Although an increasing number of women are choosing to remain childless, society still accepts motherhood as the “norm.” In a piece for The Walrus, Lauren McKeon explains how she saw motherhood as a requirement, “a check mark on the way to an accomplished life,” until she eventually came to terms with wanting to be child-free.
I neared my thirties afraid to voice my dread. I worried that disclosing the main reason for my veer toward “no”—that I wanted to continue investing time in myself—would make me seem cold, even sociopathic. I worried about disappointing those around me, including my then husband, parents, and grandparents. I could already hear their disbelief. Even if they supported my choice, I worried about what I would do after I made it. How would I fill the next fifty—potentially empty—years of my life?
Even those unwaveringly confident in their choice can be overcome with doubt as they get older and start to mourn the loss of their fertility. This grieving can allow women to understand that while they don’t want children — they do “want something.” McKeon found a blossoming community of women dedicated to helping each other find fulfillment — while rejecting the need for procreation. This is particularly important for a group that often receives pushback elsewhere:
As the default structure for women’s lives, the motherhood imperative is a stand-in for order, an assurance that every woman is exactly who, and what, she is supposed to be. We live in an intense pro-maternity culture, one marked by everything from reality shows like Teen Mom OG to Kylie Jenner’s record-shattering February 2018 Instagram reveal of her newborn daughter, Stormi, which sits at 17.5 million likes (and counting). Even Hillary Clinton’s election team worked hard to frame her as, in husband Bill’s words, “the best mother in the whole world.”
Academics and activists call this mindset pronatalism. As Laura Carroll explains in The Baby Matrix, pronatalism is “the idea that parenthood and raising children should be the central focus of every person’s adult life.” Pronatalism is the reason the protagonist of the Hunger Games movie series earns motherhood as her reward for saving the world, and it is why, in real life, reporters recently asked one of the world’s first AI female robots where she stands on motherhood (surprise: she thinks having a family is “really important”). Pronatalism teaches women that children are synonymous with stability and that they are the answer to the question of life’s meaning. Motherhood, this mindset says, is more than a choice: it is a higher calling. To step outside of that path is not only inconceivable, it’s unnatural.