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How To Choose, Or Not Choose, Motherhood
I’m almost 30 now, the age I decided, years ago, I would start having kids. Once I set that date in my mind, it immediately seemed real to me. I began to pick apartments based on child-friendliness (“In case we still live here in a couple years”) and mentioned it to my friends (“Wait, are you trying?” they’d ask, confused).
Picking a deadline was a way of anticipating joy and of boxing myself in. I knew I’d be terrified to get pregnant, after years of assiduously guarding against it. But I also knew I wanted it, the milky spit-up on my T-shirts and the tiny fingers plucking at my hair.
It never felt exactly like a choice. But the evidence that it is surrounds me: All my friends who aren’t having kids, or at least not anytime soon. All the people who moved to New York City, like me, to fling themselves wholly into their careers. I married someone a little older, someone whose friends are all married with small children, someone who wanted what his friends had. That didn’t feel like a choice at the time; it felt like falling in love, serendipitously. But it was a choice, too, to love someone who wouldn’t expect me to make a case for our children’s existence.
I also never argued that case to myself. I didn’t want to think too hard about the alternative, the physical trauma and perma-exhaustion I’d be avoiding if I stayed childless. It seemed like a decision best made instinctively, in the dark.
Maybe that’s why, when I spent a month reading a raft of new books about choosing motherhood ― books that laid bare everything I might suffer and everything I might give up ― I experienced it as a psychic assault. It’s never been easier, medically speaking, for a woman to choose not to have kids. Once motherhood was something close to a biological inevitability for a woman who had sex with men; now it’s an option. And it’s an option that’s scary to choose, once you know how much pain and expectation you’re staring down.
“A baby was the thing we were trying to keep out,” starts Meaghan O’Connell’s brutal, poignant memoir, Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready. “A baby was a consequence. A fuckup.” But then it changes: “Or it had been until recently, when, like a joke that slowly becomes sincere, I started imagining myself pregnant in a nightgown.”
O’Connell’s book traces her pregnancy and the first year or so of motherhood, beginning when she’s 28 and newly engaged. She and her fiancé hadn’t been planning to start a family, not for a couple of years, but now she’s pregnant, and she realizes that she wants to keep it. She doesn’t want to stress-test her reproductive urge against New York City’s high rents or her career’s demands. “My truest feelings about the baby began and ended with I want it,” she writes. She’s pregnant, and she wants the baby, so the decision is made.
Lacking that moment of clarity, the choice remains. For women today who can access IUDs, birth control pills, condoms and abortion, many have to think through their options with unprecedented deliberateness. Without a strong desire to reproduce or a strong aversion to it, how does one decide?
In Sheila Heti’s probing new work of autofiction, Motherhood, her narrator decides to write a book about deciding, as a pathway to deciding herself. Should she have a child? Or should she continue on as she is? She’s approaching 40 and lives with a boyfriend she adores, whose daughter from a previous relationship lives mostly with her mother. She has friends who are starting families. She hears from them that motherhood gave them profound insight or stole their free time; made their work better or worse than ever before. She wonders if she should have a child to experience the profound emotions of parenthood. She wonders if she should not have a child to continue to experience profound emotions about other things.
To guide her meditation, the narrator uses an I Ching-inspired coin-flipping system. She asks a yes-or-no question and answers it by flipping a coin up to three times: two or three heads for yes, two or three tails for no. This technique, being random, offers contradictory and aimless answers. By refusing her the answers she wants, or thinks of easily, it pushes her to imagine others. It’s mesmerizing reading but often infuriating; as Slate’s Willa Paskin wrote in a sharp review of Heti’s Motherhood, it’s the sort of arbitrary limitation on Heti’s writing that suggests a more tangible limitation, like a child, might strengthen her work rather than deplete it.
But for Heti, all roads seem to lead away from childbearing. At one point, after undergoing fertility tests, Heti’s narrator is oddly disappointed to hear that she’s fertile. Infertility is one of those old, still-unresolved impediments to maternal choice. Once you choose to have children, there’s the very present possibility that you’ll suffer miscarriages or be unable to conceive at all. Writer Laura Turner recently wrote a poignant essay for Catapult about the three miscarriages she went through before her current pregnancy, the grief and the suffocating fear she developed that her body would never be able to comply with her decision. Though fertility treatments abound, some couples will be helped by none of them, and others won’t be able to afford them. Adoption, for those who want to adopt, also tends to be expensive, time-consuming and stressful.
