Commusings: The Motherhood Spectrum by Ruby WarringtonJun 09, 2023
Dear Commune Community,
A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with today’s essayist, Ruby Warrington, to discuss her new book, “Women Without Kids.” Given that Ruby is a woman without progeny and I am a man with an over-abundance of them, it was a fascinating conversation coming from two very different perspectives.
As Ruby elucidates, we live in a pronatalist society. Pronatalism is an ideology that promotes reproduction as an essential objective of being a woman. In turn, women who don’t have children, either through choice or circumstance, are often inappropriately shamed or pitied. While our culture sanctifies motherhood, it does little to actually support mothers. In America, there is a paucity of institutional support for parenthood including lack of paid leave, childcare services, health care and pre-school.
In addition to the dearth of institutional services, there is rampant discrimination against mothers in the workplace, better access to contraception, more women seeking higher degrees, and eco-anxiety, all of which contribute to a plummeting birth rate in America and much of the Western world. Indeed, we are experiencing what has been dubbed a Birth Strike. The percentage of women under 45 who have had a biological child has fallen to approximately 50%.
Ruby is providing a brave reframing of everything it means “not” to be a mom and surfacing conversations surrounding motherhood and non-motherhood that are central to the ongoing struggle for gender equality.
I hope you enjoy her essay and our podcast conversation.
In love, include me,
• • •
The Motherhood Spectrum by Ruby Warrington
“Why am I expected to want to be a mom?” This is the question I want us to consider, in depth, together here. This also opens up broader areas for consideration: Why are women told we’ll regret it if we don’t have kids? Why are we sometimes shamed for prioritizing other avenues to fulfillment? Why aren’t men expected to want to be fathers? How is it that more and more women are leaving it “too late”? Is it even ethical to bring a child into the world given the current climate emergency? And not least, thanks to the advent of the exhausted mommy blogger, sending an SOS into the ethers of the internet from the depths of her postpartum psychosis: When did it get so fucking hard to be a mom? These are questions for which it seems obvious that there are no simple, one-size-fits-all answers. Questions that have also led me to wonder: what if, rather than motherhood being every woman’s natural, God-given role, some of us, regardless of our biology, are simply more suited to the role and the vocation of parenthood than others?
This brings me to a concept that I have termed the Motherhood Spectrum. In essence, this speaks to the idea that any individual person’s desire and aptitude for parenthood will be influenced by a multitude of factors—everything from our basic personality to our family and cultural background, to our desires and ambitions for our life, to our finances, to our physical and mental health, and our relationship status. It also does away with the notion that not being a mother, not wanting to be a mom, or not naturally reveling in the role means that there is something wrong with us. Rather, it suggests that there is everything wrong with a society that treats natal women as a monolith—as if being born with a bloody c-word between your legs automatically equips a person for parenthood.
The concept of the Motherhood Spectrum solidified for me after I discovered a 1996 book by New York–based psychoanalyst (and woman without kids) Jeanne Safer, titled Beyond Motherhood. In my mid-30s I saw a therapist who tried to insist that my lack of desire to be a parent was at the root of issues I was facing at the time; was the issue, even. As I neared and cleared the hump of forty, the intensity with which I’d been confronted with other people’s projections about my reproductive situation was matched only by the fervor with which those around me began to obsess about when to have kids, with whom (or not), and how much they were prepared to spend on IVF (in vitro fertilization) if that was how it went. I picked up Safer’s book in the midst of this commotion, and two sentences in particular cut through any confusion I might have been feeling as a result like a hot knife: “Motherhood is no longer a necessary nor a sufficient condition for maturity or fulfilment,” she writes. “It is a biological potential and a psychological vocation which a significant minority of women, upon reflection, recognize does not suit them.” And it is a minority that is becoming more significant with each new generation.
Reading Safer’s words was like wiping the condensation from a steamed-up mirror and looking myself in the eyes. However, the fact that her book was published coming up on thirty years ago, and that it remains one of a handful of largely academic texts to probe more deeply into the psychological aspects of what is the most important and impactful decision of any woman’s life, speaks volumes about the still revolutionary nature of what her statement implies: that having kids is not “every woman’s” natural, and therefore ultimately fulfilling, role and purpose.
I thought about the years I’d spent attempting to pathologize my lack of a discernable maternal instinct. Closing my eyes tight, and trying to conjure a sensation, a desire, a yearning, that I had no point of reference for. Now, yet another question presented itself: what if this “instinct” I was supposed to embody was as much of a social and a psychological construct as it was a part and parcel of being born a biological woman? After all, the fact that more and more people are questioning whether motherhood is for them suggests that the extent to which one experiences the maternal instinct is less to do with our hormones and more likely the result of a unique constellation of psychological, environmental, and even cosmic factors that shape our individual identities. Could it be, when it comes to nature versus nurture, that the influences we are exposed to might even have the greater say when it comes to feeling about our reproductive choices?
