To Mom or Not to Mom

That is the question?

Sadly, for a lot of us, that is the question but it is not a choice. Instead it is a possibility that is thrust upon us by circumstance. And when faced with two incredibly distinct possibilities–neither of which is within your control–it is really hard to see either very clearly.

I know that my fear of NOT being a mother caused me to deeply skew my perceptions of both. My own biggest regret was not being able to approach either path with any kind of clarity. My mother’s story of struggle and loss, our shared menstruation issues and my own anxious mind kept me from understanding what being a mother, or not being a mother, might mean for me.

I consider myself lucky: I achieved the future I so longed for. I am living my dream of being a mother. And yet standing here, on the other side, I see so clearly how misguided my expectations were, in both the ways I expected motherhood to solve all my problems and how I assumed a life without children was not, for me, worth living.

Now, from my place of privilege, I see quite clearly that neither perception was even remotely accurate. Motherhood is not the panacea I dressed it up to be (with enthusiastic support from our culture, let’s not forget) and living childfree is not the meaningless existence I feared. Motherhood is hard. It ravages relationships and tears down self-perceptions. It makes us question ourselves and our abilities. And worst of all, our society presents an image of saintly motherhood that no woman could ever hope to attain. It’s almost like motherhood is a constant practice in failing to meet expectations, both your own and society’s.

And I’m not saying that women who are not mothers don’t face similar, or even symmetrical, challenges, but I do feel that motherhood creates a lens through which our own failings (specifically as a mother) are amplified.

When I was struggling to get pregnant, and especially after my ectopic pregnancy, I could not fathom living childfree. The possibility was a death sentence. I was sure it would destroy me. In my anxious despair I never once allowed myself to consider it in any kind of rational way. It was absolutely the most devastating possibility.

And then I had my daughter and something awoke inside of me and I realized more clearly what I wanted TO DO with my life and it became clear that motherhood was only a part of that; I was suddenly sure I could have found happiness and fulfillment without being a mother.

Of course, it’s easy to recognize you could possibly live without something when you already have it. I honestly don’t know how or when, or even if, I would have come to that realization if living childfree had been forced upon me. Surely it would have taken years, possibly even decades. A lot of myself would have been lost in the struggle to come to terms with my life. I know from the way I viewed our struggle, from the paths I was willing to take to achieve motherhood that I would not have accepted that fate easily or gracefully, or maybe even at all. Maybe the only way I could have come to terms with the reality that a childfree life could be meaningful and fulfilling, was by having children. A paradox to be sure.

And yet, not a surprising one. When motherhood is presented as a panacea, as the be all, end all position of power and influence a woman can attain, it’s not surprising that women struggle with the possibility of living childfree. We have almost no understanding of what that means, of what that life provides. All our descriptions of living childfree our couched in the ways it is NOT like having children.

Oh you can sleep in. You can travel. You are not tied down. You have choices and freedoms that parents don’t have.

This is the way we describe a childfree existence, only as the antithesis of an existence with kids. Just by describing it that way, of only describing it in terms of what it is NOT, we make it that living childfree is not the natural or logical choice, that it is less than.

The reality is most women don’t even think much about why they want to parent. It is just assumed that they will and so they do. This societal assumption is so engrained, so insidious, people are writing books about it. Why Have Kids? is a discussion of not only the societal pressure to have children but the absurd pedestal on which we have placed motherhood and mothers. It looks at how damaging it can be for women who don’t want to be mothers to end up in that role, and how harshly we judge those who admit to not wanting it. I am only half way through the book but the discussion has been thoroughly thought provoking as it challenges preconceived ideas about how we view motherhood and women in general.

And these are discussion we need to be having. It benefits no one to assume women will be mothers, that motherhood is the only way women can lead a fulfilling, meaningful life. There are so many ways for women to be nurturing, creative, loving, contributing members of society. In a world where costs soar and resources dwindle, having children should not be a forgone conclusion. We need to have more resources, more role models, more positive examples for young girls becoming women. We need to talk about how hard motherhood can be, we need to dispel the myth that all women are biologically inclined to have children, we need to make clear that there is happiness to be found on both sides of the divide, so that we can bridge that divide or possibly even, one day, fill it. We need to start seeing each other as women, not as mothers and non-mothers, but as sources of divine femininity. Because all women are divine, whether they mother or not.

This post is part of the Keiko and Pamela’s Salon: To Mom or Not to Mom happening this week. Please go to The Infertility Voice and Silent Sorority to continue the discussion.

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9 responses

  1. Fuck me, Esperanza – this is incredible.

    “When motherhood is presented as a panacea, as the be all, end all position of power and influence a woman can attain, it’s not surprising that women struggle with the possibility of living childfree. We have almost no understanding of what that means, of what that life provides. All our descriptions of living childfree our couched in the ways it is NOT like having children.”

