When my grandmother was a young girl, she already knew her main purpose in life was to find a suitable husband and have children. My great-grandmother would have told her, most likely in a no-nonsense manner, that no woman was deemed fulfilled until she married and had at least a few babies to cement the relationship.
My grandmother would also have been told not to leave it too late or be too particular when deciding on a husband. If she’d ignored this advice and had been left on the shelf, like a packet of stale biscuits that no one wanted, she might have carried the shame with her for the rest of her life. After all, a spinster was viewed by society as a waste of a womb – someone to be pitied.
Also to be pitied was a married woman who couldn’t have children. Of course, way back then (when infertility treatments were in their infancy) it was assumed to be the woman’s fault if she couldn’t conceive. Her husband’s spermatozoa could have had all the motility of a beached whale, but the accusing finger would not have been pointed at him.
A little further back in time, doctors maintained the idea that a woman’s personal misbehaviour caused most cases of infertility. And we’re not just talking about physical misbehaviour. One Harvard doctor warned that heavy mental activity (schooling) during tender teenage years might destroy a young woman’s reproductive system: “The results are monstrous brains and puny bodies. If the reproductive machinery is not manufactured then, it will not be later. The brain cannot take more than its share without injury to other organs.”
I couldn’t make this stuff up, even if I tried. What happened to all these educated women with monstrous brains and redundant reproductive systems? This sort of alarmist talk was surely designed to keep a woman in her place: pregnant and in the kitchen, with her tiny brain focused on all things domestic.
With society’s attitude towards a woman’s role firmly entrenched, it was almost unheard of for a married woman to choose not to have children. I mean to say, no sane woman would spurn her main role in life.
These days, motherhood can be achieved in so many different ways, even when a woman is infertile. So, if a woman doesn’t have children, it’s probably because it’s her choice. If she doesn’t have an egg, she can get one of those too. If there are no fresh eggs to be had, she can get a frozen one – all she needs to do is defrost it in the microwave for a minute, stir in a fresh male donation, and rent a womb for nine months – if she isn’t quite up to the task.
Although things have changed tremendously in the “You Too Can Have A Baby” department since my grandmother’s days, over in the “I Don’t Want A Baby” department, old attitudes linger. Women who choose not to have children are often viewed as being cold, selfish, materialistic, or excessively career-driven.
I don’t see anything wrong with not wanting children. Some women just don’t feel maternal, or maybe they feel they can make a difference with their careers, or they just don’t want to add another human being to the billions already living on this ailing planet. I know a number of women who have chosen not to have children, and they most certainly don’t conform to the miserable stereotype that still seems to follow them around.
Finally, there’s that group of women who have children and later realise they don’t like being mothers. For a long time, such women sucked it up in silence, mostly because they were afraid that they would be classified as uncaring selfish monsters. But now they seem to be popping up here and there on social media as they share their stories. It takes a lot of courage to admit that you haven’t bonded with your child.
Being a mother is a hard slog. The demands are often relentless, but bonding with her baby will help any mother cope with the endless night feeds and dirty diapers. Otherwise, she’ll just feel stuck in an endless cycle of drudgery with no escape and no reward.
I’m aware of the criticism that these women have experienced in return for their openness, much of it from other women. I think any woman with a problem with a baby deserves to be heard as much as all the other women who have exercised their rights to be heard with regard to motherhood over the years. Surely our monstrous brains tell us that’s the right thing to do.
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