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Exploding the myth of motherhood

Essay | 25 minute read
Despite all the strides towards gender equality, child-free woman are still ill-judged by society against their fecund, partnered-up counterparts.

Douglas Sirk’s 1956 romantic melodrama There’s Always Tomorrow tells the story of Clifford Groves, a middle-aged toy manufacture in California who feels hemmed in by responsibility and routine. Clifford wants to enjoy life with his wife, Marion – dinners out, trips to the theatre – but she is preoccupied with the demands of motherhood, always prioritising their children – Vinnie, Ellen, and Frankie – often at the expense of her husband’s happiness. When Clifford runs into an attractive former co-worker, Norma Vale, now a successful fashion designer and lonely divorcee, he finds himself enamoured by the prospect of a different kind of life with a different kind of woman. Given the social mores of the period, it is unsurprising that despite temptation, the attraction comes to nothing. The film’s ending is a ‘happy’ one inasmuch as morality has prevailed, regardless of how unhappy this leaves both Clifford – trapped in the role of responsible father and husband – and Norma – alone and childless.

Relatively early on in the narrative, before either has really acknowledged the attraction that develops between them, Clifford invites Norma to his home for dinner with the family. After which, a telling encounter plays out between husband and wife as they get ready for bed. As in many other scenes, Marion – apparently distracted by her domestic duties – is oblivious to Clifford’s distress, something that is all the more unnerving on this occasion as she is more than comfortable making sweeping assumptions about their dinner guest’s life after only one evening in her company. Underneath all Norma’s ostensible success and glamour, Marion is convinced she is lonely.

‘Cliff’, she gently corrects her husband when he rebukes her, ‘excitement and success never meant as much to a woman as to a man, nor do they exclude the possibility of loneliness.’

‘Well, you can bet she doesn’t let boredom win out in her life. You heard her tonight,’ he retorts defensively. ‘Yes, and I also saw the way she looked at this house, the way she looked at Frankie, at Ellen, and Vinnie,’ Marion replies wryly. ‘I feel sorry for her.’

‘She’s missed what every woman really wants,’ Marion continues. ‘Oh, I know she’s successful, and has a big job, but tonight I was very proud and thankful for my children and my home, and for you, of course, dear,’ she ends, reinforcing the fact that he is always the afterthought.

Watching the film recently, I was amused at first by how outdated Marion’s sentiments sounded. Few today would dare claim that women lack the drive and ambition of their male counterparts; times have certainly changed in that regard. But as I considered it further, I realised that when it comes to positioning the single, child-free woman in direct opposition to her fecund, partnered-up counterpart, plenty of the same clichés and prejudices abound.

The very fact that these two versions of womanhood still dominate at all is telling. More than sixty years have passed, and great strides froward have been made; yet many are still quick to make the assumption that as a 36-year-old woman without children, my life is somehow unfulfilled. And even when I profess that this is something I have chosen – not to have child – people are suspicious, as if I am either not to be trusted to know my own mind or deliberately trying to fool everyone while secretly seething with envy.

I am often angered by the position I find myself in. One in which I have to explain the choices I have made to people who have little business asking. At best, I have to field value judgements disguised as compliments. I have heard countless variations on the ‘not having kids of your own would be such a shame; you’d make such a good mother’ refrain, as if evidence of me bouncing someone else’s baby on my knee for five minutes is proof enough of both my maternal instinct and my abilities – financial through emotional – to bring a child of my own into the world. At worst, I am asked outright why I don’t want children, the questioner making little attempt to disguise their disdain.

On these occasions, I am reminded of a confrontation Rebecca Solnit recounted  in her essay ‘The Mother of All Questions’ during which an interviewer, live on stage, ‘hounded’ her about her childlessness. The discussion was supposed to be about her recent book on politics, but the male interviewer ‘insisted that instead of talking about the products of my mind, we should talk about the fruit of my loins, or lack thereof,’ she writes. ‘No answer I gave could satisfy him. His position seemed to be that I must have children, that it was incomprehensible that I did not, and so we had to talk about why I didn’t, rather than about the books I did have.’

