MUM’S THE WORD
Though she’s just missed out on an Oscar nomination, Jennifer Aniston is enjoying unprecedented critical acclaim for her latest film role. But as she does the promotional rounds for Cake, there’s one question she doesn’t want to be asked anymore. Carolyn Moore on why she’s right to keep mum on the subject of motherhood.
The issue of motherhood can be a double-edged sword for women in entertainment. As celebrity journalism becomes ever more voracious in its appetite for insight into the private lives of the stars we obsess over, very few topics are considered off-bounds. And one topic, more than any other, holds endless fascination for the media.
Women having babies is not some hip new trend recently championed by Gwyneth Paltrow, yet female celebrities who do it find themselves at the centre of a media storm. Some celebrity mothers, like Jessica Alba, harness that interest, growing successful businesses from their “cool mom” status, while others, like Kristen Bell, actively campaign against it, arguing that exhaustive coverage of X-plus-kids at the pumpkin patch, or Y-plus-family at the farmer’s market is not just a nuisance, but an intrusion into the lives of the children involved.
And at a “Women in Hollywood” event recently, Jennifer Garner highlighted another irritating side effect of the media’s treatment of celebrity mothers, recalling the moment she realised that “every single person who interviewed me asked me: ‘How do you balance work and family?’” When she asked her husband, Ben Affleck, how he fielded that question, he told her “no one had ever asked him about it. Not once.”
“And we do share the same family,” she joked. “Isn’t it time to change that conversation?”
Our obsession with celebrity babies is such that, after a certain age, every Hollywood starlet becomes subject to “bump watch”- the ceaseless scrutiny of their abdominal area and speculation around what could either be just a big lunch, or the impending arrival of a new kid on the celebrity block. And no one knows this more than Jennifer Aniston. Declared “pregnant” by the tabloids more than 200 times in the last decade, as she turns 46 this month, the actress is still fielding invasive questions about her reproductive intentions, and she’s finally had enough.
When she divorced Brad Pitt in 2005, media reports speculated that Aniston’s refusal to have children with him, choosing instead to focus on her career, practically pushed him into the arms of Angelina Jolie. That narrative was only compounded when he went on to have six children with Jolie, and despite telling Vanity Fair in 2005 “I’ve always wanted to have children, and I would never give up that experience for a career”, that accusation against Aniston – and it is an accusation – has stuck.
Asked this year to name the most difficult thing she’s ever dealt with in the press, Aniston did not point to the media’s ongoing obsession with her “love-rival”, Angelina. Instead she admitted it was “That I’ve put my career before the desire to be a mother. That I was so career-driven and focused on myself, and how selfish that is. Even saying it gets me a little tight in my throat.”
Health, wealth and happiness with Justin Theroux – maybe that’s enough?
“I don’t like the pressure that people put on me, on women – the idea that you’ve failed yourself as a female because you haven’t procreated. You may not have a child come out of your vagina, but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t mothering – dogs, friends, friends’ children.”
In fact, whether you’re “mothering” or not, women should be allowed to live their lives on their own terms and not be evaluated on their reproductive choices. In celebrity circles, Aniston is not alone in her rejection of society’s expectations, and Dame Helen Mirren is unequivocal in her belief that not all women are maternal. “I have no maternal instinct whatsoever,” she has said. “And I don’t think I’m so unusual. I think an awful lot of women don’t really want children but feel they ought to. They think there’s something wrong with them if they don’t, but that’s not true.”
Even among those who do aspire to it, there is growing discontent at the notion that a woman’s worth can only truly be established once she has reproduced. When asked if having children was on her agenda, Zooey Deschanel, who has just announced she is pregnant with her first child, replied “I’m not going to answer that question. I’m not mad at you for asking that question, but I’ve said it before: I don’t think people ask men those questions.”
And the sexism inherent in the question is not the only issue to consider. Would you ask someone with terminal cancer where they plan on going for their holidays next year? You do hear of celebrities conceiving almost miraculously at advanced ages – Halle Berry at 47, Kelly Preston at 48 – but no matter how much money is at your disposal, sometimes nature is not going to play ball. So when Aniston says of starting a family with fiancé Justin Theroux “That’s a topic that’s so exhausted. It’s so personal. Who knows if it’s going to happen? We’re doing our best” you can’t blame her for sounding frustrated.
As she herself puts it, “I have a lot of friends who decided not to have children, who can’t have children, or are trying but are having a difficult time. There’s all sorts of reasons why children aren’t in people’s lives, and no one has the right to assume. It’s quite rude, insulting, and ignorant.” Not to mention insensitive.
More and more women, from all backgrounds, are embracing a life that is child free, by choice or by circumstance. Celebrating women’s achievements should not be contingent on their number of off-spring, and accepting that women have plenty to offer regardless, will only happen when we take that question off the agenda. When it comes to the choice of motherhood, it really is time to change that conversation.
This feature first appeared in Like magazine, February 2015.