“I was hoping to hear I couldn’t have children,” Heti writes, “so I’d be released from ever deciding.”
Heti and O’Connell seem to be speaking, at times, directly to each other. Two women deciding whether to have a child ― and having symmetric but completely divergent reactions to the question. It’s an uncomfortable conversation, which is perhaps why we often prefer to avoid having it.
“Why, when there are scores of new books about mothers and mothering and motherhood, does it continue to feel like there aren’t any?” Paskin wrote in her Slate review of Heti’s Motherhood. She cites previous literary books, including Rachel Cusk’s seminal A Life’s Work, and the profusion of advice books and mommy memoirs, but notes that it still seemed, after she had given birth, “as though there had been some serious communication failure: No one had told me, like really told me” what it would be like.
Having not gone through childbirth or been a parent, I don’t have the same retrospective clarity as Paskin does. Still, her account feels accurate to me; until recently, I rarely felt like I was asked to engage seriously with narratives of motherhood. The gritty details of pregnancy and motherhood tend to be segregated in the realm of parenting blogs and forums where mothers and soon-to-be mothers share their horror stories and dark fears with each other, away from the general public that might be squicked out or bored.
Perhaps that’s why the recent surge of mainstream journalistic and literary attention toward motherhood feels novel. This spring has seen an explosion of literary books about maternity. New York’s The Cut is doing a monthlong package on the subject. Why is this happening now? The much-maligned wave of confessional essays by women that fueled digital media sites like Jezebel and xoJane in the aughts likely has helped pave the way, priming writers and readers to believe that every part of a woman’s life ― no matter how weird, repulsive, embarrassing or unremarkable ― could be fodder for reflective writing. It’s also made the old lies harder to maintain. Once you find out that you’ll probably poop during childbirth, it’s hard to go back to blissful ignorance.
Then, too, the question of whether to have children at all feels newly urgent in 2018, though anxieties about population explosion or inflicting a climate change-ravaged planet on our innocent children are decades-old. After Donald Trump’s election, I heard murmurings from left-wing women writers about how his election had jolted their mindsets about having kids. Who would bring a child into the hopeless hellscape of America under Trump?
But that calculus isn’t the same for everyone. Throughout her new book, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, Jacqueline Rose argues that the extent of our choice is tightly circumscribed by factors like geography, race, civil rights and socioeconomic class. For white middle- to upper-class women in countries like the U.S. and European nations, obtaining effective birth control and legal abortion is easier than it’s ever been; meanwhile, their children are likely to have fairly comfortable lives, historically speaking.
Conversely, enslaved black women in America had no resources to avoid pregnancy, even abstinence; they were particularly vulnerable to rape, especially by their white masters. And yet they had robust reasons not to have children ― they’d be bringing them into a world defined by bondage, familial dissolution, hard labor and torture. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, we see one consequence: A woman who turns to infanticide not out of cruelty but out of love for a child she can’t bear to see live in chains. Morrison, writes Rose, “is telling her white readers … that in an inhuman world a mother can only be a mother insofar as history permits, which might mean killing your own child.”
The continuing gulf between how white women and black women in America have experienced motherhood ― for the former, a fight to escape it; for the latter, a fight to experience it ― forms the backbone of Rumaan Alam’s novel That Kind of Mother. The main character, Rebecca, is a white poet married to a British diplomat. When she has her son, she takes a liking to the black lactation consultant, Priscilla, who helps her breastfeed. She convinces Priscilla to come work for her as a nanny so Rebecca can spend her days tucked away in a home office, writing. Her bid to have it all, literary fame as well as motherhood, rests on the caretaking labor of a black woman.
