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The Long History of Not Being a Mother
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A historian explores the complicated relationship between womanhood and motherhood in this “timely, refreshingly open-hearted study of the choices women make and the cards they’re dealt” (Ada Calhoun, author of Why We Can’t Sleep).
In an era of falling births, it’s often said that millennials invented the idea of not having kids. But history is full of women without children: some who chose childless lives, others who wanted children but never had them, and still others—the vast majority, then and now—who fell somewhere in between. Modern women considering how and if children fit into their lives are products of their political, ecological, and cultural moment. But history also tells them that they are not alone.
Drawing on deep research and her own experience as a woman without children, historian Peggy O’Donnell Heffington shows that many of the reasons women are not having children today are ones they share with women in the past: a lack of support, their jobs or finances, environmental concerns, infertility, and the desire to live different kinds of lives. Understanding this history—how normal it has always been to not have children, and how hard society has worked to make it seem abnormal—is key, she writes, to rebuilding kinship between mothers and non-mothers, and to building a better world for us all.
We have a term for women with children, which is mother. What we don’t have is a great term for a woman without children other than “a woman without children”; we can name her only with a description of what she does not have, or what she is not (i.e., a non-mother). For some, this is a problem that runs deeper than semantics. “I don’t want ‘not a mother’ to be part of who I am,” Sheila Heti’s narrator muses in her 2018 book Motherhood, “for my identity to be the negative of someone else’s positive identity.” Heti suggests the term “not not a mother”: For women without children, it could be a rejection of the negative identity, “not ‘not a mother.’” For mothers, the double negative cancels itself out and they become, simply, a mother. This, Heti writes, is a “term we can share.”1 I find this suggestion delightful in theory, but it is also—at least for the purposes of writing a nonfiction book—a little bit impractical.
Not having the right words to describe the state of not having children was, as you can probably imagine, a bit of a challenge for the book that follows, which is a lot of words about the state of not having children. Wherever possible, I have tried to avoid labels that carry specific political or cultural baggage: barren, certainly, but also infertile and even, where I could, childless. Instead, I’ve tried to describe people as they lived: a woman “without children” or “who did not have children,” who “was not a mother” or “experienced infertility” or “chose not to have children.” However, the part of my training as a historian that I have tried hardest to cast off is my discipline’s enthusiasm for torturing the English language. In some cases, you just need an adjective or a noun, and in those cases I have usually gone with childless and childlessness, which are the most common and widely used terms available.
Since it emerged in the early 1970s, the alternative “childfree” has risen in popularity, eagerly adopted by those who have chosen a life without children. Many see it as a positive reframing, an antidote to the deficiency the term “childless” implies. The emergence of “childfree” is part of the history this book tells, and to employ it more widely would be both anachronistic and potentially confusing. It would also run counter to the experiences of many women in this book, who may have wanted children and would have chosen to have them if various factors in their lives had been different, who tried and were unable to have children, or who experienced their reproductive choices as so constrained that they never really felt they had a choice in the first place.
The sociologist Adele E. Clarke has observed that “we need legitimating vocabularies for not having biological children—both ‘childless’ and ‘childfree’ are already inflected/infected. We need an elaborated vocabulary for making kin and caring beyond the ‘pro- and anti- and non-natalist,’ and that does not use the binary-implying word ‘choice.’”2 I agree wholeheartedly, but I don’t have the right words either. The fact that we lack good terms for a life lived without children—that it is on us to explain and define and invent words for this sort of life, a life that has never been uncommon and is becoming increasingly common—is part of why I wrote this book in the first place.
WE’RE NOT HAVING CHILDREN
The History Department’s baby ceremony took place on a Thursday afternoon under the fluorescent lights in the Clausewitz Library, located in the windowless basement of one of West Point’s oldest buildings. Its walls are lined with black-, green-, and gold-bound tomes about military strategy and history, and the center of the room features clusters of glossy leather chairs appropriately uncomfortable to read them in. The Clausewitz serves as a quiet study space for the academy’s students and a venue for faculty meetings and award ceremonies. But on that afternoon, we were using it as a place to celebrate fertility. “We are a very successful department,” the faculty member at the front of the room said, mostly joking but also a little bit not. “How do you measure a department’s success? By the number of new historians we produce for the world.” He gestured to the roomful of babies and toddlers, who ate Goldfish and tried to wriggle loose from the arms of their mothers, most of whom were my colleagues’ wives.
