• Behavioural Shift

Do I have to apologise for being a woman, single, and childless?

Updated: Sep 21

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sorry for asking”, the taxi driver said.

“Sorry, for what?” I thought to myself. Yes, I had just told him that I was single and childless. “Maybe he is apologizing for that”, I thought. “How strange. I wasn’t seeking sympathy.”

After that, I learned that it was better to pretend I was married (to multiple husbands sometimes) and have some children.

I had similar conversations many times in Dubai, where I would be asked about how many children I had. (I have had similar conversations in other countries, as have other women, I’m sure). By the time I was about to leave- 8.5 years after my arrival- in response to the question: “How many children do you have?” I was saying I had whatever number of children I felt like. Sometimes I would answer four children, sometimes more. The fact that my “pretend” children were not living with me was something that most men couldn’t comprehend. It was so much more preferable to be divorced than not to have been married at all.

Learning all this, I gave up saying I was single and childless. That was just too hard. I was only about 45 then – yes, past my “sell-by” date - but 13 years younger than I am now.

I remember one evening at a dinner function- there was about eight at the table – where one Egyptian man living in Cairo, told everyone very proudly how he was married to four women (In Islam, it is possible for a man to marry four women). I asked him how he managed to keep his life in order while other people said things such as: “I am married to one woman. I couldn’t manage four”. When he asked me how many husbands I had, of course I said I had four -- but I added that I was divorced from three of them. He couldn’t cope with my reply. He also said it was ridiculous that women were allowed to divorce and have more than one husband. He couldn’t comprehend my answer.

I learned a few weeks later that in Islam only men could have multiple wives. This is because it allows men to ensure they are the father of the child. DNA testing has certainly changed that.

At the vegetable market in Jamaica I was pestered by men asking me if I wanted their “bamboo”. I learned they were talking about their penis and wanting to get me pregnant. The harassment was constant.

In parts of India, too, the harassment can be extreme. On one occasion I was with my father in a “rickshaw” traffic jam in Agra, outside the Taj Mahal, and two men said to me father “You very lucky man”, assuming he was married to a much younger woman.

These views haven’t changed very much, in the Western world too. All women are expected to have children, even if they are not married- like the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern. In many societies, principally the conservative ones, women are expected to get married, and have children.

Nonetheless, many societies have moved on from the day when the “newly married” woman had to stop working. Imagine that now!

In many cases, both the male and female have to work to ensure that the household has enough money coming in to cover the bills. Even in the Middle East.

It’s practically essential that any person over 50, who is without a partner continues to work so that his/her lifestyle can be financed. Will COVID-19 change that?.

All societies have their own expectations of what constitutes “good practice” for a single, childless woman. It seems that it is increasingly likely that women will forge their own path.

On this point I was interested to read in the UK’s “Daily Mail” that women born in the 1960s baby boom are as likely to have no offspring as those deprived of families by World War Two.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said it was “unclear,” why 1960s girls remained childless as they grew up, but suggested more women may have postponed childbearing until “the biological window had passed”. Greater opportunities for employment, with more women in higher education and a change in cultural attitudes towards remaining childlessness have all been listed as potential factors.

The projected increase of elderly childless adults is likely to increase the already substantial unmet need in the social care sector, the ONS said.


Photo by Carole Railton (copyright). A woman on the block walks confidently..

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