Op-Ed: Inconceivable! Detaching Motherhood from Femininity

April 21, 2013
By

By Nicole Verdes

Last week, Isabella Dutton, a 57-year-old mother of two in the United Kingdom, wrote a first-person story for the Daily Mail wherein she described her two children as her “biggest regret.”  Her admission set off a firestorm of backlash from irate readers.  Dutton herself predicted the looming backlash in her article by pointing out, “It’s just that I have been honest. In doing so I have broken a supposedly inviolable law of nature. What kind of mother, after all, wishes she hadn’t had children?”

Women make a multitude of decisions that impact the course of their lives. Some of these decisions are specific to marriage or partnership, career, education, and children. It seems, however, that out of all of the decisions that a woman makes in her lifetime, there is no choice that comes to define her as more “naturally” feminine than her decision to become a mother. The concept of motherhood is so tightly associated with female identity that we’re unable to conceive of a woman who has children and regrets doing so – or who chooses not to have children at all.

There is something about “choosing” not to become a mother that is tied to this ideology of motherhood as a feminine imperative. It’s as if choosing not to have children is choosing not to be feminine, and a woman choosing not to be feminine is a tough pill for people to swallow.  Not surprisingly, a Canadian study has found that approximately half of women in their forties who made the decision to remain childfree declined to share with people that their decision was…a decision. The study found that this was because of the social pressure they believed they would receive if they disclosed that they were childfree by choice.  It seems that even those of us who choose to remain childfree often keep this decision to ourselves, because we understand that there is an unwritten social contract that comes along with being a woman – not keeping our end of the bargain is something that people judge us for, so why share it?

One of my friends gave up on trying to have children after several unsuccessful rounds of in vitro fertilization.  She and I are both in our mid-thirties. Neither of us has children, and neither of us ever will. Although we are both childfree, we’re different. People feel sorry for her. They often try to avoid the subject of motherhood when they’re around her so as not to stir up any unpleasant feelings. But I am childfree by choice, and my decision is constantly being questioned by family, friends, and coworkers. The decision is suspicious for most and downright detestable to some.

Recently, a study conducted by sociologist Julia McQuillan found that distress over not having children is something that women only experience if motherhood is meaningful or important to them. Voluntarily childfree women feel little distress over their decision, regardless of what their family or friends think about their choice. This may seem like an obvious argument – of course women who want to conceive and are unable to do so will experience distress.  But if a woman does not get a promotion at work or doesn’t get into the college of her choice, she doesn’t typically receive the same kind of judgment from society and doesn’t typically feel the same type of distress that comes along with not being able to experience motherhood. This is because those achievements and failures are not explicitly tied to gender, and by extension, femininity the way that motherhood is.

The majority of research on childfree women has been comparative. Studies have compared the income, happiness, and experiences of women who have children against those who don’t. More recently, studies have focused on comparing voluntarily childfree women with women who are involuntarily childfree. This has created a dichotomy between women, and dichotomies function to form the basis for divisions. This dichotomy has functioned as a way to design and divide commendable women from shameful ones and loving women from callous ones. In doing so, we have created a culture that views childfree women as conspirators against femininity.

It’s difficult to figure a way to address this issue since reversing something so ingrained in our society is nearly impossible.  Perhaps we can start by accepting the fact that motherhood, like many other experiences, is a choice, albeit a socially constrained one. Choosing to be childfree may not guarantee happiness, but neither does choosing to become a mother, as Isabella Dutton so bravely pointed out in her article.

_____________________________________________

headshotNicole Verdes is a graduate student at Cal State University, San Marcos. Her interests include gender, sexuality, and feminist studies. She is childfree by choice and is currently anticipating the launch of Inconceivable!, a zine whose focus is to start a dialogue on detaching motherhood from female identity.

