Childless women are often seen as "other" to mother.
Posted May 12, 2014
Something's changed. It's been 25 years since I last honored my late mom on Mother's Day, and it's been nearly that long since I expected I would be a mom myself. I had the expectation that I would find love, he would find me, and together we would find our way to parenthood.
And as each Mother's Day has passed, I wondered when, then if, and now how possibly, miraculously, I would become a mother, too. I haven't found that love, and he hasn't found me, and so again, another day for women "with the hardest job on earth" will be heralded over brunch and BBQs while I, and millions of other American women, will be doing other things.
Yet, despite not becoming a mother, I find myself remarkably happy this Mother's Day. While I recently turned 45, it's the not the kind of happiness that may come from being on the other of grief over my childlessness, although time has been healing this womb, it seems. I've found my happiness because of what I now know through the research and writing of my new book, Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness, and through and my work with DeVries Global PR on their unprecedented national research study on moms and non-moms, entitled: Shades of Otherhood.
There is what I call a "Mom-opia" in the media, a myopic view of womanhood as motherhood. It's as if the "W" for woman was inverted to the "M" for mother and every woman is seen through mother-colored glasses. Hollywood moms and moms-to-be are celebrated and spotlighted with every baby-bump -- or rumored baby-bump. Even actresses or reality TV stars many have never heard of headline websites with a photo and a caption as so-and-so "shows off" her pregnant belly. And childless stars are often asked in the media about when they'll become mothers, as if that's the missing piece to their overall success and happiness.
The irony of this mom-opia is that there are no more mothers today than there were a generation ago. In fact, in 1975, 35 percent of women in their childbearing years were childless. Today, that number is 47 percent. And when most women do have children, it's later than ever, if at all. Twice as many women end their fertile years without become mothers today (19 percent) than did a generation ago (10 percent).
The focus on motherhood as success and the norm can make women without children feel less-than, as if they only fully become women once they are mothers. Childless women are often sidelined in the media as the frivolous "Carrie Bradshaw" type or the incomplete "Bridget Jones" type. The infantilization of grown women who are childless by circumstance, by biology, or by choice can have the effect of feeling unnatural, left out or left behind, and of feeling less valuable in society. Studies have shown it can also make a woman feel less feminine, as having children is what society believes a woman does. Yes, she may have other things in her life, but becoming a mother is her raison d'etre.
But we can't blame the media entirely; the media we consume is an echo of the voices we hear in society. The problem here is that the script women have been given -- and taken as our own for fear of not being thought of as independent, modern or feminist, means we are not being authentic about our experience. We can't blame the media for not talking about our true experience if we don't talk about it authentically ourselves.
When childless women label themselves "career women" as if we made a choice between paying the rent and falling in love and having children with a partner we love, we are continued to be labeled "career women" in the media, i.e. women who are too career focused to feel any maternal emotion. Recently, Business Week magazine took it one step further, arguing that "career women" are freezing their eggs to delay motherhood to better their career aspirations: "Later, Baby: Will Freezing Your Eggs Free Your Career?" asks the cover story. It's part of an ongoing portrayal of the cold-hearted-will-stop-at-nothing-to-get-that-corner-office childless woman that deepens us further into the mythological quagmire of our experience. And yet, I don't know one woman who has spent thousands of dollars and gone through invasive treatments to freeze her eggs just to get ahead in her career. Women who freeze their eggs outside of a health issue are waiting for the right relationship before motherhood, and in the meantime, insuring their fertility. Plus, we don't have to make a choice between motherhood and career. There are many successful married mothers who have careers. Besides, men who work are not labeled "career men." No one suspects they have made a choice to work instead of finding love, marriage and fatherhood.
If not too focused on our careers, then we are scolded like children for being too "romantic," waiting fruitlessly for a fairytale "Prince Charming" who doesn't exist. We are not waiting for a man in tights to show up on his horse. We're grown women more than capable of taking care of ourselves. We don't need a man, but that certainly doesn't mean we don't want to be with one we love. We respect the value of love and we won't settle for a lesser love. It's as if only women and men who find love earlier on are deserving of it, everyone should settle for less. But as I've said here before: "Love is not a gift for those who deserve it; it's a reward for those who wait for it."
Some will say that we've "delayed" marriage and motherhood. In a 2011 report, the U.S. Census referred to single, childless, college-educated women in their thirties part of a so-called "Delayer Boom," as if we had some sort of co-conspiracy to hang up our diplomas on the wall and declare in unison not to get married and have children until the eleventh hour of our fertility. We are simply finding it difficult to meet men who want marriage and parenthood at the same time we do.
Some assume all childless women never wanted children, or didn't want them enough, and speak of us all as "childfree," the term used by those who choose not to have children (and I absolutely defend and champion that choice). When those of us who are childless by circumstance -- and the majority of childless women want or wanted children within the context of a relationship -- don't speak honestly about our experience, we continue to remain the silent majority.
Childless women are spending a good part of their lives looked at as second to mothers. And when these women believe they are "other" to mother, they will always think of themselves as second-to or less-than mothers. And the media will agree. It's up to my cohort to speak of our experience so that the media echoes it back to us and to the rest of society.
I am happy today, as Mother's Day comes, because I know that I am not less-than "mother." I am equal to mother. Just like Simone De Beauvoir argued in The Second Sex that woman is not second to man; she is equal, so then is the childless woman not second to mother. She is equal to her.
This is the next era for feminism: Equality for childless women. As half the adult population 50 years ago, women fought for social, economic and political equality to men. And today at nearly half the population of women, childless women deserve the political, social and economic equality that mothers have. Flex time for working moms means flex time for working non-moms to take care of the important things in their lives, like aging parents. It means including non-moms in national political issues like education and health. It means not thinking of non-moms as not knowing love because they don't have children, but as generous, maternal women who know love so well, they love children not-their-own. The "Shades of Otherhood" survey shows that 80 percent of non-moms ages 20-44 play an active role in a child's life. The survey also found that 80 percent of non-moms felt they could lead a happy life without children, whether or not they want children of their own.
While the title of my book, Otherhood, implies childless women are other to mother, the reader learns the truth: If we measure our lives against what the Others believe to be our life's true meaning, even measuring it against our own expectations of ourselves, we will never find happiness because we will not be living our true, authentic lives.
I am happy because I accept and celebrate my life. I am happy because I choose to be so. Knowing this is my liberation.
Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers who deserve to be celebrated unboundedly. And here's to all the other mothers who love children-not-their-own. This, like every other day, is equally yours to be celebrated, too.
Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness is available now.
Inspired by her book, DeVries Global PR teamed up with Notkin on a national study of the Otherhood demographic. "Shades of Otherhood," which was released on April 30, 2014.
The 6th Annual Official Auntie's Day is Sunday, July 27.