on future parents’ minds. Starting with reproductive rights and justice, the politics behind how to get and who can get an abortion, respectively, to climate change, imagining a ravished Earth our children have no choice but to live in, to inheritance, unsure of what parental or emotional traumas our offspring could inherit, Rushton poses thoughtful questions that ask who people are in relation to children. What makes us vie or shy away from children, and if it’s something we desire, will it even be feasible?
Our Culture sat down with Rushton to talk about the weight of her work, reproductive rights, emotional labor, and more.
Congratulations on this excellently researched, thoughtful book. How does it feel being so close to its publishing date?
It’s really exciting! It’s strange, I did the Australian and international versions really differently. Between publishing it here, then rewriting it for an international audience, everything happened with Roe v. Wade, so it’s almost a completely different book. You always have that thing with a book, especially with nonfiction, where you think, ‘Are these conversations still going to be going on? Has it aged?’ As a journalist, you always think about if this story is over now. But people still having these conversations is still kind of heartening.
This book is built on so many conversations, time, and research. When did the idea for it start, and how long did it take you to put everything together?
I worked as a reproductive rights journalist for a few years, and I think there was always a book I wanted to write about the relationship between reproductive rights and the politics of motherhood. I had a health scare where I was hospitalized, had emergency surgery, and was told I had endometriosis. I think that I was really clear I didn’t want kids before, but that spooked me and put a bit of pressure on me: ‘That’s fine if you don’t want kids, but what are the reasons, are they substantial enough?’ That sped things up a bit.
I thought it’d be very poetic if I tried to write the book in nine months, which was just so silly in retrospect. But I did it! In a funny way, I think that adds an urgent texture to it. It feels like someone trying to race to their own decision, aware of their own fertility and urgency of the question.
It also must have been tremendously hard hearing everyone’s stories. You seek out people who can’t have children, who have had harrowing miscarriages, and who, depending on where they live, are forced to have kids when they aren’t ready. Was there ever a moment where it felt like all of this was so hard to keep doing, and how did you push yourself through it?
The nature of my work as a reporter on reproductive rights and gendered violence, I’m quite used to having heavy interviews. It can be really overwhelming. The majority of people cry in my interviews, and are really upset. For some people, they’re disclosing their abortions for the first time to anyone, which is a really big responsibility and I don’t take that lightly. I think, for me, there’s a huge duty and care when you have someone’s story about how you represent it and the autonomy that you give them. I think, usually, they’re telling it for a reason. It might be as simple as they want to be heard or believed, or they feel angry at the systems that have made their situations worse. I think as long as you’re communicating the limits of journalism and books to them, it’s ethical. I think that makes it easier for me when there’s a clear set of rules and expectations between me and the interviewee about what we’re doing here and what the likely outcomes are. I think people who have had terminations know that it’s really common, but nobody talks about it. Most people I’ve interviewed feel a sense of responsibility to tell their story because they realize they’re speaking for so many people in the population.
Particularly with abortion and sexual violence, you have to remember that the person you’re talking to — the thing of theirs that’s been taken away was their choice or autonomy. If you’re putting them on the page and not giving them any control over how that story is represented… You know, you’d never send quotes to a politician to check. But you do with survivors because you’re not going to repeat the sense of taking their autonomy away from them. It’s an interesting journalistic debate. Sometimes I feel like there are old-school journalists who love rules for the sake of rules. But it’s like, ‘Is this really relevant?’
Something I enjoyed is that you often pull from fiction or artists in order to get at a wider truth. You mention quotes from novelists like Sophie Mackintosh and Sheila Heti, journalists like Deborah Levy and Jia Tolentino, and even musicians like Mitski to talk about motherhood — what made you look to these people?
