- Often unintentionally and without guile, women can divide into groups based on parental and partnering status.
- Scenarios that cause distancing and othering include forming an unconventional family, choosing not to have children, and others.
- Curiosity is the key to coming together, building understanding, and supporting one another.
At the intersection of womanhood and mothering lies one of the final frontiers of bias that impacts many woman. We’re all complicit, and this vexes me greatly.
This kind of othering hinges on having kids. Or not. And how we live our life.
We women seek our kindred and divide ourselves, whether intentionally or not, according to the timing and ages of our kids, their presence or absence in our lives, and our partnering choices. When we encounter someone who’s differently situated, our biases and preconceptions click on, often unconsciously.
Let’s consider several scenarios. See if you can identify your own biases in any or all of them. No one is immune. I need to own at least two of these biases myself.
Scenario 1: They created an “inappropriate” family by:
- Having only one child, thus “denying” them a sibling or two
- Having too many children (say four or more)
- Going about mothering alone, whether on purpose or not
The "ideal" family is composed of a set of parents and two or three children. We see this formation celebrated everywhere, especially at baby showers and work celebrations.
Scenario 2: They have one or more children who are “unique” by:
- Presenting with apparent physical, emotional, or cognitive differences
- Exhibiting social awkwardness or disengagement
- Engaging in acting out behaviors
Social capital is gained (and lost) according to the behaviors and accomplishments of one’s progeny, as long as you have some. The good kids are lauded; those with problems are sidelined.
Scenario 3: They chose not to have any children at all by:
- Focusing on priorities other than childrearing
- Experiencing economic considerations
- Having concerns about environmental and social impacts
Deciding against having kids is sometimes considered selfish, immature, and self-indulgent. Being a parent is a sign of maturity and dedication to others. The childfree can feel defensive.
Scenario 4: They desire children, though have none by:
- Having medical issues, including infertility, miscarriage, other conditions
- Unwillingness or inability to parent alone
- Experiencing a stillbirth or the death of their child
Such a sad state of affairs, eliciting pity from many and feelings of guilt among parents. The childless can feel invisible and/or subject to scrutiny.
Scenario 5: They’re single, without a partner because:
- A desirable mate is unavailable
- Death or divorce of previous partner
- Choose to be uncoupled
Couples are much less awkward to manage in social settings. And singles can make moves on one’s partner.
It’s remarkably easy to slot many women into one or more of these stereotyped scenarios. When we create personal and cultural hierarchies that elevate any woman above another, we dilute our collective power to support one another.
What can we do instead? Let’s get curious, and, with a great deal of respect, try to more fully understand the woman we’re talking with. Here are some possible entry points:
I want to better understand. Are you okay talking about this with me?
What kinds of challenges have you faced with the living arrangement you’ve experienced?
What benefits do you see in your situation?
What surprises have come from not having kids/how the kids you have are developing?
How has your life with/without kids evolved over time?
Who and what matters to you these days?
I’m sorry for the loss(es) you’ve experienced. How has that impacted who you are today?
What are the pluses and minuses of single life? How can couples be more inclusive?
How can I come to a better understanding of your situation? What questions would you like me to ask? Which should I avoid?
Do these questions strike you as inappropriate or scary? Tailor them to your own style, especially when addressing someone whose life is very different than yours. Like with any challenging conversation, take it slowly. Go where you’re welcomed. And keep trying to better understand.
Once we face our biases and increase our understanding of our differences, we can better support those with various perspectives and orientations. We can harness our collective energies to create more inclusive belonging and respect for us all.