Mothers vs. nonmothers: Time to stop the whining

It's human nature to fear differences, but not to fashion victim cults.

Books: The Argument

June 04, 2000|By Jeanne Safer | Jeanne Safer,Special to the Sun

I have learned, to my dismay, that I belong to a disadvantaged minority: voluntarily childless women. Elinor Burkett's new book "The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless" (Free Press, 256 pages, $25) charges that society discriminates against us, diminishes our incomes and our self-esteem, fails to appreciate our contributions to the world or compensate us fairly for our work.

Just as I was coming to terms with my new victim status, I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times on May 16 by Sylvia Ann Hewlett titled "Have a Child, and Experience the Wage Gap," charging that my group is guilty of victimizing a disadvantaged majority: mothers. The childless are in fact the oppressors, she claims, discriminating against mothers in the workplace, ignoring their sacrifices and underestimating their contributions to society.

Both arguments were couched in similarly outraged language, backed up with similarly compelling statistics. Should I feel entitled and furious, or contrite and ashamed? Is it true that everybody has been cheated, so all shall have grievances?

Ladies -- stop whining. Whatever side you are on, don't blame society that your choices have consequences. Nobody has it all.

I am acutely aware of the consequences of this particular choice. It took me five years to decide not to become a mother. About 15 percent of American women currently elect childlessness -- the numbers seem to be inching up recently -- and most of them agonize about it, as I did, because it has such a profound effect on the course of your life.

Of this 15 percent, one-third figure out early on with minimal angst that motherhood is not for them, and other two-thirds struggle with it into middle age. The "postponers" worry that they are selfish, cold and unwomanly. What legacy will they leave, and what will give meaning to their lives? As a group, they tend to be highly educated non-conformists who place a premium on automony and achievement.

Self-examination led me to conclude, reluctantly, that motherhood was not for me. Happiness, creativity and marital intimacy as I defined them required a degree of freedom incompatible with parenthood. I worked hard not to blame anybody for my conclusion -- not my mother, society, or myself. Ten years later, I feel gratified in the life I have created, while acknowledging its limitations and its unconventionality. Since I have accepted myself, I am not worried how other people judge my motives. I know that there is more than one route to fulfillment as a woman.

When I wrote about my experience and the lives of 50 other women who made the same choice in my book "Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life without Children" (Pocket, 1996), I purposely avoided the cheery coinage "childfree" now in favor because it denies the loss I believe is an unavoidable part of any adult decision -- including the decision to become a parent.

There are several illuminating books on the topic of voluntary childlessness currently in print, although most are obscure; there has been some progress since Betty Rollin's groundbreaking essay "The Motherhood Myth" was published in Look in 1970 and provoked the most hate mail of any article ever published there. "Reconceiving Women: Separating Motherhood from Female Identity" (Guilford 1993) is a sophisticated non-polemic by psychologist Mardy Ireland.

Terri Casey's recent "Pride and Joy: The Lives and Passions of Women without Children" (Beyond Words, 1998) presents interviews with a variety of women who decided against motherhood early in their lives. Molly Peacock's perceptive memoir "Paradise, Piece by Piece" (Riverhead, 337 pages, $23.95) details her own decision and its origins in her childhood experience. The purpose of each one is explanation rather than complaint or self-congratulation. If only women on both sides of the issue emulated them, I'd have to wrest fewer aspirins from my child-proof bottle.

There is no "having it all," no life without regrets. No mother has the time and liberty I enjoy, and I forfeit forever the unique relationship a mother has with her child. Each alternative has its compensations and its satisfactions, and neither is complete. Therefore, competition and envy between mothers and non-mothers is natural, inevitable and, when consciously acknowledged, perfectly normal.

The women I know -- mothers and non-mothers alike -- who confront their ambivalence forthrightly are the most undefensive and comfortable with their decisions, and the most accepting of other women who make different choices. Recognizing one's own limitations is the best insurance against paranoia and grievance-collecting. Or whining.

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