Sarah Cunnane

Stop making assumptions about child-free teachers

All women are subject to huge pressure from society to conform to the motherhood model – and no one is judged more harshly for not having children than a female teacher, writes Sarah Cunnane

Stop making assumptions about child-free teachers

At my 30th birthday dinner, my mother took some time to reflect on my achievements.

“You know, Sarah, by your age, I was married and had two children, with another on the way.”

I'm not sure what she expected at this point – a This Is Your Life reveal of my heretofore unmentioned husband and adorable toddlers, maybe? – but the message was clear.

It’s an exchange that many women in their twenties and thirties will recognise all too well. These are what I refer to – not fondly – as the “you’ll be next” years. I’ve heard a version of “you’ll be next” on a number of occasions (including a family wedding, at which it was suggested I might like to “get a shift on”).

It doesn’t matter what women do, what they achieve, even what they want: the direction from society at large is clear as day. You can even fit it into one of the three-part slogans the government seems to love so very much: Date. Mate. Procreate.

And even if you’ve followed that pattern (a perfectly acceptable one to follow for those who wish to do so), there’s no guarantee that people will be happy with the decisions that you’ve made. Marriage or civil partnership, taking your spouse’s name, your pregnancy, your birth plan, going back to work, parenting – everything that you thought was your business alone is up for public debate and judgement. To make it worse, if your partner is a man, he will not be subject to even a tenth of the same scrutiny despite making or helping to make the exact same decisions.

To say – with apologies to Tammy Wynette – that sometimes it’s hard to be a woman is possibly the greatest understatement in the history of statements.

And if it’s hard to be a woman who does conform to the traditional model, and harder still to be a woman who doesn’t, it’s perhaps toughest to be a female teacher who doesn’t. As Sara Ashencaen Crabtree explains in our cover feature, “teaching is seen as a ‘woman’s job’” and, as a result, the idea of success as a teacher has become intertwined with success as a mother.

It is a lazy shorthand that many do not care for. As one of our anonymous writers puts it: “I resent the assumptions made that, as a woman, and as a woman who teaches, having a baby is inevitable.”

It also affects female teachers on a professional level, as a teacher who has chosen to be child-free explains: “Being child-free doesn’t make me any less of a teacher, or my experience invalid. Yet that is exactly how I am treated.”

For those teachers who have chosen not to have children, the assumption that parenting and teaching are interlinked can be annoying on a personal and professional level. For those who would love to have children, but can’t, it can be downright devastating.

These women often feel pressured into sharing their private struggles publicly as justification for not having children. But why should they have to explain themselves as though having children is the default?

“You’ll be next”-ers making such assumptions rarely mean to hurt – in their eyes, they’re wishing something wonderful for you. However, when that is out of reach, it “heaps on the pressure and can make feelings of failure more pronounced”, as one headteacher who ran the gauntlet of expectation explains.

The good news is that there is a very simple way to avoid annoying or hurting women by making assumptions: don’t do it. In fact, I’d like to propose a new approach – you can forget the three-word slogan, because I’ve got it down to an efficient one-word motto: nunya. Because when it comes to my or any other woman’s life choices, it really is nunya. As in: nunya business.

@Sarah_Cunnane

This article originally appeared in the 16 October 2020 issue under the headline “Shall I be mother? That's my business (and no one else's...)”

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