Rejecting the mommy mandate: "Our culture made motherhood feel so inevitable"

Filmmaker Therese Shechter on why Ivanka is wrong to say “most important job any woman can have is being a mother"

Published October 14, 2017 2:00PM (EDT)


In a culture that glorifies motherhood and obsesses over baby bumps, from Kate Middleton’s to whether Khloé Kardashian looks “visibly pregnant,” filmmaker Therese Shechter wants to explore a different kind of life: the child-free one. The director of documentaries "How to Lose Your Virginity" and "I Was a Teenage Feminist" is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to fund her next movie, "My So-Called Selfish Life," billed as a “film about not having kids in a culture where motherhood feels mandatory.”

The trailer features women of varying ages who are sure they don’t want to become mothers, but have had to carve out that role within their families and communities, who vie to get their tubes tied and to be valued for their professional accomplishments. It also includes Ivanka Trump stating proudly, surrounded by her own offspring, “The most important job any woman can have is being a mother.”

The Brooklyn-based director, who gave her age as “past my childbearing years, firmly in hot flash territory,” told Salon why controlling whether to become a mother is a reproductive rights issue, how to tell your family you don’t want kids, whether men face similar pressure to become parents, the problem with “pro-natalism” and how “promoting childbirth fuels the capitalist engine.”

Was there a specific moment when you realized that you didn't want children?

When I was in high school, I informed my mother that I wasn’t planning to give her any grandchildren and that she’d have to look to my sister instead. I wanted to be an artist and I wanted to live in New York. The addition of a husband and children seemed to me a killer of dreams, at least by my suburban understanding of how these things went down.

Weirdly, although I knew I didn’t want kids, I assumed I’d have them anyway. There was really no pressure from my family, but it was enough that our culture made motherhood feel so inevitable. When it came to pop culture role models who had chosen to not have kids, few were presented in a positive light. They were either pathetic or broken, like the single women on "Thirtysomething," which I watched obsessively in the '80s. I’ve since read in Susan Faludi’s "Backlash" that they were portrayed like that on purpose, to push the traditional family values agenda of the creators.

How did that go over when you told your family?

My parents, to their credit, took my early pronouncement in stride. They’ve always been 100 percent supportive of me, when it came to marriage and kids or turning down university scholarships so I could go to art school, or when I moved to a different country to make my life more interesting. I know I’m incredibly lucky to have so much love and support, and I also know that a lot of people have a much harder time dealing with their families’ expectations.

Some of the women in your film are keeping their desire to not have children a secret from their families. Why is this such a fraught topic? On the flipside, for parents who'd been hoping to hear they're about to be grandparents, what advice do you have for taking the news gracefully?

It’s not fraught for everyone. But when it is, it can happen for a number of reasons. Women will frequently tell me they are “in the closet” about their desire to not have kids. Some families are simply less tolerant of women who veer off the female script, who reject a strict path of marriage and children. Some of it comes from cultural expectations, some of it is religious beliefs, some of it is just that after raising a bunch of kids, these parents want grandchildren.

In my work on this documentary, African-American women have told me about pressure to reproduce as a way of taking power back from a government that’s historically tried to curb their reproductive freedoms. One Asian woman shared that in her circles, it wasn’t uncommon to just tell the family you were trying to get pregnant, even when you weren’t.

What suggestions do you have for people wanting to broach that conversation?

There’s been an explosion of blogs and social media groups where people who don’t want kids can find support and advice. There seems to be a group for every niche, from childfree feminists to childfree atheists to childfree men’s rights activists (seriously. yuck.). We list many of them on our website’s resources page.

I just spent this past weekend shooting for the film at the Not Mom Summit, the only conference in the world for women who don’t have children (whether by choice or by circumstance). The sessions ranged from dating when you don’t want kids, to the health repercussions of never being pregnant, to financial planning when you don’t have to pay for college. The conference is billed as a place where no one will ask you if you have kids. It was incredibly fun and deeply profound to spend time with these women.

Aside from family members, where else does that push for women to become moms come from?

The hostility and judgment towards childfree people, including intrusive comments like “you won’t know real love until you have a baby” or “you’ll regret it for the rest of your life,” is more than just individual rudeness. These attitudes have their roots in pro-natalism, which is a pervasive philosophy that pushes and upholds a message of maternal inevitability so ingrained we no longer notice it.

It’s as seemingly innocent as giving little girls baby dolls or selling absolutely everything by showing a happy nuclear family using it. It shows up in the ongoing battles for the reproductive services women need in order to decide whether to have children or not. Promoting childbirth fuels the capitalist engine that profits off every new parent and child, and it feeds a multi-billion-dollar fertility industry in whose interest it is to convince every woman that she needs to be a mother.

Finally, one of the essential goals of pro-natalism is to create more people of a preferred race, so the panic around reduced birth rates is usually code for the fear of growing non-white populations. As a nation, we’re guilty of a long history of reproductive oppression of women of color that’s allowed the State to determine who can and can’t have children. Not to mention that neo-Nazis are positively obsessed with white women who refuse to reproduce.