    We (society) set a bar so high it’s no wonder when we fall, we fall HARD. And you’re right – you’ve hit the nail on the head of a bias that I didn’t even realize I had until you worded this so well – we describe living without children or parenting, living childfree – we describe them in the negative. For what they lack. It does seem, counterintuitive then, when those from that side can say with such ease, “But you see, it’s really NOT that bad and there IS abundance in my life.”

    When the semantics and language of how we talk about childfree living are cloaked in the negative, how can we trust the affirmative?

    “Because all women are divine, whether they mother or not.”

    I’m pretty sure, that when I can finally get a tattoo – something to the effect of “All women are divine” is getting inked on my body somewhere. YES. Yes yes yes.

    Esperanza, thank you so much for sharing your voice in our Salon. I’d been hoping all week that you would and of course- you shine with grace and eloquence. Brava!

  2. Thank you, Esperanza. This post should be required reading for all women – full stop. So often in life we take things for granted — particularly motherhood and what it will or won’t do to us. It’s only when that which we take for granted doesn’t happen that we have to truly contemplate and understand our motivations. What we learn in the process can make us uncomfortable, upends conventional wisdom and changes us forever. If we’re fortunate it also makes me better people.

  3. This really speaks to me: “Maybe the only way I could have come to terms with the reality that a childfree life could be meaningful and fulfilling, was by having children. A paradox to be sure.”

    The simple thing your post brings me to is that it’s all about trade-offs. Like you say, there is no panacea. Nobody gets all the gains without any loss, and likewise no one gets all the loss.

    A very helpful realization to come from this Salon.

  4. I am so glad that I read this post. All week, even though I’ve hit some pretty big milestone with my life (practically finishing my phd), I’ve been feeling so DAMN GUILTY because I haven’t done any of the other paperwork for the adoption, because I haven’t even thought about adoption much. Now, I have some time to breath and I feel like I’m already a bad mom.

    So much of our society expects that once we’re mothers, we are done, we have achieved all that we need to. Thank you from someone on the other side for reassuring me that I don’t have to forever feel incomplete.

  5. I think this is so true for marriage as well, and it’s a discussion that needs to happen before two people enter into marriage — why are you doing it, what about marriage appeals or doesn’t appeal to you, what are other options besides marriage? In Judaism, you’re supposed to have a period of time before the wedding where you have that discussion, answer those questions. We did because I’m such a to-do list sort of person, but I often wonder how many other people paid attention in Hebrew school and did the same thing.

    That said, I also think that like almost everything in life, you can’t know what motherhood is like (and can’t know if you do or don’t want it, if it will fulfill you or strangle you) until you are in the middle of it. And even then, you only know your stage of parenting. Parenting a two-year-old? Nothing like parenting an eight-year-old. It is a completely different experience. And one that I couldn’t really know beyond a vague, false sense until the twins were eight. And I won’t know what parenting a middle schooler is like until they are middle schoolers, despite having been a middle school teacher for so long.

    And yet, also like most important things in life, you can’t get that experience until you’re in the no-going-back zone. If only we had Dumbledore’s Pensieve and could really try out a life before we commit to it.

    Great post.

  6. I cannot add anything the previous commenters have already said. But this it so, so right. And true to my experience as well: I couldn’t fathom living child-free either, until I had a child of my own.

    xoxo

  7. My story is that I suffered for years and then DID come to this realization and got pretty excited all the sudden about a child-free life. I suddenly saw how it could be fulfilling and abundant, and have it’s own choices and advantages. It was an epiphany – one of the most truest and real of my entire life. I still don’t know how I was able to receive that gift while in the middle of still wanting a baby I didn’t have so badly.

    The funny thing was, I got pregnant literally a couple months after coming to this. After years of suffering through TTC and before that, a decade getting to the point in life where I could TTC because I always knew I “had” to me a mom. While totally ecstatic I actually spent a (small) amount of time mourning the childfree life I had started to plan and envision clearly! It was beyond surreal.

    My daughter is Isa’s age now. This post makes so much sense to me. I get sad sometimes reading from this community that helped me feel better so much in those days. I read anger and sadness and I wish every IFer was gifted just a little of the perspective you explain so well here before they had a kid. It doesn’t mean they (our children) aren’t so, so incredibly precious, and worth it, all of it. But it belittles them even before they are born to see them as a panacea to your life. Plus it just doesn’t work in practice. I mentioned something like this earlier in the week, but as I watch my daughter become a real person, not a baby but a real individual person in front of my eyes, I’ve been realizing even more just lately the reasons and drive you had for wanting them is in reality only a very small part of their existence, their story. And it belittles you to not understand you are still you, whether you live childfree or have children (or whenther you have as many children as you originally envisioned – we are seriously considering the only child thing which we had NEVER before). All these different lives change you, you grow in all, all can be hard, all can be wonderful in ways the others will suck. The lessons I learned about what parenting is like after having a kid only made the epiphany I had before her more true in my eyes.

  8. Pingback: Silent Sorority » Ending Fertility Treatment Equated with Madness?

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