I arrived at the United States Military Academy at West Point on the Fourth of July in 2016, a fitting date to breach the gates of the forbidding granite fortress perched on the west bank of the Hudson River. Just six weeks earlier, I’d donned a set of blue-and-gold velvet robes to receive my doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley. I’d taken a teary and devastatingly hungover red-eye flight from Oakland to Boston, with all my worldly possessions—including, for reasons I cannot explain, an IKEA trash can that I still have—packed into two large duffel bags that I commandeered from dear friends. In Boston, I ate a hot dog at my sister’s holiday barbecue, loaded the bags into a used Ford Escape I’d managed to buy on the internet, and drove south and west, diagonally across Connecticut and into the lush green forests and spiky granite peaks of New York’s Hudson Valley.
The year I spent teaching history at West Point was full of jarring experiences. My students had to stand when I entered the room. After seven years of teaching classes shod almost exclusively in Birkenstocks, I was supposed to check that their shoes had been properly shined. Most alarmingly, given that I was twenty-nine years old and had recently found my first gray hair, they had to call me “ma’am,” a farewell to my youth that punctuated every statement they made and every question they asked. I learned that Army officers, some of whom were my fellow history professors, engage in elaborate rituals involving hats and saluting. They can’t stand under umbrellas. In the early days, I got a lot of mileage out of Berkeley-to–West Point jokes.
The Army officer corps is “demographically urban but culturally rural,” one captain told me, when I was still too new to understand what he meant. When I went to the first “ladies’ coffee,” a regular social event for the handful of women faculty members in the History Department and our colleagues’ wives, I started to get a better idea. As we sipped drinks and nibbled on baked goods, woman after woman introduced herself to the room by listing her husband’s name and her children’s ages. When it was my turn, I said that I was just starting to feel ready for the responsibility of keeping a houseplant alive. The laughter that followed was generous, but it also made clear just how much distance there was between our lives.
On paper, you wouldn’t think there would be much distance at all. The women sitting around the room were college educated, mostly white, and at least middle class, not entirely unlike the women in the graduate program I’d just completed or the women I knew from college. But those women and I had come to our thirties thinking of motherhood as, at most, an afterthought, something we might get around to eventually, once we’d done all the other things we’d wanted to accomplish or felt we had to do. One friend joked that we were waiting to have a “going out of business” sale: one kid before the clock strikes forty. I was still trying to figure out what to do with my face when a woman my age told me she was pregnant: Was this a terrifying, potentially life-altering mistake? Or were we celebrating? These thirty-year-old officers’ wives were pregnant with their third.
I walked out into the warm fall evening with my mind buzzing from sugar and wine, still thinking about this divide. The writer Sheila Heti has since observed that mothers and non-mothers are in “a civil war.” She asks, “Which side are you on?”1 In the years since that evening, the questions that interested me were less about which side I should be on, and more about how there came to be sides in the first place. I found myself wondering how having or not having children became the defining aspect of many women’s identities, separating them across a gulf that yawns wider and wider as the years go on, and then—bam!—through a definitive act of biology, fixes them forever on either side. We’re all familiar with the trope—unflattering to everyone and repeated past the point of cleverness in television, movies, and books—of a group of mothers primly discussing diapers and bath time while the childless outcast sits in the corner, usually drinking heavily.2 In a scene from the Netflix series House of Cards, a presidential candidate’s wife chats with Claire Underwood, who is both the sitting First Lady and the running mate on the opposing ticket. “Do you ever regret it, not having children?” she asks Underwood. Underwood looks pointedly at the door the woman’s young son had stomped out a moment earlier, after interrupting their conversation to loudly demand juice. “Do you ever regret having them?” she responds.3
Mothers and non-mothers can’t even talk to each other, popular culture tells us in articles with titles like “5 Things People Without Kids Just Don’t Understand,” “I Didn’t Lose Friends After Having Kids. I Just Moved On,” and “Can Mothers and Childless Women Ever Truly Be Friends?”4 In my own life, I have felt a creeping distance between myself and mothers my age—like the women at the ladies’ coffee, but not only the women at the ladies’ coffee. Women I got graduate degrees with, drank too much whiskey in bars with, ran marathons with, have been transformed, literally overnight, into Adults, with Real Responsibilities and Meaning in Their Lives. Meanwhile, I have remained a child, failing to feed myself properly on a regular basis, killing houseplants, and indulging in wild, hedonic pleasures like going for a run every morning and having a clean living room.
