Though we like to think of ourselves as living in tolerant modern times, the news that Kate Winslet is having three children with three different fathers has been greeted with a pretty shocking level of judgmental outrage. In a scathing denunciation of Winslet’s “disastrous choices” in The Telegraph, Judith Woods writes, “three children by three different fathers doesn’t look good on anyone,” and “The fallout for the little human beings you have brought into the world is too awful to contemplate.” (To which one immediately wonders, how exactly do you know that those little human beings aren’t thriving?)
This fracas is reminiscent of the outspoken disapproval of the British presenter Ulrika Jonsson for having four children with four different fathers a few years ago (a situation the British tabloids called “4x4”). At the time, Jonsson wrote a very articulate piece defending herself against all the insane vitriol being thrown at her. She pointed out quite reasonably that when male celebrities like Rod Stewart have many children with many different mothers they are affectionately regarded as sexually powerful, but when women do the same thing they are viciously attacked as sluts or irresponsible.
Still, Jonsson’s article had a disturbing undertone of apology. Jonsson clearly felt she had to apologize for her choices because the forces of conventionality are that ingrained, the prejudices that deep. She wrote, “I should point out that having four children by four fathers was never part of some grand plan.” But why should she have to explain to anyone, let alone strangers, why she had a child, or why a relationship didn’t endure? Why should she have to account for her romantic or reproductive choices in this particular way? Let those people attacking her try to feed and read bedtime stories to four children with four different fathers, and see if they have time on their hands to worry quite so much about what other people are doing with their lives.
Not one of these judgmental harridans is standing inside the kitchen of either Kate Winslet or Ulrika Jonsson watching them pour cereal for their scandalous progeny, and not one can say whether they are good mothers or whether the love in those households is somehow inferior, less warm, less resourceful than that in their own dreary homes. (I myself am guessing it isn’t.)
The vehemence of the attacks against Winslet, Jonsson, and other less prominent single mothers with children from different fathers, in the course of their daily lives, raises the question of why a woman living outside of conventional family structures is so threatening. Why do we take it so personally if a woman’s sexual adventures are not confined to a single marriage, if a mother has a complicated or messy romantic life? It seems to me that these unconventional mothers are taken as an attack, as representing some dangerous form of sexual anarchy, as Daniel Bergner calls it in his recent story about the female libido, that should be contained, condemned, and, well, tarred and feathered. These pundits and commenters and Twitter harridans are pretending to be worried about the children, but I think in this instance, the old feminist professors were right. They are worried about women whose sexuality defies or challenges the usual structures.
The cooler or more rational-minded among us might ask, how can anyone know that Winslet has made “disastrous choices”? As Cristina Nehring points out in her brilliant book, A Vindication of Love, just because a relationship plays itself out and does not last forever does not mean it is a “failure.”* Some of the great or passionate experiences of life are ephemeral, and our obsession with marriages that last 50 years, whether or not they are happy, as the only form of romantic “success” is perverse.
Why, one might ask, does anyone care how other people’s households are structured? Why, specifically, Ms. Judith Woods, are you so defensive, so pruriently disapproving of Kate Winslet’s most intimate choices? What personal unhappiness is making you so stridently interested in Kate Winslet’s fascinating love affairs; what dullness or absence in your own life are you compensating for? You may notice that those of us with children from different fathers rarely write articles attacking those who have two or three children with the same man they are still married to for being boring, unadventurous, or lacking imagination for life’s possibilities, for turning their backs on the fullness and vividness and variety of human experience. I think the only appropriate response to Kate Winslet’s news would be congratulations and Godspeed.
Correction, June 7, 2013: This article originally misidentified the title of Cristina Nehring's book. It is titled A Vindication of Love, not The Vindication of Love. (Return to the corrected sentence.)