Childfree. Childless. Mother.
Exploring the binary identities
I really don’t think this ought to be a subject of discussion. But it is. It remains to be. Because woman continue to be defined by having children or not. The choice to have a child or not remains such a binary presence in women’s lives.
What I wanted to do in
was to question this and to consider how and why we got here. Even as women say they have the choice to have children or not, not all women have the luxury to do so, and these choices are always set with two binaries: to have children or not. It is the space in between that women do not have the luxury often to live in. We are often not given the language to articulate this grey space of ambivalence.
‘Childless’ or ‘Childfree’: The terms continue to be used interchangeably. Studies that do not ask about choice but use the term “childless” conflate those who want kids and those who do not.
Excerpt from ‘
(M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman
Our language creates the falsehood that being with a child is a norm. Childless or childfree, voluntarily or involuntarily, firmly places the one without a child as the one lacking, imperfect, inadequate. Limiting labels. Many women make this decision voluntarily, while for some this happens because of biology or timing. There is no room for those that are ambivalent, those that need assistance, those that are sick of these treatments and impositions on their bodies, those that decide to stop the treatments, to stop living in the land of ‘maybe one day’. Either way the idealisation of motherhood undermines all women, irrespective of choices. As Adrienne Rich wrote in 1976: ‘the “childless woman” and the “mother” are a false polarity, which has served the institutions both of motherhood and heterosexuality.’
A recent New York Times article also discusses this project and the rhetoric around mandatory motherhood.
“The most important job any woman can have is being a mother,” Ivanka Trump said in a 2016 campaign video.
In 1817, Napoleon Bonaparte told the French soldier Gaspard Gourgaud that women are “mere machines to make children.”
Amy Blackstone from sociology department at the University of Maine writes:
Despite changes that have paved the way for more than one possible answer to the question of whether to parent, cultural narratives have not yet caught up to this reality. The dominant narrative continues to be that, of the two options, parenthood is the more mature, selfless choice. Pop culture depictions of the childfree perpetuate the myth that not having kids is an unnatural choice made by deviant people who may eventually change their minds.
Despite negative popular narratives, sociological research indicates that the childfree may have more time and motivation to contribute to their communities through charitable and volunteer efforts. Recent studies also suggest that they help rear the next generation by serving as mentors, teachers, counsellors, and friends to children, and that they lead fulfilling and happy lives; form “chosen families”; care about our collective future; and enjoy the benefits of diverse social networks as they age.
‘We are Childfree’ is a photographic project documenting the experiences and stories of women who have decided not to have children.
As these studies proliferate, they may widen awareness and understanding of the childfree choice and contribute to more realistic predictions of the implications of people choosing to remain childfree.
But in popular media, we are still seeing women who are childless or childfree because they are choosing between their career or children. Robin Scherbatsky of
How I Met Your Mother
Big Bang Theory
’s Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz are two of the few childfree female characters on TV. But in the end, both soften their stance. Robin breaks down when she learns that she cannot have children, and Bernadette decides to have children when she negotiates with her husband that he can stay at home and look after them. In each case, there is a sense that women will eventually change their mind about having children, that much of it is always linked with either their career or having children. This might not be the case.
This also perpetuates the view that once women have children, their career will be over. That they have to choose between a binary of
being with children and without their own life
without children if they wish to continue with their own interests and career
. This also makes me think that within this binary there is trapped a view of
a mother as a martyr
, one who has to sacrifice her own wishes, career, interests at the threshold of motherhood. This also takes the responsibility away from society and workplaces to provide affordable or free childcare, flexible working conditions and instead expect women to sacrifice everything at the servitude of their children. It is because of how our society is structured and how value of mothering as capital is not acknowledged. And we internalise it. We keep believing in this narrative where either we feel guilty if we do not want children, or do not decide to have them, or if we do have children and continue to be passionate about our careers, we constantly feel this pressure and guilt that we are being ‘bad mothers’ for ignoring our children, and selfish for thinking of ourselves.
In the recent New York Times article about
declining birth rates in the USA
, we see how women internalise this narrative.
“The choice not to have children,” Pope Francis told an audience in St Peter’s Square in 2015, “is selfish.”
As I examine in (M)OTHERHOOD, the social and political constructs of womanhood and motherhood have been built around the basic idea that a woman’s role is to give birth, and to care for children. The policies that police women’s reproductive facilities are also based around this idea and belief. It is also constructed around the idea that women’s sexuality is inherently linked with reproduction and that if a woman is having sex, then it is for the purposes of procreation. Seeing a woman as a sexual being, with sexual desires, without any intention to bear children is still seen as offensive within the patriarchal society. More in the book.
It is only FOUR WEEKS to publication. EEEKKKKK!!!!!!
‘Is it my story, Mummy?’she said,and then went to bed with it under her pillow. And then cried when she couldn’t find it in the morning.
I am just recording the audio book for it, and it has been such a unique opportunity to sink into the book again, feel each word, hear the rhythm of each section. Reading it is also painful at times. Parts of it is very hard for me to read back for all that I went through but also all the research in there about inequalities and injustices, about what women around the world go through. But ultimately it is also very joyful. It is really a love letter to my children in a lot of ways, and to my past selves. It is nice to celebrate it before the book goes out into the world, and then somehow it doesn’t feel like mine anymore. .
Some books about choices:
Some articles/essays I have enjoyed:
Hope you are all staying well. I am feeling very flu-ey today, and somehow been putting off writing this issue of the newsletter. Also I have so many thoughts on this and it seemed impossible for me to sum it all up without overwhelming you or writing a whole thesis on it. I would love to hear what you think, so please do share your comments and thoughts below if you can.
Hope you all have a lovely weekend.
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