Choosing Otherhood over Motherhood

Sally’s World, May 2003


New research in the United Kingdom has found that among women born between 1954 and 1958, college graduates were 50% more likely than non-graduates to remain childless throughout their lives. Studies conducted in the United States and Germany had similar findings.

These trends register as true for my generation of college-educated women, but I am betting that findings might be different for women younger than I am.

I have seen three circles of friends choose motherhood at different phases of their lives. When I was in my early 20s, many of my neighborhood friends from grade school were married and had their first children shortly afterward. When I was in my late 20s and early 30s another circle – these women my college friends – married and had kids a few years into their careers. And finally during my late 30s and early 40s, during the 90s, another circle – this time high-level executive women – decided that to follow their hearts, they would put corporate America behind and have families.

I made a different choice. When I was 13, I decided that I would not marry and that I would not have children. My youthful decision, arrived at so easily, emerged organically from the political, social and economic climate of the time. It was my personal hard line against what I saw as an erosive devaluing of women’s contribution to the world.

Sometimes we doubt the powers of our intentions, our ability to do what we intend to do. But this youthful commitment was something that I accomplished with little difficulty. Throughout my adult life, as time passed, with considerable reflection and equal doses of gladness and sadness, I have stayed that initial course.

At times, I have felt as though my head intended one thing, but my heart expected another. There is a way, I think, that women of my generation, no matter how well-developed our desires, still believe at some gut level that a knight on a white horse will ride in to save us from ourselves.

When I told a client of mine recently that the main reason I didn’t have children was because I had chosen a career over home-making, he said he didn’t believe it. I suspect many people just a squeak younger than me don’t believe it. But it’s true.

The way I perceived things as a teenager, the role of wife and mother was limited, especially financially. I really didn’t like the idea of not having my own source of income. My mother worked hard creating a loving home environment, raising four children and being wife to my energetic, responsible and loving father. Still some inner voice urged her out into the world, and in 1971, like so many women in their 40s at the time, she headed off to do office work. It was a point of, well, umm, discussion in our family’s household, and it met with a little resistance (I love you, Dad!)

But in the end my mother won. She took deep pride in the work she did, the money she earned, and the substantial contribution her income made to the well-being of our family. My mother loved working outside the home. As a result, she was always very supportive of my life choices – no matter how hare-brained they seemed to others – and she always urged me to aim for personal happiness.

At the time I made my youthful decision, there were few visible and positive examples of the myriad ways to be a woman, raise a family and have a career. After watching my mother’s happiness with her work, I took the road most natural to me. It seemed that to have two full-time jobs, and to try to do them both well – was not an option for me.

Since that time, many women have taken creative plunges into unknown seas of work and motherhood. Their powerful excursions – into business, politics, family and community – have opened doors for women and men alike. The most fortunate of us now have full freedom to choose our roles in accordance with our unique desires as individuals rather than by rules of gender and conformity.

For Mother’s Day, I offer them deep gratitude for their courage in finding their own way, clearing the path and making transparent and accessible for all of us what was once invisible: our unique hearts and our unique paths.

Recommended reading for this Mother’s Day: Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh; The Price of Motherhood: Why the most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least valued by Anne Crittenden; Bold Women, Big Ideas by Kay Koplovitz; and Toward a New Psychology of Women by Jean baker Miller.

By the way, the opinions presented in Sally’s World are mine and do not in any way represent those of WorldWIT. I invite your rage, your praise and your suggested readings. Email me!