When it comes to women making decisions to have or not have children, biological imperatives get a lot of coverage these days – from egg-freezing parties to single women using the services of sperm banks ‘before it’s too late.’ Ambivalence about motherhood rarely gets a look in.
Some women definitely yearn to become mothers. Some definitely do not and make a clear decision early in their lives not to have children. Good luck to both groups. But there seems little room and no words to describe an in-betweener who has imprecise feelings and emotions about potentially becoming a mum or not. When on occasion the ‘I’m not sure and let’s just see’ approach does come up in conversation, it is often perceived as foolhardy or apathetic. You must know, you must make a choice! Added to this is the increasing social hysteria surrounding the ‘fertility window’. I’m considered an idiot by some for not having made a clear decision on my thirty-fifth birthday to get cracking and take affirmative action to know the exact status of my fertility.
We’ve made motherhood a polarized, essentialist issue for women with no room for uncertainty. You’re childfree by choice or by circumstance. You can’t. Or you won’t. Simple. Those too slow to decide and take action to get pregnant get shoved in the hideously termed ‘socially infertile’ to describe those who would like to have children but who regrettably haven’t found themselves with the right partner or in settled circumstances. Rather than go it alone or take a dubious accidently-on-purpose route to become mothers, these women with full and loving lives chose to let fate take its course and deal with life as it happens. At tlfw we’ve decided that we’re not going to give that particular term any more airtime. There are other ways and other words to discuss our lives.
What’s the reality of living with ambivalence to motherhood today? Well, the presumption that ‘comment-is-free’ on my maternal status can be hard-going. I really have had an uneasy phone call from a relative asking me if I had thought about freezing my eggs given my age. Even my five-year-old niece is in on it, having taken me aside for a quiet word one day to suggest I become a ‘mum on my own’ like some of her friends from school who have single parents.
The most difficult and unpleasant experience around being a childfree woman I’ve had to deal with with are the gloomy soothsayers who barely know me and who shake their heads and insinuate I’ll end up wretched, having ‘missed the boat’. This offends me. I don’t think it can ever be one person’s place to imply another has missed out on a meaningful life before that person has finished living.
There is still so much cultural mythology around motherhood being the only natural calling for women. Those women who don’t or can’t or just don’t know if they want to be mothers are still perceived as ‘lesser’. If you are, ambivalent you’re also seen as less smart. Non-mothers are less feminine, less nurturing, less kind and on it goes. Till we get to the logical point that women without children are ‘less natural as women’. That, my friends, is prejudice: and plain wrong.
But that’s what happens when we wed women to biological imperatives and keep the myth alive that being a mother is an essential part of being a women. And this takes us back to ambivalence. What does it mean not to know one way or the other and not be driven to make a choice despite the tick tock of the biological clock in the background? Why are women ambivalent about motherhood? Fear of parenting? The legacy of difficult parts of our own childhoods? A subconscious or even conscious rejection of partners and their potential as father material? Concerns about the environment and children already living in terrible conditions across the world?
Or, personally speaking, is it that I am indecisive, because deep down really I don’t want to have kids? I do wonder if by not making a firm decision I could be trying to hold on to the illusion I can have it all? All the benefits of childfree living: sleeping in; not ever having to go to Camp Bestival; exotic holidays at the last minute; my disposable income disposed of on me. At the same time I can hold the idea at the back of my mind that I can still be one of those tranquil earth mother types if the stars align. To be honest, it depends on which day of the week it is and what way the wind is blowing what I’ll tell you. That I have no hard and fast explanation is part of my general ambivalence.
How can I comprehend what I might regret in the future now? What I am sure of in the present moment is that I can’t make a major life decision on the basis of anxiety. As for the potential for my twilight years lived in the shadow of a sorrow for a child I never had, in the words of Edith Piaf “Je ne regrette rein de rein”.
I do not need to live in the shadow of the child-that-never-was. I don’t need a life plan B because I already have a life. If I pop my clogs tomorrow I’m confident my life had meaning and I have given to others. I have experienced what it is to love someone else more than myself. I do not need to to validate my existence as a woman or to prove my love for the human race. As for procreating for and through the deep love of a partner and the desire to create a bonsai version of us, that does sound magnificent in theory/ but in practice? Well you know – I just don’t know. I am ambivalent you see.