The Female Assumption, a guest post by Melanie Holmes

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

An Abundance of Assumptions about Females’ Lives

Author Melanie Holmes

Author Melanie Holmes

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.female assumption

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.

7 Responses to The Female Assumption, a guest post by Melanie Holmes

  1. A. February 26, 2015 at 10:43 am #

    I’m having trouble with deciding not to become a parent, because I can’t help but think how most people are parents, and that they still manage to do it. It sucks for me, because I, although 19, don’t want to be a parent. The only reason I think about it is because it’s so normal. And I have this idea in my head I’ll end up having a kid no matter whether I like it or not in ten years and that frustrates me because I feel I have no control over anything. I mean it’s possible that I could change my mind as I get older, but people need to stop assuming that I and others will. * Sigh *
    Sorry I keep on commenting on this website.

    • Melanie Holmes February 26, 2015 at 2:19 pm #

      Dear A.
      The terms “normal,” and “happiness” and “legacy” and “meaning” and “purpose” are all subjective terms. Assuming that what’s normal for me is normal for someone else is a form of ethnocentricity. We may look at someone else’s life and make judgments that they are dysfunctional, however, I ask— Which person, of which gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, social status, etc., gets to decide what is normal? I am not trying to influence you to buy my book, in fact, I’d gladly loan you my copy via Kindle if you have a Kindle. The reason I wrote The Female Assumption is to add a thread to the dialogue that no one, anywhere, ever should make a female feel dysfunctional or lacking or “less than” because she chooses to live her life according to her inner compass. One woman (self-professed “childfree”) said, “I’ve been asked, but what if you birth the next Mozart or the person who cures cancer? and she wonders, ‘What if I’m the next person to change the world?'” She’s perplexed by the fixation on a progeny that doesn’t exist rather than her own potential. Women have endeavored to break out of culturally-constructed boxes for centuries. Kate Chopin wrote The Awakening in 1899 about a woman who “awakens” to the idea that she doesn’t have to live her life the way society’s expectations. Women’s voices keep vanishing on this topic, why is this?

      Your life is your own. And you will own the consequences of every decision you make. I’ve traversed 30 years in my motherhood journey, and my book was a gift to my daughter, to broaden her ideas of the female experience, with a view into motherhood that I was not shown when I embarked on it 30 yrs ago. I interviewed/polled 200 women, those with & without kids. There are many “normal” ways to live life. #BeYourAuthenticSelf –peace 2 u.

      • A. February 27, 2015 at 11:00 pm #

        Thank you for the response. I’m scared I’ll be pressured into having a child (I’m terrified of that, actually), but I feel bad that I don’t want one and that I don’t want to think about it. It would actually make sense if someone didn’t want a child and so never thought about it. I feel like I have no control over my life because of this. There would be little point I guess. Thinking of not having a child in the future at all puts me at ease, while thinking I will in the future just makes me panic and cry (literally). What bothers me is that so many people have children, but I don’t want to. I’m worried all have one out of a feeling of obligation, and that’s not want I want at all. Parenting is extremely difficult, and I feel that so many to-be parents don’t fully grasp how difficult it is until they have children. It SHOULD be considered a choice.

      • Melanie Holmes February 28, 2015 at 3:28 pm #

        A. –The fact that you’re here on this site is a good step. You can see that you’re not alone. In the US, 20% of women end their fertility years without having kids…and don’t believe all those people who say those women are lonely & full of regret—I’ve interviewed them…some are, but many are not. Support networks are popping up as women (&men) seek to be supported for being themselves.
        Various cultures and religions push childbearing more than others. I’ve interviewed women (ages 18-66) from a VAST number of cultures…black, white, Hispanic, Indian, etc, and various religions…Christian, Muslim, Hindu,..the list goes on. Women who receive support have an easier time tapping into their inner self, their authentic self.

        It’s my hope that my message will be embraced by parents (and BFFS, etc) to open the door to respectful discussions. I have a recent example: a father gave my book to his teen daughter, when she was done, she said, “You mean you won’t be mad at me if I decide not to have a child?” He gently assured her, no, he won’t be mad.

        The pressures may always be there, but you can learn to shut them out. Be strong and remember that every child should be a wanted child; they sense ambivalence, and what a shame for all involved. There are dating sites for people who are “childfree.” There are “closed” (private) Facebook groups, and of course there are GREAT blogs like this one that posts words of support. I first saw Amy (co-owner of this blog) on TV a couple years ago. Women such as Amy are standing up & making it known that they don’t appreciate the judgment of others. I’ve joined my voice, as a mother, because I have females in my life whom I want to protect their inner selves if possible. I don’t get to decide what’s “best” or “normal” for anyone but me. People who respect you will respect your boundaries…if they don’t, then you must teach them. Maybe you can learn more about “setting boundaries” as a way of evolving your defenses and resolve on this topic. I truly hope this dialogue has helped you. It’s why sites like this one exist, sharing and supporting each other. Please be at peace with who you are and what you want. Women’s lives have evolved drastically, and the school of thought among society is making room for the evolving female experience. And it’s people like you…and Amy & Lance, and me (I hope), that are joining our voices to say, “Stop telling people how to think or what to do.” Be you. xox

    • ruby May 8, 2015 at 10:59 am #

      I completely understand your problem. I’m 18 and I know that I NEVER want to have kids, but even talking to my 18- and 19-year-old friends about this, I get told “what’s the point of life if you don’t have kids?” and “don’t worry, you’ll change your mind eventually.” The thing I’m most afraid of is finding someone I want to spend my life with but then discovering that they want a family. It’s so frustrating how much pressure there is to have kids and how everyone assumes all women want to have kids. But if you really don’t want kids, luckily no one can force you and you can live your life however you want!

      • Melanie Holmes May 18, 2015 at 8:55 pm #

        Dear Ruby (and A.) — The numbers are growing of like-minded people — people like you who know what they don’t want kids.. As we amplify this discussion, we must insist that others begin to look upon this topic as one of diversity. We respect diversity in so many ways — ethnic, gender, ability, ageism — we all have a right to choose our priorities. For someone to say that life isn’t worth living without bringing forth life is a very subjective way of looking at life. It is how some people think, but not all. We all work & love & help friends & strive for our goals–the POINT of life is…..SO MUCH! We don’t all want the same things. It’s really that simple, and our viewpoints should be respected. I join you in respectful thoughts. xo – Melanie

  2. Melanie Holmes February 18, 2015 at 10:42 am #

    Thanks Amy and Lance. I wrote this book not just for the females who are making this important decision, also for the people in the lives of females who can speak with more sensitivity. I hope that this book will be given from parents to their teen daughters–one woman (who is a mom) told me she’s giving her 2 nieces each a copy as they graduate high school. I also hope this book can be given from a woman to her family member or friend as a way of saying, “Here’s what I’m feeling…let’s talk when you’re done reading it.” Much good can come from informed, open-minded conversations.

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