I was supposed to have three children.
Less women are having children, but this decision comes with its own set of pressures.
My friends and I were lined up eagerly, with searching eyes fixated on our upturned palms. When it’s my turn, I present my hand to another girl in our art class. Inspecting it, she tells me I will have two boys and one girl. The boys will be twins, she adds. I was delighted that I would have a nice balanced family, which seemed right, but I was also perplexed at how she could predict such a thing. I looked at my hand in wonder. How did she do that? How could she tell?
I learned later that she was looking at the veins on our wrists. If it was blue, you would have a boy and if it was purple you would have a girl. My friends and I took to this neat trick excitedly; it occupied us for days. In retrospect, this was mostly just fun, but underneath, something unnerves me. I wonder why, at such a young age, we already perceived motherhood with such anticipation and expectancy. We all knew how many children we wanted and we already planned their gender. We discussed our future children like we were adults discussing politics; we argued over the best gender combinations, analyzed the pros and cons and imagined ourselves as mothers. It didn’t occur to me then, the possibility of not being one.
Although our society is tolerant enough to acknowledge that women aren't required to have children, there is still an unspoken expectation that they're supposed to. This air of anticipation surrounds girls starting at an extremely young age. Young girls are still given baby dolls as their birthday gift, women are still denied hysterectomies by their doctors and 25-year-olds are still told that their “biological clock is ticking.” However, an increasing number of women are deviating from this expectation. The feminism resurgence of the last decade did much to diminish the stigma around not having children. In fact, over the last 50 years, the global fertility has halved.
Many women, when they say that they don’t want children, are met with sad, pitying, reproachful faces telling them that they will change their mind, telling them how they will regret it. Despite the fact that unmarried and childless women are happiest on average, people are intent on motherhood being necessary for a woman to lead a happy, meaningful life.
Of course, I am not saying that your mother who keeps asking when you are going to give her grandchildren is intentionally perpetuating sexist roles. The underlying expectation and the general reception of women who choose not to have children does further this narrative.
Currently, there is an intoxicating and impossible dichotomy of praising working women while also grasping to tradition. Childless women are inexhaustibly interrogated by the public only to be repeatedly invalidated. Pronatalists, people who promote child-bearing, base their belief upon a wide variety of unreasonable sentiments: that it will preserve a sense of normalcy, or help improve the economy, or provide essential care and security for the older generation, or progress our society. Brooke Anderson, an exercise science student and the president of the Women for Global Empowerment club, said, “I think there is so much societal pressure on women to have children, because society dictates that a woman’s way to be successful is to have children. And that simply is not and has never been true.
“The pressure on women to have children fits into the larger sexist idea that women are seen as objects that have the purpose to produce men. The idea that women belong in caretaking positions in the home, and not in the workforce, is an idea that has affected every woman’s ability to be taken seriously in a professional or academic setting,” Anderson said. In this respect women are seen as a means to an end. For decades the only way that women could contribute to society was through children; this idea is still deeply ingrained into how we view child-bearing and working women. This notion is also part of why abortion is still so vehemently opposed and why willfully childless women are labeled as selfish.
Working moms are the shining light for pronatalists. They are progressive, but are still bearing children. For many, childbearing symbolizes a respect for established societal and religious structures and deviating from this system is perceived as iconoclastic. To add, willfully not having children implies a sexual freedom for women, which many refuse to accept.
Grayce Gosneil, a sophomore, wants to have children, but is not ignorant of the immense pressure she is placed under to do so. When I asked if she ever felt pressured to have children, she said yes before I finished the question. “I’m from the South,” she said. “Don’t you know I’m supposed to be married by now?”
This expectation of children is rooted in sexism. The fact that women and not men are pressured to start a family only reiterates the age-old notion that women are incapable of making their own decisions.
Essentially, women are being guilted into having children and are told to be happy about it. This warped idea of children as a means to a special kind of fulfillment is a way to hold on to the nuclear family structure. Not only is this pressure intrusive and condescending, but it also imposes parenthood upon people who simply should not be parents.
The pressure on childless women derives in part from the idea that motherhood is part of every woman. Women innately have some ethereal, maternal instinct laying dormant within them. While parenthood can be amazing for some people, that is not the case for many.
Despite the issues enveloped in this trend, there are tremendous accomplishments for the advancement of women. This trend away from child-bearing signifies that women no longer feel as confined to the single fate of motherhood. Anderson attributes education as a fundamental cause. “ I think we are inching our way closer to better education for women everywhere,” Anderson said. “With education, women can make educated and informed decisions about their reproductive health. They can family plan, save money for their children and understand the complications involved with having higher quantities of births.”
Although the global culture surrounding this issue seems to be improving as fertility rates drop, this might not be a complete step forward. Anderson believes the drop in rates could be because of the incompatibility of motherhood and the workforce. “Many women have to give up their careers and, for the most part, it’s not because they dislike their jobs, it’s because the American employment system has failed mothers,” she said. “Women have to leave their careers in order to support their child, but why has this always fallen on women?”
Anderson wants to have kids, but not until she has an established career. “Growing up with a very self-sufficient and independent mother, she instilled values in me that include that I should never be dependent upon a partner for financial reasons,” Anderson said.
There are many reasons a woman cold choose not to be a mother, but none of them matter. All that matters is that women should feel able to choose without having to justify themselves.