Should Women Have Babies?

Should women have babies, should women become mothers, why do people expect all women to be mothers, motherhood cultureDon’t wait! Have babies early, before it’s too late. Wait, don’t have babies when you’re young and jeopardize your career. Not sure when you’ll be ready? Freeze your eggs and have babies when you’re all set. If it comes to that, you can always use a surrogate mother. No dad available? There’s always artificial insemination. . . .

The advice about having babies is nothing short of dizzying – not to mention extreme, invasive, painful, frighteningly expensive, conventional, and utterly predicable. The question is always, When should women have children? A steady stream of books, articles, and blogs feel compelled to weigh in on the question.

Throughout history, women have been equated with a single biological function, reproduction, and made to feel they are not “real women” unless they have babies. Women who, for whatever reason, do not have children, will testify to the pressure they endured to have children and the ongoing implication that they “missed out,” that their lives must not be complete, that they cannot possibly be “fulfilled.”

It calls to mind the 60 Minutes interview with the great Helen Mirren. The conversation focused on all her wonderful accomplishments – her acting, her work on stage and screen, her Academy Award, her directing, her world travel. As the interview drew to a close, suddenly there it was, the question no man would ever be asked. Morley Safer looked intensely at her and let loose the big “But”:

“Aren’t you sorry you never had children?”

Without hesitation, Mirren firmly answered, “I’m glad I never had children.” A befuddled Safer asked, “Why?”

“Because I’ve had freedom,” the actress replied.

Even as more women choose not to have babies, the ubiquitous assumption is that women have children. Recently I attended a gathering of mostly strangers. On meeting these people for the first time, no fewer than three of these strangers asked me how many children I have. Not, what do you do? Not, do you have children? It was simply a given that I had children and the only question was how many. (In the interests of disclosure, I have two.)

Despite all women’s advances, the pressure to have children still dogs women. With rare exception, girls are still conditioned from infancy, from that first doll, to believe that motherhood is their mission in life. Whether overt and obvious or subtle and veiled, the air they breathe will drone endlessly, “You are born to be a mother.” Whatever else women may accomplish in life, mother is who they are. If they “fail” to become mom, pity or condemnation will follow them.

It’s not surprising, then, that a constant glorification of motherhood floods the culture and media, a glorification that masks the hard reality of motherhood. So effective is this campaign of glorification that women have precious little idea of what being a mom really entails. In the classic, The Motherhood Report, researchers found that 70% of mothers said they had an “extraordinarily” unrealistic idea of what being a mother meant before actually becoming one.

No, it’s not all Disney World and stuffed animals, fluffy blankets and happy faces. The data make clear that too often motherhood inflicts harm on women. Their relationships suffer or end since the most difficult, stressful time in any relationship comes when baby enters the picture. Their careers stagnate or derail. Their finances take a nasty turn for the worse since children are very expensive. Their energy is taxed to the limit by the exhausting, repetitive, menial work of raising kids. Their self-identity evaporates as moms are required to self-sacrifice. Once her child enters the picture, there is virtually nothing mom does without factoring in that little person. If she puts her needs ahead of her child’s, she is selfish, the dreaded “bad mother.”

For too long, women have been consigned to a life not suited to all, or even most women in the modern era. And all too often, children suffer, especially unwanted children (half of all pregnancies are unplanned).

Then there’s the harm inflicted on the human species and the environment – something we seldom consider when having children. The plain fact: the world is overpopulated. Roughly every twelve years we add another billion people to an earth reeling under the environmental and human devastation of overpopulation. Scientists have shown that earth has long since passed sustainability, that is, a balance between human demands on the environment (food, shelter, etc.) and the area needed to meet those human demands and absorb human wastes. As a result, one billion people suffer from chronic hunger. That’s more than the population of the United States, Canada and the European Union combined – a lot of hungry people. Every year well over 9 million people die from hunger related causes, most of them children.

Parenthood, imposing life on a human being, is the most serious responsibility any of us will take on. Yet most of us enter parenthood without thought or reflection, fulfilling the programmed expectation that we will have children. It’s what we do in life – make families. We consider children an essential part of family, even though there are many forms of family, with and without children.

So the real question is not, When should women have babies? The most consequential question, for women, families, children and the environment, is, Should women have babies?

Rosemary Agonito, author of  The Last Taboo: Saying No to Motherhood, is a gender issues specialist.

Image via DepositPhotos/londondeposit

  • All true and all the reasons why I decided not to breed!

  • Hi Rosemary! Thank you for sharing this information. I am not against children although I have been childfree my whole life, what I am against is unwanted and uncared for children. If people want children they should be made fully aware of the intense sacrifice that such a choice requires instead of making those of us who choose something different take the blame. I don’t think this message can be communicated enough…that’s why I wrote my own version in a blog. For anyone who is interested:

    • Kathy, I love your piece. You’re so right that overpopulation is the elephant in the room that too few environmentalists are willing to talk about.

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