© Lia van Elffenbrink
"…throughout most of history, it was enough for men that women existed to give
birth to men and raise them. And if a woman gave birth to a girl, well then,
with luck the girl would grow up to give birth to a man. It seemed that all my
worrying about about not being a mother came down to this history — this
implication that a woman is not an end in herself. She is a means to a man,
who will grow up to be an end in himself, and do something in the world."
Motherhood, by Sheila Heti
“Motherhood” by Sheila Heti is a brilliantly honest exploration of the narrator's (a 38-year-old woman) dilemma whether to have a child or not. Beneath the question of whether to give birth to a literal human person, lies the existential struggle of a woman's moral, social and psychological relationship to her innate ability to procreate.
Every woman I have spoken to who is a mother has said, without exception, that regardless of the many successes she has achieved in her life, her children are her greatest achievement. So how does a woman who does not have children live a meaningful life?
The fact that I had chosen not to have children became a deep-rooted torment for me when my marriage ended, particularly as my ex-husband is now with a woman who has two young children. Although he denies it, the question still dwells in my mind. I've always known about his love for teaching and educating young people, his passion to leave a legacy for future generations. He maintains a strong relationship with my niece, whom he continues to support and tutor in her education, and I wonder whether deep down, he felt frustrated that I could not give him the kind of family through which he could live a meaningful life.
My mother, when I told her of our separation, said that we'd still be together if I'd had children. She has no doubt that motherhood is the pinnacle of a woman's worth, that I cannot be a real woman without experiencing the gift of giving birth. I feel that I must be a huge disappointment to her in the choices I've made for my life.
With the modern evolution of women's roles in society, where it seems intellectually and philosophically acceptable for women not to have children, to be a pioneer means not only running against the tide of my biological function, but also having the added pressure of being forced to justify the value of what I do instead as at least equal to the value given to motherhood. Yet if motherhood is the ultimate achievement, how can anything else possibly measure up? It is like having the carrot of freedom dangled in front of me, only to realise too late that the guilt and sense of failure has seeped into my being through a secret back door. Even without a literal human person, my natural feminine capacity to nurture (raise, rear, support, nourish, feed) is still perceived in the context of ‘mothering’. If I do not mother a child, I am expected to mother my family, friends, partner, colleagues, bosses, pets, and so on; anyone and everything, for free!
For many years, I placed the value of my desire to write and paint and dance way below the value of my ability to nurture others. Then, I thought of writing my novel as my “creative child”, because somehow I felt the need to justify doing my art as a substitute for not having children. But this is a fallacy. Most male novelists do not view their art as children. Producing a novel takes many iterations of space and time to write, edit, re-write and re-edit, including whole drafts that are completely restructured and others that are thrown away. It is a fundamentally different process to raising a child.
One of reasons I chose not to be a mother was because I did not want to make my children responsible for my happiness. When my father died, my three siblings and I became the sole focus of my mother's life purpose and happiness. It is an enormous responsibility for a child to carry, and one that is impossible to fulfil. At the age of forty-seven, I realise that I wish to take none of the familial, cultural or religious beliefs my mother instilled in me as a child forward into my future. Not because I think my mum was a bad mother. In fact, she is an amazing mother and woman, who raised four girls in very difficult circumstances. I say none because challenging her beliefs does not mean I am negating who she is. Her beliefs (which were instilled in her by her parents) are steeped in misogyny to their very roots, within a society where women are not free to choose a life that is meaningful for them. Cutting my ties to her beliefs and living a different life does not mean I love her any less.
Ultimately, I feel that the decision to be a mother or not is an emotional one, as is the case with most major life decisions we make. (It confounds me that most ‘developed’ societies educate out of children their emotional intelligence, but how to raise a child is a whole other conversation.) The potential of a woman's pro-creative power encompasses far more than the very limited, collective agreements we subscribe to as a society in relation to motherhood. Creation is as vast as the Universe, and some.
The women in my life who are mothers readily assume that my not choosing motherhood is the easy option, because it means I have the freedom to do what I want. However, as with any conscious choice, to truly embrace freedom comes at a cost. The question is what value do you place on your freedom to choose the life you want to live? And are you willing to pay the price?