As I write this I am sitting still, possibly for the first time today. My days are filled with work: teaching, writing, and planning every detail of my daughter’s life–holding it all together by what seems like loose threads. I’ve just finished cuddling with her, listening to a story that she’d just imagined, and reminding her how important she is to me. There is no greater joy than watching this thing, which started out so tiny and needy, become so big, and strong, and free-thinking, and enchanting. My baby shower invitations contained the Congolese proverb, “Children are the reward of life.” And it's true. I love being a mother–mostly.
There are days though, when I can barely drag myself out of bed, and caring for another human being seems impossible. The first time I sat in a therapist’s chair, my daughter was a toddler and I was just entering graduate school. “I feel like a slave,” I admitted to my therapist, while weeping and ensuring that my eyes didn’t meet hers. I was ashamed. I was failing as a woman surely, I thought. I missed my alone time, my books, and my ways of wanderlust. My identity had been buried, mocked and transformed, and I hated the idea of being reduced to only being a wife and a mother by almost everyone in my life and society as a whole. I was also very angry that my husband’s life had changed very little, and it was in this moment that I finally embraced feminism.
I recall all of this as I read Isabella Dutton’s honest, although uncomfortable and unsavory, account of her regrets with having children. Dutton, a fifty-seven year old mother of two, doesn’t doubt, at all, that she would have loved her life a great deal more if she hadn’t birthed her son and daughter. On what she feels she lost by having children, Dutton reveals, “What I valued most in my life was time on my own; to reflect, read and enjoy my own company and peace of mind. And suddenly that peace and solitude wasn't there anymore. There were two small interlopers intruding on it. And I've never [gotten] that peace back.” Although many women would not to dare speak of how mothering negatively impacted their lives, we all must admit that motherhood is challenging, often thankless, and for some, a true burden. I applaud women who’ve wanted to be mothers since they were three and have carefully organized their lives toward that goal, but that is certainly not everyone's story.
“Why have children then?” some may ask, befuddled by the idea that women may lack agency over their bodies and may choose to become mothers even when they really don’t want to. It’s both extremely complex and very simple. We are socialized to believe that "woman," "wife," and "mother" are synonymous. We are given dolls to care for before we can even form sentences, and encouraged immediately to understand that our needs and wants should come second to something or someone else’s, always. Elizabeth Mitchell discusses why she loathed her dolls as a child in her frank and thoughtful essay, “An Odd Break with the Human Heart.” She posits, “Through dolls, the heart muscles of females are strengthened, ensuring that they will be ruled by compassion and, through compassion, by others, for the rest of their lives.” So we become nurturing, sacrificial mothers to our dolls and witness our own mothers surrender their dreams to plan our play dates, prepare our meals, and Band-Aid our boo-boos. We feel that we too, at some point, must bear that cross; but I doubt we ever examine how motherhood, just like marriage, or the careers we settle into, should be our choice alone. Society implies that we are worthless if we do not mother, and that if we directly choose not to be mommies, we are impious.
The Feminist Wire's Nicole Verdes cosigns the idea of erroneously linking a woman’s worth to motherhood, saying:
“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.”
The goal of feminist thought, which really is only the contemplation of how women can live the lives they choose and not the lives others choose for them, is to make room for the exploration of options that were not available to us before. What my mother never told me, I will gladly tell my daughter (and the other young women I mentor)—which is: get a passport; see as much of the world as you can, and be shaped by those journeys; don’t spend your time training to become someone’s wife, as a wise person will always choose a partner who is already whole and individual and happy. And please, remember that "woman" and "mother" are not synonyms.
Josie Pickens is an educator, writer and culture critic. Follow her musings on twitter: @jonubian.