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The choice to not have children (Rebroadcast)

Celebrities like Tracee Ellis Ross, Chelsea Hangler, Oprah Winfrey and Dolly Parton chose not to have children.
Celebrities like Tracee Ellis Ross, Chelsea Hangler, Oprah Winfrey and Dolly Parton chose not to have children.

In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt told the National Congress of Mothers that women who do not reproduce are as useless as “unleavened bread.”

That’s one of many examples of American society denouncing women who choose not to have children. The Washington Post summarized some of the examples listed in the new book, “Without Children: The Long History of Not Being a Mother.”

Author Peggy O’Donnell Heffington sought to understand why this attitude permeates culture. Literary Hub published an excerpt from her new book:

Mothers and non-mothers can’t even talk to each other, popular culture tells us in articles with titles like “5 Things People Without Kids Just Don’t Understand,” “I Didn’t Lose Friends After Having Kids. I Just Moved On,” and “Can Mothers and Childless Women Ever Truly Be Friends?” In my own life, I have felt a creeping distance between myself and mothers my age—like the women at the ladies’ coffee, but not only the women at the ladies’ coffee. Women I got graduate degrees with, drank too much whiskey in bars with, ran marathons with, have been transformed, literally overnight, into Adults, with Real Responsibilities and Meaning in Their Lives.

Meanwhile, I have remained a child, failing to feed myself properly on a regular basis, killing houseplants, and indulging in wild, hedonic pleasures like going for a run every morning and having a clean living room.

As I turned it over in my mind, I slowly came to realize that we feel this divide because we’re supposed to. The battle lines of the motherhood civil war were given to us as the birthright of people born with female reproductive organs. Women, a swaggering Napoleon Bonaparte told his confidante Gaspard Gourgaud, “are mere machines to make children.” On our side of the pond, the expectation that people sexed female at birth would be- come mothers was forged by a long history that sought to make reproduction into white American women’s primary civic contribution, and the nuclear family into her only natural home.

What do we misunderstand about the history of not having children? And how does that history affect how we think about family and motherhood today?

Copyright 2024 WAMU 88.5

Avery Jessa Chapnick