The Motherhood Decision

The Motherhood Decision: How do Women Decide and what Influences them?

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This week, in the first of a two-part series, Margaret O’Connor explores women’s decision making processes.

Motherhood is a powerful concept which affects women throughout their lives, both by its presence and absence. Motherhood can now be a conscious choice, theoretically at least, to be actively pursued or avoided with medical technology. There is increasing accessibility to reproductive technologies for people with fertility issues. Meanwhile, there is a growing proportion of women who actively choose not to become mothers. This choice is a relatively new experience.

DecisionWhile it is deeply personal, motherhood is influenced by external factors including political, social and cultural contexts. Academic literature mainly focuses on decisions from the point of motherhood onwards, with little attention to the decision itself, unless there are other factors such as medical conditions present (1). My qualitative research shows that there are several types of decision making processes and a wide range of influential factors involved.

Decision Making Processes
Lack of process Simply sure either for or against motherhood
Over and back process Change of mind between positions
Forced process Need to make a decision due to health or age factors
If becomes when If you decide to become a mother, a series of other decisions follow
Conscious and unconscious elements It can be a background factor but then change to become a very definite issue
Questioning of decision due to social pressure This can add an extra step if you make a decision but feel under pressure that it is not a socially acceptable decision.

Women described it as a very personal and internal process. This reflects the finding of Maher and Saugeres (2007) for women who chose not to have children (2). I found this also applies to those choosing to become mothers. Uncertainty is often present regarding several areas including whether motherhood is something you really want. There is a fear of regretting whatever decision you make and also of losing your identity as a person to the role of mother, where this overrides your other roles and interests. This strongly reflects O’Reilly’s idea of sacrificial motherhood which “requires and results in the repression or denial of the mothers own selfhood” (2004 p.15) (3). There is uncertainty about ability to cope with the physical and emotional changes of motherhood, for your relationship to cope and anxiety around possible health complications for mother/child. There is also practical uncertainty about when is the right/best time to have a child; work/career and finances are very influential here.

Influential Factors
Health Physical and mental health
Relationship Status The need to be in a relationship, to be the right time in that relationship, to be in agreement and have a supportive partner
Finances Need for financial stability and secure accommodation
Maternal/ Biological Desire The desire to be a mother needs to be present and strong enough
Family Context Family background can provide positive or negative experiences of family life.

It can also provide a broad or narrow view of what constitutes a family e.g. fostering, adoption

Support Networks Availability and proximity of family and friends who can provide emotional and practical support
Personal Development View of self as a mother

Life experience, developing values and goals

Work Conflicting ambitions between work and motherhood

Precarious employment conditions and inability to plan ahead

Ability to achieve work/life balance

Opportunities to work with children

Irish Health System Concerns over safety of the health system
Lifestyle Concerns re change of lifestyle required
Social Expectation Assumptions and questioning by others regarding life choices

As we can see, there are a wide range of factors which influence the decision to become a mother or not and factors appear to fall into practical and philosophical issues e.g. finances and relationship status versus view of self as a mother and family context. They also apply on a micro and macro level e.g. a couple feel ready to have a baby but cannot afford to do so due to economic factors. Factors also combine to have influence. Several participants mentioned that various factors occurred within a short space of time which lead them to make a decision.

Friends/family providing opportunities for interactions with children and observation of family life is strongly influential. This can be for or against motherhood as people may either feel this is not what they want when they see the reality or it can provide positive experiences which may override other concerns. This shows the importance of maternal desire; for those who feel it strongly enough, other factors can be worked through whereas if this is not present or strong enough, there is not enough motivation to pursue it.

Social pressure is a strong influencing factor and impacts the decision making process itself. It also affects the experience of decision making which the majority of participants described as negative, no matter what decision they made. I will examine this in more detail in a separate post.

Participants called for a much more open and real discussion around motherhood so that they can make fully informed decisions. There is a sense of secrecy surrounding motherhood which adds to uncertainty for those who are not mothers. We also need to remove the stigma of choosing not to have children, to see that motherhood is a choice and there are many other ways to contribute to society. This requires contesting dominant discourses and broadening our understanding of both motherhood and womanhood to match the lived experiences of women.


  • Prunty, M., Sharpe, L., Butow, P. & Fulcher, G. (2008) ‘The Motherhood Choice: Themes Arising in the Decision-Making Process for Women with Multiple Sclerosis’ Multiple Sclerosis 14 issue 5 pp. 701 – 704.
  • Maher, J.M. & Saugeres, L. (2007) To be or not to be a Mother? Women Negotiating Cultural Representations of Mothering’ Journal of Sociology 43 issue 1 pp. 5-21
  • O’Reilly, A. ed. (2004) Mother Matters: Motherhood as Discourse and Practice Canada: Association for Research on Mothering



One thought on “The Motherhood Decision

  1. Pingback: Motherhood as rite of passage | Perceptions of Pregnancy

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