Should I have children? Why society’s idealisation of motherhood benefits no one

a line drawing of a mother with her child

Dr Pragya Agarwal explores society's expectations of motherhood.

Mothers – and non-mothers. Our language creates the falsehood that being with a child is a norm. Words like childless or childfree firmly place the person without a child as the one lacking. Women who decide not to have children are marked as outsiders by our social and cultural norms.

And the expectation is not just that women will be mothers – it is that they will be the right kind of mother.

Women commonly search for the perfect time to be pregnant, delaying pregnancy decisions. This might seem like autonomy, but it is often a consequence of the vast gender inequality still existing in our society. Women lack the privilege and support to have children at “less convenient” times.

This is because no matter what we want to believe, women do not have the same status as men. They carry more mental and emotional labour at home, working longer hours than men who are fathers.

And although there has been a significant rise in the number of single parents in the UK, there are still many barriers – social and practical – to going solo. As poet and essayist Adrienne Rich wrote in her work Of Woman Born:

The ‘childless woman’ and the ‘mother’ are a false polarity, which has served the institutions both of motherhood and heterosexuality.

The idealisation of motherhood undermines all women, irrespective of their own choices, as I write in my book (M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman.

The reasons people do not want to have children may be culturally, socially, environmentally and financially motivated. These can be individual choices – or people might be childfree not by choice.

I continue to wonder if, even in this era of unprecedented freedom and choice, women are really free to understand their own reproductive options or have the autonomy to shape these decisions.


For the full article by Professor Pragya Agarwal visit the Conversation.