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29 Responses to Op-Ed: Inconceivable! Detaching Motherhood from Femininity

  1. Carmen on April 21, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    This is interesting. I am a mother, a single mother to be exact and attending UC Berkeley. Mine is an interesting position within society – if we are talking about main stream society I am judged emphatically for not being married. This is a ding on my femininity as there is an overarching, not spoken of directly, view that having a husband validates WHO YOU ARE AS A WOMAN. This brings another and I believe more important element to motherhood and femininity because actually what I find is happening in society is not that motherhood alone validates our femininity but the process of marriage preceding motherhood validates our femininity. What I find interesting as well is that marriage or just being in a relationship validates your femininity but just being a mother minus the marriage or relationship doesn’t. Femininity in our society is directly connected to a man – so motherhood as you state can become a validation of our femininity but only because femininity (at least in main stream, from what I believe comes from the exploitation of the female form in media)is directly linked with heterosexual male desire -thus the woman who has a child has been validated as worthy of male desire. I hope this makes sense because it is hard to explain what I see when I walk out of the door everyday or even on Facebook hourly.

  2. Carmen on April 21, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    This is interesting. I am a mother, a single mother to be exact and attending UC Berkeley. Mine is an interesting position within society – if we are talking about main stream society I am judged emphatically for not being married. This is a ding on my femininity as there is an overarching, not spoken of directly, view that having a husband validates WHO YOU ARE AS A WOMAN. This brings another and I believe more important element to motherhood and femininity because actually what I find is happening in society is not that motherhood alone validates our femininity but the process of marriage preceding motherhood validates our femininity. What I find interesting as well is that marriage or just being in a relationship validates your femininity but just being a mother minus the marriage or relationship doesn’t. Femininity in our society is directly connected to a man – so motherhood as you state can become a validation of our femininity but only because femininity (at least in main stream, from what I believe comes from the exploitation of the female form in media)is directly linked with heterosexual male desire -thus the woman who has a child has been validated as worthy of male desire. I hope this makes sense because it is hard to explain what I see when I walk out of the door everyday or even on Facebook hourly.

  3. Carmen on April 21, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    This is interesting. I am a mother, a single mother to be exact and attending UC Berkeley. Mine is an interesting position within society – if we are talking about main stream society I am judged emphatically for not being married. This is a ding on my femininity as there is an overarching, not spoken of directly, view that having a husband validates WHO YOU ARE AS A WOMAN. This brings another and I believe more important element to motherhood and femininity because actually what I find is happening in society is not that motherhood alone validates our femininity but the process of marriage preceding motherhood validates our femininity. What I find interesting as well is that marriage or just being in a relationship validates your femininity but just being a mother minus the marriage or relationship doesn’t. Femininity in our society is directly connected to a man – so motherhood as you state can become a validation of our femininity but only because femininity (at least in main stream, from what I believe comes from the exploitation of the female form in media)is directly linked with heterosexual male desire -thus the woman who has a child has been validated as worthy of male desire. I hope this makes sense because it is hard to explain what I see when I walk out of the door everyday or even on Facebook hourly.

  4. Carmen on April 21, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    This is interesting. I am a mother, a single mother to be exact and attending UC Berkeley. Mine is an interesting position within society – if we are talking about main stream society I am judged emphatically for not being married. This is a ding on my femininity as there is an overarching, not spoken of directly, view that having a husband validates WHO YOU ARE AS A WOMAN. This brings another and I believe more important element to motherhood and femininity because actually what I find is happening in society is not that motherhood alone validates our femininity but the process of marriage preceding motherhood validates our femininity. What I find interesting as well is that marriage or just being in a relationship validates your femininity but just being a mother minus the marriage or relationship doesn’t. Femininity in our society is directly connected to a man – so motherhood as you state can become a validation of our femininity but only because femininity (at least in main stream, from what I believe comes from the exploitation of the female form in media)is directly linked with heterosexual male desire -thus the woman who has a child has been validated as worthy of male desire. I hope this makes sense because it is hard to explain what I see when I walk out of the door everyday or even on Facebook hourly.

