The assumption of eventual, inevitable motherhood is drilled into girls’ heads at an early age. Girls are given advice preceded by “when you have children,” not “if you have children.” We are brought up thinking that motherhood is something that happens to everyone — if not naturally, then through adoption, marriage or assisted reproduction.
Now, however, the conversation around motherhood is beginning to change. Female celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Helen Mirren, Cameron Diaz and many others have spoken publicly about their decisions to remain child-free.
Or they’re mining their kid-less status for laughs, using humor to highlight that it’s possible to have a fulfilling life without having children. Take, for example, Chelsea Handler’s faux-PSA on a recent episode her Netflix show, called “Kids: They’re Not That Great,” in which she wakes up at 1 p.m. and informs the audience: “I don’t have to go anywhere today. I don’t have to go to Disneyland, Legoland, Color Me Mine, Build-A-Bear, Yogurtland, the zoo. I don’t have to go to any of those places. Not once. Not ever.”
Kid/Life Crisis, a podcast hosted by New York comedians Katie Compa and Raquel D’Apice, is also contributing to this conversation with a dose of humor. Each episode features a guest — such as a NASA astrophysicist; comedian Ophira Eisenberg (host of NPR’s “Ask Me Another”); a bioethicist (spoiler: that’s me) — discussing their thoughts about whether or not to become parents.
However, when younger women try to take measures to secure their child-free status, their desires often aren’t taken seriously. They’re told that they will inevitably change their minds. For example, it took Holly Brockwell, a 30-year-old woman in Britain, four years to get the National Health Service to tie her fallopian tubes, a simple and somewhat reversible form of sterilization. When Brockwell requested the procedure at age 26, doctors told her that she was too young to make such a drastic decision. Of course, few would question a 26-year-old woman’s decision to have children and probably would not argue that she is too young. Society still doesn’t believe women when we say that we don’t want to be mothers.
Seeing different versions of family does a small part to undo this preconceived notion. In the past several years, there has been a rapid change in the sense of what a family is, thanks to increasing visibility of LGBT parents. High-profile gay couples with children including Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka, and Elton John and David Furnish show up on television and in the media with such regularity that it is no longer newsworthy — they’re just another famous family. This gradual shift in the conception of what constitutes a family is beginning to weaken the default view that all women must be mothers, and that every family requires a mother.
While progress has been made, we still have a way to go. For starters, there is still the misconception that women who do not want to be mothers dislike children. For me, that could not be further from the truth. I prefer to sit at the kids’ table at family functions. One of the most important and fulfilling relationships in my life is with my 4-year-old niece. This is partially because she is clever, compassionate and hilarious, but also because I moved to New York just after her first birthday and I have gotten to know her (almost) from the beginning of her life.
Witnessing someone learning to speak and developing a personality and a sense of humor — and being part of her life — is something I had never experienced before, and frankly, it’s wonderful. For the first time, I understand the appeal of this aspect of parenting — I’m just not sure if it is in the cards for me. If it’s not, I would like that to be seen as a valid life choice.
We also need to realize that there are many ways to be a mother. The emphasis on biological and/or genetic motherhood is insulting to people who became parents through other means, such as adoption, by surrogate or by marriage. It reinforces the false belief that true mothers are those who have gestated and birthed their own children. There is room for all kinds of parents, in different types of relationships (or no relationship at all) who became parents through a variety of means. Respecting others’ decisions of how to handle their own fertility and what to do with their own body is a good first step.
Women have all kinds of options for how or when to get pregnant. It is time for the option not to have children to be viewed as equally viable.