Challenging what motherhood is and the politics of motherhood is actually a really rich artistic thing, there’s almost too much out there. The funny thing is I found much less on the ambivalence or decision of whether or not to become a mother. The reason I found so many people to quote for the book is that the book is about whether to become a parent, but actually it’s about being a person in the world when the future seems so precarious. For example, the Mitski quote, it’s about body image, and Jia Tolentino, with hope and labor and climate and gender relations and stuff. I think also, there was an element of: ‘I’m desperately seeking anyone else who’s had a single thought about any of these things to help me with my decision,’ and they’re all women writers who I think have something valid to say about how to be in the world. The nicest part of the nine months was the reading I got to do. It was just really helpful.
I went into this book thinking primarily about climate change, as noted by the ‘Age of Uncertainty’ you describe. Of the seven sections you write about, which one do you think was your primary concern before you started writing, and did it change with further research?
That’s a really good question. I think climate was my primary concern as well, alongside what I felt were the expectations around motherhood. I wrote this in the aftermath of this horrific bushfire season in Australia, and because I was working as a reproductive rights journalist, I was interviewing doctors about delivering babies into smoking maternity wards, people wanting ultrasounds to see how the smoke affects them. We’ve always had bushfires in Australia growing up, but they were so infrequent. I think everyone around me was thinking, ‘Is this going to be every summer? How on earth are we going to have kids in such an unstable place?’
I was also really resistant to the expectations of mothers, and I didn’t want those expectations for myself. I’d spent so many years engaging with politicians that had an idea of, like, ‘If you have a uterus, this is what you should do with your life.’ And so it was a mixture of climate, and pushing against that.
The change, for me, was having to confront those more personal questions of family and personal relationships, and being in a relationship with a man and those less comfortable questions of family-making and how your own history informs your concept of family. I think I had a naive journalistic sense that I’d be able to avoid that. I had this fantasy that I’d still write authentically but not put everything on the page. Which was naive. It’s funny because climate is a really easy shorthand explanation as to why you don’t want kids, and no one really questions it, because yep, things are turning to shit. But I think for many people, it’s a combination of reasons.
As an American, abortion is very much on most peoples’ minds due to the recent Roe v. Wade overturning. One quote that really stuck with me in the book was: “To write about abortion is to hear constantly from people who know what is going on and to hear nothing from people who can change it.” When you think about these politicians, and these protestors outside of abortion clinics, what do you think they’re missing, what’s preventing them from understanding other peoples’ realities?
Ugh, god. It’s so funny because yesterday I was streaming the Republican debate while I was walking and it’s crazymaking, the level of distance between the reality of abortion and peoples’ experience and the politics of these abortion bans. So much of my career in reproductive rights was fact-checking. There was just this disconnect between doctors, counselors, and the actual lived experiences of women seeking terminations. There’s genuine deceit, there’s politicians that are fearmongering and absolutely know what they’re doing — this ‘abortion up till birth’ myth — there’s people who are so disconnected and don’t realize there have been people in their life who have had terminations that they genuinely don’t believe the shit they’re saying. I have to say, the anti-abortion lobby in the U.S. is so well-funded and well-organized, and has tentacles so far-reaching, it’s almost incomprehensible. I obviously came against that here, but comparatively, our anti-abortion effort is pathetic. It hasn’t made its way into politics in the same way. We haven’t imported much of that stigma. It sounds so obvious to say, but we do live in an era where politicians can just say stuff that’s just not true. And mistrust of experts and medical institutions — here’s what abortion doctors are actually saying about which terminations happen and under which circumstances — it becomes irrelevant. It’s pretty depressing.
The medical racism chapter is especially hard to hear — due to either ignorance or false beliefs, people of color aren’t believed or receive adequate medical treatment at a statistically significant rate, even resulting in them being turned away from the doctor unwilling to examine them. How do you even begin to combat this issue: more training for doctors, hiring new and diverse staff, or something else?
It’s particularly fraught in reproductive healthcare — we know the racial disparities in maternal outcomes, and also in abortion care, and one thing is that there needs to be a reckoning with the racism of the reproductive rights movement, overall. It really was a white feminist movement, and there’s just so much in the history there with eugenics and racism and it probably hasn’t been reckoned with. In Australia we have really big disparities in the Indigenous population, and a lot of that has to do with not reckoning with our history. Attempted genocide, really. From the people I spoke to, I think greater representation and diverse medical staff seems to be really important. But I think we’re almost so far from even that, I don’t feel like there has been an acknowledgement that there is racism in healthcare. I think we’re almost ten steps back. I think if you asked the average Australian if we have a racist healthcare system, I don’t think they’d say yes, even though we absolutely do. In my research, the problem absolutely exists in the U.S., in the U.K., and it’s rampant in Australia.
Admittedly, my reason for not wanting kids is a little selfish — I love alone time. But I’m not by myself in this, and there’s a growing population of young people who are also opting not to have any. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s a combination of things. One really liberating thing about writing this book at this time is that, obviously excluding luck and fertility and all that, it’s never been more of a choice whether or not to have kids. There’s a huge population of people pushing back against the idea that it’s the default. And I think there are people who really don’t want to have kids, and in another time and place, they probably would have, because it was the norm. And I think that’s a really beautiful thing where people now don’t feel as much societal pressure to do so. And then I think there’s a cohort of people who maybe would want kids, but we haven’t made parenthood super tenable for people. Particularly in a cost of living crisis at the moment, it seemed almost like a luxury consumer choice, one in which the individual is supposed to burden that. We haven’t properly socialized the cost of child bearing and child rearing. It should be a human right to have a kid: you should have enough societal support to do so. And I say this as someone in a country with universal healthcare and way more societal support than you guys [in America] do. And still, it’s really hard to have a kid. The housing crisis here is insane, and there are a bunch of factors that go into whether or not people have kids and how many kids they have.
I also think that people are pushing against notions of what family means, and what community means. Our generation and the ones after us aren’t as wedded to the idea of the nuclear family as a sense of community and belonging. I think there’s people who know you can have kids and be really present with them and that’s not just the domain of parents. Obviously, there are cultural groups who have recognized and known that for a very long time. But speaking as a white, middle-class Australian, there’s more of an acknowledgement of what community and family means. People have realized the nuclear family can be a lonely place to be.
It was also interesting when you dove into gender dynamics between a heterosexual couple and the emotional labor they have to submit to. Right now, we’re at a time where insecure men are turning to people like Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson, who reaffirm an aversion to emotions in favor of being strong and silent. But this is brought on by a social reckoning of leftists validly attacking the patriarchy and harmful emotional patterns men fall into, leading to feel like masculinity is ‘under attack.’ What’s the happy medium, where men are able to recognize their privilege yet not take it as an individual flaw?
I know! And I have to say, I found that chapter the hardest one to write. Initially I didn’t want to include it, because I found it so fraught and I was so anxious about getting it right. I kept reading it through the lens of a man. But at the same time, I had this chorus of women who were like, ‘This should be the whole book. This is so important, please write about this!’ It’s funny because the catalyst for that chapter was womens’ rage and exhaustion and resentment, but it’s a really sad story how we socialize little boys into the most horrific and isolating social behaviors. It’s really tragic — people aren’t inherently more likely to repress their emotions, you have to be socialized into that.
I have a friend who read that chapter, and he kept having arguments in his head with the narrator, saying, ‘You don’t understand, I’ve been punished for expressing emotions my entire life and then I get into a relationship where I’m punished for not expressing my emotions, and it’s the most jarring, difficult experience. The love of my life wants me to talk about my feelings, and I’ve had 25 years of not being able to.’ It’s a really difficult balance to call out asymmetry without demonizing people who are acting a certain way because they’ve been told to and been rewarded for it. And I still look at that chapter and don’t know if I’ve got it right. I think something I wish I talked about a bit more is that there’s all these women who are like: ‘I’ve been journaling, I’m going to therapy, I’ve been taking responsibility for my emotions, why can’t this guy do the same thing?’ I don’t think the answer is that men have to go to therapy. I think in a funny way, you’re once again privatizing emotion work and paying a professional. I think there needs to be a little more leeway in resolving this stuff through a relationship without it necessarily being seen completely as labor. I dunno. It’s honestly the part of the book that I feel most unsure about.
