As women, we are constantly defined by our reproductive choices in a way that men rarely if ever are. We face what Jia Tolentino calls “dread-laced, prematurely exhausted timing questions that arise when you are born into a body that many people see as pre-ordained into service to other people.” It’s well known that women who decide not to become parents face a special kind of stigma. But when women do follow what is presumed to be their natural path, they are still badgered about everything from when and how they conceive to what they eat when they’re pregnant to when to what kind of schools they send their kids to. These life decisions can overshadow the many other things that women do in their lives, and that may hold a more vaunted position in the formation of their own identities.
The always great Rebecca Solnit addresses the frustrating focus on childbearing ahead of women’s many other achievements in an essay at Harper’s:
I gave a talk on Virginia Woolf a few years ago. During the question-and-answer period that followed it, the subject that seemed to most interest a number of people was whether Woolf should have had children. I answered the question dutifully, noting that Woolf apparently considered having children early in her marriage, after seeing the delight that her sister, Vanessa Bell, took in her own. But over time Woolf came to see reproduction as unwise, perhaps because of her own psychological instability. Or maybe, I suggested, she wanted to be a writer and to give her life over to her art, which she did with extraordinary success. In the talk I had quoted with approval her description of murdering “the angel of the house,” the inner voice that tells many women to be self-sacrificing handmaidens to domesticity and male vanity. I was surprised that advocating for throttling the spirit of conventional femininity should lead to this conversation.
What I should have said to that crowd was that our interrogation of Woolf’s reproductive status was a soporific and pointless detour from the magnificent questions her work poses. (I think at some point I said, “Fuck this shit,” which carried the same general message and moved everyone on from the discussion.) After all, many people have children; only one made To the Lighthouse and The Waves, and we were discussing Woolf because of the books, not the babies.
I’ve written before about stopping to ask whether you would ask a question of a man as a simple check on whether you’re likely heading into sexist territory. I can hardly imagine a talk on a famous male author in which the discussion would have focused on whether he had some unfulfilled desire for children.
As Solnit writes, chasing what society defines as happiness, and the prescribed notion of how to get there, is a losing prospect. There are many things that can make us feel happy and fulfilled in life, and we need to open up a conversation that values those other aspects of women’s lives, without always putting our relationship to childbearing at the forefront. Solnit, who has faced similar questions about her romantic life and decision not to have children, says:
I have done what I set out to do in my life, and what I set out to do was not what the interviewer presumed. I set out to write books, to be surrounded by generous, brilliant people, and to have great adventures. Men — romances, flings, and long-term relationships — have been some of those adventures, and so have remote deserts, arctic seas, mountaintops, uprisings and disasters, and the exploration of ideas, archives, records, and lives.