Twenty one year-old Gloria sits across me in the waiting room at a general hospital. I can sense her discomfort as my little boy tries to get her attention; smiling and waving at her. She deliberately refuses to smile back, say hello or even wave at him as she keeps her eyes focused on the headlines on the glossy magazines lining the road to the receptionist. “I’m so sorry,” she says “I don’t really like children. They’re so much trouble. I’m never going to have one.” I immediately realize that there is no ill-will intended. But then, the question popped in; “why did she feel the need to apologize?” It seemed that this was not the first time she felt that she owed someone an apology for not willing to entertain their children. Upon trying to find out more, she tells me:
“Sometimes, I toy with the worry of having future regrets but I feel I’m going to be miserable if I ever have a child”
Apart from lacking maternal urge, Gloria certainly feels that children take a lot from our time and finances and she can’t bring herself to give up the kind of life that not having children will afford her; running her own consultancy, weekend sleeping-in, frequent travelling and shopping around the world.
Gloria is not the only young woman I have come across who sees motherhood this way. 27-year-old Huda, an attorney tells me; “Personally, I experienced motherhood in a similar way. Growing up, I never ceased to mull over the little details about the happy little family next door. From the little girl playing in the garden to the twins trotting off to school, all I ever dreamt of was having a family of my own.”
It wasn’t until she got married and had her son that Huda discovered how hard motherhood was. For a while, she resented her new role as a mother but she kept it to herself for fear that she would be thought of as less of being a woman. If she could make that choice over again, she says, she wouldn’t.
“I love my son so dearly,” Huda says“but deep inside; I wasn’t prepared for all the sacrifices that came with having him.”
While most mothers admit that having children is a lot of hard work and sacrifice, they are quick to point out that the rewards outweigh the challenges. For a number of women across the world, this is not the case. In a world where birth rates are going down and maternal doubts are increasing, why do women who have deliberately chosen to be childfree feel judged? This unexplored maternal experience is almost unspeakable but there really are women out there who either do not want to have children or wish to undo motherhood.
“We live in interesting times,” says Tracey, a writer, in her medium article “If a woman doesn’t want children, it’s offensive. If a woman has too many children, it’s offensive. If a woman has children with multiple men, it’s offensive. These days, there’s no right way to be a woman, especially when it comes to her reproductive choices.”
The 2017 Global Burden of Disease Study reported that on a global scale, fertility rates have been cut in half since the last seven decades, while an investigation of fertility intentions in developed countries revealed that approximately a fifth to a third of women who got pregnant isn’t quite sure whether or not they actually want a baby. Evidence has also shown that the US birth rate is at an all-time low. This is similar to South Korea’s birth rate which in the last year fell to less than one child per woman for the very first time. In April 2019, the Financial Times also reported that there was a huge drop in the number of new births in China since the country repealed its one-child policy.
Early last year, Jean Mackenzie did a spotlight story on BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire’s Programme on diverse mothers who regret having children. It was a highly emotive and controversial topic; one that for ages had been “taboo” to discuss in many communities around the world. Although most of the mothers interviewed admitted that they loved their children so much, they also expressed disappointment with the rigours and toughness of raising children while displaying regret at having their careers badly affected by their decisions to become mothers. As brave as these women were in showing vulnerability, they are unfortunately not free from the constant guilt that hits them over their lack of maternal feelings for their children.
From the BBC’s 100 Women 2016: Parents who regret having children to Marie Claire’s Inside the growing movement of women who wished they never had kids, more and more women are choosing not to have children while the discussions surrounding these childfree choices remain narrow.
The idea that there are so many diverse ways of creating a “family” is still a pretty new concept in so many societies. There exists a stigma surrounding women who do not surrender to or even feel a natural maternal urge. Women who opt out feel somehow “less than” as they do not live up to the expectations of what women should do or want. They are referred to as “selfish”, “unnatural” or believed to “exemplify the ‘whining’ culture we allegedly live in.”
A 2017 study published in the journal “Sex Roles” found that many people who consider the decision to forgo parenthood are seen as not only abnormal but also morally deficient.
“These people find it offensive and decree that the word ‘childfree’ shouldn’t be used,” says Tracey, “This is very ridiculous. I’ve worked very hard to remain childfree, and I’m not going to sugarcoat it to please anyone whose decisions have led to a different outcome.”
According to Fatima Ahdash in her article titled “Motherhood Isn’t for Everyone: Honouring the Diversity of the Female Experience, “There should be room for diversity, and there are myriad ways to be a woman. Many women DO have maternal feelings. That’s great and they should be supported by all of us. But many women do not. There is nothing innate or natural about maternal instincts and we must not judge, much less ostracize, women who do not choose to be mothers”.
While we acknowledge that some women do not possess maternal instincts and as a result, choose to be child-free, we will also not fail to acknowledge the realities of those who actually want children and have tried to have them to no avail. Society views these two groups of women in an almost similar way; expressing disdain for the former and pity for the latter
“It can be heartbreaking to face the question of childlessness when you want kids”, says Ephrat Livni in her article titled ‘I’m not a mom, and it’s complicated’ “but it does no service to women in this position to view them with pity. Listening is good. Being patient and understanding with their pain is great. But pity implies that they cannot go on without offspring and that if they do, they will always be viewed as deficient.”
Chinese writer, Fan Yiying writes in an article published in Chinese Online Magazine, Sixth Tone, that the Chinese people generally have a disdain for married people who either cannot have children or deliberately choose not to have children. She talked about a particular marriage counselor who “advises her clients to have children, calling parenthood ‘an indispensable life experience’ and arguing that it doesn’t have to preclude work and other life goals”.
Ironically, In a 2016 research published in the American Journal of Sociology, researchers dubbed a new phenomenon known as the “Parenting Happiness Gap” summarily stating that having children makes people significantly less happy compared to people who don’t have kids.
“Liking kids or not is rarely the reason I see among patients who’ve decided to remain childless,” says psychologist Dr Sarah Gundle, co-clinical director at Manhattan behavioral health studio Octave, “Women now have more choices, and for many, it’s a choice like any other choice. But the idea of women [having children] is still so deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness that women who choose not to are often seen as a little suspect.”
In the end, it is worth saying that the choice to be childfree is just a choice like every other. There is not a single way to be a woman and women should not be witch-hunted for making choices that affect their own personal lives. “Expanding the vocabulary of motherhood helps all women”, Israeli sociologist Orna Donath says “We need to make it easier for mothers to be mothers but to also rethink the policies of reproduction and the very obligation to become mothers at all.”
Women need to create more inclusive rooms for these doubts, insecurities and struggle to be more widely expressed; to become part of a broader conversation. The avenue for women to be able to make more informed decisions cannot exist without a perpetually open conversation surrounding the diversity of women’s experiences, pushing the boundaries of accepted maternal response, challenging the explosive taboo and re-framing womanhood in the process.