Priscilla soon becomes pregnant herself, and when she dies in childbirth, Rebecca offers to take Priscilla’s newborn home and then to adopt him. Rebecca finds herself treated as something of a martyr by other white people, but for her it isn’t a sacrifice. “Motherhood, at least Rebecca’s instincts about it, was selfish,” Alam writes. She wanted to mother this boy, and she got what she wanted. Priscilla, of course, wanted to mother him too, but she was separated from him.
It seems no coincidence that her death, in childbirth, is an outcome suffered vastly disproportionately by black women in America. And that’s not solely about money, as demonstrated by Serena Williams’ terrifying experience with self-diagnosing blood clots in her lungs after her emergency C-section. Despite her access to state-of-the-art medical care, she could easily have died of a treatable complication. A ProPublica investigation in 2017 found that black women are dramatically more likely than white women to die of complications from pregnancy or childbirth, even if they’re affluent, educated and informed about the risks.
In That Kind of Mother, Alam, who has adopted two children with his husband, is exploring the potential of adoptive love to hold a family together, but he also delineates the loss that this implies. For Rebecca to have her perfect children and her poetry career and her virtuous halo, she first needs Priscilla ― and, in a way, she needs Priscilla to vanish.
For a long time, white feminists have framed motherhood as a suffocating requirement; choice meant the choice to not be a mother. For black women, choice also meant the choice to be a mother and not to be separated from children by death, bondage, forced sterilization, the economic imperative to work outside the home (sometimes by caring for white women’s children), and so on. Throughout American history, white women and children have been nurtured at the expense of women and children of color; the world may look more and more unfriendly to white mothers and babies, but that’s only an echo of how unfriendly it has long been to non-white ones.
If we still want to have children, are we selfish to do so? It’s an attack that neatly reverses the cruel stereotype of child-free women as too self-absorbed to care for other people. In reality, this argument goes, bringing children into the world without their consent is a callous infliction of our own reproductive urges on helpless innocents. Both Heti and Rose toss this argument out there almost casually, never really pursuing the full ramifications of it.
“The egoism of child-bearing is like the egoism of colonizing a country,” writes Heti. “How assaulted I feel when I hear that a person has had three children, four, five, more…. It feels greedy, overbearing, rude.”
“We might also, perhaps scandalously, at least raise the question: who ― mothers or non-mothers, parents or non-parents ― loves children more?” writes Rose. She briefly makes the case that it’s non-parents, quoting French philosopher Michel Onfray on the horrors of human life: “How could parents be so naive, stupid, and short-sighted as to love misery, destitution, poverty, old age and misery enough to want to pass them on to their offspring?”
She leaves the argument unresolved, not even making the case for parents. I’m left unconvinced by the question itself: Some people might wish they’d never been born, but others might be grateful. It seems useless to try to weigh one group against the other.
Now that it’s seen as an affirmative choice to have a child ― even selfish ― the way we carry, birth and raise that child is more open to critique than ever. To justify the self-indulgence of procreation, we ask “good” mothers to lavish every ounce of their energy, time and intellect on their children. She chose to inflict life on that poor kid ― and she can’t even be bothered to make him hand-puréed sweet potatoes?
Wages for middle-class earners have stalled, and yet our expectations for what children should be given by their parents have never been higher. If we can’t afford the time and money needed for a spacious house, college funds and organic food, how do we even dare to have children? It’s a nasty insinuation that’s been politically leveraged, for decades, against impoverished mothers. Increasingly, it seems to apply to most middle-class people as well. Today, the U.S., unlike nearly every other country in the world, doesn’t mandate a right to paid maternity leave. Child care costs also fall entirely on the parents, at least until the kids are old enough to attend public school.
“[T]he idealization” of motherhood, writes Rose, “does not let up as the reality of the world makes the ideal harder for mothers to meet. If anything, it seems to intensify.” We want mothers to pour all their time and ambition into raising perfect, perfectly loved kids, and we also want them to make plenty of money to support those kids without anyone else’s help or accommodation. The contradictions are insupportable. It hardly makes an appealing pitch to young women that motherhood will mean juggling twice as many tasks and being expected to perform them all perfectly.
