The decision to delay parenthood may have improved our career opportunities and earning potential, but has also led to women being expected to explore their fertility options well into middle-age.
For the women who don’t – or can’t – have children, there is a socially ingrained stigma attached to not being a mother.
Samantha* is a 38-year old professional living in Sydney. While she says becoming a mother is still very much on her agenda, she’s noticed a lack of support for women her age who are in a similar position:
“I think that one of the issues is that there’s no real support or recognition for the fact that [worrying about having children] is a valid stress that some women carry. If you Google ‘women’s issues’, it’s always about the stress of being a mother,” she says.
The invisibility Samantha felt led her to reach out and share her story with Women’s Agenda.
“I started to go down the path of ‘well, what is it about [this experience] that can feel a bit alienating?’ If you’re not hearing about it and you’re not reading about it and you’re not seeing it around, it doesn’t feel like it’s valid. No-one talks about it… and whilst you don’t want to revel in someone else’s problems, knowing that someone else is going through it can make it better, [to] just learn from their experience,” she explains.
A study by Deakin University found that there was a deeply negative value judgement felt by voluntarily and involuntarily-childfree women.
Respondents reported feeling socially marginalised, and said that they were assumed to be selfish, lonely, incomplete and lacking empathy and life experience.
This kind of sentiment is echoed in much of the media coverage on the topic.
In an article published by The Sydney Morning Herald, journalist Stephanie Wood chronicles her own fertility experience, arguing that there is no positive narrative for women who grow up and don’t become mothers.
Iconic Australian feminist Anne Summers explains that, as girls, we are taught to aspire to motherhood and the women who deviate from this path are made to feel less-than.
“We have not disavowed that motherhood is still the central, preferable and most admired option for women. We might not overtly punish women who are not mothers, but we have our ways of letting them know they have fallen short of the ideal,” she says.
In an open letter to Kylie Minogue, TV and radio presenter Sami Lukas warns Minogue that her ‘serial cougar’ tendencies will ultimately lead to heartbreak if she doesn’t disclose her decision not to have children early on in a relationship.
Never mind that Minogue is one of Australia’s greatest pop exports, questions about her status as a non-mother have plagued her entire career.
Similarly, actress Jennifer Aniston has been singled out by the media for not having children. Recently, she spoke out against her portrayal as a ‘scorned’ and ‘sad’ woman:
“It’s pretty crazy. The misconceptions are “Jen can’t keep a man,” and “Jen refuses to have a baby because she’s selfish and committed to her career”. Or that I’m sad and heartbroken… There is a pressure on women to be mothers, and if they are not, then they’re deemed damaged goods. Maybe my purpose on this planet isn’t to procreate. Maybe I have other things I’m supposed to do?”
Why do we assume that all women aspire to motherhood?
Tanya Williams, author of A Childfree Happily Ever After, is childfree by choice.
Williams’ philosophy is about advocating for women to actively choose their fertility path, and the book provides information about what their future might look like with or without children.
“I wanted to share the stories of all types of women and different scenarios so that we can change the [culture of] judgement and criticism around this to support and acceptance,” she explains.
“I think our generation now has been lucky – I grew up as a child of the 80s. I had strong role models. I loved watching Dynasty and Dallas and Murphy Brown and Ally McBeal – all these women who didn’t have children, they were career-focused, they were strong, they were independent. I grew up and I really related to those women. I think they had a really big impact on my choices,” she says of her decision not to have children.
While Williams resonated with the strong women on TV in the 80s, she believes that we are still socialising young girls to aspire to motherhood above all else.
“We’re given babies when we’re babies, and we say, “one day you’re going to be a mummy” and all that sort of stuff. The way that we’re raised and the toys we’re given, the shows that we watch – all those things impact how girls develop into women and the choices that they make. I think we need to be mindful of what we’re saying to them, what we’re giving them to play with, how we’re influencing their decisions,” she warns.
In response, Williams is creating a nine-month program called Childfree Choice to help women decide whether having kids is right for them.
Whatever your decision about having children in the future, both Williams and Samantha recommend calling out family, friends or even strangers for asking tone deaf questions or casting judgement about your fertility choices or lifestyle.
Samantha recalls one specific incident:
“I was going home to pick up my dog [from the dog walkers] and I’ve actually started to say that whereas before I wouldn’t have said it because that’s not like picking up a child, is it? But, in my life it’s important. The person’s response was, “Oh, you’re paying for someone to walk your dog? That’s expensive. Gosh, why would you spend that much money on a dog?” And I said, “well, actually, I’d love to say that I’m picking up my child but that’s not happening, so I’m picking up my dog instead!”
*Respondents real name has been changed.
You can join the waitlist for the Childfree Choice Program here.