Ask a man why he is not using his sperm or ask a woman why she is not using her uterus. It’s basically the same thing, but somehow it feels like a very loaded question to me – and many other women. I no longer panic when I get this question, but my fertility is still a topic that keeps me busy. Why is motherhood such a crucial part of my identity as a woman?
Feeling the pressure to have a family
Looking back at my twenties, when posed with the question about my desire to have children would have made me gasp for breath, there is one word that immediately comes to mind: peer pressure.
This is not to say I blame others for my stress. Peer pressure has a lot to do with your own feelings about your identity. We use our social environment to evaluate these feelings about our identity. We like to be part of a group, so when our identity deviates too much from the norm, it leaves us with an unpleasant feeling.
From the age of twenty seven, everyone around me started settling into serious relationships, buying houses and having children. When you are the only one in your peer group that is doing things differently, sooner or later they start asking questions and you start feeling awkward.
Desire for children: postponing a life altering choice
Every answer to the question ‘do you want children?’ did not seem right. If I said yes, I felt extremely uncomfortable, knowing this was not an honest answer. Moreover, this led to me being subjected to questions that made me even more afraid to say anything beyond the norm.
On the other hand, if I said no, I had to explain myself and was soon labeled as someone without maternal instincts. And apparently that made me feel bad. So at some point I started to say ‘maybe’, but this answer turned out to be even more unsatisfying. It meant that I still had to make this life altering choice and that these questions about kids would continue to haunt me until my fertility ceased.
My struggle with motherhood has somewhat diminished, but it is not gone. I am almost thirty five now, so there is not much time left to make and give birth to children and I find myself not indifferent to that fact.
Societal changes made parenting a conscious choice
For some reason my fertility is something that is always there in the back of my mind. It is not just the fact that I am fertile – but merely the finity of my fertility. It forces me to make a decision about the use of my reproductive organ.
I am certainly not the only one who is struggling with the choice of motherhood. Due to societal changes, motherhood has become a conscious choice. Since the invention of contraception, having children is no longer self-evident.
In addition, the emancipation of women has changed our lives tremendously. These days women get all the opportunities to have a career. This has led to an increase of the age at which women bear their first child. The German Federal Institute for Population Research claimed in 2015 the percentage for women with an age of at least 35 giving birth to a child was 25.9%. Also more and more women choose not to have kids. According to research by Statistics Netherlands from 2004, six in ten childless women are voluntarily childless.
The question is how we deal with these societal changes. Great that women can make a conscious choice now, but should we deny the additional struggles that arise from all these advancements? Should we deny the feelings of guilt that women might feel when choosing between a family and a career?
Women are more preoccupied with their fertility
What fascinates me even more is that this extreme awareness of our fertility, these conscious choices of motherhood, seems to be more present in women. Men are also fertile, but they just seem less concerned about it. Also, it does not seem to be such an important part of their identity.
Of course there is a big physical difference between men and women. Male fertility generally starts to decline around the age of forty, whereas the fertility of women usually starts declining in their late twenties or early thirties. You could say this is a legitimate reason for women to be more preoccupied with their fertility.
Nevertheless, becoming a father has a huge impact on a man too, and they basically face the same choice. However, I do not recall any conversations about men struggling with declining fertility, men who have no paternal instincts or men who are concerned about a life without children. And especially men who are worried about what others might think of that.
Who grows the baby gets the worries?
You cannot measure men and women by the same yardstick. We all have our own worries and struggles. Still, I have not seen a lot of men in my surroundings expressing themselves about fatherhood or their fertility.
This made me question myself. Why do I feel awkward when someone asks me if I want children? And why do I feel so inadequate as a woman when I say that I don’t want children? Or that I find it difficult knowing that my career might change if I have children, and I am not sure whether I like that or not?
I mean, if I would let go of the idea that I am a woman who is fertile and look at myself as a human that can make a choice about having a family or not, there would be no problem right? People make choices and other people generally respect that choice. So the question is why my gender makes such a difference.
We cannot deny the fact that baby’s can only grow in a female body. There is a difference between choosing to grow a living being inside of your body and choosing to plant a seed and watch a living being grow in another person’s body. We both have to take on the responsibility of that choice, but in the end, I have to face the physical consequence.
Women seem to talk more about the choice to become a parent
Ask a man why he doesn’t use his sperm or ask a woman why you don’t use your uterus. It is the same thing, but oddly enough we seem to ask the latter more. Since Google can answer all your questions these days, I started a little investigation on this topic.
Google gives us 72 million hits for the Dutch question ‘to become a mother or not’ (wel of geen moeder worden) and 187.000 hits for the question ‘become a father or not’ (wel of geen vader worden).
The top results on Google for questions on motherhood are: ‘how do you know for sure that you want children?’ (hoe weet je zeker dat je wel of geen kinderen wilt?), ‘as a woman you can’t just say you don’t want children’ (als vrouw kun je niet gewoon zeggen dat je geen kind wilt) and ‘I’d rather have become a mother 5 years later”(te vroeg gerammeld: ik was liever 5 jaar later moeder geworden).