One way to pitch motherhood, apparently, is to obscure what it actually asks of women. Before she became pregnant, O’Connell’s idea of pregnancy and parenthood was mainly informed by glossy Instagram accounts featuring slender, toned women with unobtrusive baby bumps and the wherewithal to make homemade jam for their neatly dressed, smiling spawn. But she feels bloated and miserable during pregnancy. Her natural birth plan falls to pieces in the chaos of a difficult labor. Afterward, far from being a glowing Madonna with her child, she’s left physically and mentally traumatized by birth.
Toward the end of the book, O’Connell listens to a podcast interview with Ina May Gaskin, a midwife and the author of books that convince women to try a “natural” childbirth. The podcast host takes her guest to task for giving falsely positive expectations of labor. Gaskin admits that for many women labor is very painful and difficult, but, she adds, “What if we just told people that it always really, really, really hurts? Well, that wouldn’t be very good, because you’d get everybody so frightened.”
“What if, instead of worrying about scaring pregnant women, people told them the truth?” O’Connell wonders. “What if everyone worried less about giving women a bad impression of motherhood?”
O’Connell doesn’t worry about giving women a bad impression of motherhood, the physical strain of pregnancy, the violence of childbirth, the deep terror of parenting a baby. She describes her Cesarean section as enduring “the feeling, painless, of someone yanking all of your organs out.” Afterward, she’s constantly terrified that her son is dying. “I didn’t know before that when parents talked about ‘checking on’ their children, they meant checking to make sure they weren’t dead,” she writes.
Sometimes I look down at the rings on my fingers, four delicate rose-gold circlets, and I gently press each one with my thumb into the soft inside of my knuckles until a slight crescent of air opens up between my fingers and my jewelry.
This compulsive habit emerged a couple of years ago, after I read Pamela Erens’ novel Eleven Hours. It’s about a woman’s labor, from the moment she arrives at the maternity ward until the baby arrives. When she shows up ― alone, because her partner has abandoned her ― her left ring finger is livid and engorged around the band she wears. It’s so tight on her pregnancy-swollen digit that a hospital worker has to cut the silver ring off to save her finger.
Before I read this novel, I had no idea that could happen ― no idea that it was, in fact, pretty common. (Even when I Google it, most mentions of such a thing are from parenting and pregnancy message boards, not books or articles.) Now I take comfort in that sliver of space, the knowledge that my rings could hold more of me, once I’m holding someone else.
O’Connell’s book is full of similar revelations, like fanged Easter eggs winking poisonously from within its millennial-pink covers. So is Angela Garbes’ Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy, which tracks her own pregnancy through the lens of current medical and popular literature on childbearing. The horrors lie far beyond what I had ever brought myself to imagine. Around one-third of mothers, writes Garbes, suffer injuries to their pelvic floor during childbirth, which can lead to symptoms like vaginal prolapse, incontinence and pain during sex. (I immediately started doing Kegels on my sofa as I read.)
Garbes reveals stomach-clenching moments from her experience, like her first postpartum bowel movement ― an excruciating, trembling ordeal that ends with her asking her husband to look at her asshole and assure her that her guts haven’t slipped out.
Is it scary to hear this? Sure. But I wasn’t planning to have kids because I thought it would be easy and comfortable, and I’m not likely to change my mind because I found out it isn’t. That people would hide this from women, to trick us into reproducing, seems both cruel and unnecessary.
Once women get pregnant, the hoodwinking continues. Garbes unpacks reams of pregnancy advice, often absurd in its conflicting demands. When she learns she’s pregnant, she’s caught off-guard ― she’s recovering from a miscarriage and did not expect to conceive that month. She Googles frantically to find out if some cocktails she drank the night before will have hurt her embryonic child. First, she reads on the What to Expect When You’re Expecting website that it’s better to be safe and not drink alcohol at all. Then, the same source adds, if you had a big night of drinking just a couple of days before discovering you’re pregnant, it’s fine! No need to worry.
“Wait, what?” she thinks. “The rules on my computer screen seemed definitive yet contradictory, vaguely rooted in science yet pulled from the ether.” The judgmental tsk-tsking about not risking a single margarita for the good of the baby seems absurd if, apparently, a big night of boozing won’t hurt it.