I am stating the obvious when I point out that a childless man is rarely harassed so aggressively or publicly on the same subject. Turn the situation around and it would be considered deeply impolite if I asked pregnant women and mothers why they had decided to have children, or – heaven forbid – I told them they really shouldn’t have had them at all, that it was such a shame they had sacrificed their independence for a baby.

The more suspicion I engender in others, the more resentment I feel, which in turn feeds my dogmatism. I am now at a point where, if so inclined, I am more than comfortable with waxing lyrical about my own decision not to have children and how incensed I am by the widespread belief – propagated by and large, as I see it, by those who have procreated – that having children is a deeply selfless act. That it is only by being responsible for a tiny human that one learns the true meaning of love and sacrifice. This has always confused me.

In truth, I have always regarded having children as one of the most selfish things any of us can do. There’s a wonderful moment in Sheila Heti’s new novel, Motherhood, where the central protagonist – a 37-year-old woman who is trying to work out whether or not to have a child – relates something her partner Miles (himself a father to a daughter from a previous relationship) says: ‘Of course raising children is a lot of hard work, but I don’t see why it’s supposed to be so virtuous to do work that you created for yourself out of purely your own self-interest.’ So firmly did it reinforce my feelings on the subject, I wanted to whoop with joyful agreement when I read this. ‘It’s like someone who digs a hole in the middle of a busy intersection,’ Miles continues, ‘and then starts filling it up again, and proclaims: Filling up this hole is the most important thing in the world I could be doing right now.’

Adults are known for warning children that the demand ‘I want’ is too self-serving to be considered polite, but try telling that to a woman whose biological clock has started ticking. As an otherwise logical and pragmatic friend put it when I asked her how it felt: ‘I wanted a baby more than anything else, and would have done pretty much anything – within reason – to have one.’

Everywhere I look I am bombarded with stories of women going to extraordinary lengths to achieve this socially sanctioned solipsism. Money and energy poured into IVF, partners cajoled into parenthood, women sacrificing the freedoms and careers they previously worked so hard for. I am not suggesting that I live in a world of 1950s throwbacks, I don’t think I know any mother in my peer group who doesn’t also have a job outside of the home, yet in none of these households is the division of domestic labour (specifically childrearing) split 50-50.

Despite having male partners who would readily and loudly proclaim themselves feminists, my straight female friends who are mothers inevitably end up doing the lion’s share of the childcare, in particular the less fun, more chore-like elements – making sure the children are fed on time, changing nappies, booking routine doctor’s appointments and buying school supplies. All of which detract from what little time these mothers have to call their own to begin with. Just reading Deborah Levy’s powerful description of every mother’s division of self in her memoir, Things I Don’t Want to Know, sends a shiver down my spine: ‘Now that we were mothers we were all shadows of our former selves, chased by the women we used to be before we had children. We didn’t really know what to do with her, this fierce, independent young woman who followed us about, shouting and pointing the finger while we wheeled our buggies in the English rain.’ A vision that is intriguingly made manifest in Jason Reitman’s new film, Tully, about the horrors of motherhood. I understand that the continuation of the species depends in no small part on the overriding power of this biological imperative, but quite frankly, such unbridled, shamelessly self-serving-turned-self-sabotaging (as far as I can see it) desire scares me.

If I am being completely honest, this is in no small part because of the feelings of relief I nurse for having somehow resisted being taken hostage by my biology. For managing to defy the wave of baby fever that has swept up so many of my friends. I am inordinately fond of a particular early diatribe that Andrea, the fabulous anti-heroine of Jami Attenberg’s most recent novel, All Grown Up, goes on:

‘Your favourite thing is when a friend asks to meet you for a drink, a friend you have had a million drinks with in your life, and then, when you get to the bar, your friend stares at the menu and orders nothing, and you are forced to say, “Aren’t you drinking?” and she says, “I wish,” and she pauses dramatically and you know exactly what’s coming next: she’s about to tell you she’s pregnant. And there is this subtext that you are lucky because you can still drink, and she’s unlucky because she can’t drink, she has this dumb baby in her. What a stupid fucking baby. In her.’

