Motherhood And Selfishness

Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

In my last post on motherhood, I touched briefly on how women who choose not to have children are often berated for being selfish. I would like to return to this point and explore it a bit further, as I believe it is actually quite multifaceted and functions as a focal point for many of the issues women face today.

First, there are many costs, both tangible and intangible, that potential mothers must take into account. These include time spent navigating physical conditions (which could range from negligible to major and incapacitating) as well as the money not only to pay for treatment, but also money lost from not being employed. This article on The Nation analyzes the hidden costs of motherhood, ranging from the unanticipated need to take unpaid leave to outright debt from job loss. Until more than just two states offer paid leave for new mothers, I suspect that the financial costs to women for being pregnant will continue to take a gigantic (but sadly invisible) toll.

So is it really selfish for a woman to not want to sacrifice financial independence and security in order to have a baby? Even two-income families don’t have any guarantees that the monetary costs of motherhood will not adversely affect them. I feel that if our society were to really back up its claim that motherhood is an important role and goal for women, there would be more support for new mothers: not only paid leave, but also more options for childcare, help with breastfeeding, and so on. The “choice” to have children is not an unconstrained choice, happening in a world of free agents with no consequences for choosing either way, so I don’t think we can urge women to have babies without looking at the very real effects that making such a choice has.

The consequences of having children also include emotional and physical consequences. Postpartum depression is common and not yet fully understood, so women who have children should examine the mental health risks as a factor in their decision-making. Sometimes having a new child can affect the emotional dynamics in a family, too. The physical factors affecting pregnancies are varied, ranging from poor health due to the pregnancy itself, to the after-effects such as unwanted weight maintenance and incontinence, which could affect women who lead active lives. As a runner, I really enjoyed reading about professional athletes Kara Goucher and Paula Radcliffe, who trained through their pregnancies and went on to race competitively within months after giving birth.

Less tangible, perhaps, is the massive support system it requires to sanely and safely raise children. Anthropologist Kate Clancy analyzes the stereotype that stay-at-home mothers are automatically more noble or authentic than working mothers, citing historical and evolutionary evidence that our ancestral mothers were always imbricated within large social networks that assisted with reproductive labor and everyday tasks. For women who are isolated, having children could take a very negative toll on their autonomy, and this is, unfortunately, an issue that is difficult to discuss due to the romanticization of the isolated nuclear family in the white picket fence and the super-moms who can, apparently effortlessly, do it all. Motherhood is work, and this fact should be recognized before we debate the merits of women who have children over those who do not.

I do not believe it is “selfish” for women to think through these myriad issues before committing to have children or not. On the flip side, women who do have children are sometimes accused of contributing to overpopulation in such a crowded world. How to respond to these claims? Again, it’s a lot more complicated than it looks on the surface. Some couples might adopt if they didn’t have kids on their own; others might not. There are many couples (and single folks, and multi-member families) who are happily child-free, perhaps balancing out some of the supposed population strains caused by those who want more than their “fair share” of children (whatever that means). I am a bit wary of movements like the Quiverfull Christians that encourage large family sizes as form of God’s blessing, since their ideology seems to intertwine with religious patriarchy that limits women’s abilities to attain financial and intellectual independence and make their own choices… but on the whole, trying to map the term “selfish” to “motherhood” or lack thereof  is a messy matter. Some women no doubt feel deeply fulfilled by having children, so how can we criticize them as being selfish? Doesn’t every human being deserve the opportunity to feel fulfilled in this world? While others, no doubt, prefer to view childbearing as but one of their life endeavors, or as something that it’s very nice that other people do but they have no desire to.

You’ll probably have noticed by now that biology has not come up yet. It’s because I don’t think biological drives play that large a role due to the overwhelming influence of social conditioning. We humans have not been 100% “natural” for a long time, so why should nature dominate the discussion of how we live our lives? In my experience, anytime someone brings up “nature” or “biology” in one of these debates, it’s a cover for what they believe should be natural, which frequently includes narrow gender roles and an idealized view of nuclear heterosexual monogamous families. And I’m also thinking that the so-called “biological clock” will have less of an impact on our complex chemistry (which is mediated by culture anyway) than the gazillion inquiries into whether one is planning to have children any time soon. Social pressures should not, as I discussed in my previous post, be underestimated or dismissed as an influence upon individual choices.

I am sure that doctors, midwives, counselors, and other professionals who work with pregnant women and new mothers would have a lot to add to this account of how complex decision-making is when it comes to motherhood. However, as a gender studies scholar and a feminist, my goal here was simply to point out that there are a lot of societal and personal factors influencing the nuances of decision-making for women who might (or might not) want children. It comes down to a lot more than being selfish or not. What do you think?

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About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.