The Motherhood Conundrum
It’s the unspoken expectation that all women at some point will become mothers. We grow up being subconsciously fed this narrative. We’re told it’s our biological reason for being and we’re led to believe it’s the most worthwhile thing we can do with our lives. But what if it’s not? What if extortionate housing costs, unaffordable child care, career choices, digital dating and political uncertainty have left women wondering how to reconcile their biology with their personal choices and financial circumstances.
For a whole generation of women the motherhood question is more complicated than it’s ever been.
Words by Vicky Spratt
For centuries women have been told that we were created to procreate. The advent of reliable contraception in the late 1960s revolutionised our lives, giving us more choices; a say in when and with whom we would have children. What hasn’t changed is the expectation that women want to, and will have, children. It’s written into our lives as the inevitable second act and those who deviate from this narrative are still painted as unusual at best and unnatural at worst.
What has changed is this country’s socio-economic landscape. The youth of today, the millennial generation, who grew up watching Sex and the City characters sip cocktails in designer outfits all paid for by one newspaper column whilst obsessing about bad relationships, came into early adulthood to find that the game had changed. We were met with a gargantuan housing crisis, tuition fees, stagnant wages and uncertainty over the future of our country.
In 2013 the average age of British first-time mothers hit 30 for the first time in recorded history, and it continues to rise. There was outcry from “experts”, including the chairman of the British Fertility Society who suggested that girls as young as 11 should be taught about their “speeding” biological clocks. This was frustrating, but unsurprising — these lazy and myopic assumptions that women who decide not to have children are heartless, selfish and cold continue to prevail. My favourite is a Daily Mail headline from the time that reads: “The women who think they’re too clever to have babies”.
The statistics were framed as the result of women “choosing” to focus on careers before they decide to have children, which is true but surely only part of the story. Very little is said about those women – or couples – who want to have children, but whose circumstances prevent them from doing so.
Kristina is 29. She’s a freelance make-up artist, represented by a major agency, and she’s been married for two years. “When I was younger” she says, “I always thought I’d be a young mum and have kids in my twenties, but as I get older I’m pushing that back, it’s now my thirties.” Why does she think that is? “Even though I’ve been in a relationship for ten years, I don’t quite feel as ready as I thought I would. There are things I still want to do in terms of my career, holidays I want to take and I don’t feel under as much pressure as I thought I would at this age.”
Does she think there are other pressures at play here? “I think it’s always been a difficult decision for a woman — the question of when to have children — as it ultimately means your career will take a back seat. Let’s face it – unless you have a lot of money and can afford help, it’s not going to be business as usual. I think the way motherhood is portrayed on social media is idealistic and it really plays into the idea that you’re only a complete woman if you are a mother.”
The complications, pressures and stigma are not exclusive to heteronormative relationships, they exist and persist for gay women too. Camilla is 25, in a relationship and wants to have children at some point, finances permitting. She notes that, “The expectations placed on same-sex couples are, generally, much weaker...we are generally somewhat liberated from the expectations placed on straight couples. Either of you could carry the child, be the biological parent, take maternity leave, opt to stay at home with the children so there are also more options in a sense.” However, some pressures do persist as she explained, “What does worry me is the amount of judgement towards women when it comes to motherhood...the dos and don'ts projected at mothers. The media propagates a sense that you can't ‘have it all’ and implies that women can either be mothers or career women, even in 2017.”
From imagining motherhood would be part of their lives some women are changing their perspectives. Flik, 27, she says, “Growing up I suppose I imagined a moment in my late twenties that I would feel ready for a child but it hasn’t happened yet.” How have her perceptions changed? “Over the past few years I have felt that motherhood is a much smaller part of a bigger journey and you don’t have to change your whole life just because you’re having a child, which you once did. I do also think that, for all the changes we’ve seen when it comes to equality, there is still an overwhelming assumption that every woman wants a child, but that’s just not true. It’s not reflected in the mainstream media, but there is a growing feeling among women that being single is a choice and that not wanting to have kids is also a valid choice.”
This is something that speaks to me. I have never been sure that I want to have children. At 29 I have not actively decided not to have them, nor have I made any plans to have them, despite being in a long-term and committed relationship. I rarely voice this because women who don’t want children are still, broadly, demonised and dismissed. My internal stream of consciousness is labyrinthine when it comes to motherhood: “Will I regret not having children? Will I resent them if I do have them? Is it possible that I’m just not maternal and that’s OK? Do people think I’m heartless? Why am I able to trust my instincts on everything apart from this? I’m nearly 30…is time running out?!”
Kelli is in her late thirties. She decided not to have children and has written at length about how deciding to be childless is one of the last taboos facing women. “I think I was about 26 when I realised that I didn’t want to have children. It wasn’t even a possibility that I rejected, it was never about deciding between the two: having children or not having children. I was never on the fence about it.”
Does she think that there’s a stigma that surrounds not having children? “Yes. Women like me are becoming more common, but it’s still viewed as a ‘strange’ choice. Being a woman and being a ‘mother’ are still very much entwined as one and the same, so if you don’t fulfil your second role, you’re somehow ‘lesser’.” Kelli also thinks that “harsh assumptions” about women who don’t want to have children persist: “We’re emotionally damaged, cold, un-nurturing, selfish and immature. I think this is a factor in many women feeling pressure to have children because they don’t want to be thought of like this.” Where does she think such preconceptions come from? “I think women are still led to believe that their main purpose in life is to have children and that this is the only thing they need to be truly fulfilled. But many women who have children find this isn’t exactly true and this, in turn, triggers all sorts of emotional turmoil, from feeling extremely guilty to thinking there must be something ‘wrong’ with them.”
I ask Kelli whether she’s ever worried about regretting her decision. “I think that this is a major fear that leads people to have children even if they may think they would be happier not doing so. I know myself very well and I know I am making the right decision for myself. I just can’t imagine doing something that I have such strong reservations about now, something so life-changing because I might possibly regret it in the future.”
For every woman who is, like me or Flik, unsure about having children, there is a woman like Kelli who is sure that kids aren’t for her. There are also young women like Jess, who works in marketing and, at 27, has just had her first child, Darcie, in a “semi-planned” way. She never set herself an age at which she would want children or really thought about it in depth, but now describes motherhood as one of her greatest achievements.
“Throughout my pregnancy I was worried about losing a sense of my identity and although being a mother means everything to me, I didn’t want to be labeled as just that,” she explains. “I knew that I had so much more to offer and I still wanted to do something for me alongside being a parent. Putting your career on hold is a scary prospect because it’s everything you’ve ever worked towards.” How has she dealt with that? “I’m looking into different options like retraining completely and how I could fit that in around my previous job (because I have bills to pay) and being a mother. It isn’t easy but it will be worth it long-term.”
Jess adds that, “the cost of childcare means that returning to work might not be a choice for everyone because staying at home could well work out to be more cost-effective. You also hear too many stories of workplaces not being accommodating to women who are returning to work. We’ve got to stand our ground and change the way society approaches this: it should work for women and their employers. We need more flexibility and I think our generation can fight for this.”
The narratives around motherhood need to change so that having a child is seen as a woman’s choice, not duty, and no woman should have to justify her choice to be child-free. But, at a very basic level, we need to start taking maternity rights and the cost of childcare more seriously because it remains — as it did at the first meeting of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Oxford in 1970 — one of the last barriers to women’s equality and autonomy. If basic requirements such as affordable childcare, egalitarian and flexible maternity rights and affordable housing are met, then we can focus on what’s actually going to work for us.