Men only start talking after they become a father
For men, the search for ‘to become a father or not’ (wel of geen vader worden), gives us slightly different results. The first result is ‘my husband is not a nice father’ (mijn man is geen leuke vader), ‘my boyfriend doesn’t want a child’ (vriend wil geen kind) and ‘biological father indispensable for the good development of children’ (biologische vader onmisbaar voor goede ontwikkeling van kinderen).
Fortunately, below these results you can find what we are looking for: ‘becoming a father is tough.’ (vader worden is afzien). The funny thing is that we cannot find this particular headline in the women’s section.
The more general question ‘whether or not to have children’ (wel of geen kinderen) gets the most hits: 163 million. Interestingly, if you click on the image results, you will only see pictures of women with kids.
No children? What to do with the rest of my life?
Google seems to confirm that the choice of having children is more of a female than a male topic. Men have their own problems, but those seem to arise at a later point in time, when they already have become a father.
So why are women so preoccupied with their fertility? If I type this into Google, the search engine gets a bit confused. Why are we preoccupied? Nobody seems to ask that. I click on the first article. This article appears to be about a book that asks questions about motherhood. The book is written by Sheila Heti, a 43-year-old writer from Toronto.
Almost at the beginning of the article I read the following: “There is a kind of sadness in not wanting the things that give meaning to the lives of so many other people.” She calls this a social sadness. As a woman you cannot say that you do not want children, because then you must have another big plan or idea, something that you will do instead.
It seems many people cannot understand that you can also give meaning to a childless life. I am not one of them, but maybe that’s because I am a busty little bee. In my life I never had a moment when I feel bored, unfulfilled or purposeless. Actually, in my childless life I have a lot of time for self-development.
Baby fear: being afraid of a life changing event
Perhaps this fear of losing my space for self-development has delayed my choice of motherhood. And this fear is not entirely unfounded. In fact, if you go back to Google, you will see there are a lot of articles about women losing or redefining their identity after they became a mother. In addition, all my friends with children confirmed it changed their lives completely.
Despite the fact that all my friends who started a family still work, I see that most of my female friends work less than their husbands, that they don’t go to the gym anymore, that they have little time for their hobbies and that their lives revolve around the children.
It is very difficult for me to discuss this with my friends without appearing judgmental. It is really about my own fear of losing my life. Emancipation has given women more opportunities, but that also makes it more painful to give up those chances. Especially because I feel that if I had been a man, I would not have had this struggle. However, statements like these are not very accepted in our society.
Emancipation brings new challenges for women
Motherhood has become a conscious choice. It has become something that gives meaning to your life. We can choose the timing of parenting, or we can choose not to become a parent at all. Thanks to emancipation, men and women now have the opportunity to shape their lives.
However, these advancements also gave rise to new challenges. For everyone, but I think especially for women. We can make a conscious choice now, but that means we also make a conscious choice about the consequences. And these consequences seem to be different for men and women.
We cannot deny the fact that women need to make choices faster, because female fertility ends earlier than male fertility. Women also face more physical effects on their bodies, since they are the ones giving birth to children. This has a significant impact on the lives of women for at least one year.
The difficulties of life work balance
In addition to these physical differences that we cannot change, there are also social factors that influence the impact of parenthood. On average, women still earn less than men and devote more time to childcare. This often leads to women taking a step back in their career.
More importantly, I feel we do not acknowledge this difficulty for women with balancing out their lives. It is very normal if you want to spend time with your kids, but generally that means for women they have to pause their career for a while. As a result, we have to accept that our careers are going to lag behind, which has consequences for our future.
A lot of women accept this fact and are happy working part time. That’s not to say it is an easy life. On the contrary, it is quite challenging managing a career and raising children at the same time. Sometimes I think it is much easier to just make a choice for one of the two.
To be or not to be a super mother
Talking about balancing career and motherhood, imagine there are also mothers who work full-time. It scares me sometimes and that has merely to do with the fact that I don’t know if I am able to handle such an intense life. My mom worked full-time and now I can see how hard that was for her, especially because in her time there was less support for this.
I have read and listened to interviews with ‘successful’ women. They are mothers, they are managing partners at their company, they play a role in some advisory board, started their own concept in the meanwhile and next to that, they also do sports, read books and paint in their free time.
Honestly, sometimes I don’t know what to think about all of this. The picture of myself as a mother who loses her own life is scary, but the picture of myself as a mother who is working herself to death seems even more horrible. How do all these women do this? I envy them.
Children or not: the struggle of making choices
Is it legitimate to say women worry more about the choice to have children than men because it has more impact on their lives? Am I denying the struggles of men? I don’t know, because I never heard a man talking about this.
What I do know is that opting out of having children can save me from a lot of struggles, had it not been for this opting out leaves me with another, more internal struggle. That is, making this conscious choice that has such an impact on my life.
A struggle that I do not really like to talk about, because I feel awkward if I notice that my friends did not experience this struggle at all or even worse, have overcome this struggle. Friends who made the choice and are happy with it. Whatever this choice may be.