So getting to the climate change chapter, there’s an ache in my heart as Veronica Milsom talks about the difficulty of remaining environmentally conscious on her podcast Zero Waste Baby. It’s a known fact that corporations are more responsible for climate change than one baby ever will be. How do you think people are reckoning with this dissonance?
Totally! One positive thing is I do think there’s been a big shift. Ten years ago, when you talked about having not not having kids and climate, there was this really personalized individual guilt, like, ‘Oh, I can’t add another carbon footprint.’ I do think there’s been a shift where people are like, ‘Hang on. They’re building a coal mine up the road and I’m supposed to be recycling.’ You know, there has been a shift on that front, where the climate question is more directed at politicians and corporations. I definitely think that’s more productive than us just being freakishly neurotic about our own consumerist behaviors. But it’s also hard because I do think people want to feel a sense that they’re helping the issue and they’re doing something for their kids, they’re planting trees and doing the right thing. There’s also a whole different thing of how you make kids feel like they’re involved and that the world’s not turning to shit. How do you talk to kids about climate change and let them feel empowered that they’re doing something? It’s depressing stuff and I hope people have more of a sense of their political power in voting and protesting fossil fuels and all of that, but it’s a fraught line. I felt really sad for her, putting herself through hell as a mom, trying to make these choices, kind of for nothing.
As someone who is a ‘test tube baby,’ I really enjoyed the fertilization chapter. You and writer Alexandra Kimball make a great point that people think of IVF or egg freezing as this unnatural thing, that infertile mothers should take a hint from God, but we are living in the least natural time ever. We are upright because of vaccinations, pregnancies are moderated by ultrasound, we can genetically test embryos, and the parents might have even met on a dating app. Why do you think people have this misconception, though?
I dunno! I think there’s a lot to unpack in the resistance. I think a lot of it is homophobia and transphobia, that’s tied up in the resistance of assisted reproductive technology. There’s a lot in there that pushes against the gender order. There’s a huge resistance to the idea that a woman doesn’t need a husband to have a kid. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable. When we talk about ‘natural’ vs. ‘unnatural,’ the chances of having two completely fertile people, perfectly making a baby without any complications, infertility, misscarriage, stillbirth, genetic complications, fetal anomalies, that’s the miracle. I’ve always found it interesting, the people who are for procreation and making families are also against technologies that make it easier.
I love the ending idea that, yes, we’ve just spent the past half an hour talking about many difficulties on the road to having children. But people still have them, and that must signal some kind of hope we have for the future. Talk a little bit about this idea and why you chose to end the book on that note.
The interesting thing for me, when I was writing the climate chapter, I was really interested in interviewing climate scientists about why they had kids. Because I was like, the people who have to deal with the most depressing and anxiety-inducing data everyday still are procreating. What gives? I actually think that having kids for them, it almost gave their work a focus. ‘This is why I’m doing this, for a future generation.’ It was a motivating and inspiring force, rather than something that made them paralyzed with fear. I’m hopeful that there’s a catalyst for political action in general — the fact that people are freaking out about whether or not to have kids in the world that we live in — that should be a catalyst for some kind of collective and political action in general. Because if I don’t have kids, I would like to think that the politics that informed that choice are still going to motivate me to behave a certain way. I also think we’re in an era where we have to have hope. There’s something kind of unethical about nihilism, at this point in time. We’re at the moment where we need to turn things around, particularly on climate change, and also other institutions that are on the brink of collapse. The ethical thing, whether or not you procreate, is having a go at helping that.
Interspersed with these conversations with parents and scientists and activists are your own personal musings on motherhood. In total, what do you hope people take away from the book once it’s out?
In terms of motherhood, I hope the book challenges the notion of what a mother is and what we expect a mother to be. In the same way I hope it challenges the idea of who gets terminations — most people who get abortions are mothers. In a funny way, I hope the book challenges what a woman is or what a woman should be.
The Parenthood Dilemma is available now.