Today, I came across a scientific study from 2017 that my Facebook feed decided to revive for some reason. That study departed from the analysis of the reactions of individuals from all over the US to voluntarily child-free people. According to it, most people not only find atypical that strangers choose not to reproduce but also feel morally outraged by their individual choice.
Based on that, it was observed that people hold the belief that voluntarily childless people are less fulfilled and happy than others who aren’t. Therefore, a bias is created and that same bias inspires differentiated ways of addressing those individuals, which may include discrimination and varied forms of mistreatment in different social spheres like the healthcare and the workplace ones. Even if this study doesn’t mention the variations on the level of disgust and outrage that most people feel towards a child-free man and a child-free woman, it is obvious that a child-free woman is the one that inspires the most temperamental and morally fuelled reactions.
As a woman who always had very clear her choice of not wanting children, I have seen this moral outrage in all its forms and demonstrations. From men, from other women, from doctors, from colleagues, from friends, from family, from partners, from bosses, from HR managers, from low educated people, from highly educated people and from people of all different nationalities and cultures. In all of them, I always saw that expression of puzzlement, more or less disguised by social politeness, that follows my answer to the question: “And you, why don’t you have children?”. People could deal with “because I can’t have them” or with “because I didn’t find the right person” and even with “because when I wanted it was too late” but never, I repeat, never with the straight answer “because I don’t want to”.
I didn’t want it at 20. I didn’t want it at 30 and I don’t want it at 41.
Due to the fact that most people cannot compute such an answer coming from a woman, a justification has to be found. Therefore, the quest for virtually hidden, dark and Freudian causes for such an outlandish behaviour begins. Some of them even ask, more or less directly, in an attempt to find if those causes lay, eventually, on a concealed dislike for children, or on the absence of father-like partners, or even on some dysfunctional family environment during childhood or maybe on a masked infertility. It is simply too hard to believe that a woman of sound mind, with appareantly all the necessary variables at hand, simply has priorities other than reproducing.
When I was younger such intrusions used to make me very upset. I used to get upset when my gynaecologist asked me, every year, starting at 18, when I wanted to have children (he only stopped asking when I was 35 maybe after concluding that, m a y b e, I was right when I answered, every time, that I really didn’t want them). I used to get upset when women in my family accused me of being loveless and selfish for refusing motherhood. I used to get upset when friends said that it was such a waste a potentially great mother like myself not wanting actually to be a mother. I used to get upset at people asking when my turn would be after my older sister got pregnant. I used to get upset at people’s interrogatories about when I would give my baby nephew a cousin for him to play with. I used to get upset at the shocked disbelief with which some partners faced my clarification that no children with me should be expected. I used to get utterly annoyed and even enraged at such interferences, pressure and all those unrequested sermons about the wonders of motherhood and the absolute personal fulfilment and the divine, undying love it involves. It was not only their moral outrage which annoyed me but also the obsessive insistence in pushing me into being someone and doing something that fell completely out of my plans. Especially, regarding something which i deemed to be an absolutely personal and intimate choice which was the use i decided to give to my reproductive system.
People didn’t seem to feel outraged when i decided to become an anthropologist instead of a journalist, nor when i decided to quit my Master and follow a path different from the academia. People werent’t shocked when i decided to settle in Brussels instead of Lisbon, in Guadalajara instead of Cancún or even in Germany instead of Switzerland. People weren’t offended when i decided not to follow any potential carreer in the areas of applied mathematics, space science, beauty industry or healthcare. I could have done all that but i have chosen not to. I simply did it and no one acted offended.
The problem is that motherhood is not seen as a choice for women. Actually, it is everything but personal.
Motherhood, as a cultural universal, is considered a defining aspect of femininity. More than a biological fate, it is seen as a social obligation thus, a woman who decides not to fulfil that social prescription can only be a freak, an outcast. In the case of a woman whose life circumstances are not those of an outcast nor looks remotely like one, this choice can be particularly hard to accept and definitely bewildering for most people. Interestingly, we are not speaking about more traditional societies. We are speaking about the free, western and progressive world. Actually, when it comes to this topic, the same level of moral outrage towards childless women can be seen coming from a young, tech-savy, urban scandinavian hipster or from an analphabet indigenous old woman from Chiapas. Neither of them can help that reaction therefore, i dare to extrapolate from the sample of that study and guess that the whole world is united in that way of conceiving the purpose of human existence: procreating. So, a women deciding not to have descendants is equivalent to breaking a tacit agreement accepted at birth.
It is the lack of compliance with such an essential matter that causes the uproar. Society can tolerate some levels of deviant behaviours as long as its pertuation isn’t at stake. It can be condescendent, even indulging when it comes to certain more exccentric behaviours as long as one does not refuse, plainly, to fullfil its most basic expectations. And reproduction is definitely one of them. It is considered upmost subversive not to procreate.
Now, after having seen hundreds of times that same expression of outrage on people’s faces and having heard all their questions and all kinds of monologues, I no longer get upset. Not because i became blasée or developped some kind of emotional callus but simply because now i understand that motherhood is anything but a personal decision. Instead, it is a societal demand and a communitarian obligation. Women’s womb is anything but a private part. It is a public space about which everyone feels free to opinionate. So, i no longer feel outraged at the outraged people. I understand now how it all works and, because i have decided not to adopt for myself a destiny traced by others and because i insist that my womb is mine and mine alone, I am happy enough with following all the other plans I have for myself.
Furthermore, if I needed backup, I have decades of scientific studies that prove a negative correlation between the levels of happiness and parenthood. But I don’t even need them. Neither them nor any other kind of justification.