There are a series of milestones Western society views as steps a female takes toward full-fledged womanhood. The first stage starts with the beginning of menstruation around age 12 ½, then goes on to the wearing of a bra, (the next items are in no particular order) then makeup, a driver's license, losing virginity, getting a degree, finding a job... and then the real clinchers, marriage and children.
The first event is unavoidable. The next several, while not compulsory, are not unusual. The latter two, marriage and children, can be one's choice to avoid, one's choice to do, or one's choice to hope for. But marriage, and particularly motherhood, weigh the heaviest in our definition of womanhood.
In 'Unnatural', 'Unwomanly', 'Uncreditable' and 'Undervalued': The Significance of Being a Childless Woman in Australian Society, a new study published last month in the journal Gender Issues, authors Stephanie Rich, Ann Taket, Melissa Graham, Julia Shelley looked at the experiences of childless women in contemporary Australia. They wrote that their research "revealed five key themes as significant facets of the experiences of childless women: notions of 'natural' and 'unnatural'; woman = mother; childlessness as a discrediting attribute; feeling undervalued; and the significance of being childless."
With no American similar study done lately, I was curious to learn what Australian women are experiencing, whether they choose to be childless, cannot conceive, or, like me, are waiting to find a mate with whom to have children. Like in Australia, more American woman are childless than ever before. Over forty-seven percent of U.S. women are not mothers by age 45. And when we do have children, it's later in life than ever before. The White House's 2011 Women in America report stated, "There has been a steep rise in the share of women age 25-29 who have not had a child, rising from 31 percent in 1976 to about 46 percent in 2008." Furthermore, the "likelihood of a woman having her first child at age 30 or older increased roughly six-fold from about 4 percent of all first-time mothers in the 1970s to 24 percent in 2007." About one fifth of American women are childless between ages 40 and 44.And yet, as the Australian study sets out to show, childlessness is not quite understood or seen as a norm. Western society is pronatalist. People are expected to get married and have children. Those who are not married and/or do not have children are considered anomalous. Having babies is perceived as natural; it's what women do. The study states:
"....womanhood and motherhood come to be seen as synonymous identities and facets of experience. Thus for women, parenting and the act of mothering are not only presented as desirable, but are in fact seen as the natural expression of their 'femininity'. While motherhood has been recognized as mostly undervalued in society through holding little material or social status, non-motherhood is often granted even lower prestige. As such, the lives of Australian childless women are further influenced by prevailing motherhood discourses, in which women without the desire (voluntary), ability (involuntary) or opportunity (circumstantial) to have children, may be seen as abnormal and unfeminine."
The effect on women is profound. In the first theme the researchers uncovered -- ' woman=mother' -- respondents felt that by their forties, they were presumed mothers, or presumed unhappy if known not to be. It's assumed that if you are a woman, you are meant to be a mother. Period. Women are also made to feel that their bodies exist only as vessels for childbirth. Women in the study explained that moms even get to own the negative stuff, like stretch marks and sagging breasts. But these are changes that can occur to any woman who ages or doesn't stay in shape. In effect, not being mothers affects the way society views these women's adult femininity.
The study shares how childless women are made to feel 'unnatural' when they reach a certain age. Until we are in our later fertility years, being childless is natural. Most would not say it's natural for a young woman to be a mother at 14. Childlessness is the state into which a girl is born. But once she reaches her mid thirties, that natural state is suddenly deemed unnatural. "It's not natural!" is the popular refrain.
The women in the study also felt discredited for their childlessness. Childlessness is an "attribute they felt was associated with being selfish, and having lesser care or compassion." As the founder of Savvy Auntie, the media company designed for the nearly 50 percent of American women who love the children in their lives but are not mothers themselves, I know for a fact that most women are generous, giving and full of compassion for children they did not give birth to. But yet, they are discredited for this simply because they are generous with other people's kids, not their own.
Which is why the fourth theme resonates so much with me: "feeling undervalued." First, in this pronatalist society, mothers are lifted to a higher status in the eyes of others, with popular refrains like "There's no more important job than motherhood!" In fact, the study states that "childless women have often been stereotyped as having either no time for, or spending no time with, children; consequently, they are perceived as having no understanding of children." Again, I can tell you from my research for my book, SAVVY AUNTIE, that this is blatantly untrue. In fact, I've even given a name to the valuable time an aunt spends with a child because it's that influential. I've dubbed it "QualAuntie Time."
Finally, the significance of being labeled "childless" weighed on how the women in the study felt perceived by society. There is little positivity in the word; no one wants to be made to feel less than anything. (I have gone on to use the term "childfull" since Savvy Aunties choose to love the children in their lives. I realize it's not a perfect solution, but it feels like a much more proactive state than being 'less than' anything.)
When I share the data about childlessness in America, many, even those focused on marketing to women, are surprised. The perception is that most women are mothers. Truth is, we're only half way there.
To those who have anything in common with the women in this Australian study, let me assure you of this: Babies are born from the womb, but maternity is born from the soul. There are many ways to mother. And when our society begins to view us as valuable and significant contributors to society and the American Family Village, we all win. Especially the children.
Follow Melanie Notkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/savvyauntie