  5. Michelle on April 21, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    I realized in my late 20s that I was indifferent to the idea of having children. The desire just wasn’t there. I had been pregnant at the age of 24 but had a miscarriage before the end of the 1st trimester. Am I sad that happened? At the time I was but now…not so much. I’m happily childfree and will remain that way.

  6. Michelle on April 21, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    I realized in my late 20s that I was indifferent to the idea of having children. The desire just wasn’t there. I had been pregnant at the age of 24 but had a miscarriage before the end of the 1st trimester. Am I sad that happened? At the time I was but now…not so much. I’m happily childfree and will remain that way.

  7. Michelle on April 21, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    I realized in my late 20s that I was indifferent to the idea of having children. The desire just wasn’t there. I had been pregnant at the age of 24 but had a miscarriage before the end of the 1st trimester. Am I sad that happened? At the time I was but now…not so much. I’m happily childfree and will remain that way.

  8. Michelle on April 21, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    I realized in my late 20s that I was indifferent to the idea of having children. The desire just wasn’t there. I had been pregnant at the age of 24 but had a miscarriage before the end of the 1st trimester. Am I sad that happened? At the time I was but now…not so much. I’m happily childfree and will remain that way.

  9. Linda Long on April 22, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    As a daughter of a mother who made it quite clear throughout mine and my sisters’ lives that she regretted having children and that if she were to do it over again, she would not, I hope with all my heart that women who don’t really WANT children will refrain from having them. Be brave, because your unwanted children will always know how they came to be and it will always hurt.

  10. Linda Long on April 22, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    As a daughter of a mother who made it quite clear throughout mine and my sisters’ lives that she regretted having children and that if she were to do it over again, she would not, I hope with all my heart that women who don’t really WANT children will refrain from having them. Be brave, because your unwanted children will always know how they came to be and it will always hurt.

  11. Linda Long on April 22, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    As a daughter of a mother who made it quite clear throughout mine and my sisters’ lives that she regretted having children and that if she were to do it over again, she would not, I hope with all my heart that women who don’t really WANT children will refrain from having them. Be brave, because your unwanted children will always know how they came to be and it will always hurt.

  12. Linda Long on April 22, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    As a daughter of a mother who made it quite clear throughout mine and my sisters’ lives that she regretted having children and that if she were to do it over again, she would not, I hope with all my heart that women who don’t really WANT children will refrain from having them. Be brave, because your unwanted children will always know how they came to be and it will always hurt.

  13. Mary on April 22, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    I don’t think there’s anything particularly brave about declaring that one’s choice to be a mother was a mistake – it’s just rude and nasty. Publicly telling people that you wish your children hadn’t been born is pretty awful whether you are a man or a woman.
    I’m not sure why that particular article or statement is relevant to this article’s point though. Femininity and motherhood are indeed inextricably linked, and it’s obvious that when a woman is childless by choice, her choice is frowned upon (though you could argue that this is just a timing issue – the perception is that a man can always change his mind and have children with a much younger woman).
    Women are not considered truly feminine unless that have a desire for motherhood, but the flip side of that is that women are not taken seriously as “mothers” without appearing feminine. I’m a (sorta butch) lesbian who has always wanted children, and I have noticed the opposite prejudice working in my life. I recently adopted an infant with my wife, and I continuously deal with people are “shocked” to see that I am a mother now. My dry cleaner almost fell on the floor when I told her the baby I had in my arms while dropping off the weekly clothes was mine, and not someone else’s. My lack of femininity apparently disqualifies me as a mother in their eyes, even as my baby is in my arms. My desires and my choices put me in parental “no man’s land” – no pun intended.

    • Carmen on April 23, 2013 at 1:57 am

      I like all the different perspectives. I agree Mary that using this woman’s confession does nothing for the article. Also detaching anything from femininity I feel is counterproductive to broadening the definition and creating an atmosphere of acceptance and inclusivity. If I wake up tomorrow and wear a mohawk and penny loafers am I allowed to call this femininity? Yes I am because if that is how I define my femininity than that is how I define it. If part of my femininity is having children than that is how I define it. If my friend defines her femininity by not having children than that is how she defines it. femininity is individually defined.

