If Shakespeare were a woman his most famous line from Hamlet would have been written, “To be a mother, or not to be a mother: that is the question.”
Indeed, when it comes to online feminist discussions about motherhood, seismic rifts have arisen between mothers and those who Karen Malone Wright, founder of TheNotMom.com, calls “NotMoms.” Inspired by passionate conversations on her website, Wright has created an offline outlet for childless (women who either cannot or do not have children but want to) and childfree women (women who do not want children) in the form of the recent NotMom Summit in Cleveland, Ohio. The summit was the first large-scale conference dedicated to women who, by choice or by chance, do not have children.
While the media obsesses over viral, arguably fabricated stories about women at war with each other (who love the “drama,” to invoke Nicki Minaj’s epic takedown of The New York Times), Wright’s motivation with the summit is to establish common ground between childless women and childfree women. She told Quartz she simply wants to create a space for women who, for whatever the reason or circumstance, do not have children.
“There has never been as many childless women in America as there are now,” Wright explained, citing from the US Census Bureau. According to this data, collected in 2014, over 40% of the “roughly 75 million women age 15 to 50 in 2014” are not currently mothers. And yet, their voices are not unified, a problem Wright chalks up in part to “geography.” Race, ethnicity, religion, and even sexual orientation to varying extents influence where women live and how childlessness is perceived by their surrounding community. White women, more than Latinas or black women, are the demographic of women most likely not to have children.
“In the Latina community,” Wright notes, “it is certainly challenging to choose to be childless—the same goes in the black community, especially if you’re a black woman of a certain economic and educational level.”
At the same time, Wright—who is, to use the proper terminology, “childless by chance”—hopes the NotMom movement will help lessen the noticeable tension between women who are childless by chance and childfree by choice. Even the words childless and childfree are loaded appellations, as Kim Cattrall so finely pointed out in an interview with the BBC last month: “Child-less. It sounds like you’re less, because you haven’t had a child… It’s the less that is offensive, isn’t it?”
Wright believes that both camps deserve to have both the physical and virtual spaces to establish visibility, especially at a time when the societal pressure to become a mother is felt so acutely by all women—both straight and gay—thanks to the cultural fetishizing of motherhood (through celebrities, through the Internet, through the economy of making motherhood an artisanal, and lucrative, hobby). She and her keynote speakers, Melanie Notkin (who is speaking on behalf of childless women) and Meghan Daum (representing childfree women), attribute the pressure to become a mother to the 21st century understanding of feminism and, particularly, to the false ideal of “having it all.”
“‘Having it all,’ is the most ironic meme of the last few decades, in that it became popular because it was the cradle of a book by Helen Gurley Brown, who did not have children,” Notkin remarked in an interview with Quartz, referring to the former Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief’s bestseller Having It All, published in 1982.
And she has a point. Brown only mentions children briefly, specifying that she herself “never wanted children.” For Brown, Notkin elaborated, “having it all [meant advising women] before you get married, get an apartment, live independently, find yourself, and have great sex.”
Notkin, author of Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness, will deliver a keynote based on the book. “The myopic view of mother as all women establishes women who don’t have children as the ‘other’ to mother,” she explained. The consequences of this othering are significant: “If we are ‘other’ to mother then we will never live our full authentic lives, because we will always be measured against what society believes to be our potential.” This, according to Notkin, is an important issue feminism has yet to fully address.
Daum, author of four books and editor of the much-discussed new anthology Selfish, Shallow & Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers On The Decision To Not Have Children, concurs that the question of “having it all” has had negative consequences on women’s lives. “The point of feminism is to have choice,” Daum told Quartz, “but we’re in this moment now where you have to choose every single thing.” It’s almost as if a woman opts to not do the one thing in life most associated with women and their historical societal function—become a mother—then she appears less than, even, a failure.
Representing the childfree by choice women, Daum will speak at the NotMom Summit on the themes broached in Selfish, Shallow & Self-Absorbed. She told Quartz that researching the book revealed a fascinating generational disparity. “The women who are Baby Boomers were much less torn up about the decision not to have children, and they certainly were not as apologetic [about that decision] than, say, the women of my generation, Generation X,” she said, mentioning Gloria Steinem as a prime example of a woman who was “totally unapologetic about not having children.”
Daum surmises that the psychic difference in the generations is a product of feminism. Women, she says, “have been expected to take every path that is available to them. A lot of that [sentiment] is great, but the fallout from that is that by definition you cannot take every path, and so out of that has come this kind of assumption that you have to have children,” she observed. “Most people do want to have children,” a fact that both Wright and Notkin reiterated in their interviews with Quartz, even though recent statistics indicate that percentage is in decline.
Even though they represent two different types of perspectives, Daum and Notkin agree that women have to change the way we talk about motherhood and parenting. It shouldn’t matter if a woman is childless by chance or childfree by choice—all women deserve to feel socially accepted. This means we have to stop making assumptions about why a woman is not a mother, especially those derived from her gender expression or sexuality. (Just take the recent case of BBC presenter Sue Perkins, whose doctor egregiously assumed she was “fine” with being infertile because she was a lesbian.)
At the same time, women who are childfree by choice, Daum suggests, should be honest about their decision not to have children: “The first step is to recognize that saying ‘it just wasn’t for me’ is probably not only legitimate but good—and to really stop with this glib calling parents ‘breeders’ and calling children ‘brats.’ It’s so insulting to everyone.”
Notkin, too, implores women who are childless by chance to be honest about their situation—something actress Gabrielle Union spoke about in this month’s Redbook magazine. Honesty breeds visibility and fosters empowerment. The NotMom Summit aims to encourage this type of honest conversation. “Be empowered by your truth,” Notkin notes. “If you’re honest about your truth, then you can live your authentic life. Until then, you will be living an inauthentic life.”
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.