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Should Women Be Freed from the Motherhood Mandate?

Author Melanie Holmes blogs on "the female assumption."

Author Melanie Holmes just published a book that all women should read. Her book is titled The Female Assumption: A Mother’s Story, Freeing Women from the View that Motherhood is a Mandate. Melanie tells the story of when she first read the words of an infertile woman who said, "I thought if I couldn't have children there's no reason to live." This made Melanie think of her own daughter, and she began researching the reasons why women are led to believe that life is incomplete without motherhood, including feeling boxed-in by those closest to them -- their family and friends. She interviewed/polled 200 women with and without children in order to uncover the assumptions that influence their inner selves and their futures. Melanie is guest blogging on Complete without Kids this week. Enjoy.


In the small Midwestern town where I came of age in the late 1970s/early 80s, I observed my mom, older sisters, aunts, and my friends’ moms, all of whom followed paths to marriage and motherhood. I never stopped to question whether these paths should be incorporated into my life. It’s just what females did -- or so it seemed to me.

Over three decades as a mom, my views have evolved. I no longer accept the motherhood mantras. When people espouse that women’s lives are empty without motherhood, I shake my head in disbelief. I know many happy, fulfilled women who do not have children -- women who know the meaning of love and do not regret the paths they followed.

In an effort to broaden my own teenage daughter’s view of women’s lives, I’ve talked with her about my motherhood experiences. This is hard without my words being interpreted as regret since some of my hardest moments are related to motherhood (e.g., a divorce plunged me into single motherhood, poverty, and exhaustion). To be clear, I do not regret the 3 beautiful souls in my life (my oldest are sons, 28 and 30).

So what’s the big deal if society espouses motherhood as the ultimate goal for women’s lives? Isn’t that how the human race is perpetuated?

Connecting the dots from the assumptions handed down from previous generations to the view of what a fulfilled female experience “should” look like is important if we are to recognize how these assumptions affect the inner selves of females who may not want it or may not be able to achieve it. Dr. Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, wrote, “Adolescence is an intense time of change…All kinds of development—physical, emotional, intellectual, academic, social and spiritual—are happening at once…Girls are making choices that will preserve their true selves or install false selves.” In other words, what we say to young females directly impacts their inner selves. This is not rocket science. If we speak of motherhood as an inevitability or foregone conclusion for females’ futures, are the chances higher that they’ll pursue it at all costs and possibly forego other passions?

A woman who is good with kids often hears, “You’ll make such a great mom someday!” To which we must ask: Just because a woman cares about kids, must she devote her energy and compassion toward motherhood in order to be accepted by societal norms? I’ve conducted interviews/polls with 200 women. One woman in her late 20s, a teacher who doesn’t want her own kids has heard, “If you don’t want to have kids, why’d you become a teacher?”

Women have tried for centuries to exert control over their lives, and each time they’ve done so, they’ve been greeted with society’s condemnation that it was “anti-family”! When women wanted a voice in politics, society condemned this because women would want to attend public meetings, therefore, they’d be away from child and hearth. (Such heresy!).

Women have been considered property in the figurative and literal sense. White married women relinquished all their property to their husband upon uttering, “I do,” and it wasn’t until the Married Women’s Property Rights Act of 1848 (passed in New York, after which other states followed suit) that they could retain ownership of property if their husband died (it would pass to a male relative). Black women were brought to the U.S. to work for no pay and were the literal property of slave owners, and it took 100 years after they were freed for their voices to begin to be heard. The woman considered the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks, had no children—she devoted the rest of her life to activism.

I’ve researched this topic with women across the U.S. (as well as some international women) in order to discern the pervasiveness of Motherhood Catechism in the 21st century. Motherhood Catechism refers to the indoctrination of females to assume that they will someday become moms. For those women who want something other than motherhood, they deal with internal struggles, as well as pressure and judgment from all manner of external forces. For those who don’t find the right partner or situation, many experience feelings of confusion, self-doubt, or depression. There are a number of people who are unable to have children for biological reasons, for whom feelings of loss are accentuated by the sheer mass of Motherhood Catechism mantras surrounding them.

A sampling of my interviews:

A woman who does not want her own kids: Cheryl* is a teacher; her passion is underprivileged kids – she believes they need great teachers. However, some people raise their eyebrows when Cheryl says she doesn’t want her own kids. It’s a shame that someone like Cheryl who declares, “I want to be a hero for these kids,” would be viewed as lacking.

A woman who is the mother of a daughter: “There’s someone my daughter may be if she doesn’t become a mom; there’s someone my daughter may be if she does become a mom. I’m interested in knowing either of those persons. My job is to love and support her.”

American cultural and feminist critic Elaine Showalter has pointed out that “having it all” has never been the overall goal of feminist thought. Feminism, accurately defined, is advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men. According to author and feminist Rachel Holmes, if we recognize and organize ourselves as a class of “women,” and stop waving our identity flags in each other’s faces, we could have more serious political/cultural engagement and collective action on a global basis.

I’ve borrowed the term “Sister-to-Sisterness” from Karen Malone Wright’s website,, and encourage all women to unite with words of support. Because we are women. Because many strong women before us fought so that our voices can be heard. Because we live in a world where many doors are open or ajar for females and we should encourage the exploration of each other’s passions. Because we are sisters, aunts, nieces, best friends…we are whole beings, whatever our paths.

*Name has been changed.

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Ellen Walker, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and the author of Complete Without Kids: An Insider's Guide to Childfree Living By Choice Or By Chance.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Salvatore Iovene (

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