As I turned it over in my mind, I slowly came to realize that we feel this divide because we’re supposed to. The battle lines of the motherhood civil war were given to us as the birthright of people born with female reproductive organs. Women, a swaggering Napoleon Bonaparte told his confidante Gaspard Gourgaud, “are mere machines to make children.”5 On our side of the pond, the expectation that people sexed female at birth would become mothers was forged by a long history that sought to make reproduction into white American women’s primary civic contribution, and the nuclear family into her only natural home. At the same time, various American politicians, thinkers, and cultural figures reinforced that thinking by characterizing women who did not have children as deviant, broken, unfeminine, unpatriotic, even—when they were white—traitors to their race. These efforts date back at least to the late eighteenth century, during and after the Revolutionary War, when the wives and daughters of patriots were transformed into “republican mothers,” who served the infant nation by birthing and raising its next generation of citizens, bathing their progeny in American civic virtue and spoon-feeding them American morals.6 In 1873, the US Supreme Court made it official. “The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother,” Justice Joseph P. Bradley wrote in a concurring opinion to a ruling that allowed states to prevent women from becoming lawyers. “This is the law of the creator.”7
Unlike most laws in today’s polarized political landscape, this one has broad bipartisan support. “The most important job any woman can have is being a mother,” Ivanka Trump said in a 2016 video for her father’s presidential campaign.8 In a commencement address to Tuskegee University’s 2015 graduating class, First Lady Michelle Obama pledged her personal allegiance to Bradley’s law: “Being mom in chief is, and always will be, job number one.”9 Hillary Clinton will probably go to her grave still apologizing to Democrats and Republicans alike for the time she said there was more to life than baking cookies and being a full-time mom.10
The New York Times has repeatedly published op-eds in recent years that accuse Americans who do not have children of not “affirming life” or refusing to have “radical hope.”11 Ross Douthat, the conservative pot stirrer on the Times opinion page, has dispensed with persuasion altogether: “More babies, please,” he demanded in 2012.12 In March 2019, Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, stood up in the Senate chamber to offer “the solution to so many of our problems, at all times and in all places: fall in love, get married and have some kids.”13 Republican politician J. D. Vance lamented in the summer of 2021 that the Democratic party has “become controlled by people who do not have children,” who, he argued, do not have a “personal indirect stake” in the future and therefore cannot be trusted to make decisions about it.14 Even Francis, “the most liberal pope ever,” told a crowd gathered at Saint Mark’s Square in 2015 that “the choice not to have children is selfish.”15 Francis—a man who, in a more literal sense than most, chose his other passions over parenthood—has repeatedly expressed his dismay at young people who prefer adopting pets to having children, a phenomenon he sees as an alarming “cultural degradation.”16 Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson wholeheartedly agrees. “Having children means less time for vacations and spin class, where the real meaning in life resides, right?” he asked on air. “I mean, have you ever seen anything more selfish, decadent, and stupid?”17
Though few of them say it out loud, it is mostly women’s selfishness, decadence, and stupidity that concerns them. It is, of course, equally possible for a man to live his whole life and produce no children, and if fewer women are having children, presumably fewer men are fathering them. But a man who produces no children is not usually identified with that lack. “Women’s status as child bearer has been made into a major fact of her life,” Adrienne Rich writes in her 1986 classic, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. Unlike non-mother, “the term ‘nonfather’ does not exist.”18 This isn’t to say that men face no pressures and expectations about families. The sociologist Alice Rossi has observed that a man’s arrival into adulthood is defined by his ability to support a woman and the children she would have.19 But the pressure to produce the children who need providing for, and the blame for failing to do so, falls entirely on women.
Today, we benefit from the wisdom of Black, queer, and Indigenous feminist thinkers who have taught us that “mother” is best used as a verb, not a noun: mother is something that you do, not something that you are. The social scientist Stanlie M. James argues that radically expanding the definition of mothering and who can do it—so adoptive parents can mother, and so can men, gay couples, trans people, nonbinary folks, teachers, neighbors, friends—is the key to transforming our society for the better.20 As James frames it, mothering need not have anything to do with a uterus producing a child, or even with whether the person doing the mothering has a uterus or identifies as a woman. bell hooks called this “revolutionary parenting,” stripping gendered associations from her term altogether.21 But for much of the history this book tells, gendered associations reigned supreme: people cared very much about uteruses and what people who had them did with them. The Venn diagram of “women” and “people designated female at birth” would have been a circle, in terms of how society viewed them, and everyone in that circle would have been expected to become a mother, regardless of what she wanted from her life: who she wanted to be, whom she wanted to love, and what she wanted to prioritize.