My tone can be as caustic as Andrea’s, my impatience just as impertinent. Congratulations for having successfully mastered the art of unprotected sex, I want to snidely reply when a friend tells me she’s pregnant – as if this isn’t the simplest thing in the world; we all know that the hard part is not getting pregnant. No one congratulates me on that, I think petulantly. Congratulations for thinking that your and your partner’s DNA is just so damn amazing that the world needs more of it. I sound bitter, I know, I’m playing into the very worst ‘childless female’ stereotypes, but why should all the anger, resentment and navel-gazing be reserved for those with children?

I have had to sit through plenty of friends moaning about the horrors of sleepless nights; the tantrums of teething; how baby-led weaning is by far the best way to go, but it is so time consuming and messy; how exhausting the responsibility for another life is. Obviously, though, when friends announce they are pregnant, I don’t spout my tirade of bile. I smile broadly and offer my genuine congratulations, because I, like everyone, am full of contradictions, and I am happy for them – it’s impossible not to be pleased when confronted with the excitement and contentment of people one cares about – but some part of me still feels attacked, as if their decision to have a child, in its extraordinary ordinariness, passes judgement on my decision to remain child-free. Because even if they as individuals are not judging me, society, more broadly, is.

As such, out of necessity I have become adept at making excuses for the decision I have made. Every time someone asks me whether I have children or whether I’m going to have children, however firm I am in my answer, I feel obliged to follow up with some horribly clichéd qualifying statement that offers proof I’m not damaged in some way. It isn’t that I don’t like children; there are plenty of them in my life, I begin, and this is true: I have god-children, a niece, the offspring of friends, all of whom I love, happily buy toys and clothes for on their birthdays and at Christmas, whose achievements at school I applaud, whom I read stories to and play games with, babysit when their parents want a night out, or are ill and need some help. I am doing it again here, trying to prove that I’m not broken! I am well aware that I’m no different to plenty of others on this count, but it’s as if not stipulating this would leave me open to attack. I would be considered at best deficient, and at worst unnatural in some way.

Recent years have seen the publication of some excellent writing on the subject of motherhood. Non-fiction like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know, Rivka Galchen’s Little Labours, and Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, along with novels such as Jenny Offill’s The Dept. of Speculation, and Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From. Right now, though, there’s a positive deluge. There is Lara Feigel’s excellent biblio-memoir, Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing, in which Feigel attempts to combine personal and artistic freedom with the responsibilities of motherhood, and the second instalment of Levy’s gripping memoir, The Cost of Living, which charts a dramatic shift in the Man Booker Prize shortlisted-author’s life when, in her 50s, she finds herself divorced and starting again alone with her two daughters.

Meaghan O’Connell’s warts and all memoir, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, seems to have been praised by mums everywhere. Anna Prushinskaya collates fragmented thoughts about her experience of early motherhood in A Woman is a Woman Until She is a Mother: Essays. Jacqueline Rose recently turned a 2014 piece in the London Review of Books into her new book, Mothers: An Essay in Love and Cruelty, which examines how motherhood has long been the site ‘where we lodge, or rather bury, the reality of our own conflicts, of what it means to be fully human.’ Mothers, Rose explains, are society’s scapegoat for a multitude of sins.

Meanwhile, motherhood is an equally hot topic on the fiction shelves. Jessie Greengrass’s novel, Sight, a tale of bodies, medicine, birth and death narrated by a pregnant protagonist, has just been shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, while the most talked about book earlier this year was French-Moroccan journalist-turned-Prix Goncourt-winning novelist, Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby, whose plot pits a working mother against her murderous nanny. Motherhood – and by which, I mean its demands, its inequalities, its unjust expectations – is the preoccupation of the moment. There is also Heti’s new novel, Motherhood, but this, contrary to what the title implies, is actually a story about the decision to remain child-free.

