Mulling the Motherhood Mandate

Of all the important decisions we make in our lives, questions about whether to have a child or not, or even when to have a child, have to be near the top of the list, and while that is true for men, it is certainly the case with women. Given the enormous personal stakes in childbearing, it is surprising that more women have not written a book about the pros and cons that go into making childbearing decisions.

The latest contribution to this field comes from Melanie Holmes, a mother with two grown sons and a 12-year-old daughter at home. Her book, The Female Assumption, seeks to free women "from the view that motherhood is a mandate." The author makes it clear from the outset that she does not regret having three children, but she tells her readers that "females should be raised hearing that motherhood is only one option out of many paths that they might choose in order to live a full, happy life."

For the vast majority of human history the 'default' choice for women has been to have a child, if not several children. And that's been good on several levels, not the least of which is the survival of the human species. Looking back, if women on average had fewer than two children each, we would not be here today. Indeed, child mortality rates were so high for millennia that women, on average, had to have several children or population would have rapidly declined. Large family size, for much of human history, has been a biological imperative.

Today, however, with 7.2 billion of us on the planet and demographic projections indicating that world population will increase by another 2.4 billion by mid-century, humankind is in no danger of shuffling off its mortal coil and women with access to modern contraception can now space or limit their pregnancies, and can opt, if they so choose, to go childless. But despite their reproductive freedom many women in the world are still under a lot of pressure to have children.

In many developing countries a woman may have little voice in determining the size of her family, particularly if she was a child bride. But even in the United States women can be pressured into having children. Holmes writes that "girls are coached, almost from birth, to embrace motherhood," and that "married women without children are often bombarded with questions." In the course of writing her book, Holmes interviewed more than a hundred women with daughters, and she reports that 88 percent of them said that they "assumed" that their daughters would have children, though only 42 percent said they would actively encourage their daughters to have children.

In Chapter 4 of her book, Holmes lists seven "dirty little secrets" that mothers refrain from telling their daughters about raising children. In a subsequent chapter, she also writes about the many "joys" of motherhood, but she concludes that, once you opt for motherhood, life as you have known it "ceases to exist," and that "you must forego many other choices that could be equally rewarding." In reaching that conclusion, Holmes talked to dozens of women who chose not to have children, many of whom, including my wife, reported no regrets about their decision.

Holmes is not the first woman in recent years to publicly attack the "assumption" that women cannot lead fulfilling lives if they do not have children. A few years ago, Lisa Hymas, a senior editor at Grist, generated some debate within the environmental community when she criticized the pressure that family and friends often put upon young women to have children. In a strong defense of her decision not to have children, she coined the phrase, "green inclination, no kids" or GINK, for short.

What sets Holmes apart from some of the other "child-free" advocates is that she is a mother of three and still willing to defend women who opt not to have children. For obvious reasons, it is a bit of a tightrope act; Holmes does not regret the "three beautiful souls" who came into her life, but neither does she shrink from describing the downsides of motherhood. The result is a fresh and balanced perspective on the relative merits of having children versus not having children.

Holmes treats childbearing as a highly personal decision, which it most certainly is, but for some people, like me, decisions on childbearing can also include larger, non-personal considerations, such as the impact that ever growing human numbers are having on the planet. As a man who decided early on that he would prefer to not have any children, I do not question those who elect to have children, but by the same token I do not think parenthood should be entered into lightly. For all the reasons outlined in The Female Assumption and more, I believe that women -- and men -- should think carefully about one of the most momentous decisions they will ever make. If you are woman and you have not decided yet whether to have children, I urge you to read The Female Assumption.