  14. Mary on April 22, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    I don’t think there’s anything particularly brave about declaring that one’s choice to be a mother was a mistake – it’s just rude and nasty. Publicly telling people that you wish your children hadn’t been born is pretty awful whether you are a man or a woman.
    I’m not sure why that particular article or statement is relevant to this article’s point though. Femininity and motherhood are indeed inextricably linked, and it’s obvious that when a woman is childless by choice, her choice is frowned upon (though you could argue that this is just a timing issue – the perception is that a man can always change his mind and have children with a much younger woman).
    Women are not considered truly feminine unless that have a desire for motherhood, but the flip side of that is that women are not taken seriously as “mothers” without appearing feminine. I’m a (sorta butch) lesbian who has always wanted children, and I have noticed the opposite prejudice working in my life. I recently adopted an infant with my wife, and I continuously deal with people are “shocked” to see that I am a mother now. My dry cleaner almost fell on the floor when I told her the baby I had in my arms while dropping off the weekly clothes was mine, and not someone else’s. My lack of femininity apparently disqualifies me as a mother in their eyes, even as my baby is in my arms. My desires and my choices put me in parental “no man’s land” – no pun intended.

    • Carmen on April 23, 2013 at 1:57 am

      I like all the different perspectives. I agree Mary that using this woman’s confession does nothing for the article. Also detaching anything from femininity I feel is counterproductive to broadening the definition and creating an atmosphere of acceptance and inclusivity. If I wake up tomorrow and wear a mohawk and penny loafers am I allowed to call this femininity? Yes I am because if that is how I define my femininity than that is how I define it. If part of my femininity is having children than that is how I define it. If my friend defines her femininity by not having children than that is how she defines it. femininity is individually defined.

  15. Mary on April 22, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    I don’t think there’s anything particularly brave about declaring that one’s choice to be a mother was a mistake – it’s just rude and nasty. Publicly telling people that you wish your children hadn’t been born is pretty awful whether you are a man or a woman.
    I’m not sure why that particular article or statement is relevant to this article’s point though. Femininity and motherhood are indeed inextricably linked, and it’s obvious that when a woman is childless by choice, her choice is frowned upon (though you could argue that this is just a timing issue – the perception is that a man can always change his mind and have children with a much younger woman).
    Women are not considered truly feminine unless that have a desire for motherhood, but the flip side of that is that women are not taken seriously as “mothers” without appearing feminine. I’m a (sorta butch) lesbian who has always wanted children, and I have noticed the opposite prejudice working in my life. I recently adopted an infant with my wife, and I continuously deal with people are “shocked” to see that I am a mother now. My dry cleaner almost fell on the floor when I told her the baby I had in my arms while dropping off the weekly clothes was mine, and not someone else’s. My lack of femininity apparently disqualifies me as a mother in their eyes, even as my baby is in my arms. My desires and my choices put me in parental “no man’s land” – no pun intended.

    • Carmen on April 23, 2013 at 1:57 am

      I like all the different perspectives. I agree Mary that using this woman’s confession does nothing for the article. Also detaching anything from femininity I feel is counterproductive to broadening the definition and creating an atmosphere of acceptance and inclusivity. If I wake up tomorrow and wear a mohawk and penny loafers am I allowed to call this femininity? Yes I am because if that is how I define my femininity than that is how I define it. If part of my femininity is having children than that is how I define it. If my friend defines her femininity by not having children than that is how she defines it. femininity is individually defined.

