We are a society obsessed with baby bumps. Archaeologists of the future will marvel at all the baby-related artifacts from fancy strollers to the ubiquitous pump-in-style breast pumps and conclude that, like Paleolithic Europeans with their Venus figurines, we worshipped at the altar of fertility.
But Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show that the fertility rate has been steadily declining for almost a decade. Millenials across race and class categories are not only delaying childbearing but they are also rating the goal of having children lower on their life agendas, according to a report last year by the Urban Institute.
I embarked on a research project to study infertility among women who were not seeking high-tech medical treatments like IVF. They make up the majority of women diagnosed as infertile, I reasoned, so why not ask them how they feel about it?
Most of the research on the experience of infertility was narrowly limited to white, middle class, married women in the midst of intensive fertility treatments. They were frustrated, sad, in crisis.
What about the ones I interviewed, those who were not trying? Meh. They were resolute in only one thing: their ambivalence. Having kids may or may not happen in the future, they figured. Even the ones past menopause would not rule out adoption or step parenting. Sometimes the same woman would indicate that she longs to fit in and fulfill her feminine destiny; but, in the next breath, she would relish her freedom.
Whenever I talk to childless women about these findings, the recognition is powerful and immediate. They jump in strenuously with their own corroborating stories. I could write another book just on those responses.
But what truly surprises me is the reaction from women with children. They look to the right and then to the left. Voices lowered conspiratorially, they confess, “I’m still ambivalent.”
Perhaps I should not be surprised by this attitude. I’m a parent and parenting is hard. In fact, a 2015 study supported by the National Science Foundation and published in the American Journal of Sociology proved that parenthood diminishes adults’ lifetime happiness.
We cherish our children but we cultivate them like hothouse plants, with unblinking—and exhausting—effort.
What if we owned our ambivalence, though? What if it was more socially acceptable to say, “I don’t know if I want kids,” even when they are playing at our feet?
Women continually get the message that they are not fulfilled or not yet fully mature until they have kids. By this reckoning, if you are “ready” to have them, it probably means you have a stable job and a committed relationship.
But can’t we be grown women before we have kids?
Joyous celebrities flaunting their maternity keep us thinking of motherhood as aspirational. Ads depicting happily exasperated soccer moms dropping dirty socks into the problem-solving washing machine with dirt-dissolving detergent suggest the hassles are worthwhile. We should want this. Right?
Childless women get divided into one of two insulting categories: the sad and hopelessly barren or the selfish and insouciantly childfree. Research—and, if we are honest, our own experiences—reveal the truth that almost all of us, mothers and not-mothers, fit somewhere along a spectrum of wanting and not wanting our status.
In solidarity with women who aren’t sure if they want kids or now, we need to reject the stigma and just admit that mothers, too, harbor plenty of ambivalence.
Heck, infertility might cease to be a crisis for some. Childlessness may foster other kinds of beneficial social connections. Philosopher Donna Haraway offers the motto: Make kin, not babies! Our earth can only support so many humans. Maybe not having kids is selfless rather than selfish. As a mother, I’m ambivalent.