For example, each person of childbearing age today is impacted to some extent by practical concerns that are in many ways unique to early twenty-first-century life: the rising cost of raising a child, an increasingly competitive and unstable job market, lack of support from a wider family network, and the complexities of meeting a suitable co-parent. For younger generations, eyes turned skyward to read foreboding smoke signals from the future of a planet on fire, fears about the climate catastrophe that is unfolding in every microsecond may be enough to have quashed any procreative “urges.” For somebody for whom becoming a mom just hasn’t happened, perhaps she’s experienced some of the fertility issues that experts say are also connected to modern environmental factors. Or perhaps she has been too busy doing what have felt like other equally important and fulfilling things.
And then there are the intimately personal reasons, often imperceptible to the naked eye, that apply equally across all camps—and which may also impact how a woman feels about motherhood after she’s had kids: a desire to focus on her career; a fear of childbirth; doubts about her childrearing abilities; trepidation around reliving her own difficult childhood; just not really seeing herself as a “mom.” All of which will help determine where a person may orient on the Motherhood Spectrum, and which are equally valid reasons for not wanting or having children. Take a minute and think about which of the above factors have had the most say over your feelings about becoming a mom. Maybe it’s a combination of the above. What else comes up for you as you reflect on this?
When we then map the practical challenges of motherhood against the opportunities that have opened up to women over the past half-century, the question many of us are asking is also less “Do I want to have kids?” and more “What are all the potential life-paths that I could pursue?” A question that women of previous generations never even got to ask themselves—and which, as we shall see, the revolutionary sisterhood of women without kids is poised to help normalize for all women to come. As Jeanne Safer writes: “My decision never to bear children reflects my entire history, the interaction of temperament and circumstance, fear and desire, capacities and limitations, that makes me who I am.” Pause again here, and consider: What are all the things that make you uniquely YOU, and how have these things influenced how you feel about being a mother or a woman without kids? For me, reflecting on this helped me feel more confident than ever about my “Affirmative No” about motherhood.
This is also Safer’s term—introduced in a follow-up essay to Beyond Motherhood that she penned for Meghan Daum’s 2015 anthology Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. Here, she explains that asserting an Affirmative No reframes the no as a positive: “It also often means saying ‘yes’ to points of view that may be unpopular but that are in fact authentically in line with your own thoughts and feelings.” Further, she writes: “[An Affirmative No] is not an act of rebellion; it is an act of willed self-assertion, of standing your ground on your own behalf.”
Which feels a lot more like my experience of rejecting motherhood, and quite a lot like how I have learned to approach life in general. Meanwhile, it also makes sense that at the other end of the Motherhood Spectrum lies an “Affirmative Yes”; the full-body, soul-powered, solid-gold knowing that you do want to be a mom. Perhaps, for some, this is even the reason you are here. But if these are the extremes, what about all those who fall somewhere in between?
Given the infinitely disparate factors that make us who we are and which dictate what we need to feel satisfied and content, I would argue that this is most women. Taking into account what we also know about the challenges of modern motherhood, coupled with the opportunities afforded us by wave after wave of feminist fight, it also seems perfectly normal, natural even, that a significant majority of women would experience a degree of ambivalence about signing on for the job. After all, anybody who’s ever expressed doubts about getting knocked up will also have been told that “nobody ever feels ready to have kids”—which is often invoked to encourage potential parents to just go for it already. But I know plenty of people who have felt very, very ready to become parents, and like now is exactly the right time. People who have found themselves consumed with baby fever. And if some of us will always be more ready than others, doesn’t it follow that some may never be ready at all?
Not to mention that the very real concept of “parental readiness” is worthy of serious consideration when it comes to the future well-being of both mother and child. And yet, what’s still held up as normal and natural is a woman’s Affirmative Yes about being a mom—the notion that every woman, given the opportunity and the biological capacity, would gladly leap at the chance. What happens when we begin to acknowledge the nuance that exists beyond this binary view of motherhood?
Women Without Kids by Ruby Warrington is out now. Ruby is also the creator of the term Sober Curious. Author of the 2018 book and million-download podcast of the same title, her work has spearheaded a global movement to reevaluate our relationship to alcohol. Other works include Material Girl, Mystical World, The Numinous Astro Deck, and The Sober Curious Reset. Ruby also works as a manuscript coach and publishing consultant. You can connect with her on Instagram @rubywarrington.
This is an excerpt from Women Without Kids by Ruby Warrington published by Sounds True. Copyright © 2023.
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