  16. Mary on April 22, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    I don’t think there’s anything particularly brave about declaring that one’s choice to be a mother was a mistake – it’s just rude and nasty. Publicly telling people that you wish your children hadn’t been born is pretty awful whether you are a man or a woman.
    I’m not sure why that particular article or statement is relevant to this article’s point though. Femininity and motherhood are indeed inextricably linked, and it’s obvious that when a woman is childless by choice, her choice is frowned upon (though you could argue that this is just a timing issue – the perception is that a man can always change his mind and have children with a much younger woman).
    Women are not considered truly feminine unless that have a desire for motherhood, but the flip side of that is that women are not taken seriously as “mothers” without appearing feminine. I’m a (sorta butch) lesbian who has always wanted children, and I have noticed the opposite prejudice working in my life. I recently adopted an infant with my wife, and I continuously deal with people are “shocked” to see that I am a mother now. My dry cleaner almost fell on the floor when I told her the baby I had in my arms while dropping off the weekly clothes was mine, and not someone else’s. My lack of femininity apparently disqualifies me as a mother in their eyes, even as my baby is in my arms. My desires and my choices put me in parental “no man’s land” – no pun intended.

    • Carmen on April 23, 2013 at 1:57 am

      I like all the different perspectives. I agree Mary that using this woman’s confession does nothing for the article. Also detaching anything from femininity I feel is counterproductive to broadening the definition and creating an atmosphere of acceptance and inclusivity. If I wake up tomorrow and wear a mohawk and penny loafers am I allowed to call this femininity? Yes I am because if that is how I define my femininity than that is how I define it. If part of my femininity is having children than that is how I define it. If my friend defines her femininity by not having children than that is how she defines it. femininity is individually defined.

  17. Oh Chérie | Valget om å la være on April 29, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    [...] all hennes tid uten å gi noe tilbake. Ganske harde ord, og gjett om hun har fått gjennomgå. The Feminist Wire følger opp saken, og viser til andre studier som konkluderer likt med Tove Fjell. Skribenten [...]

  18. Oh Chérie | Valget om å la være on April 29, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    [...] all hennes tid uten å gi noe tilbake. Ganske harde ord, og gjett om hun har fått gjennomgå. The Feminist Wire følger opp saken, og viser til andre studier som konkluderer likt med Tove Fjell. Skribenten [...]

  19. Oh Chérie | Valget om å la være on April 29, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    [...] all hennes tid uten å gi noe tilbake. Ganske harde ord, og gjett om hun har fått gjennomgå. The Feminist Wire følger opp saken, og viser til andre studier som konkluderer likt med Tove Fjell. Skribenten [...]

  20. Oh Chérie | Valget om å la være on April 29, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    [...] all hennes tid uten å gi noe tilbake. Ganske harde ord, og gjett om hun har fått gjennomgå. The Feminist Wire følger opp saken, og viser til andre studier som konkluderer likt med Tove Fjell. Skribenten [...]

  21. Rippley on April 29, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    I tell my Children.. to not have Kids.. Not soo much a FeminityMasculine thing.. BUT to actually LIVE a LIFE.. As a MAN, WHO!!! Just Paid off all of his Childsupport.. JUST FINANCIALLY, it is a Game Changer, and Life Changer.. We cant think of Could have been, or should have been, based on societys version. Our current society dictates, a 50% Divorce rate. Not here-say, but a Historical FACT.

    Dont corrupt yourself, by thinking you can beat the numbers. Creating life-ISNT Cheap, nor is it something that can be done Half baked.. MEANING, barely there, both physically, Financially, and true Emotionally.

    IF no Kids, you will ENJOY LIFE.. That is how it is. If you long for it.. There are oopposite Sex people, ie MENWomen, WHO are single parents. Birthing a child, versus a adopted, wether, momdadBRO’ Matters not. That Experience is awesome, yet humbling. But there is a COST.

    Living alone, living single life.. ITS not like you will be alone. ITs not like you wont find DATES, its really not like you wont have LIFELONG Friends.. Wether they have kids or not.. ITS like that. MANY Men, REGRET having children. MANY.. Just based on the clear fact.. They will never, EVER be allowed to be the REAL Man in their life..

