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What’s the point of women like us? Paula Coston roams the social sciences to find out

May 3, 2013
'Good morning, female underclass. Congratulations: you're being moved up.' Image courtesy of Sicha Pangjvanich/

‘Good morning, female underclass. Congratulations: you’re being moved up.’ Image courtesy of Sicha Pangjvanich/

If you’re a regular of this blog you’ll know by now that I’m post-menopausal, single and childless – or, as I prefer to think, a meno-blasted [menopause surviving], independent, polymaternal [player of various pseudo-maternal roles] juviaste [enthusiast about the young].

In other words, I enjoy my auntly roles within relatives’ and friends’ families; and it’s in my interests, obviously, to believe I perform a valuable function. But it would give me a warmer, fuzzier feeling if I had scientific backup; so I’ve started looking.

When I look, I read that globally, around 40 per cent of women leave no descendants. This is partly because in less developed parts of the world, survival rates at all ages are low; but even in the UK, 1 in 5 women born in 1965 remained childless, compared to 1 in 9 born in 1938 (Office for National Statistics). Reasons for this decline – or this progress, depending on your point of view – include contraception, abortion and a trend to delay motherhood till later life, when the possibilities of child-bearing are inevitably less certain. So, whether from choice or not, there are many others like me.

There are going to be a whole bunch of female dedicatees to this post. First, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, primatologist and anthropologist, for her book Mother Nature: Natural Selection and the Female of the Species – and Alison Jolly, whose article about it in the London Review of Books, on the Guardian website, jumped out at me from the internet. According to them, low rates of child-bearing are because ‘Mammalian females go for quality offspring, more than quantity. If you simply count genes, the bottom line is having great-grandchildren, not how big your immediate family is.’

But then, Hrdy goes on to point out, women differ from other primates in being co-operative breeders: it’s in our nature to share childcare. After all, human mothers can’t easily cope alone with their nursing babies, keeping an eye on their wandering toddlers, helping the school-age ones with their homework, chauffeuring/ escorting their socialite teenagers, earning a wage and keeping their home fires burning, all at the same time. Of course, fathers often help; but in many cultures there are also other female sources of support: grandmothers, mothers-in-law, aunts and – in certain societies – older and younger siblings, some beginning at an extremely early age.

Next I have to thank the anthropologist Kristen Hawkes, who guides my musings further, along with Jolly: ‘What does need explaining, however, is how long we [older helpmate women] live after menopause; nobody else hangs on for twenty years after stopping reproduction.’

Hrdy has a suggestion, summarised by Jolly: ‘It looks as though women’s old age has been under positive selection…. [While] the girl child-minder wants to grow her own body and play her own games’, older women – she cites the grandmother, but the same thing applies to post-menopausal me, no grandkids – may have to sacrifice less in helping with the children in a family. In other words, the menopause may be a biological device to unencumber women from any more very young children, women who can then pay more attention to the children of others: the so-called ‘grandmother hypothesis’. Sadly for me and my fellow polymatriarchs, this theory is widely disputed: after all, age 50 – or less – is very early for the termination of our fertility; plus, in poor societies we use up valuable resources that could be used for new young.

But in case I’m downhearted, Alexander Pashos comes along, such a tonic. In his paper ‘Kin Investment Biases of Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles in Germany, Greece and the USA: Evolutionary Interpretations of Different Kin Caregiving Behaviour’, he highlights an indisputable reality: at least in the countries he’s studied, ‘Maternal relatives [i.e. relatives connected genetically to the mother] care more on average than paternal relatives for grandchildren or nieces and nephews, and female relatives care more than male.’ In fact he’s a fund of absorbing findings. He says that, the closer a woman is to a sibling who’s a parent, the stronger the ‘kin investment’ is of that woman who’s an aunt – in other words, the closer, the more she tends to give to those nieces and nephews. He also says that ‘Maternal aunts care[d] much more than all other aunts and uncles for their nieces and nephews’. And finally, he reveals that ‘the younger sisters of the mother care[d] much more than other maternal aunts for nieces and nephews and [are] much closer to them’ – maybe, because they have the chance to watch and copy their older sisters’ maternal behaviour. I’m an aunt, real as well as honorary. So on all Pashos’ findings but the latter, I can give myself a heartwarming smiley face.

Softer research is equally heartening. Professor Robert Milardo, University of Maine wrote a book called The Forgotten Kin. In it he documents his interviews with aunts and uncles, confirming how much they often contribute to the lives of families: ‘They mentor children as well as older nieces and nephews. They provide advice concerning school, work and careers. They counsel their nieces and nephews about relationships with other family members and especially siblings and parents.’ Tick, tick and tick. More surprisingly – but the more I think about it, this is certainly true in my case – nieces and nephews often mentor their aunts and uncles in return: about their shopping habits and fashion choices, for example. Another feature of such relationships to celebrate.

I can always self-justify to make myself feel better, too. The rate of divorce, at least in the UK, continues to increase, albeit more slowly than it once did. The rate of cohabitation is also growing. Within those households, families are becoming ever more complex, with children – half-brothers and sisters, step-brothers and sisters, children who don’t know their parents, or indeed their paternity – leading diffused lives, often in more than one household. I came across the term ‘blended family’ the other day: a useful phrase in this modern age, I thought. In this complicated landscape for children, I hope – while fearing – that among my friends and relatives, I may have an increasingly important role to play as a pseudo-maternal figure who can be relied on as a constant.

But does all this social science do me any good as well? I turn to Nancy Cantor for my final thanks. She’s a social psychologist. She coined the term ‘life tasks’ to describe all the goals, activities, jobs and projects that we might list as required of us in the current stage of our lives. It was Erik Erikson, the developmental psychologist, who labelled the 50s, the phase of life I’m in, ‘Generativity vs. Stagnation’. But Cantor and others, such as Timothy A. Pychyl, encourage us to focus on the ‘generativity’ part, nominating for ourselves the life tasks that we would like. They imply that we can do these at any age we choose. By that logic we can opt to support other people’s children, rendering it a worthwhile, ‘generative’ life task, at almost any stage of life at all.

Many women beyond the menopause listen to others’ children, advise them, play with them, teach them. We’ve chosen these tasks, often associated with much younger women, as our life tasks; in doing so, the psychologists say, we’ve chosen to refresh ourselves, reinvent ourselves. So even some social scientists might argue that we’re keeping ourselves young.

  1. Sally permalink

    But this still places the value of womanhood in raising children, which just exacerbates the problem childless women face.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sally. I agree with you, to an extent; but I’d like to feel that part of the role of childless women too, if they want to take it up, is to contribute to the future of the world, which includes somehow playing a part in, or helping, the up and coming generations. If these are not our own children, or even the children of those we know, wouldn’t it be great if we were valued more as potential mentors and leaders of people younger than ourselves? That’s something I aspire to; of course, you may feel differently, and that should be your right.

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