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Zosia Bielski is a reporter with The Globe and Mail. She covers sexuality, social dynamics and contemporary culture.
Much was made of the big “coronavirus baby boom” heading our way, with couples locked up together at home: babies for some in nine months, divorces for others, was the cruel joke.
University of British Columbia economics instructor Marina Adshade burst the baby bubble early out of the gate in March. “Social distancing and shelter in place orders make for extremely good birth control” for teenagers, Adshade tweeted, pointing out that getting pregnant via Zoom poses several logistical challenges. Given the dire scenarios playing out across health care systems, many couples may actually postpone planned pregnancies, Adshade argued. Along with other critics, she questioned whether a baby boom is really what we want for women as we stare down a global crisis, economic collapse and widespread uncertainty.
Pre-pandemic, young people were already second-guessing having children amid the climate crisis. But long before these large-scale disasters, the motherhood question always sat with women.
The issue sits at the heart of To Kid or Not to Kid, an absorbing new documentary that follows Brooklyn filmmaker Maxine Trump as she enters her forties childless and grapples with the prospect of parenthood. As a Globe and Mail reporter who frequently writes about women’s realities, I attended a screening and panel discussion for the enlightening documentary at the University of Toronto – in the pre-pandemic days, of course.
The filmmaker trains her lens on the intense pressure women still experience when they decide not to have children. As baby showers overrun her calendar and parenting talk dominates visits with friends, Trump (no relation to the U.S. President) fills with dread: Her “biological urge” is nowhere to be found. This disappoints Trump’s mother, who worries her daughter won’t have anyone to care for her in old age. Trump’s best friend, a mom, stops speaking to her after Trump (perhaps unwisely) questions why anyone living through climate change would have more than one kid.
“I could lose my identity if I have kids, or lose my relationships if I don’t,” Trump says.
Despite all of women’s gains, those who opt out of motherhood remain deeply misunderstood. Trump argues that part of the reason for this lies in the concept of “pronatalism," which involves pervasive societal expectations that we will all have kids, as well as the exalting of parenthood.
It’s an issue deeply researched by California author Laura Carroll. “Pronatalist assumptions dictate how we’re supposed to follow the ‘normal path’ to adulthood,” Carroll writes in The Baby Matrix: Why Freeing Our Minds From Outmoded Thinking About Parenthood & Reproduction Will Create a Better World. “The mindset encourages us not to think too hard about pregnancy and parenthood and just to do it like everyone else.”
The feminist movement failed to adequately challenge motherhood pressures, Carroll writes. Even in championing the birth control pill, feminists “focused more on their power to choose when to have a child, not whether to have a child at all."
Today, the parenthood push is vastly entrenched, spanning cultural and religious attitudes, workplace incentives and government baby bonuses that prioritize families over singles, Carroll argues. It also extends to politics: Voters without children were "erased rhetorically when candidates vowed to fight for ‘working families,’” writes social psychologist Bella DePaulo, who argues that U.S. Democratic presidential candidates ignored a key voting bloc of nearly 60 million single women by fixating on nuclear families.
Motherhood expectations also linger in health care, including growing efforts to control women’s reproductive rights worldwide, as well as paternalistic doctors tsk-tsking young women about the so-called biological clock. To Kid or Not to Kid features Meghan, a 25 year old who is adamant about not having children and approaches doctors about sterilization because she does not want to be on hormonal contraception for decades. Four specialists turn her away, encouraging her to freeze her eggs in case she changes her mind. “Why are doctors telling us we should want kids?” asks Trump, questioning why medical professionals aren’t more concerned with women’s health. (In the meantime, Trump’s husband, Josh, easily lands a vasectomy: the procedure takes 10 minutes and Josh gets a lollipop at the end. Problematically, men are still largely absent from this discussion.)
More women are pushing back and sharing their ambivalence toward motherhood today. Numerous online communities have sprung up, including MotherShould?, a resource for women reflecting on these choices after age 35, as well as “Childfree is Not a Dirty Word,” a Facebook group that counts nearly 40,000 members and was launched by Ottawa’s Chelsey Wren. Another group called TheNotMom hosts summits for women without children “by choice or by chance.”
The wisest critics in this debate argue for more reflection. They hope women who are on the fence about motherhood will think beyond the noise and treat parenthood as a calling, not an obligation. Editing the anthology Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, writer Meghan Daum found that a number of contributors “actively pursued parenthood before realizing they were chasing a dream that they’d mistaken for their own but that actually belonged to someone else – a partner, a family member, the culture at large.”
One contributor, psychotherapist Jeanne Safer, realized she didn’t really want a baby – she “wanted to want” to have a baby. Safer came to see her childlessness as self-assertion, as “advocating for the person you truly are, as opposed to the one you think you’re supposed to be.”
What else we’re thinking about:
Reading about good deeds throughout the pandemic – this Spanish hotel owner who offered his closed resort to Venezuelan refugees, or this Toronto woman who turned her teeny Mexican restaurant into a food bank – I’ve been revisiting Rebecca Solnit’s 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, about catastrophic events bringing out good in (many) people. Disasters can offer “a view into another world for our other selves,” Solnit writes. “When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up – not all, but the great preponderance – to become their brothers’ keepers.”
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