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 second of a two-part series, Margaret O’Connor explores women’s decision making processes. (part one available here)
Motherhood as rite of passage – What about the rest of us?
As discussed in a separate post, motherhood is a powerful concept which affects women throughout their lives, both by its presence and absence. It can now be a conscious choice, theoretically at least. 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 relatively new.
While it is deeply personal, motherhood is influenced by external factors and I will focus on social factors here. I conducted qualitative research with women in Ireland regarding their decision around motherhood. I found that social pressure regarding motherhood influences the decision making process for women and their experience of it. It adds an extra layer of questioning and uncertainty – women ask themselves if they ‘should’ want children on top of whether they actually want them. This pressure is on going, pervasive and has a very negative impact.
Liminality “refers to the transitional space in between well defined structures” and is a process people pass through to achieve a new status (Boland & Griffin 2015, p. 39) (1). Victor Turner describes how “liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between (…)” (1969, p. 359) (2). This caused me to think about women as, traditionally, childbirth has been regarded as the full achievement of womanhood (Russo 1979), and is still acknowledged as a key life event (3). While this growth is available to women who become mothers, what happens to women who, by choice or circumstances, do not do so? Is it possible to have other liminal experiences or are they stuck due to the lack of legitimized alternatives?
Participants may not have recognised the term but they could all relate to the real and practical effects of liminality regarding motherhood. Women who are not mothers report being treated differently and negatively by parents. The often used phrase “you wouldn’t understand” is deeply hurtful and disregards any professional expertise or personal experience a woman may have regarding children or family issues. There is a sense that women who do not have children are missing something from their lives and whatever else they achieve is only acting as compensation for this. This is even worse if you have consciously chosen not to have children without a socially acceptable reason, of which there are very few.
Two possible explanations emerged for this negative reaction. Firstly, some people really love being parents and the idea of not wanting this is too alien for them. Secondly, for people who may be regretting or questioning their decision to be a parent, your choice could make them reflect on this and this is too close to the bone so they lash out at you instead. There is a sense that it is not acceptable to express these thoughts within society so it is easier to assume that parenthood did not work out for you and therefore you can be pitied. I was really fascinated by these dynamics and feel they reflect Gotlib’s findings that non-mothers are portrayed as “either a menacing presence (…) (or) as the pitiable ‘spinster’” (2016, p.330) (4).
We can see there is a large “gap of perception” (Maher & Saugeres 2007, p. 19) between societal views and how some women want to live their lives (5). The dominance of pronatalism prevents the recognition or acceptance of any other life choice or achievement as an alternative liminal experience (Gotlib 2016). Women do have the choice not to have children but it is seen as the wrong choice.
Liminality impacts strongly in the workplace. Participants described a catch 22 situation where women feel lesser due to the fact that they do not have children and yet, mothers also feel silently discriminated against because they have children. So motherhood is valued symbolically and seen as a negative if you lack it but it is not valued or supported practically.
Liminality also influences the media through targeted advertising and social media which I had not previously encountered in the literature. Participants reported that advertisements for pregnancy tests, baby food and fertility treatments appear on their social media accounts even though they have never researched the product. The advertisements appear to be illustrating a projected life course and participants found this to be very negative if their life choices were different. The lack of representation of other life decisions apart from biological motherhood compounds the sense of isolation some participants feel.
Women do feel isolated and unsupported in their decision making process. Change requires contesting the dominant discourses and broadening our understanding of both motherhood and womanhood. The media needs to represent different family forms, including those which do not involve children. We also need real discussions around motherhood so women can make a fully informed decision. Women and men, mothers and non-mothers need to be involved in these discussions so that everyone can understand that motherhood requires support and should be valued, and not just seen as something women should and will do. Equally, we need to remove the stigma of choosing not to have children, to see that it is a choice and there are many other ways to contribute to society apart from having children.
- Boland, T. & Griffin, R. (2015) ‘The Death of Unemployment and the Birth of Job-seeking in Welfare Policy: Governing a Liminal Experience’ Irish Journal of Sociology23 No. 2 pp.29-48.
- Turner, V. (1969) ‘Liminality and Communitas’ in The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure Chicago: Aldine Publishing pp.94 -113, 125-30. Abridged.
- Russo, N. (1979) ‘Overview: Sex Roles, Fertility and the Motherhood Mandate’ Psychology of Women Quarterly 4 issue 1 pp.7-15
- Gotlib, A. (2016) ‘But you would be the best mother: Unwomen, Counterstories and the Motherhood Mandate’ Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 13 issue 2 pp.327 -347
- 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