Utne Blogs > Mind and Body

Opting Out of Motherhood

by Melanie Holmes, special to Utne Reader

Tags: motherhood, carbon footprint, population, environment,


For some people, environmental implications figure into one of life’s biggest decisions—whether or not to have a child.

According to philosopher and poet Henry David Thoreau, “One is not born into the world to do everything, but to do something.” While the idea of making the world a better place is subjective; the salient point in Thoreau’s statement is to do something.

Everyday choices add up to a cumulative impact on the environment; actions such as recycling, using cloth grocery bags, or purchasing items made from sustainable resources that do not further threaten the habitats of animals in the wild. For example, choosing a candy bar made by a company concerned about orangutan conservation and deforestation due to non sustainable palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia can mean the difference between extinction and preservation of these charismatic primates. With education and awareness, we understand how seemingly small, everyday choices add up to big impact. 

Bigger choices we face include: purchasing energy efficient appliances or fuel-efficient cars, taking public transportation, or planting trees that will cleanse the air of pollutants for years to come. For some people, environmental implications figure into one of life’s biggest decisions —whether or not to have a child. 

An article written by Grist’s Senior Editor Lisa Hymas encouraged people to feel good about their choice to opt out of parenthood, thereby reducing their carbon footprint. The more goods we consume, the larger our carbon footprint. Not everyone who opts out of parenthood does so for environmental reasons. Whatever the reason, Hymas and countless other nonparents have something in common —they are targets. Targets of judgment and assumptions about what kind of people they are and the lives they are living. While the parenthood decision applies to both women and men, societal pressure is greatest for women whose lives continue to be viewed through the lens of motherhood. Women’s lives have undergone a complete overhaul in the past few decades; however, something very fundamental has not changed. There are still widely-held assumptions that all women desire motherhood—or that they “should” desire it—and those women who do not want motherhood are viewed as selfish or dysfunctional. 

The 1960s and ’70s were a hotbed of environmental issues and consciousness-raising. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, released in 1962, caused a public outcry that led to the eventual banning of the pesticide DDT (1972) and the passing of the Endangered Species Act (1973).  Paul Ehrlich founded the organization, Zero Population Growth, in 1968, an organization whose mission it was to communicate about the Earth’s finite resources.  Amidst the controversy, in 1969, Stephanie Mills garnered national media attention when she declared in her college graduation commencement speech that she was “saddened” to announce that the best choice she could make to protect the environment was to not have children. Fast forward to 2010 and Lisa Hymas’s statement that she is “delighted” to say that the best thing she can do for the planet is to not have children. When contrasting those two statements, one might think that U.S. culture has evolved tremendously in four decades with regard to attitudes and assumptions about women’s reproductive choices; however, my research proves otherwise. While conducting interviews with 200 women across the U.S. (mothers and women who are not moms), I heard the following statements from women without children:

• From a 51-year-old woman: “When I was in my 20s, my grandfather said to me, ‘You better hurry up and get married; you don’t want to end up like your aunt!’” (Referring to her single, older, childless aunt whom this woman adored.)

• From a 21-year-old woman: “My grandpa asked me, ‘Where’s your ring? You can’t wait around forever!’ and I thought, can I finish college first?” 

As a mother of three, I am acutely aware of the assumptions my teenage daughter faces. Ten years ago, I read Madelyn Cain’s book, The Childless Revolution, with a haunting interview. Quoting a woman Cain called “Donna,” who found she was infertile and could not become a mother, Donna said, “If I cannot become a mother, I may as well be dead.”  During my interviews, I found a real-life example of Cain’s “Donna;” someone I’ve known my whole life, who expressed, “When I couldn’t get pregnant, I remember thinking—what’s life all about then?” For years, I have envisioned my own daughter’s future and considered, “What if my daughter does not want to be a mother someday? What if she’s unable to become a mom (through biology or circumstance)? Is there a way to protect her from the assumptions that bombard women from all manner of sources? My quest to answer these questions resulted in a book I’ve written (to be published later this year), The Female Assumption: The Impact on Women’s Lives when Motherhood is Viewed as a Mandate.    

