Women make a multitude of decisions that impact the course of their lives. Some of these decisions are specific to marriage or partnership, career, education, and children. It seems, however, that out of all of the decisions that a woman makes in her lifetime, there is no choice that comes to define her as more “naturally” feminine than her decision to become a mother. The concept of motherhood is so tightly associated with female identity that we’re unable to conceive of a woman who has children and regrets doing so – or who chooses not to have children at all.
There is something about “choosing” not to become a mother that is tied to this ideology of motherhood as a feminine imperative. It’s as if choosing not to have children is choosing not to be feminine, and a woman choosing not to be feminine is a tough pill for people to swallow. Not surprisingly, a Canadian study has found that approximately half of women in their forties who made the decision to remain childfree declined to share with people that their decision was…a decision. The study found that this was because of the social pressure they believed they would receive if they disclosed that they were childfree by choice. It seems that even those of us who choose to remain childfree often keep this decision to ourselves, because we understand that there is an unwritten social contract that comes along with being a woman – not keeping our end of the bargain is something that people judge us for, so why share it?
Recently, a study conducted by sociologist Julia McQuillan found that distress over not having children is something that women only experience if motherhood is meaningful or important to them. Voluntarily childfree women feel little distress over their decision, regardless of what their family or friends think about their choice. This may seem like an obvious argument – of course women who want to conceive and are unable to do so will experience distress. But if a woman does not get a promotion at work or doesn’t get into the college of her choice, she doesn’t typically receive the same kind of judgment from society and doesn’t typically feel the same type of distress that comes along with not being able to experience motherhood. This is because those achievements and failures are not explicitly tied to gender, and by extension, femininity the way that motherhood is.