Like her polarising novel, How Should a Person Be? before it, Motherhood is an exercise in auto-fiction. Heti’s protagonist remains nameless throughout, but we understand her as a fictionalised version of Heti herself, and this book an account of the dilemma Heti found herself in during the final years of her 30s as she wrestled with the question of whether or not to have a child. Spoiler alert: she decided not to. As such, Motherhood is not a straightforward manifesto for a child-free existence, but in the course of her decision-making Heti considers what a child-free life looks like and how it need be no less fulfilling than one filled with children.

These are the bits of the novel that interested me the most. I didn’t read it as a woman ambivalent about motherhood, but as one who had already made her choice. Indeed, I am sometimes surprised by the lack of ambivalence I have experienced. This isn’t to say I haven’t considered the prospect of a child, but it has always been the most theoretical of musings since I have never experienced any real desire to have a baby of my own. I have not viewed my body in terms of its potential to grow and nourish new life. I have always regarded pregnancy as an unfortunate side effect of sex, a miss-step to be avoided by any means possible, rather than as the ultimate end game.

Heti’s novel has been grouped in with these contemporary books about motherhood in many PR photographs, lists and discussions and this irks me because I feel it is being wrongly appropriated, used as a flag for the very choice it is seeking to reject. I know my annoyance is irrational. I understand that if I, a woman without children, can read and admire all these thought-provoking books about motherhood, surely a mother has just as much right to read and admire a book about remaining child-free.

Sheila Heti (Photo by Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Yet I also know that these books that tell the truth about motherhood have felt just as hard won by the mothers who read them as Heti’s novel feels to me. In the same way that many have rightly praised the bravery and frankness of Feigel or O’Connell’s works, for example, Heti voices feelings about the choice I have made that I have never seen asserted so eloquently before. When I first read the novel, I posted a photograph of the sections of the text that particularly moved me on Instagram:

‘I held fast against the wave that tried to sweep me into its slumber – the slumber that makes babies – for it’s certainly a kind of slumber to do what nature wants. To have avoided its grasp feels as blissful and intimate as having a child, but the opposite of a child, in how what I’ve won can hardly be seen.’
‘I don’t have to live every possible life, or to experience that particular love. I know I cannot hide from life; that life will give me experiences no matter what I choose. Not having a child is no escape from life, for life will always put me in situations, and show me new things, and take me to darknesses I wouldn’t choose to see, and all sorts of treasures of knowledge I cannot comprehend.’

‘WOW,’ wrote the novelist Sarah Perry underneath the post, reinforcing my own sense of communion with the text, ‘It’s maybe the first time anyone has EVER articulated how I feel about it.’

There is simply too little good writing available on the subject of not being a mother. Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum – herself the author of two brilliant essays that obliquely deal with the fact she doesn’t have children, ‘Matricide’ and ‘Difference Maker’ – went some way towards filling the What To Expect When You’re Expecting hole on our bookshelves, but many of the essays therein failed to probe the subject very profoundly, despite Daum’s intention to ‘lift the discussion out of the familiar rhetoric’ – that which I’m still talking about here – ‘which so often pits parents against non-parents and assumes that the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living large on piles of disposable income.’

Motherhood, by comparison, delves deeply into what it means for a woman to decide to not become a mother, in particular, the task of shaping what is commonly regarded as a lack into something that is recognised as meaningful experience in its own right. ‘I don’t want “not a mother” to be part of who I am – for my identity to be the negative of someone else’s positive identity,’ Heti writes. ‘What is the main activity of a woman’s life, if not motherhood?’ she asks. ‘How can I express the absence of experience, without making central the lack? Can I say what such a life is an experience of not in relation to motherhood? Can I say what it positively is?’