During my interviews/surveys with mothers, I heard a very high level of assumptions that their daughters will follow in their footsteps and become moms someday. One can assert that these assumptions are supported by statistics in a country where fertility rates are still very high despite a decline over the past few decades.  What was alarming about my research was that 42 percent of the mothers I surveyed said that, if they heard their daughters voice ambivalence or disinterest in motherhood, that they would “urge them” toward motherhood by making statements such as, “Motherhood is an experience not to be missed,” “I never knew love until I became a mother,” and, “If she doesn’t become a mom, that means I can never become a grandmother.” Another 10 percent of the mothers said that they would sit their daughters down and question them about their disinterest in motherhood. For this group of mothers, I wondered, if they would ask “Why not?” would they also ask “Why?” if their daughters expressed their interest in motherhood? The answer lies in the assumptions one holds about females’ lives.

Among the women I interviewed who are not mothers, a majority of them grew up assuming that they would have children someday. Most of them struggled with external forces in order to preserve their inner selves; and said that they felt (or currently feel) that the pressure to become moms came from those closest to them. One woman commented, “As a teenager, I remember feeling sad when people told me I’d have kids someday.” Another woman commented, “My family and friends were always pushing me toward motherhood; I found new friends and disassociated with family ... problem solved.” 

The reality is that an increasing number of women are choosing not to pursue motherhood and they are quite happy; except for the cajoling, intrusive, and sometimes caustic, comments they hear because they are not moms. Some women want to devote their lives to other goals; such as a woman I spoke to who said, “I want to be a hero,” when speaking about being a teacher for kids living in high-poverty, inner-city areas. She said, “These kids need great teachers.”  Other women do not feel the maternal drive that our culture correlates with femininity. For example, one woman expressed, “I never felt drawn to motherhood; I am who I am.” 

A high-profile woman who was never drawn to motherhood is Christine Walker, spouse of Robert Walker, President of the Population Institute. In an exclusive interview with Mrs. Walker for my book, she said that she had a “terrific childhood” (debunking the myth that a woman who doesn’t want to be a mother had a dysfunctional childhood); but that she didn’t like the “noise, crying, and clean-up” associated with childrearing. In Robert Walker’s words, “My wife and I chose to be ‘childfree’ long before the term was invented ... we like children, but we did not like them enough to take on the commitment of raising them.” According to Christine, “My husband and I are very close, I’m very fulfilled within my own self, we have no regrets.” Robert and Christine have been married almost four decades. 

Not pursuing motherhood does not necessarily equate to denouncing it; however, this can be the perception. Whatever reason a woman has for opting out of motherhood, whether the decision is related to the environment, her own goals, or her likes/dislikes, must she justify her reason to those around her? Is it fair to judge a female’s character based upon her choice or ability to become a mom? A woman’s right to choose her own path to authenticity has been hard-won by strong females throughout history. Female activists and writers, dating back to the 1700s, have expressed ambivalence about motherhood. But, according to Stephanie Mills, “the discussion keeps disappearing.” 

As a culture, we must ask ourselves, why are women’s voices suppressed or disregarded in the 21st century? Borrowing from biology, we call the forces that keep alive certain cultural morés “replicators.” For example, the cultural moré that “children are the ultimate celebration of life” is kept alive by society’s replicators. There are many magnificent ways to celebrate life; and many have nothing to do with children. Another cultural moré is that children fill a void in a previously-unfulfilled life. Again, there are a significant number of ways to live a fulfilled, happy life, to the exclusion of raising one’s own child. 

As a mother of three, I am realistic enough to talk about the sacrifices of motherhood in a way that the majority of mothers do not. This does not dilute the love I feel for my children, nor does it hint at regret. My goal for my research and my book is to highlight the injustice of judging women on the basis of their choice to be mothers; and to highlight the need for all of society to update the scripts that are used with females ... rather than saying, “When you have children ...” instead say, “If you have children ...”  There are many scripts that need updating when speaking to females about their lives—scripts that reflect more sensitivity and less judgment.  My husband and I are raising our daughter to know that all we expect of her is to become a kind and self-sufficient human being. Beyond that, her choices are her own. 

I advocate for each person who comes into contact with females, whether at home, school, or in the workplace, to use sensitivity when speaking about motherhood. Not all women desire it; their reasons for opting out of motherhood are as varied as the women themselves; and their reasons are no one’s business but their own.  

Photo courtesy Sergio Vassio Photography, licensed under Creative Commons