Optioning Motherhood: Navigating the Social, Political and Medical Landscapes Now


We’re in an era of public breast-feeding, family-sleeping consultants, mommy bloggers (where, by the way, are the daddies blogging?), and impassioned debates over helicopter vs. free-range parenting theories. It’s hard to remember, but there was a time, in a galaxy not very far away, when motherhood was viewed by some high-profile women as an impediment to the world-repairing work they felt called to do.

Reading Vivian Gornick’s new memoir (reviewed here), I was struck, not for the first time, by how many of the women who were shapers of the women’s movement (Second Wavers, if you like) did not have children. At the same time that feminists with and without children created the classic and much-loved Free to Be…You and Me (book, TV special, and still-sung-along-to recording), some of their (and my) peers were clear that having children was an option they would not exercise.

In the 1970s, many women perceived that their work in the world would be impeded by having children. Child-free—the term coming into use in some circles then—was a pretty conscious choice, motivated by a desire to correct inequities and made possible for some women by the advent of The Pill and the widespread availability—at least for a while—of safe and reliable backup abortions. You too may have heard from women who expressed deep worry about the toll motherhood would likely take on them in an era that offered very few public supports for working parents. 

Not so long ago the practical, the political and the personal converged to fuel this fear. Employers offered no family leave, few non-family child-care possibilities were on offer for middle-class families in the U.S., and the sharing of child-care responsibilities in a couple was a matter for delicate negotiation. These structural issues melded into the ideological, and children (like cooking, and religious practices) became, for some, a part of the triad of oppressions women needed to protect themselves from (Kinder, Küche, Kirche). 

For some younger women, the choice is still to remain child-free. A spate of recent books, like Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, are re-opening conversations that a generation or two ago were held behind the closed doors of consciousness-raising groups. Now, some women are airing openly why they are choosing not to become mothers.

But just as you now see the profound shift in our society’s views on the joys of cooking (amateur foodies in the limelight, partly thanks to the fact that men are getting into the kitchen with glee), so too has an honorable focus on parenting (that gender-neutral word rarely heard in the 60s and 70s and 80s) come into its own.

Let’s take a collective deep breath and acknowledge the sea-change for women who want to repair the world and have kids. This is a truth that has been sort of slyly hidden away, even at a moment when the political and the personal have converged to put the subject of “optioning motherhood” front and center.

[Sidenote: The convergence has been part of Lilith’s beat for years now. In fact, Optioning Motherhood is the title of one of the large wall panels in a Lilith traveling exhibition on display around the U.S. and Canada for more than a decade. The pro-natalism of Jewish religious injunctions and social values further complicates the conversation.]

Where once abortion rights were the fiery center of activist women’s concern, now—for many of you—the concern has shifted to fertility worries, with Jewish organizations even looking to provide some modest support for people seeking to become parents. And women in their 20s and 30s who aren’t yet ready to decide about motherhood have a choice only recently available: the opportunity to freeze their eggs now for possible use down the road; the term in use is “social” egg freezing. F.Y.I.: A fertility center in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. now hosts “Wine and Freeze” information evenings.

Public supports for having or raising children are increasing—albeit slowly and incrementally—as the women’s movement and economic forces have jointly reshaped the landscape. Two newsworthy shifts: universal pre-kindergarten is in place in more and more communities, and paid parental and family leave policies in the U.S. are finally following those of more enlightened governments elsewhere in the developed world. 

Simultaneous with these changes, people who are partnered or single, lesbian or heterosexual, are creating families through IVF, adoption (see Susan Silverman’s memoir on page 30), foster-parenting (see Lilith’s fall 2015 issue), egg donation and surrogacy. Jewish women appear to be overrepresented in the ranks of those enthusiastically welcoming new medical treatments just as they are among those establishing new social norms.

We still live in an imperfect world, one in need of revision and repair, but in significant ways the Hobson’s choice between doing good work and having children is mitigated by the progress women and the women’s movement have engendered.