Throughout history, some undoubtedly found ways of opting out of marriage and/or childbearing because they were not sexually attracted to men, or because they did not want to take on what were traditionally women’s roles, or because they did not identify as women. Others may have done so because they had no interest, sexual or otherwise, in the particular man their parents or community expected them to marry and have children with. (The notion that romantic love or sexual attraction were necessary requirements for heterosexual marriage and baby making is a relatively recent invention.22) Still others may have done so because they wanted to be scholars or pilots or judges or tennis champions and, at least until very recently, combining motherhood and professional ambitions just didn’t seem possible. Whatever their reasons, all of them would have paid a social price. Today, a cis woman who has prioritized her career over children, a lesbian woman who cannot afford fertility treatments, and a trans woman who does not have a uterus have equally failed to undertake the biological act of reproduction that has come to define our gender. Despite our preferences and identities and anatomies, in this, and in the social price we pay, we are united.
Millennial women are failing to undertake this particular biological act en masse. We’re gunning for the highest rate of childlessness in American history, or at the very least, the highest rate of childlessness since the unlucky generation that lived their fertile years during the Great Depression.23 American women’s expected lifetime fertility is around 1.7 children per woman, far below the replacement rate of 2.1.24 Adoptions are down too: the annual number of adoptions in the United States fell more than 17 percent between 2007 and 2014 and has continued its downward slide ever since.25 Overall, nearly half of millennial women, the eldest of whom are in their early forties, have no children, and an increasing number of us don’t ever plan to.26 “Thinking about the future,” a 2021 Pew survey asked American nonparents aged eighteen to forty-nine, “how likely is it that you will have children someday?” Forty-four percent of them said “not too likely” or “not at all likely,” a sharp increase of seven percentage points from a 2018 survey, when 37 percent answered that way.27
The phenomenon of falling fertility is not solely an American one, of course. The lowest fertility rates in the world are in East Asia: in South Korea, women average 0.8 births in their lifetime. In Singapore, it’s 1.1.28 Fertility in several southern European countries has also dropped low enough to cause alarm: in Greece, Italy, and Spain, women average around 1.3 births. Many of these countries have responded with policies expressly designed to encourage people to have children, and to have a lot of them. In Japan, where the fertility rate has dipped to 1.3, the government has been particularly creative, instituting “family weeks,” during which parents are not allowed to work past 7 p.m., and throwing state-sponsored parties where young people are encouraged to fall in love, have sex, and marry, in whatever order. Over the past decade, the French government has spent significant sums to encourage births, funding policies for extended maternity and paternity leaves, tax breaks and other financial incentives, in-home childcare, day care, and stay-at-home allowances for mothers who prefer to take time off from work while their children are young. In France, at least, there is some evidence that these policies are working—if not to increase births, then at least to slow their decline. The French fertility rate is falling—1.83 in 2020, down from 1.89 in 2018 and 2.03 in 2010—but more slowly than elsewhere, and it remains the highest in Europe.29
The United States has been slow to institute policies that might encourage people to have more children—aside from trying to limit access to contraception and criminalizing abortion—but that hasn’t stopped us from freaking out about the fact that many Americans aren’t. Each spring, the US Department of Health and Human Services releases a report tallying up the total number of babies born the previous calendar year and breaking down the data by mother’s age, race, and location. Each spring, from 2015 to 2021, that number was lower than the year before. News in the spring of 2022 was mixed—the number of babies born in 2021 was slightly higher than in 2020, but still down significantly from 2019—and it didn’t stop the avalanche of panicked articles and stump speeches and social media posts that have now become a yearly tradition.30 American women are having fewer children, they report. Families are smaller; childlessness is on the rise. These pieces all ask the same question: Why? Why are today’s young women screwing up the one really basic function of our mammalian bodies? Why are they ignoring the imperatives of their biology, refusing to do their part in continuing the human species, denying their parents the joy of having grandchildren? Why are they missing out, seemingly choosing to miss out, on something so many people say gives their life its meaning? Why are young American women not having babies?
Theories, of course, abound. The least generous explanation for the modern childless woman usually concludes, simply, that she cannot be bothered. She is (we are) too selfish, the story goes, too greedy, too shortsighted, and too into her (our) job(s). As women moved out of the private sphere and into the workforce, heading to factories, offices, hospitals, and board rooms, this theory goes, they began to prioritize career ambition and professional success over motherhood. Women are choosing to have no children, in other words, because they want other things—lattes, degrees, careers, vacations, definitely avocado toast—more than they want kids.
