Today’s post is by Melanie Holmes, author of The Female Assumption: A Mother’s Story, Freeing Women from the View that Motherhood is a Mandate. Melanie’s book was named Best Book of 2014 in the Global Media Awards, hosted by the Population Institute. She also writes for RoleReboot, where she recently published Childfree Women Don’t Need Your Pity. You can read more from Melanie at www.MelanieHolmesAuthor.com.
An Abundance of Assumptions about Females’ Lives
by Melanie Holmes
“I thought, if I can’t have children, there’s no reason to live.” I read that quote years ago and immediately thought of my own daughter (a pre-teen at the time).
As I reflect on the emotions of a woman unable to have children, I’m compelled to try to understand how to ameliorate those feelings. I began researching the assumptions about women’s lives 3 ½ years ago. In that time, I’ve reflected on my own 30-year journey (my oldest is a son). I’ve read a multitude of mom blogs and books written by moms. Katrina Alcorn surveyed almost 500 mothers; 88% responded that they suffered stress-related issues since having children while working outside the home. Keep in mind that this is just one segment of mothers—those who perform work for pay in addition to childrearing. I know of mothers who forego paid work to care for their children; they also have related stories of stress-related issues.
Women’s lives have evolved immensely over the past five decades. Women have had to fight for their rights to education, acceptance into previously male-dominated careers, and control over their bodies. As more doors opened for women, their plates became fuller, but nothing was taken away. I can attest to this. I became a mother in the mid-1980s, and I bore the full load of childcare, household duties, and a full-time job. Twenty-five years into my motherhood experience, following is one my diary entries:
“Sometimes I think checking out would be okay. Truly, I try so hard and I get so tired. I know in my heart that I have a lot to do in this world. I decided to have three beautiful children and I owe it to them to be strong. But I just get so tired. Why does no one see just how tired I am?”
As women’s lives have evolved, society seems rooted in the assumption that all women want motherhood and can “have it all.” Women with passions for careers hear, “Don’t forget about your biological clock…tick, tock.” They’re told that if they don’t have a child, they’ll die old and alone, with no one to care for them. The definitions of “true love” and “family” are dictated to women as if they have no right to decide for themselves what these terms mean to them.
In an attempt to protect the inner self/future self of my own teenage daughter, I’ve interviewed/polled 200 women across the U.S.—those with and without children, ages 18 to 66, a wide range of ethnicities and income levels. While motherhood is a meaningful life choice for many women, not every woman wants it or will be able to achieve it. I offer up the following interviews (excerpts from my newly published book) as voices from women who live full, meaningful lives without motherhood.
Cheryl* comes from working class Polish immigrants, and African American grandparents from the south whose education stopped at eighth grade. For this reason, Cheryl is especially proud of her master’s degree. She said, “When I graduated, I felt so proud…proud for my family.” When Cheryl was 16, she heard the comment that being a mother is the quintessential female experience, and remembers feeling in her gut that there was something wrong with that statement. Until Cheryl was 25, she had assumed she would be a mom someday; however, after a lot of soul searching, she realized that opting out of motherhood was an option for her life. Now in her late 20s, Cheryl works as an early childhood educator, “I see the consequences of what happens when you have a child when you’re not prepared, with all the stressors.” She says, “A lot of times I don’t volunteer that I don’t want kids.” She doesn’t want to hear responses that hint that she doesn’t know what she wants (e.g., “You’ll change your mind” or “You should have kids so you can leave a legacy”). The hardest comments for Cheryl to digest are ones that come from those closest to her. Once Cheryl made up her mind not to have kids, she told her mother. “My mom used to drop hints all the time and then glare at me; but she’s beginning to accept that I won’t give her grandkids…now she comments about my siblings who will be ‘the ones’ to give her grandkids.” Cheryl is passionate about her work with underprivileged kids. “I’ve always wanted to work where I’d have the most impact…low income kids need great teachers.” Having left the Catholic church once she realized she didn’t want to have children, Cheryl still refers to her religious background as having instilled in her an ethic of serving others; and she asks herself how she can use her talents to help other people. Her words, “I want to be a hero,” pretty much sum it up.
Sascha’s* mom was a “poster mom” when it came to encouraging her to think carefully about having sex and the consequences of such decisions. Her mom encouraged her to abstain from having sex until she really thought she was ready, and to come to her if she felt the need for birth control. Sascha’s mom refrained from setting up expectations for her life; she always said, “You have to do what’s best for you.” Sascha did go to her mom when she was 18 for birth control. Years later, when Sascha was in her 30s and experienced medical issues that led to a hysterectomy, her mother’s past support helped Sascha to make peace with her situation despite having assumed she would have a child someday. If not for her mom’s open-minded discourse, Sascha may well have spiraled into despair as other women have done when faced with the dissipation of a lifelong assumption. Sascha thrives on busy, “I feel like there’s always so much to do…public service is very important to me, giving back to the community, mentoring, doing food drives. I ask my friends how they do all that I do and raise kids too.” Reflecting on psychologist Abraham Maslow’s description of “peak experiences” of which he found thousands of examples (moments that affirm meaning and value of existence, moments of awe, love, and inner peace), Sascha talked about her trip to visit an aunt in Germany. “Getting to see Europe, I saw castles, drove through the Alps and Milan; it was thrilling to see the world outside of the U.S.” Growing up, she did not have a close relationship with her African American father’s family (her dad died when Sascha was 8); thus, visiting extended family was especially meaningful.
There is much that lies below the surface that influences women’s lives. Telling a woman she’s selfish if she opts out of motherhood or that she’ll miss out on the truest form of love is a grievous injustice to those who don’t want it or can’t achieve it (through circumstance or biology). As visionaries for young women, parents can help their daughters keep open minds about their futures by refraining from making assumptions and setting up expectations that may go unmet later in their lives.
The power of our words is strong. Framing motherhood as a mandate or integral to a meaningful life can have precarious results for today’s females. There are many versions of happiness and fulfillment, and many ways to honor family values. We need a paradigm shift where society not just accepts but encourages women to define for themselves what goals are important to them. For me, I chose motherhood; however, it may not be the right path for my daughter (or nieces, friends, co-workers, etc.). My daughter is being raised to be kind and self-sufficient. Beyond that, her life choices are her own. As they should be.
*Names have been changed.