Society’s age-old inability to separate womanhood and motherhood has perpetuated a distinct expectation of what defines a married woman. Historically, having children soon after marriage was a box to be ticked for women to feel at one with the female community, and to feel as though they were upholding their duty.
From being gifted toy new-borns as children, to being taught how to feed, bathe and care for them, women have channelled a predetermined mode of womanhood through no fault of their own.
Times are beginning to change; the definition of marriage and femininity are becoming more inclusive and realistic, and women are being acknowledged for having more of a purpose than rearing their offspring.
Research from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation shows that the global average fertility rate (the average number of children a woman gives birth to) has nearly halved over the past 50 years. Figures from Pew Research Centre shows that almost one in five American women are choosing not to have kids.
Christen Reighter, writer, speaker and childfree by choice advocate, is one of these women. Reighter found herself on the public radar after TED.com featured her 2016 TEDxMileHigh talk about living childfree by choice, entitled ,”I don’t want children—stop telling me I’ll change my mind.”
For Reighter, living childfree by choice is a decision that is instrumental to her identity. Growing up, she was self-assured that motherhood was not the path she wished to follow, yet she was consistently told that she would grow out of this apparent adolescent idea.
“I never had any intention of having any children; it was always a yearning I could understand objectively, but never personally.
“I was always taken aback slightly when someone mused presumptively about my future – all the givens like ‘when you get married,’ or ‘when you have your kids,’ all triggered a personal discomfort in me,” Reighter told The College View.
Reighter’s choice was always led by balance and rationality. Not one to rush into any decision ill-informed, she cites personal factors such as refusing to risk passing on hereditary illnesses, to external factors such as the thousands of children that find themselves misplaced in a foster care system, as some of the reasons for her decision.
“To proceed with creating a vulnerable new living being amid factors such as these feels irresponsible and unkind to me,” Reighter said.
At 22, Reighter underwent a procedure for surgical sterilisation, a form of permanent contraception that involves cutting or blocking the fallopian tubes, preventing a woman from pregnancy.
She spent months educating herself on the topic, and evaluating all the risks posed, yet found herself fighting for her bodily autonomy at the foot of medical paternalism.
Medical paternalism implies that a doctor can make decisions based on what he or she discerns to be in the patient’s best interest, despite the patient being competent to make the decision for themselves, according to The Journal of Ethics.
Reighter’s medical appointments shadowed an interrogation on the witness stand, as she was considerably undermined for the substance and value of her decision to be surgically sterilised.
“The condescension and disrespect I encountered was shocking – especially when considering how prepared I was, and the fact that I was expecting pushback.
“The provider spoke to me like I was a child – even after repeatedly demonstrating my competency. I was given false and exaggerated statistics meant as a scare tactic,” Reighter added.
Reighter repeatedly experienced harassment from strangers and coworkers, to trolls online. Comments such as “you’ll regret that,” or “your decision is selfish,” have provided her with didactic fueling to advocate for women who are child free by choice.
Aubrea Ashe, author of 83 Reasons I Don’t Want a Baby: Deal With it, has also been a force for change on the matter. Like Reighter, Ashe knew from a young age that childbearing was not something conductive with her principles or intentions.
Ashe found herself exposed to the same derogatory remarks Reighter experienced, pinning “selfish” as the ubiquitous buzzword defining the childfree lifestyle.
“We really need to dig deeper to find some meaning there. Who does it benefit if women who really don’t desire motherhood have children and are pouring from empty cups their whole life? I know I can better contribute to the world in other ways,” Ashe told The College View.
Both Reighter and Ashe acknowledge that by not having biological children, they are only eliminating one path to parenthood.
“I would much rather one day confront personal regret about eliminating one path to parenthood than one day ever realise I had a child I am not ready for or that parenthood was a life I did not want.
“One is an issue that affects only myself and I would deal with that realisation..the other option involves an entire other person, one with needs and feelings,” Reighter added.
Despite the cynical remarks and assuming opinions, both women find themselves within the welcoming confines of the child free by choice community. Ashe is consistently met with an overwhelming degree of support for her book, while Reighter receives “candid and heart wrenching” emails from women who find solace in her TED talk.
A woman can cultivate a life of meaning and purpose outside of childbearing. Presuming child free by choice women are missing out on the family aspect, is indicative that a family dynamic only occurs with children. Presuming that women without children are devoid of purpose suggests that rearing children is the only purpose a woman can have.
“Find a way to contribute to the world and find purpose, that is important, but your purpose doesn’t have to be raising children. There are many less travelled roads full of meaning,” Ashe said.
Reighter and Ashe are redefining these suppositions, and are propelled forward by the supportive child free community behind them.
“I want my work, and that of others with the same message, to simply be the affirming voice that tells a woman (or any individual) that they are already enough and already whole, that choosing to procreate is their own choice – not something to be done to fulfil social or familial expectations,” Reighter said.
Archaic societal norms have moulded a standardised, idealistic female, a “one size fits all” being.
Yet, femininity is more multifaceted and complex than any social standard could encompass. Just because women can bear children by virtue of their biology, doesn’t mean they have to. Motherhood may be the mission – even the vocation – for some, but it doesn’t have to be the mission for all.
Author: Trudy Feenane
Image Credit: iStock