  22. Rippley on April 29, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    I tell my Children.. to not have Kids.. Not soo much a FeminityMasculine thing.. BUT to actually LIVE a LIFE.. As a MAN, WHO!!! Just Paid off all of his Childsupport.. JUST FINANCIALLY, it is a Game Changer, and Life Changer.. We cant think of Could have been, or should have been, based on societys version. Our current society dictates, a 50% Divorce rate. Not here-say, but a Historical FACT.

    Dont corrupt yourself, by thinking you can beat the numbers. Creating life-ISNT Cheap, nor is it something that can be done Half baked.. MEANING, barely there, both physically, Financially, and true Emotionally.

    IF no Kids, you will ENJOY LIFE.. That is how it is. If you long for it.. There are oopposite Sex people, ie MENWomen, WHO are single parents. Birthing a child, versus a adopted, wether, momdadBRO’ Matters not. That Experience is awesome, yet humbling. But there is a COST.

    Living alone, living single life.. ITS not like you will be alone. ITs not like you wont find DATES, its really not like you wont have LIFELONG Friends.. Wether they have kids or not.. ITS like that. MANY Men, REGRET having children. MANY.. Just based on the clear fact.. They will never, EVER be allowed to be the REAL Man in their life..

  23. Rippley on April 29, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    I tell my Children.. to not have Kids.. Not soo much a FeminityMasculine thing.. BUT to actually LIVE a LIFE.. As a MAN, WHO!!! Just Paid off all of his Childsupport.. JUST FINANCIALLY, it is a Game Changer, and Life Changer.. We cant think of Could have been, or should have been, based on societys version. Our current society dictates, a 50% Divorce rate. Not here-say, but a Historical FACT.

    Dont corrupt yourself, by thinking you can beat the numbers. Creating life-ISNT Cheap, nor is it something that can be done Half baked.. MEANING, barely there, both physically, Financially, and true Emotionally.

    IF no Kids, you will ENJOY LIFE.. That is how it is. If you long for it.. There are oopposite Sex people, ie MENWomen, WHO are single parents. Birthing a child, versus a adopted, wether, momdadBRO’ Matters not. That Experience is awesome, yet humbling. But there is a COST.

    Living alone, living single life.. ITS not like you will be alone. ITs not like you wont find DATES, its really not like you wont have LIFELONG Friends.. Wether they have kids or not.. ITS like that. MANY Men, REGRET having children. MANY.. Just based on the clear fact.. They will never, EVER be allowed to be the REAL Man in their life..

  24. Rippley on April 29, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    I tell my Children.. to not have Kids.. Not soo much a FeminityMasculine thing.. BUT to actually LIVE a LIFE.. As a MAN, WHO!!! Just Paid off all of his Childsupport.. JUST FINANCIALLY, it is a Game Changer, and Life Changer.. We cant think of Could have been, or should have been, based on societys version. Our current society dictates, a 50% Divorce rate. Not here-say, but a Historical FACT.

    Dont corrupt yourself, by thinking you can beat the numbers. Creating life-ISNT Cheap, nor is it something that can be done Half baked.. MEANING, barely there, both physically, Financially, and true Emotionally.

    IF no Kids, you will ENJOY LIFE.. That is how it is. If you long for it.. There are oopposite Sex people, ie MENWomen, WHO are single parents. Birthing a child, versus a adopted, wether, momdadBRO’ Matters not. That Experience is awesome, yet humbling. But there is a COST.

    Living alone, living single life.. ITS not like you will be alone. ITs not like you wont find DATES, its really not like you wont have LIFELONG Friends.. Wether they have kids or not.. ITS like that. MANY Men, REGRET having children. MANY.. Just based on the clear fact.. They will never, EVER be allowed to be the REAL Man in their life..

  25. [...] were viewed, as being very different from voluntarily childfree women.  As I mentioned in the op-ed,at The Feminist Wire, I believe that child-free women who are unable to have children differ not in [...]

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