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The unreasonable expectations of American motherhood

America is a difficult place to be a mom. And yet many women are judged harshly for choosing not to be one. (iStock)

In the week before beginning maternity leave, I was trying to write a poignant and expansive essay on what it means to become a mother, but what I kept thinking about was why so many women aren’t having children.

“How Low Can America’s Birthrate Go Before It’s A Problem?” asked a FiveThirtyEight headline last week. “Low Birthrates Beckon New Debate,” read the Wall Street Journal. Both noted the stakes: fewer workers paying into Social Security, essential jobs without bodies to fill them. Our economy hums along based on the idea of growth, both of money and of people, and in the past few years demographers and pundits alike have pondered the decline. Last year was a record low for the American birthrate. Some of that was pandemic-related, some was not: The birthrate has fallen for six consecutive years.

You could, as I do, presume some positives — women with greater access to birth control, and couples choosing the size of their families more intentionally. Or you could, as many commentators have, view this as a terrible problem to be solved, representing a drift from classic family values.

So as a longtime childless woman who is now wading through insurance forms and hospital preregistration and breast-pump reimbursements, I’ll offer a personal framework for “solving” the “problem”: My family values are fine. The country’s are not. For many years I did not have children because, in policies and practices, the United States is hell for mothers.

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I did not have children because day care where I live costs an average of $24,000 per year, and renting a two-bedroom apartment can cost upward of $30,000, and in my childbearing prime my salary ranged from $37,000 to $45,000. Those numbers are far above the minimum wage that many mothers scrape by on, but still the math never made sense.

On May 3, President Biden advocated for creating universal access to two years of preschool and two years of community college. (Video: The Washington Post)

I did not have children because while other countries determined that investing in child care — making it free or inexpensive — is the easiest way to encourage motherhood, the United States has determined that what’s easiest is simply berating families who can’t make it work, telling them that they should have budgeted better, or saved more, or arranged for Grandma to watch the baby. (I did not have children because Grandma, my own mother, is still working full time.)

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Pregnancy and childbirth are bloody, messy, flesh-tearing endeavors after which American women are discharged from the hospital with no codified support. No free Finnish baby boxes containing all necessary baby gear. No free British midwives, dropping by your home to check on the mental and physical well-being of the new parents. No free Swedish lactation consultants, no German hebammen. No mandated paid maternity leave as exists throughout Europe and in other countries like South Korea, Israel, Mexico, Chile.

Compared with 40 other relatively wealthy countries, the United States is the only one that does not provide paid parental leave, that expects women to discharge themselves from the hospital and then cheerfully return to work, still wearing compression binders to hold in their angry Caesarean section scars, and that is why I did not have children.

Our culture loves nothing more than to judge women for the choices they make, and then rejudge them if they make different choices. More than a handful of readers, I know, have gotten this far into the column and have decided that the problem is not a systemic lack of empathy and accommodation for mothers but rather women like me: childless women who should have lived somewhere less expensive, or found unicorn jobs with high pay and flexible hours, or arranged child-care swaps with imaginary neighbors, or just shut up about it and not bore everyone with their whining.

Or, just not had children at all. Most of us want to be respectable, responsible, contributing members of society, and those options were presented as the only respectable choices: Have children and never expect an iota of help from anyone who is not a blood relative; or don’t have them and be forced to explain yourself to people who can’t seem to understand childlessness as something other than a sign of dysfunction, weakness or entitlement.

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Once I listened to a close friend cry in pain for several days after giving birth, declining to call a doctor because her relatives kept cheerfully clucking, “The sacrifice is just part of being a woman!”

Women are not having children because they know if something went alarmingly wrong with the pregnancy, they would have to go to an abortion clinic while strangers lined the building and called them murderers on what was already the worst day of their lives.

Women are not having children because they know the same people who insisted they cared about what happened to their fetuses would not care much at all about what happened to their children. Because nobody makes signs and marches in support of postnatal extended hospital stays (the average duration of postnatal hospital care has halved since the 1970s). Because there is no powerful, righteous bloc of single-issue voters in America who are threatening to make or break politicians over their support of universal preschool.

There were other reasons I personally did not have children, of both a thoughtful and ridiculous nature (What if I dropped him? What if I accidentally left her in the car, the way I sometimes accidentally leave my wallet in the car?).

But most of the reasons had nothing to do with me — with whether I liked kids, or thought I could be a loving and invested mother. I do, and can. I have hilarious nieces and nephews. I write novels for kids and teenagers, and love visiting schools and listening to the life philosophies of the 12-year-old readers who email me.

I did not have children because America is a difficult place to be a mom. And because every policy-based attempt to change that is met by telling women to buck up, drink a glass of rosé and download the Calm app. Screw that.

Now I’m having a baby, a plot twist that involved a lot of thinking and planning with my husband, paired with a lucky salary bump, paired with my employer’s increasingly generous leave policies, paired with a soulful and biological pull that asked to be listened to rather than suppressed. I’ll say that I expect motherhood to be very, very hard, but also as immense and rewarding and transformative and weird as everyone says it is.

I will also say, as I’m heading off on this immense and rewarding journey, that I will never forget what it feels like to be a woman who is not having children. And how that might be because a woman genuinely doesn’t want to — an equal, valid and conversation-ending choice that should be respected unequivocally.

And how some of those women maybe do want to have children, but they are among the many American women for whom motherhood is not a practical choice. It’s not because they are entitled, or weak, or dysfunctional. It’s because their country is.

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit