If you’re a young woman who doesn’t want kids, you’re probably familiar with this response “Oh don’t worry, you will someday” – as if the desire not to have children is just a phase as simple as any other- like waking up one morning and deciding you want bangs.
The older we get, the more maddening this kind of dismissive response becomes. Why should it be a cause for “worry” if a woman doesn’t want to have kids? Men experience a version of this too, but female identity is so tightly wrapped up in the machinery of motherhood, that its a pressure we inherit at a really young age. Not only does the belief that women are uniquely equipped to raise children undermine the role of fathers and other caregivers, it simply isn’t true. Yet it’s the narrative we are fed over and over, directly and indirectly throughout our whole lives.
We’ve all heard stories or know women who never wanted kids, until one day their maternal instinct just woke up from hibernation. Or mothers who never planned on having children but became pregnant unexpectedly, and now they can’t imagine their lives without kids. These women are perfectly valid, and represent the majority of the maternity story we’re accustomed to, but does that mean that this should be considered the norm? Parenting isn’t easy for anyone, but motherhood seems to come somewhat naturally to some women while others struggle much more. It leads us to ask- what about people (mothers and childless women alike) whose maternal instincts never “kick in”?
Motherhood and Online Media
Social media plays a huge part in the was in which we share our lives, how we relate to one another, and how we interpret societal expectations – for better or for worse. Celebrity maternity updates are wildly popular on social media, with celebrity moms sharing images that promote an idealized version of motherhood that is simply unattainable for the average woman. Most of us can recognize the performative elements and staged nature of parenting on these platforms, but we still buy into it. The top five most liked Instagram posts of all time are all about celebrity babies.
- Kylie Jenner’s official baby name announcement (Feb 6, 2018): 17.7 million likes
- Kylie Jenner posing with 1-month old daughter on (March 1, 2018): 12.3 million likes
- Cristiano Ronaldo’s announcement of fourth child (Nov 12, 2017): 11.3 million likes
- Beyonce’s twin pregnancy announcement (Feb 1, 2017): 11.2 million likes
- Kylie Jenner’s pregnancy/ birth announcement (Feb 4, 2018): 10.6 million likes
This just goes to show how powerful maternity stories are in capturing our fascination, and also that interest is greatly focused on maternity over paternity. It’s also interesting to note that it’s not photos of the kids that get our attention, but the announcements themselves. In fact, of the top 10 most-liked Instagram posts, only 3 are not baby-related. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with “liking” celebrity babies, we would do well to consider what it says about how we relate to the institution of motherhood, and what this means for mothers of all economic backgrounds who aren’t famous.
Maybe Having Kids Isn’t For Everyone…
There’s a great deal of pressure on women not only to have children, but to be really good at raising them. While we are broadening our idea of what constitutes a family structure, finally moving past the nuclear family, we don’t seem to be doing the same when it comes to our expectations of motherhood. While men and women face similar issues surrounding parenthood (fathers generally taking much more parenting responsibility than they did 50 years ago), the added pressure of the legendary maternal instinct and the never-ending talk of biological clocks is, again, almost entirely exclusive to women.
The idea that all women possess an instinctive desire and ability to raise children is simply untrue. Plenty of women never have a maternal epiphany. However, so much of the discourse around motherhood is riddled with “But’s”. Whether it comes from family and friends, or mere acquaintances, all too often we hear phrases like, “You say you don’t want kids now, but that will change when you meet someone you love” or “Your mother didn’t want kids but imagine if she’d never had you”. Why is there an inherent need to maintain the script of traditional motherhood? Why is it so hard to simply listen to women who either don’t want kids, or who are struggling after the fact that with the realization that it wasn’t the right decision for them?
Unpopular Opinions: Maternal Regret and Childless by Choice
There’s plenty of reasons in 2018 why someone would choose not to have children, whether it’s because of larger societal issues such as the global environment crisis or personal reasons like choosing to prioritize other relationships in one’s life. Yet the suggestion that motherhood is not a “one-size fits all” role is often interpreted as an insult to the “sanctity of motherhood” and the idea that deep down, all women want to be mothers. The reality is that many women don’t ever see themselves as or want to be mothers. But the protection of the sanctity of motherhood has created a huge taboo around women who regret becoming mothers.
Online forums and Facebook groups – such as Childfree by Choice and I Regret Having Children– are emerging as (somewhat) safe spaces, where people are beginning to speak out on the oppressive institution of motherhood and parenting in general. These groups, are just two examples of online communities for people who fall outside the traditional model of parenthood. In many ways, they represent two sides of the same coin. What is at the centre of a lot of these communities, is not a hatred of children, but a criticism of the expectation that being a good parent, especially a mother, requires absolute self sacrifice.
Online platforms are a double edged sword- on one hand they further the unrealistic idealized depiction of motherhood thus adding greater pressure on “real life” mothers, while also providing a space for supportive communities to connect. But even in the most supportive networks, maternity has always been polarizing. Furthermore, as Andrea O’Reilly, online culture has a knack for pitting women against each other especially on trending issues. When everyone is divided into groups or schools or thought, our differences quickly become sources of contention and entrench us in our own views, rather than encouraging us to consider alternative perspectives.
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that someone else’s choices and feelings are coming from a place that is valid for them. There’s no reason why those who are childless by choice should be seen as if they are in opposition with people who have children. Nor should people who mourn the loss of their lives before children be vilified for expressing a sentiment that is shared worldwide, but rarely talked about. We have greater communication tools and resources to connect with one another than our mothers and fathers did, but it is up to us to be critical of these channels when they fail us. Whether you’re a parent yourself or not, it’s crucial not to disregard the importance of face-to-face support for those who may feel like they have nowhere to turn, who don’t see their stories represented in the cascade of online opinions.
(2017). The Economist Data Team. “Parents Now Spend Twice as much Time with their Children than 50 Years Ago” (Chart). The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2017/11/daily-chart-20
Anne Kingston. “‘I Regret Having Children’”. Macleans. Retrieved from http://www.macleans.ca/regretful-mothers/
(2016). Jennifer Ludden. “Should We Be Having Kids in the Age of Climate Change?”. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2016/08/18/479349760/should-we-be-having-kids-in-the-age-of-climate-change
(2017) Stefanie Marsh. “‘It’s the Breaking of a Taboo’: The Parents who Regret Having Children”. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/feb/11/breaking-taboo-parents-who-regret-having-children
Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.“3 Relationship Pitfalls When Entering Parenthood & Pointers To Help”. PsychCentral. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/3-relationship-pitfalls-when-entering-parenthood-pointers-to-help