Being currently pregnant with my second child, I recently went to a dinner party with my good friend and confident, Marie. At the sight of my soon-to-be belly, I was shoved with compliments and the conversation rapidly switched to the popular topic of parenthood.
As always, friends asked Marie when she was planning on having a family. After all, she had been with her boyfriend for four years now and she was over 30, so they must soon be thinking about it, right?
Well no. As we have discussed numerous times, Marie, as far as I can remember, has never wanted children, and I must confess that having a 16 month-old myself, I sometimes understand why. What is interesting though, are the reactions Marie’s choice again provoked. By responding that having children was not on her or her boyfriend’s agenda, Marie had opened a Pandora box: dinner guests began asking why. When her answers didn’t satisfy them, they smiled and said “you will change your mind”, “watch out for the biological clock”, with a little grind, being certain of their opinion.
Some went as far as accusing her of being selfish (the question remained: towards whom? Her unborn child?), while others believed it was actually her boyfriend who didn’t want kids and hence she had reluctantly resigned to not wanting them either. However, they all concluded that for sure, she will change her mind, and hopefully before she turns 40.
Having discussed this topic with her over and over again, I am not sure what her reasons exactly are, and most importantly, it is none of my business. Nobody quizzed me when I said I was pregnant with my first – or second. No one has ever asked why I wanted children, why I wanted four of them or simply why I wanted to be pregnant.
In recent years, it seems that our society has operated an interesting shift. While it encourages women to pursue a career and be financially independent, it also sides out women who make the choice of not having children. Women who have no maternal desire are considered alien, we assume they must have undergone serious traumas or that perhaps they are infertile but do not want to disclose it. A childless woman is often considered incomplete and her life sad and depressing.
For a society that places such importance on personal success, career and financial independence, it is surprising that women must still become mothers before being whole, while men are not subject to such pressure. Have you ever been to a dinner where a man is quizzed from starter to dessert about why is it not a father yet, at the age of 32? Or more so, whether he wants children?
While women in Europe are now seeing a window of choices opening to them in terms of reproductive rights, from the choice of a partner to their contraception method, the culmination of their life is still seen in motherhood. Over the last ten years, society has re-glorified the maternal instinct and the centrality of the mother in a child’s life compared to the role of the father. While women are now able to choose when to become a parent, the very choice of whether they want to become parents has virtually disappeared.
If instinct is defined as “an inborn pattern of behaviour that is characteristic of a species”, it implies that all women have the so-called maternal instinct. While it is a reassuring thought that women want to reproduce and love their children, the very notion of instinct is challenged by the fact that not all women seem to possess the maternal instinct. To echo French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter’s argument, maternal instinct therefore does not exist, but is, rather a social construction, forced upon women by societal norms. It has been used to justify the closeness of women with their children, the fact that women earn less or leave a promising career after becoming mothers and has discouraged some men to take an active role in the upbringing of their children, as such activity is perceived as un-masculine.
While maternity and childrearing should of course be encouraged, becoming the primary caretaker of one’s children, abandoning one’s career to stay home after birth, should be a common choice between parents and not the result of a dated socially constructed belief that mothers are biologically wired to better care for their children than fathers are.
Vibeke B. Thomsen is the author of this post, as well as the Founder of GenderHopes project, which aim is to do research and analyze the situation and options for women who are victims of violence all around the world.
Front Picture of a “pregnant woman” taken from user “fleki” at flickr.com/photos/montseprats/4925358935/with a a Creative Commons Attribution Flickr License