So, when someone at a party gives me a hard time about not having kids, that attitude is the product of a lot of invisible cultural conditioning. We’re soaking in it.

Also, our toxic, perfectionist “mommy culture,” encouraged by social media and celebrity gossip magazines, leaves little room for conversations about what motherhood is really like. No mother has ever been asked if they regret having children, an admission that may be the most taboo of all. But despite media depictions of motherhood as “natural” and “a piece of cake,” parents know it’s hard work.

Is there an age where women are branded the most selfish? Does the pressure to become a mom decline with age?

I think saying rude things to women about their life choices knows no age limit! But once you start inching towards 40, people start backing off, because there’s this idea you’ve reached your “sell-by” date and it’s not worth the effort. For me it was a relief.

Does the pressure to have kids affect queer women differently than straight women?

For a long time, no one expected queer women to have kids, and even today there’s a segment of the lesbian population that feels very strongly that they shouldn’t have any part in what they’d consider traditional heterosexual lifestyles. On the other hand, with greater acceptance and marriage equality, queer people can now also enjoy the endless questions about when they’ll start popping out babies.

Some women choose to be childfree for environmental reasons. What are the connections between not bringing more children into the world and the health of the planet?

There are definitely concerns about dwindling resources, overpopulation and the environmental impact of bringing more people into the world. There was a recent study that showed the profound carbon footprint of each new child. But it’s a very tricky conversation, because if we say it’s important for the planet to curb reproduction, what we’re really saying is that society needs to step in and regulate women’s childbearing. And you can be sure the most policing and judging will be of lower income women and women of color, two groups who have the least access to contraception and abortion. So while there’s a valid argument to be made for looking at this issue, it needs to come with an understanding of our history of reproductive oppression.

One woman in the trailer discusses a doctor refusing to let her get her tubes tied. How is this issue tied to reproductive freedom more broadly? What can women do if they face a similar situation?

In terms of reproductive services, it’s yet another way women aren’t trusted to exercise control and know what’s best for their own bodies — and by extension, their lives. Even doctors who are very sympathetic to childfree women still feel uncomfortable performing the surgery, because they’re worried their patient will change their minds, but also because efficacy can sometimes drop over time. It remains controversial. There is a list of doctors who are more open to performing these kinds of procedures on young women that is maintained by a childfree Reddit subgroup. My film will follow one determined woman’s quest to get her tubes tied, something she’s wanted since she was 16. Whether you want kids or don't want kids, it should be a choice and not an obligation. We need to be able to have control over our own bodies and lives.

In the trailer, you mention that men don't receive this kind of scrutiny about not having kids, but I'm curious if you've heard from any men who have gotten flak about it.

My husband got a lot of pressure from his own mother to provide her with additional grandchildren! This was, thankfully for me, long before he and I met when we were in our 40s. Several men have told me that not having kids sets them apart in corporate settings where having a family is the norm. I think the difference is that fatherhood isn’t the essential male identity, so while they might feel pressure to have kids, it’s not the defining accomplishment of their lives.

The documentary will also explore women who are childfree by circumstance, some of whom tried to conceive but couldn't. How is their path different from women who've always known they didn't want kids? Do they also embrace the term "childfree?"

Not everyone is interested being labeled, but the most common distinction is between childfree and childless. Neither group has kids, but the childfree don’t want them, and the childless do but can’t have them. On the surface, the two groups have very different needs and desires, but they both have to exist in opposition to a world that values women for having children above any other accomplishment.

There’s also a lot of grey area, and it’s much more of a spectrum than two opposing poles. Some women’s desire for children wanes as they get older; others realize they were trying to have kids just to please others. One of the subjects of my film went through years of fertility treatments, and when they didn’t work, came to the realization that she was okay with not being a mother. That self-awareness ignited a passion for reproductive rights activism; she began volunteering for an abortion clinic, went to graduate school to study public health and bioethics and got a half sleeve tattoo of inspirational women.

Who are your childfree role models?

Rhoda Morgenstern was my first great role model. It goes back to my dream of being (and I’m quoting my high school yearbook here) a “free and easy artist in New York.” Also she was Jewish at a time when there weren’t too many of us on TV.

Auntie Mame is pretty much the coolest aunt ever, and I’ve developed a later-life appreciation for Baroness Schraeder from "The Sound of Music." Not only was she a class act in letting Captain Von Trapp go, she had “the finest couturier in all Vienna!”

By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is the author of "Sex & Cupcakes: A Juicy Collection of Essays" and the editor of more than 70 anthologies, including "The Big Book of Orgasms" and the Best Women's Erotica of the Year series. She teaches erotica writing workshops online and in-person, writes widely about books, culture, sex, dating and herself, and Tweets @raquelita.

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