More generous explanations focus less on our feminism or our coffee habits, and more on the colder, harder economic realities young Americans actually face. At the risk of overstating the obvious, it costs a lot of avocado toast to send your kid to day care for a month. A New York Times survey in 2021 concluded that reproductive decisions were closely tied to jobs, money, and the desperate struggle many millennials have faced to gain even a tenuous foothold in the rapidly eroding middle class. An accompanying county-level inspection of births nationwide found that fertility has dropped dramatically since 2009, not just on the coasts or in cities or blue states like you might expect, but in most counties: red and blue, wealthy and poor, urban and rural, across the nation. For those of us who graduated from college into the Great Recession, as I did, or weathered it from the small, unstable dinghies that are early career jobs, wanting to feel economically and professionally stable before signing up to provide for a new human isn’t simply a preference. Many young women see prioritizing their careers as nothing short of necessary for survival.31 We have all gotten the timeworn advice to just have a baby because, even if the finances or logistics look impossible now, “it will work itself out.” What may once have been encouraging words of wisdom now ring hollow to many in a generation that has seen firsthand what it looks like when things very profoundly do not work themselves out: When Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy on the morning of September 15, 2008, dragging the global economy into a yearslong death spiral, millennials were twelve to twenty-seven years old. In the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced Americans onto the unemployment rolls in numbers not seen since the Great Depression, they were twenty-four to thirty-nine.32
As COVID-19 spread across the country and lockdowns pushed us into our homes, demand for over-the-counter and prescription birth control soared in the United States and around the world, quickly outstripping the national and global supply.33 Four in ten American women told the Guttmacher Institute that the pandemic had caused them to change their plans about when and if to have children, or to reduce the number of children they planned to have.34 Phones at abortion clinics rang off the hook throughout the pandemic’s first year, in part because a number of states ruled abortions to be “nonessential” services under lockdown, causing spillover to clinics in neighboring states, and in part because, as women told abortion providers repeatedly, the ongoing crisis meant that “having a child right now isn’t best for them.”35
But while the crisis was global, its effects were unevenly spread, cushioned or not by economic stability and status. The pandemic years saw a drop in births among Black and low-income women, the people hardest hit by the economic downturn that accompanied the virus. Meanwhile, a small-but-not-insignificant slice of wealthier American women—the ones who found themselves working from home and saving money they’d normally have spent on restaurant tabs and vacations—saw the pandemic as an ideal time to get pregnant and did so in greater numbers than they otherwise might have.36 Births were down overall during the pandemic, but they were up in the white middle and upper-middle classes. Hannes Schwandt, an economics professor at Northwestern University, observed, “It could well be that this is the first time in a recession where some groups have increased fertility.”37
The enthusiastic childbearing of the women I met at West Point was cultural in the sense that it took place in a culture in which having children was socially expected and rewarded, but it wasn’t only
- “Impeccably researched” —San Francisco Chronicle
- “[a] well-researched and compellingly readable history… Without Children will interest readers engaged with intersectional feminist thought and women’s rights in a wide variety of contexts.”—Booklist
- “Provocative and well researched… A liberatingly perceptive work of sociology and cultural history.”—Kirkus
- "Historian Heffington’s incisive debut examines how society demonizes women without children while increasingly failing to provide the supports that make it possible to raise kids sustainably...A cogent and well-supported polemic.” —Publishers Weekly
- "Desire, doubt, destiny—there are many reasons for the shape of a family. With clarity and compassion, historian Peggy O’Donnell Heffington offers a timely, refreshingly open-hearted study of the choices women make and the cards they're dealt."—Ada Calhoun, author of Why We Can't Sleep
- “At once bracing and beautiful, Without Children is a timely meditation on all of the reasons why women increasingly can't, don't, or won't have children—along with the social penalties they pay, the freedoms they garner, and the feminist solidarity that we can all build together, whether we have children or not. I was intrigued and carried along for the book's length by O'Donnell Heffington's lyricism, thoughtfulness, humor, and panache.”—Kate Manne, author of Entitled
- "I devoured this book. Peggy O’Donnell Heffington is the rare serious historian who writes with verve and humor, bringing to life the big, hard questions of history that illuminate the present. Without Children is a story of women who decided not to have children, but ultimately shows us new things not only about these women, but about family, motherhood, childhood, aspiration, and love in a precarious world. It is a signal contribution to the historical field and a vivid series of stories that are alternately shocking, funny, and inspiring."—Kathleen Belew, author of Bring the War Home
- “A woman with children is a mother. A woman without children has no name. Without Children, written with warmth and insight and layered with deeply personal stories, tells us this woman in fact has many names, faces, and identities—all worth knowing.”—Lara Bazelon, author of Ambitious Like a Mother
- “Without Children is the rich, nuanced history of women without children that has been missing from the discourse. Peggy O'Donnell Heffington skillfully avoids the trap of pitting women without children against mothers, while showing how the choice of whether or not to be a mother has historically been dictated by—you guessed it!—the patriarchy. A necessary book, whatever your parental status is.”—Doree Shafrir, author of Thanks for Waiting
- On Sale
- Apr 18, 2023
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Seal Press