Kirstie Allsopp, classism, and a distinct lack of choice

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

It was obvious what was going to happen yesterday when the media started putting its own spin on Kirstie Allsopp's comments made in an interview with Bryony Gordon for the Telegraph, coming up with headlines such as "Kirstie Allsopp tells young women: ditch university and have a baby at 27". As everyone who bothered to read the original article knows, that's not the extent of what she said - but why let that get in the way of calling her stupid, accusing her of wanting to take women back to the 1950s, and telling her where to stick her overprivileged expectations about home ownership and marriage?

According to the law of how women talk about lifestyle choices and how it's played out in the media, Allsopp has, of course, been positioned as some sort of spokesperson for womankind, judging everyone who doesn't want to live their life the way she thinks they should. And in their reactions to her comments, many of those who don't agree with her have fallen into the trap that's so obviously laid for us all, every single time some vaguely high-profile woman has something to say about women's lives. Yesterday's 'debate' became a defence of education and careers (and why not? No-one's going to deny that they're important things to defend), against the spectre of smug, twee, wealthy motherhood and financial dependency on men.

No-one likes to feel patronised, especially by someone they perceive to be out of touch with what most women think and want. I don't think it's correct to say that women are unaware of fertility issues, or that they are never talked about. There's enough discussion of it about for us to know roughly at what point conceiving a child does begin to become much more of a struggle - if, indeed, we were all that fertile to begin with. But the fact is, even as most women know what they'd do about becoming a mother, in an ideal world, and even as they laugh at scaremongering headlines about 'career women leaving it too late', the years pass by quickly - years of trying to find a suitable partner, trying to save money, trying to get a job, or a better job, or a job you actually like.

What Allsopp did touch on - which I believe is important here - is the pressure on middle-class women to have the various aspects of their lives sorted out and adhering to an ideal before children get factored in. The degree, the wedding, the 'life experiences', the career, the foot on the property ladder. It was noticeable yesterday just how many people I witnessed saying "But NO-ONE can afford to buy a house/have a baby in their 20s!" And it's certainly true that for many people, saving up for a house deposit is a terrifying thought. Wondering how to pay the bills while on maternity leave or afford to pay childcare is a terrifying thought. But it's also true that many, many people become parents in their 20s (and earlier). Many, many people who aren't privileged and whose parents haven't bought them a flat somehow manage to become parents and just get on with it. Yesterday's 'debate' had a particularly narrowly-focused and classist side to it - one that needs to look beyond non-debates over the 'right time' to have children or go to university or get married and question instead the way UK society places expectation on women about the 'right' way to live their lives in a country that makes it so difficult for them to do so, sneering at both those who choose not to go along with it and those who are happy about having achieved it.

Let's leave aside, for a moment, the fact that becoming a mother at a young age so often gets you labelled as a 'scrounger', a 'waste of potential', or a statistic for the right to sneer at, and the fact that being a relatively young middle-class stay at home mother gets you labelled as 'smug' and 'irritating', and being a childfree woman in your 30s gets you labelled as 'sad' or 'selfish' - because these things are important, but they're not the most difficult things.

Not when a particular 'route' of university followed by the career ladder followed by 'settling down' when you're financially secure and have 'really lived your life' is the 'desired' one. Not when the cost of attending university has skyrocketed and the housing market in London and the south-east is ridiculous and there's so much competition for jobs that people despair of ever getting the job they want or feeling financially secure at all. Not when maternity discrimination is rife, maternity leave difficult to imagine for those in difficult financial circumstances, and childcare here is the second most expensive in Europe. Not when the burden of care and everything child-related is still seen as a woman's domain. Not when the voices of women who have had children at a young age, and working class women who have never had the luxury of expecting to get all their ducks in a row before making big decisions about their lives go unheard, as feminists who are quick to sneer at the idea of having children in their 20s without thinking how that looks to their sisters who already have children and are doing just fine. For all the cries of "Shut up Kirstie, can't you see it's all about choice?!" it's evident that most of the time, it's really, emphatically, not.

Yesterday wasn't the first time in the last couple of years that I've been reminded of this piece on women in Iceland that appeared in the Guardian in 2011. I remember being struck at the time by the idea that being a young mum at university could be seen as totally normal, rather than a 'challenge' or something worthy of a newspaper feature as it might be in the UK. Writes Kira Cochrane:

"Parents here talk strongly of community support, of collective care for children, and there is no sense that motherhood precludes work or study, which effectively changes the whole structure of women's lives."

One woman, who we're told had her first child at the age of 19, is quoted saying: "You are not forced to organise your life in the 'college-work-maybe children later' way". Another woman explains how couples in Iceland don't tend to think of parenthood in 'How many children can we afford?' terms. And with full-time childcare, at the time of publication, costing single mothers £70 and couples £118 a month (as opposed to an average cost of more than £700 a month for full-time working couples in the UK - much higher in London), you can see why. Feminists do enough shouting about the perceived egalitarian joys of Scandinavia and I'm aware that no country is perfect. The fact remains that women in the UK find themselves supposedly liberated yet also restricted by what we've constructed as the 'right' way to do things, the 'right' way to live the capitalist dream and the 'right' way to experience life. For many, it's a bind and an enormous source of anxiety. For many more, it's unattainable and unrealistic, and by doing things their way they end up being derided and devalued by Kirstie Allsopp's cheerleaders and detractors alike.

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