The barriers in place before a girl who decides she does not want to become a mom are formidable. First of all, such a stance inevitably is a rejection of one’s own mother, to some degree. Coming to terms with the fact that one does not want to be a mom, like one’s mom, can be a difficult psychological maneuver — particularly since the weight of cultural pressures are strongly against this choice. And once a girl or woman decides that she prefers not to have children, she must defend herself over and over and over again. I can say from lifelong experience that no one believes a girl who claims not to want to be a mom. It’s very frustrating when perfect strangers presume to know one’s innermost desires without even asking! As a child, I recall adults asking my brother what he wanted to be when he grew up, listening to him sagely, then turning to me and flatly declaring, “I know what you want to be: a MOMMY!” And when I denied this desire, I have always been told, with a patronizing “what-a-silly-girl!” smile, “Oh, you’ll change your mind!” I was told I would change my mind when I grew up; then I was told I would change my mind when I met the right man; then, that I would change my mind when I settled down; that I would change my mind overnight when my “biological clock” suddenly started ticking; that I would change my mind when my friends had babies; even that I would change my mind after I had tenure. When confident assertions of my hidden maternal nature proved inadequate, the appeals to conscience began. I was told that I must have children for the sake of my future old age, for the sake of the human race, for the sake of perpetuating progressive values, for the sake of passing on my own intelligent genes (this last from my mom).
Indeed, for girls the mom imperative is the central element of the broader heteronormative expectations of our culture. The authorized script for girls, as they mature into women, is that their best achievements in life inevitably will lie in the familial and domestic spheres. We are told over and over again by the Self-Appointed Obligatory Maternity Propaganda Brigade (SAOMPB) that, whatever else a woman may accomplish, her truest fulfillment derives from bearing and nurturing children. Such statements are incredibly demeaning: they denigrate any accomplishments a woman may value aside from reproduction, and restrict women’s sphere of meaningful activity to a purely biological realm. Interestingly, segments of the culture that normally exist in tension with one another, happily collude in the gauzy idealization of maternity. The Christian right presents motherhood as women’s divinely-ordained role, while the spiritual left exalts it in equally essentialist, earth-mother-goddess-creatrix terms. Maternity is even more important than heterosexual romance, in our prevailing narrative of female self-worth: how many times have we read and heard that love for one’s children is superior to, and stronger than, romantic love for one’s partner?* That you will never really understand love until you hold your own child in your arms?** That looking into your child’s eyes, or smile, is the most transcendent and fulfilling experience a woman can have? That pregnancy and childbirth is nothing less than a miracle — i.e., something that cannot be matched by any other endeavor, no matter how praiseworthy, valuable, or difficult of attainment.
I don’t deny that these things are true for many women. Just don’t assume they hold true for us all, and please do not condescend to tell me that they are true for me. Moreover, don’t assume that I’m selfish, don’t assume that I hate kids, don’t assume that I hate parents, and don’t assume that I’m bitter and pitifully unfulfilled. I just don’t want kids of my own — that’s it! I’m happy and “normal” in every other way.
So, here is my lesson for girls. I would like to say to them the words that no one has ever said to me, even once: You don’t have to be a mom. You have value beyond your womb. You can define yourself in any way you like, through a variety of endeavors and goals and achievements. And if you do choose to be a mom, you can be other things at the same time. Be yourself first.