• Documentary Filmmaker Therese Shechter explores why people who decide not to have children are “so judged and stigmatised”. (Supplied)
One child-free documentary maker is attempting to unravel just why her decision not to have children is so controversial.
By
Scarlett Harris

26 Oct 2017 - 4:15 PM  UPDATED 27 Oct 2017 - 3:46 PM

Documentary filmmaker, Therese Shechter, is a middle-aged woman without children. She doesn’t normally include her decision to not have children in her career description but right now, she says, her child-free status is also a professional matter.

My So-Called Selfish Life – Shechter’s third documentary, recently funded via Kickstarter – seeks to unpack why women who don’t want or can’t have children are “so judged and stigmatised”.  

“Is it just that people are really rude and invasive?” Shecter asks when I speak to her via phone. “No, it’s because we’ve grown up in this world where that’s okay to say that to people and we believe that it’s somehow helpful to point these things out.

“People without kids get called selfish because I think it goes back to this primacy of the role of women as mothers, as self-sacrificing, as doing their duty for humanity.

“For this one I’m really interested in the fetishisation and commodifidation of motherhood as the only real identity that women are supposed to claim.”

“We have taken with us [from the Victorian era] the idea of the self-sacrificing mother,” Shechter continues, “so if you say ‘I don’t actually want to do that’ it’s like, what’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you doing your duty and giving your life over to your most important job?”

Along with her previous two films, I Was a Teenage Feminist and How to Lose Your Virginity, Shechter’s work is concerned with “disturbing what is considered most sacred about womanhood,” according to her website.

“I like to take on these really big topics, break them down and expose the mythology and the misogyny behind a lot of the things that we’re taught and take for granted,” Shechter tells SBS. 

“For this one I’m really interested in the fetishisation and commodifidation of motherhood as the only real identity that women are supposed to claim.”

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Films such as My So-Called Selfish Life and essays by such high-profile women as Jennifer Aniston are empowering women to speak up about their choices.

“I think for a long time women who didn’t want kids were closeted [and] what’s happened in recent years has been a real explosion of personal storytelling by women who don’t want kids,” Shechter says.

This is reflected in her personal research through her own online channels.

What originally started as a question posed to her child-free Facebook friends about their experiences evolved into a Google form that garnered 1900 responses in six days.  

“I thought maybe 30 people were going to respond,” Shechter exclaims. “So that really told me that there was an audience, there were people that wanted to talk about this, who wanted to be recognised, who had very strong opinions about the choices they made and how society viewed those choices.”

Shechter now has over 3800 responses, which she will be qualitatively analysing in the coming months.

She says the word ‘selfish’ is something many of these women hear when opening up about their experiences. “In most communities there’s an assumption that not only will women have children, but they’re naturally wired to want children (which is not true). So there’s always going to be this pressure to become a mother.

“But in a larger sense,” Shechter continues, “motherhood is marketed to middle class white women. Historically, women of colour have been systematically prevented from having children through coerced sterilisation” and the involuntary removal of the children they do have.

Though Shechter is still working on My So-Called Selfish Life, one of her subjects is an African American woman who “talks about the pressure to have kids within her community as a pushback to that reproductive oppression. Because of that pressure, it’s really hard for her to be open about actively not wanting children.”

Shechter ends our conversation by saying that, “Whatever choices women make about becoming or not becoming mothers should be supported but we don’t have that.”

What Shechter aims to do with My So-Called Selfish Life is “examin[e] larger issues about women and identity which is something I do in every film and in this case it’s what is a female identity if it’s not tied to motherhood?”

You can find out more about My So-Called Selfish Life here.

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