These restrictions, however overstated and arbitrary, may also be comforting to some women. Our lives are nothing but difficult choices; at least “no tequila” is a clear, unambiguous decision that’s been made for us. O’Connell recalls eagerly absorbing the pro-breastfeeding messages she received from mothering books, Internet forums and peers. She didn’t wonder if breastfeeding was right, she just noted what was required (breast pumps, nipple cream, the number of a lactation consultant) and followed instructions. “It was such a relief to be told exactly what to do,” she writes.
And yet, of course, when she struggles with the demands of breastfeeding, those clear guidelines no longer feel like an unadulterated good. For women who can’t, the fallout is still worse ― feelings of failure and shame, for example. Pregnancy and motherhood, in these books, are rife with this tension: We’re burdened with endless choices, and we’re also burdened with the lack of them.
After the third session in a row at which I brought up my new anxieties about motherhood, my therapist pointed out that she heard only dread from me when I talked about getting pregnant. What, she asked, did I really want? To me, it seemed so clear. “I want both,” I said. “I want to get pregnant and have a baby and be a mother. And I want to not.” Making the choice was the part that repelled me.
The mothers and non-mothers in these books feel that same conflict. “Rebecca wanted everything,” writes Alam toward the end of That Kind of Mother. “She wanted to be celebrated and she wanted not to be bothered. She wanted to be with her children and she wanted to be with her work.… She wanted it all, and that was something impossible to possess.”
“I wanted keeping it to feel inevitable, like fate, but also, somehow, for it to be a choice,” O’Connell writes of the days right after learning she was pregnant. “I wanted to feel trapped and free.”
One reason I decided I should have kids at 30 is because my mom is dead ― or rather, because of how she died. She had an aortic dissection, a medical event often associated with connective tissue disorders like Marfan’s, at 44. A few years ago, dealing with near-constant chest pain and anxiety about that family history, I saw a cardiologist. He hooked me up to a machine while I walked on a treadmill; afterward, he told me that everything looked great. The chest pains were anxiety. But, he cautioned, it was still possible I’d inherited some defect. “If you get pregnant,” he told me, “you’ll need to come in for regular check-ups.”
I decided on my deadline of 30 right then. Pregnancy tends to get more risky after 35, anyway, I reasoned. Better to give my heart a fighting chance. It felt like a choice, but also a trap: I was choosing to lock myself in, but the enclosure somehow felt solid, mandatory.
It’s far from certain, or even likely, that I inherited a fatal heart condition from my mom. Worrying about it, though, is something that makes me feel closer to her. According to Rose, this is a common impulse among daughters to believe that “any suffering of body or mind I had inherited, in fact pretty much everything I inherited, must have come from my mother.” What I’ve always wanted is to be the new her, with an acuteness that has only grown since she died.
“When I was pregnant with you, it never occurred to me that I would have a son,” the mother of Heti’s narrator writes in an email toward the end of Motherhood. Her own beloved mother died not long before the narrator was born. “I lost my mother,” her mother goes on. “I had to have a daughter to make the Universe perfect again.”
I’ve never imagined having a son either. When I imagine having a child, what I’m imagining is making my universe perfect again: mother and daughter, her and me, me and her. The baby would be the necessary person to let me become her, to look in the mirror and see the familiar curls and soft round face, the arms cradling a little daughter, and to think, for the first time in two decades, “Hi, Mom.”
But that’s something I can’t choose. I might very well have a son, and I know that I would love that son just as entirely, even if it’s not what I imagine. Part of me wants that choice, but I know I shouldn’t get to have it. It’s the first lesson in accepting that a child doesn’t exist to fulfill his or her mother’s plans.
Should I become a mother? It’s such a small yes-no question, with such enormous consequences. Heti treats it that way, as a question with immense personal and ethical stakes. In an interview with the Paris Review, she remarked, “A friend of mine who read the book said that if men could have babies, there would be hundreds of books like this one going back to Plato — that whether or not to create life would be the central question of philosophy.”