It is this kind of enquiry that strikes me as genuinely groundbreaking. Child-free women are routinely defined in terms of what they don’t have, the assumption being that something is missing from their lives. This is what legitimises the comments certain mothers make telling me that I don’t know what I’m missing out on, that I won’t ever know true love until I have a child of my own. Think, for example, about what is embedded in the term ‘childless’ – the ‘less’ implying an absence, something incomplete or unfinished. How often do we hear the term ‘child-free’ (my use of which in this essay has been conscious), with its implications of autonomy and agency? Nowhere near as often. In Attenberg’s All Grown Up, for example, Andrea expresses no interest in becoming a mother during the course of the narrative, yet even the blurb on the dust-jacket describes her as ‘childless’, immediately defining her in terms of what other people think she is lacking, not as ‘child-free’, the state of existence she’s actively chosen to pursue.

One might well ask: what other narrative is there for a woman? As Heti astutely observes, ‘Being a woman, you can’t just say you don’t want a child. You have to have some big plan or idea of what you’re going to do instead. And it better be something great. And you had better be able to tell it convincingly – before it even happens – what the arc of your life will be.’ In its own small way, even Motherhood stumbles on this point. As Heti’s writer protagonist/alter ego asks early on, ‘can a woman who makes books be let off the hook by the universe for not making the living thing we call babies?’ Yes, is the answer, she can. The creation of something else – in this case, this book, Motherhood – mitigates the absence of the creation of new life.

A successful ‘art monster’ of the like Offill’s protagonist once dreamed of becoming (before she found herself trapped by marriage, motherhood and the ‘mundane’ demands of domestic life) seems to be the only child-free woman faced with the possibility of escaping society’s judgemental gaze. What this says about the rest of us, those of us leaving behind neither artistic nor living, breathing legacies, is not especially promising. Though in a recent Paris Review interview, Heti did expand on the subject: ‘Like a mother, I’m trying to imprint myself on the world in some way, with writing,’ she confirmed, although the ‘some way’ at least allows for the possibility of different kinds of legacies. She does admit thinking, inversely enough, that to leave nothing at all would be the most profound of all acts: ‘I’m not in the superradical place of not needing to leave anything behind. Being legacyless seems really radical to me. It seems almost saintly.’ For her, writing books and making babies are born out of the same impulse.

When Rachel Cusk’s memoir A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, was published in 2001, it elicited as much disdain and anger as admiration and empathy. ‘Mothers are usually compelled to say, “I love my children… but”. It is the “but” that Cusk bravely stresses,’ wrote Deborah Levy in her review in the Independent. In the grand scheme of things, 17 years really is not that long ago, yet so few women then had discussed what came after the ‘but’, and certainly not with Cusk’s candor.

Plenty of readers were reviled by what they saw as Cusk’s selfishness and whining. How dare you not be satisfied by the privilege that is child-rearing, was the implication that seemed to underlie much of the criticism, as it was somehow uncouth to express any dissatisfaction with the hard realities of a choice that was nowhere near as instantaneously fulfilling as she had been led to believe. A Life’s Work is the matriarch of today’s motherhood memoirs. For years, women were supposed to sleepwalk into motherhood—the ‘slumber’ of which Heti writes—expecting the best experience—nay, the defining experience—of their lives, but what they actually found was something riven with ambivalences, the harsh realities of which by and large were left unspoken.

‘The trouble was,’ Levy writes in Things I Don’t Want to Know, ‘that we too had all sorts of wild imaginings about what Mother should”be” and were cursed with the desire to not be disappointing.’ I read both Levy and Cusk’s memoirs with huge veneration and interest, despite the fact I didn’t have a baby of my own. I loved Elisa Albert’s After Birth, a novel that told the awkward truth about what happened next. And I’m just as eager as any mother-to-be to get my hands on a copy of And Now We Have Everything.

