As a child, I did what many young gurls did. I played with dolls and assumed that I would someday be a mother. As a teenager, I continued to believe my life would include marriage and children. Yes, I would have a career, but I would put it on hold to have kids, and I would probably stay at home until they were old enough to go to school. Even into my early twenties, nothing had happened to sway me from that vision of my future.
Until, in a short span of time, many things happened to sway me from the vision. In the course of barely a year, my 6-year long relationship with my first love ended dramatically. Not long after, I receieved my first teaching job – the one in my home-town that I’d worked hard for and dreamed of for four years. Sadly, before the school year was over, the government dramatically cut funding for education, and, like most of the teachers on probationary contracts, I didn’t get my contract renewed. Both my personal and professional dreams were in tatters, and I was adrift on a river of uncertainty.
For another year, I struggled to understand what to do to repair my life. One day the answer fell into my ear – through a phone call offering me a teaching contract in China for a year. I jumped at the chance. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was probably when my vision for my life began to change.
Having the unexpected courage to choose such an unconventional path opened my eyes to the understanding that I could choose any life path. I began to realize that all along I had imagined children in my life because I’d always thought having kids was what women were supposed to do. I’d taken motherhood for the only choice. But in reality, it was only one choice.
The realization made me start to think about what I really wanted from my life. In time, I came to acknowledge and accept that I don’t want kids. Kids bring responsibilities, sacrifices and changes that I don’t want in my life. As I began to acknowledge this thought to myself, I also began to share it with others. The responses I received shocked me.
“Pressure” and “guilt” are the two words that best describe those reactions. People would say things like, “don’t worry; you’ll change your mind” or “that’s so selfish. How can you only think about yourself, and how can you deprive your mother of grandchildren?”
These comments came with two surprises: It was mostly women who were negative about my decision, and it was women my age as much as it was older women. I couldn’t figure out either of these two things. They didn’t fit with my ideas about the women’s liberation movement that had begun decades before. Hadn’t we been fighting for the right to choose whatever we wanted in life? Weren’t we supposed to be fighting against male stereotypes of what we should be and do?
Suddenly, I saw that it’s often women who don’t support other women’s life choices; it’s often women’s stereotypes of what we should be and do that get in our way. The realization stunned and infuriated to me. Years later, it still does.
For decades, women have fought to break down outdated societal expectations. We have tried to earn the right to take on whatever roles in life we want. Why is it deemed OK for women to accept non-traditional roles – such as soldiers, fire fighters, scientists – but not at the same time OK to reject traditional roles such as motherhood? It seems paradoxical to me that the first is considered by most women to be completely acceptable, but the second is considered by many of those same women to be unacceptable. Where is the logic? Where is the freedom to choose without facing judgment that women have striven for all this time? If women cannot support each other no matter what our choices are, how can we ever expect men to support our choices?
To those who have told me or women like me, “don’t worry; you’ll change your mind,” I say, “I have no reason to worry. My choice to remain childless is as legitimate as your choice to have kids.” To those who have told me or women like me, “not having children is selfish,” I say, “making the best choice for my own life is not selfish; it’s self-aware. There is nothing wrong with knowing what you want from your life and actively following through with it.”
To all women with children who unfairly judge those of us who have decided not to follow in your motherhood footsteps, I say, “accept every woman for who she is. Respect the decisions she has made for herself. Just because her choices are not the same as yours is no reason to criticize or belittle. She is not any less a woman than you are because she chose not to have children. Women need to support one another and to encourage one another to be who and what we each want to be. Don’t we all deserve that?”
Because ultimately, mothers or not, all women are created equal.