But something funny happens at the end of Motherhood: Heti’s narrator reaches an age where she simply feels too old to get pregnant. Technically, in her very late 30s, she’s still within her fertility window, but that’s not the point. The point is that she believes in her bones that the moment has passed. She is relieved. It feels like reading a book debating the philosophical merit of becoming vegan that concludes with the writer learning she has a physiological condition that will require her to keep eating meat. Problem solved, sort of.
O’Connell, too, has her choice made for her, in a way. When she discovers she’s pregnant, she doesn’t want to countenance ending it. It’s decided.
The relief of not having a choice is, in no small way, the relief of not having to justify what you already believe you want. At no point in Motherhood does Heti’s narrator sound like a woman who wants to conceive and carry and parent a child, and yet she writes an entire book about the possibility. “[I]t was a chance I never wanted, and yet I felt obliged to consider it,” Heti writes, even though “I think I knew it from a very young age ― that it could not happen, and never would.”
O’Connell, meanwhile, feels embarrassed by her maternal urge. She and her friends, surrounded by ambitious New Yorkers, know their yen for kids seems old-fashioned. “Most of us swore we were not interested in having children, and those who might be were supposed to act blasé about the idea,” she writes. “The only acceptable response other than ‘God, no’ to the question of wanting children was ‘Oh, maybe someday.’” Like Heti’s narrator, O’Connell and her friends were playing at making a decision they already knew the answer to.
Maybe that’s why Heti’s attempt to write a philosophical book about deciding to be a mother, while gripping and beautifully written, often feels aimless and empty: She’s not really deciding. She knows what she wants, and all her arguments go to reinforce her deeply felt desire. When it comes to children, we’re not really thinking it through and going with the logical choice; we’re doing what’s expected of us, at worst, and what we simply want, at best, and then molding our philosophies around that.
Once O’Connell has become a mother, of course, there’s a new set of choices to defend ― choices about what kind of mother she’ll be. “The fantasy,” she writes of meeting other new moms, “is meeting another parent who does the exact same things you do so you don’t have to question or defend any of it.” The freedom to make choices about having and parenting kids has not freed women from the imperative to justify, excuse and explain ourselves.
“Why do I think it could matter to Nicola if I don’t have kids?” muses Heti’s narrator, about a friend with a baby. “Living one way is not a criticism of every other way of living.” It shouldn’t be, but of course we all feel that it is ― Heti’s narrator, anxious that her mother friends judge her as empty is also anxious that her boyfriend judges having children as a waste of her artistic time; O’Connell is afraid that her child-free friends will see the cracks in her postpartum joy and disdain her choice. “I didn’t want them to lie in bed that night,” O’Connell writes, “feeling grateful it was me and not them.”
We’re so exquisitely, agonizingly aware of what other women think about our choices, what they’re telling themselves about us to justify choosing otherwise. This is because we’re thinking the same things about them.
When I emerged from reading this barrage of books, I felt as though I’d absorbed a series of painful but necessary blows. They left me ripped open emotionally but newly prepared. Like a Mother gave me a toolkit for approaching a hoped-for future; And Now We Have Everything gave me the painful knowledge of what I might face and the fragile hope that it would be worth it; That Kind of Mother made me interrogate my own privilege; Mothers prodded me to think about my possible role as a mother in new, challenging ways.
Motherhood mostly just made me angry, and defensive. But even that last reaction is a gift in its own way: It confronted me with the truth of my own worst fears about what my ambitious female peers might think of my choice, and it allowed me to absorb and steel myself against it.
Before, it felt easier to decide to have kids without knowing too much about it. But as I read these accounts of motherhood, I saw how terrifying and lonely it can be for women to enter the chaos of motherhood without knowing what other mothers have experienced. The more messy, frightening, infuriating accounts of motherhood and non-motherhood we have, the more knowledge we have about ourselves and each other. Whether we’re making a careful choice or plunging ahead without question, women deserve to be girded with knowledge.
Of course, there’s deciding and then there’s doing. Choosing motherhood has ethical, philosophical and emotional dimensions, but it hinges on biology and politics. I’ve affirmed my decision to have kids countless times without making a single move to get my IUD removed. Once I do, there’s no knowing what will happen next. But I know more, now, about what might.