These women’s voices need to be heard loud and clear, the progress that’s been made in the course of the last 20-odd years in the form of women writing about the realities of motherhood, shattering the myths that have prevailed for too long, is a hugely positive step.  Indeed, the warts and all narrative has come to be the defining motherhood narrative of our age, which itself poses a host of questions about entitlement: What about women the world over who don’t have the luxury of choosing whether or not to become mothers, or the time to muse on the topic of personal freedom? What about the mothers whose days are spent worrying how to keep their children alive? What about the queer women whose motherhood narratives don’t fit so neatly into this heteronormative model? These all have yet to be addressed with the same level of detail that I and others are using to examine our privilege.

Yet here I am, feeling territorial about Heti’s Motherhood. I have long yearned for the existence of a book that I and other child-free women can call our own. But what, I wonder, fuels this desire? Is it because I, just like the mothers who embrace seeing their maternal ambivalences—which they are all too often shamed by society for having—writ large for all to see and understand, want my decision to not have children to be seen as a legitimate one, sanctioned by a strength in numbers?

Rachel Cusk, 2015 (LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

This is why it is so crazy that mothers and non-mothers remain divided – because we are both looking for the same thing. For someone else to say, That’s it. That’s how I feel too. And it’s OK to feel like this. ‘Of course, a woman will always be made to feel like a criminal,’ writes Heti, ‘whatever choice she makes, however hard she tries. Mothers feel like criminals. Non-mothers do too.’ She’s right. We shame women for having children, for not being good enough mothers, whatever ‘good’ means in this context. It’s either working too hard, or not working at all. Loving a kid too much, or not enough. Not breastfeeding or breastfeeding for too long. The list is endless, and everyone has an opinion. But we also shame women for not having children. Whatever a woman decides, she can’t win.

Yet who is this ‘we’? With hordes of (mostly white, wealthy, powerful) men policing women’s bodies and curtailing reproductive rights around the globe, we are well aware of what a 21st-century battle between the sexes looks like. But the specific shaming I am writing about lies, in large part, with women’s interactions with one another. ‘It’s like a civil war,’ another female character tells Heti’s protagonist, ‘Which side are you on?’ It’s still Marion versus Norma.

The pernicious myth of ‘having it all’ is the most damaging part of the lie used to bolster this false divide. I am not an unfeeling monster; I know that if I had a child of my own, my life would be opened up to a different kind of love from that I am already familiar with. And with it myriad experiences – some of which would undoubtedly be wonderful – I won’t ever know if I remain child-free. But I have made peace with this in that I regard the choice I have made as just one of the many that have dictated the course of my life: careers chosen that left others not embarked upon, relationships pursued that meant others were not to be. On each occasion it was not a rejection of something but the embracing of something else.

Being led to believe that we can have it all is supremely unhelpful, and no more so than when motherhood is part of the equation. It means that those who endeavour to go down this path feel desperately guilty about being stretched too thinly, while those who don’t try are left feeling lazy, unambitious and unfulfilled; the pain on each side is a direct result of each of us judging ourselves against the standards we imagine are set by others. This brings us back to one of the most progressive elements of Heti’s book; the fact that she not only embraces what is to be had in the not-having, but that she regards the having and the not-having as equal in value:

‘Yet the not-having seems just as amazing, unlikely and special to me as the having. Both feel like a kind of miracle. Both seem like a great feat. To go along with what nature demands and to resist it – both are really beautiful – impressive and difficult in their own ways. To battle nature and submit to nature, both feel very worthy. They both seem entirely valuable.’

In being able to consider these two realities side-by-side, Heti’s book is a deeply compassionate one. ‘But we both have everything and nothing at all,’ Heti’s protagonist writes of herself – without children – and a friend – with a baby. ‘We are both so cowardly and so brave. Neither one of us has more than the other, and neither one of us has less. It is so hard, I think, to see this: that our paths equal something the same; that having a child reflexively or not having one doubtfully are equal lives, the number of her life and the number of my life the same.’

Perhaps the most radical thing of all about Heti’s novel is not just that it offers a reader like me a fulfilled portrait of a child-free life that I can use to map my own, but that it also encourages me to feel significantly more empathy for the women around me who have chosen a different path to the one I have taken.

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