Just how troubling is it to come to the realization that you’re just not the person the world wants you to be, and you don’t want what the world wants from you?
Very — even when you have a strong support system through your family. You may know you’re loved, but at the same time you know that being true to yourself means being an outsider, and directly or indirectly you’ll be made to feel as though something is wrong with you.
Before I entered my tweens I, like most little girls, loved to play with dolls. I had many an apple-cheeked plastic baby to cuddle and caress. I gave each one a name from my list of favorites-of-the-moment, and I imagined personalities for them that went beyond babyhood. One of my favorite play-pretends was to rescue my babies after they’d gone missing. I always succeeded. It didn’t register with me then that these kinds of stories don’t always have happy endings.
Not only did I have the right toys, but I also read the right books, or at least the ones I knew about at the time. My picture books were full of mother bears, mother tigers, and mother rabbits doing motherly things like feeding and tucking-in and even scolding their (usually male) offspring. Moms didn’t have adventures They were anchored to the home to which the (almost always male) child adventurers had to return. All well and good, I suppose — except that these moms made up approximately 70% of all the female characters I saw.
As I noted in my previous post, the only female character in A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories is Kanga, Roo’s mother, and “mother” is the beginning and the end of her personality. The first of Kipling’s Mowgli stories, “Mowgli’s Brothers,” features a much cooler mother figure, Raksha, the wolf who adopts the human toddler and terrifies the ravenous tiger Shere Khan away from her den; sadly, after that first story she disappears, leaving Mowgli to be guided through his formative years by male mentors. Charlotte, the titular spider of Charlotte’s Web, fascinated my younger self far more than either of these, since she was active and clever and played a much larger role, but even she is essentially Mom, and when she has fulfilled that biological function, she perishes.
It’s little surprise, then, that I spent a large part of my childhood thinking that being Mom was just part of being a girl, that one went with the other. Nor did that idea come only from stories; I saw very few non-moms among the grown women I knew. I had no reason to question it, and I wasn’t conscious of any discomfort I might have felt at the prospect of becoming a mom myself. That was so far in the future. I could wait, and put off considering what being a mom would mean for me.
Then, when I was in my twenties, something small planted a seed — a leaf through an issue of People Magazine in the optometrist’s office. One of the articles profiled former tennis champ Chris Evert and her life as a mother. The article’s first line was her answer when the interviewer asked her what books she’d read lately: she had no time for reading at all, because, as she put it, she was too busy watching Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers with her kids.
The comment was meant to be light-hearted, but it struck right at my heart. No time for reading? For my favorite thing in the world? If being a mom left no time for reading, how could it leave time for writing? How would I stand such a life? True, I had seen my own mom reading aplenty when I was small, but my feelings about Evert’s little jest impacted me as much as the jest itself. If I was more horrified by the prospect of not being able to read than charmed by the description of Evert’s life as a mom, maybe I wasn’t as maternal as I was supposed to be. Maybe I didn’t have quite the right heart for motherhood. As the seed took root, I started to wonder — did this make me a bad person?
After all, I couldn’t recall reading or seeing a single story in which an admirable heroine decided she didn’t want children. All good girls and women wanted them, if the question came up at all; only shallow, materialistic shrews turned up their noses at motherhood. Nor did I see or read about many girls and women whose work meant to them what reading and writing meant to me, save Anne Shirley and Jo March (which may be why I’m passionately devoted to these characters to this day). Girls in stories, for the most part, had no concrete ambitions, no passions or callings. They were concerned primarily, if not exclusively, with their relationships with others, as if this was where their only real value lay. I know now I should have read the work of Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, whose brave and purposeful heroines would have been a welcome alternative to uninspiring TV characters like Mallory Keaton. But I didn’t know about Pierce or McKinley at the time.
So it fell to my own mother to help me understand my feelings about having children, and to assure me I wasn’t defective or mean for not wanting to become a mother. If I changed my mind later, that would be okay, but if I never did, that would be okay, too. Yet again, my own family helped me by counteracting the messages of popular culture and arming me against them. In the intervening years they’ve stayed on my side. But not every girl or woman is so lucky, and the messages that made me wonder about myself back them have persisted, to pressure new generations. Remember the reason the late comedian Jerry Lewis cited for thinking female comedians weren’t funny?
The sad truth I’ve come to understand is that a lot of people are afraid of women like me. To them, a woman who opts out of motherhood spells the doom of the human race. If she can choose to remain child-free without facing condemnation from the world around her, pretty soon other women will do it, and then all women will do it, and we’ll have a population crisis on our hands. If we open the door to a choice, we can’t control how many people will walk through it. It’s the same fear that once drove the argument against women’s suffrage: if women have the vote, and have options other than depending on their husbands, they’ll soon defect from their domestic duties.
If this is true, then motherhood must really be the worst thing in the world, something no woman would choose if she had any alternative. But in fact, motherhood is a choice multitudes of women embrace with open eyes and hearts. I may be child-free, but I don’t expect other women to be like me. I’m grateful for the women who aren’t. In back of nearly every A student I teach is a mother or mother figure who has done her job well. And few things make me happier than going to Dragon Con and other conventions, seeing the nerdy moms and dads with their kids in full cosplay. Those youngsters might be my readers one day. (My husband and I once saw a family cosplaying as the family from My Neighbor Totoro. We both properly geeked out from having our hearts warmed.)
It seems to me that a woman makes a much better mother when she bears and raises children out of genuine desire rather than a sense of obligation. Through such women, the human race will survive and even thrive. Yet we need to understand, once again, that women are not all alike, we’re not all good at the same things, and one woman’s happiness may well be another woman’s Purgatory. Demonizing women who choose not to have children is just one more of our culture’s attempts to impose a sameness on women, to undermine that glorious variety that is all humanity’s gift.
This, then, is the heart of my feminism — to examine, question, and defy those expectations of sameness. To claim individuality and variety for all people, not just a privileged few.