Not Wanting Kids Is Entirely Normal – Why the ingrained expectation that women should desire to become parents is unhealthy by J. Valenti
In 2008, Nebraska decriminalized child abandonment. The move was part of a “safe haven” law designed to address increased rates of infanticide in the state. Like other safe-haven laws, parents in Nebraska who felt unprepared to care for their babies could drop them off in a designated location without fear of arrest and prosecution.
But legislators made a major logistical error: They failed to implement an age limitation for dropped-off children.
Within just weeks of the law passing, parents started dropping off their kids. But here’s the rub: None of them were infants. A couple of months in, 36 children had been left in state hospitals and police stations.
Twenty-two of the children were over 13 years old. A 51-year-old grandmother dropped off a 12-year-old boy.
One father dropped off his entire family — nine children from ages one to 17. Others drove from neighboring states to drop off their children once they heard that they could abandon them without repercussion.
The Nebraska state government, realizing the tremendous mistake it had made, held a special session of the legislature to rewrite the law in order to add an age limitation.
….What happened in Nebraska raises the question: If there were no consequences, how many of us would give up our kids?
…..Whether it’s because of hardship or not, many Americans are giving up on parenthood.
In February 2009, someone calling herself Ann logged onto the website Secret Confessions and wrote three sentences: “I am depressed. I hate being a mom. I also hate being a stay at home mom too!” Over three years later, the thread of comments is still going strong with thousands of responses — the site usually garners only 10 or so comments for every “confession.” Our anonymous Ann had hit a nerve.
One woman who got pregnant at 42 wrote, “I hate being a mother too. Every day is the same. And to think I won’t be free of it until I am like 60 and then my life will be over.”
…The responses — largely from women who identify themselves as financially stable — spell out something less explicit than well-worn reasons for parental unhappiness such as poverty and a lack of support. These women simply don’t feel that motherhood is all it’s cracked up to be, and if given a second chance, they wouldn’t do it again.
Some cited the boredom of stay-at-home momism. Many complained of partners who didn’t shoulder their share of child care responsibilities.
….A few got pregnant accidentally and were pressured by their husbands and boyfriends to carry through with the pregnancy, or knew they never wanted children but felt it was something they “should” do.
…The overwhelming sentiment, however was the feeling of a loss of self, the terrifying reality that their lives had been subsumed into the needs of their child.
… The expectation of total motherhood is bad enough, having to live it out every day is soul crushing.
…”The feminine mystique permits, even encourages, women to ignore the question of their identity,” wrote Betty Friedan. “The mystique says they can answer the question ‘Who am I?’ by saying ‘Tom’s wife … Mary’s mother.’ The truth is — and how long it’s been true, I’m not sure, but it was true in my generation and it’s true of girls growing up today — an American woman no longer has a private image to tell her who she is, or can be, or wants to be.”
…We see these diverse images of ourselves and believe that the oppressive standard Friedan wrote about is dead, when in fact it has simply shifted. Because no matter how many different kinds of public images women see of themselves, they’re still limited. They’re still largely white, straight upper-middle-class depictions, and they all still identify women as mothers or non-mothers.
American culture can’t accept the reality of a woman who does not want to be a mother. It goes against everything we’ve been taught to think about women and how desperately they want babies. If we’re to believe the media and pop culture, women — even teen girls — are forever desperate for a baby. It’s our greatest desire.
The truth is, most women spend the majority of their lives trying not to get pregnant. According to the Guttmacher Institute, by the time a woman with two children is in her mid-40s she will have spent only five years trying to become pregnant, being pregnant, and not being at risk for getting pregnant following a birth.
But to avoid getting pregnant before or after those two births, she would had had to refrain from sex or use contraception for an average of 25 years. Almost all American women (99 percent), ages 15-44, who have had sexual intercourse use some form of birth control.
Now, it may be that these statistics simply indicate that modern women are just exerting more control over when and under what circumstances they become mothers. To a large degree that’s true.
But it doesn’t jibe with an even more shocking reality: that half of pregnancies in the United States are unintended. Once you factor in the abortion rate and pregnancies that end in miscarriage, we’re left with the rather surprising fact that one-third of babies born in the United States were unplanned.
Not so surprising, however, is that the intention to have children definitively impacts how parents feel about their children, and how those children are treated — sometimes to terrifying results.
…Basically [the study by Jennifer Barber, a population researcher at the University of Michigan showed], children who were unplanned didn’t get as much emotional and cognitive support as children who were planned — as reported both by the researchers and the mothers themselves.
…We sometimes expect fathers to shirk their responsibility; but when mothers do it, it shakes the core of what we’ve been taught to believe about women and maternal instinct.
Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy argued in a 2001 Utah lecture, for example, that being female is seen as synonymous with having and nurturing as many children as possible. So when mothers abandon their children, it’s seen as unnatural. This simplistic, emotional response to parents — mothers, in particular — who give up their kids is part of the reason Americans have such a difficult time dealing with the issue. As Hrdy says, “No amount of legislation can ensure that mothers will love their babies.”
…If policymakers and people who care about children want to reduce the number of abandoned kids, they need to address the systemic issues: poverty, maternity leave, access to resources, and health care.
We need to encourage women to demand more help from their partners, if they have them.
In a way, that’s the easier fix, because we know what we have to do there; the issues have been the same for years. The less-obvious hurdle is that of preparing parents emotionally and putting forward realistic images of parenthood and motherhood.
There also needs to be some sort of acknowledgement that not everyone should parent — when parenting is a given, it’s not fully considered or thought out, and it gives way too easily to parental ambivalence and unhappiness.
Take Trinity, one of the mothers who commented on the Secret Confessions board about hating parenthood. She wrote, “My pregnancy was totally planned and I thought it was a good idea at the time. Nobody tells you the negatives before you get pregnant — they convince you it’s a wonderful idea and you will love it. I think it’s a secret shared among parents … they’re miserable so they want you to be too.”