It’s a Woman's Prerogative to Make Decisions about her Body and her Life.
Foregoing motherhood has traditionally marked a woman as "other". With no official place in our society, they have always remained on the sidelines: “the quirky girl”, “the zealous and neurotic careerist”, the "eccentric aunt.” What if, instead of continuing to portray these women without kids as pathetic, self-centered or somehow dysfunctional, we saw them as the pioneers of a civilization where women are fully autonomous?
Luckily, we live in 2023, at a time when choosing to remain childfree has become mainstream. This is because new generations of women do not feel bound by regressive societal expectations, but rather feel free to live their lives as they choose.
The decision to have children or not – is one of the biggest decisions any woman will ever have to make. Once a mother, the majority of her energy will be devoted to her children and her family life. She must therefore plan her pregnancy so that she can organize and control all other aspects of her future. This will allow her to continue her education and develop the skills necessary to become more employable and independent, in her own interest and that of her family.
What society thinks about childfree women, then and now
For most of history, a woman's ‘place’ was in the home, tending to its upkeep and the many babies she was expected to bear. Societal messaging claimed that motherhood was the only valid role for a woman, her ultimate path to fulfillment. Centuries before, women were not allowed to have jobs, their own bank accounts or even wear pants, they were only wives and mothers in line with the division of roles between men and women and organized religion.
In the eyes of a patriarchal society, a woman’s self-worth will always lie in procreation, and women who do not want children will always be seen as “selfish” and “rebellious,” and will eventually “regret” their decisions.
Ironically, choosing to be childfree is not a new phenomenon. At least 1 in 5 American women born between 1885 and 1915 never had children. Many women chose to be single in the 1800s, during the Women's Suffrage Movement. It was at this time that women began to forgo having children, even if they were married. This trend has continued into the 20th and 21st centuries.
Why do some women opt against motherhood?
Except for women who are childless-not-by-choice, it is commonly believed that childfree women dislike children. While this may be true for some women, it is certainly not the case for all.
Some women simply do not feel that having children is a good choice for them. Our desire and ability to become parents depends on a multitude of factors, ranging from our personalities to the culture in which we were raised, to our marital status, our finances and the demands of our jobs. Also, some people grew up in dysfunctional families and have no desire to replicate that legacy. Others have great ambitions for the future and are not yet ready to settle down. What's more, fertility rates have plummeted over the past 4 decades as a result of toxic environmental factors. Growing concerns about global warming also play a role. All these factors profoundly influence people's decisions to have children.
How a woman feels about motherhood may shift over time depending on her circumstances, but some of us will always be more suited to parenthood than others.
There is no such thing as a ‘biological maternal instinct’
Rocking a newborn to sleep. Nursing a toddler's scraped knee. Escorting children to ballet or soccer practice… For many women, the urge to care for and nurture children comes so naturally that it almost seems genetic. But for other women, the desire to have children is either ambivalent or non-existent.
As biologist Gillian Ragsdale has pointed out, there is no reference to a ‘biological paternal instinct’. However, if the desire to procreate were really a function of human biology, it should apply equally to both sexes. This would suggest that the all-consuming desire to have a child is more of a social construct than a biological imperative.
The socially constructed instinct may be quite real, but when women decide that they want to have a child, they do not follow the dictates of their biological function. Rather, it is the desire to feel a certain kind of love, to play a certain role, even to be accepted and considered a full member of society, that is involved.
Engaging in ‘generativity’ to leave a legacy
‘Generativity’ is a concept coined by psychologist Erik Erikson, which refers to ‘the concern for establishing and guiding the next generation’ – it sheds light on how to make our lives count when we don't have children.
Being a biological parent is not a necessary condition for generativity, according to Erikson. We engage in generativity by taking on roles as mentors or teachers, by becoming 'cultural parents', by shaping culture through our businesses and creative endeavors, or by assuming an active role in our community.
Perhaps the best proxy for the term ‘generativity’ is its connotation of ‘generous activity’. Either way, acts of generativity have the potential to benefit others. It is a powerful legacy to perpetuate, whether or not we have children.
The inherent demands and responsibilities that come with parenthood must be carefully considered. Becoming a parent is literally one of the only decisions you can't unmake. And not only can you not undo it, you've also added another human being into the equation.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, young American and Western women were given the message: "You can do and be whatever you want in your life". The Women's Liberation Movement paved the way for birth control, legalized abortion, equal educational and career opportunities, and financial independence.
While the world has come a long way in allowing women to lead independent lives beyond motherhood, the effects of sexism persist. The childcare crisis triggered by the pandemic demonstrated just how inequitable the sharing of parental tasks between men and women remains. Mothers continue to bear the brunt of the burden.
Empowering women to have children only if, when and with whom they choose will not only improve their own life prospects and chances of success, but also those of their children and enhance the stability of their families.