When I was asked, as a child, what I wanted to be when I got older, the word “mother” never once crossed my lips. And yet, I was asked time and again for my list of favourite baby names, or whether I would prefer a son or a daughter. It seems as though I was born to become a mother. After all, what point is there in a woman that won’t have children?
In this sense, women’s lives seem to be predestined. As if there are rigid milestones to be met: the naivety of childhood, an awkward adolescence, the wild freedoms of young adulthood, then the inevitable settling down, marriage, children, and eventual retirement. Only pitiable deviants would stray from this path. Our primary function is to have a family: to organise ourselves into neat familial units to produce the next generation. To fulfil the white picket fence fantasy. Though the composition of families may be diversifying, the expectation to slot into a child-rearing unit remains. To be childless is to have missed out on some fundamental part of life itself; to be childless is to have failed.
As a woman, this default takes on a very particular form: you become relegated to the family, to the domestic sphere. The fundamental reason for your existence is to bear and raise children. To not do so is to not fulfil your primary function: as primary carer of house and home. Therefore, to exist as a woman means to eventually submit to the inevitability of a family. It means you must be prepared to sacrifice or limit your own ambitions in order to raise a child.
A narrative pushed in Third Wave Feminism was that women could “have it all” by having children and a career. There was no longer the need to choose! Good women, Third Wave Feminism decreed, juggled a career and her children effortlessly. The subsequent reality has shown that this is overwhelmingly untrue: not everyone can have it all. Without excessive external support, sacrifices must be made somewhere. It is unfair to force women to be both primary carers and compete professionally with those who aren’t. In reality, this feminist powercry that domniated the 1990s was the patriarchy re-enforcing double standards with a veil of equality. Rather than dividing domestic and professional tasks evenly, women were, and still are, expected to carry the burden of childcare. Women end up leading two jobs: motherhood and her professional career. We have been lied to: promised a new world that would treat us as equals, but instead, we only got marching orders to burn our candles at both ends.
This undeniable reality means that the decision to have children must be done with the awareness of the sacrifices you must make. A life with children is inevitably going to look very different than a life without, especially for women, who are often expected to carry the burden of the familial unit’s emotional labours. Most importantly, there is the responsibility of another person in your hands. It is irresponsible to fall thoughtlessly into parenthood, and it is irresponsible to deny that women often fall into a domestic disadvantage.
Encouragingly, it appears that it is becoming more acceptable to prioritise oneself and refuse to partake in the unrealistic fantasy of a nuclear family. Women, over the last two decades, are having children later or not at all. This is a dangerous idea to some, with a Cambridge college recently stating they plan on introducing lessons to remind female students to have children by their mid-thirties. The assumption that women are simply “forgetting” to have children completely misunderstands the modern reality of motherhood. Not only do most women with ambition want to establish themselves securely in their career before taking the professional risk of having children, but many women are making the choice that they simply do not want to raise a family. No one is “forgetting” to have kids, more women are simply making the choice not to — to suggest otherwise is to patronise our ability to chart the course of our own lives.
To continuously remind women of the ticking time-bomb that is our fertility reasserts the idea that our value depends on our childbearing abilities. My sincerest apologies for not fulfilling my apparent function as a woman, but I believe our use to be of more than baby-making machines. It should not be assumed that every woman without children has “forgotten” to have them, or should be pitied because they were not afforded the opportunity. We should be able to exercise autonomy over our life and our own reproduction.
To not want to give your life to children is entirely valid — particularly when you consider the sacrifices that women must make to do so. We are more than their ability to reproduce, and to pity those without children is to reduce female value. Stop telling people to have children and allow it to be a genuine choice rather than an expectation. Let us formulate a life that we want.
Illustration: Olivia Little