The Cult of Motherhood

Motherhood is a personal choice

At some point in my life I am expected to become a mother. Motherhood has never felt like a choice to me. It has felt like an inevitable part of life, just as unavoidable as aging or death. At some point in my 20s and 30s, I am going to feel an evolutionary urge to create little Nians.

I’m 19 now, and I still don’t feel the urge to create little Nians, and I don’t think the urge will suddenly hit me in five years. I do not see myself ever having children.

When I tell people that I don’t see myself ever becoming a mother, I am met with shock. Even though I am incapable of doing my own chores and squeamish around children younger than 12—indications that I would be supremely unfit as a mother—I am still met with surprise, even from friends who have known me for years, even from my own family. They all ask me: “Why not?”

The question should not be, “Why not?” The question should be, “Why?” The decision to become a mother is a life-changing one, affecting every aspect of a woman’s body and personal life.

Motherhood is incredibly taxing on the body. Kim Kardashian recently admitted that she hated being pregnant. “Maybe it’s the swelling, the backaches, or just the complete mindfuck of how your body expands and nothing fits,” she wrote. “I just always feel like I’m not in my own skin. It’s hard to explain. I don’t feel sexy either—I feel insecure and most of the time I just feel gross.”


Kardashian may have a reputation as a drama queen, but her complaints about the physical effects of pregnancy are non-trivial. Pregnancy and childbirth affect every single part of the body, causing short term effects like breast tenderness, heart irregularities, frequent urination, carpal tunnel syndrome, shortness of breath, constipation, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, intensely itchy rashes, and blotchy brownish pigment on the face and breasts. And in the long run, effects like stretch marks, capillaries, varicose veins, weight gain, cellulite, deflated breasts, and vaginal pain can remain with mothers for the rest of their lives.

Motherhood is also incredibly emotionally and psychologically taxing, requiring significant lifestyle changes. Raising children requires enormous time, energy, and resources—and a tremendous amount of sacrifice. Isabella Dutton wrote in the Daily Mail that “if you take your job as a parent seriously, you always put their needs before your own.” According to Dutton, “what I valued most in my life was time on my own; to reflect, read and enjoy my own company and peace of mind. And suddenly that peace and solitude wasn't there any more. There were two small interlopers intruding on it. And I've never got that peace back.” The decision to have children doesn’t only change your body; it changes your life forever.

We don’t expect everyone to get their ears pierced, out of respect for personal bodily autonomy, and we don’t expect everyone to become doctors, out of respect for personal lifestyle choices. Why, then, do we expect all women to undergo such profound physical and lifestyle changes?

The reason is that there is a deeply rooted belief that being a mother is the most important and fulfilling thing a woman can do with her life. During the American Revolution, “Republican motherhood” was a term that encouraged women to be active in the political process by raising good citizens. The concept of “Republican motherhood” suggests that the best way for a woman to contribute to society is not by contributing herself, but by producing children who will go on to make the real political contributions.

This belief persists even to this day, when Michelle Obama said that, despite all her accomplishments, her “most important title is still ‘mom-in-chief.’” If we subscribe to this belief that motherhood is the most important role for women, then it’s all too easy to justify limiting women’s access to education and career opportunities. If a woman’s true purpose is to have children, then why should they work at all?

In a time when women have more freedoms than ever before, it is backwards to expect all women to become mothers. It hearkens back to an era when having children was the most productive thing a woman could do with her life, simply because she had no other options. Now, women have a whole array of choices before them—they can choose to be surgeons, they can choose to be politicians, they can choose to be artists, and yes, they can choose to be mothers. But motherhood is not their only option anymore.

Motherhood is a special and rewarding experience for many women, one that they wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. But being a mother is not the most important thing a woman can do with her life, and it’s not the only way women can find fulfillment. In the end, motherhood is a personal choice, just like any other.

Nian Hu ’18, a Crimson editorial executive, lives in Mather House. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.


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