Ever since I was a teenager and growing up in Cairo －the Egyptian’s biggest city of contradictions－ I have been day-dreaming of motherhood. I was fascinated by the idea that women in my grandmother’s generation were both married and mothers in their teens. My grandmother was only 17 years old when she had her first-born, my father, in 1945.
Of course back in the 1980s, I never thought that I would reach my 40s unmarried and childless. While, in my Eastern culture, marriage to a great extent lies in the hands of fate, I realize now that it is largely due to my life choices. Besides, I do not believe in fate. I certainly romanticized love too much, hanging on for years to the memory of a love story that was doomed to end. On another note, being childless is simply a given in my case, because where I come from it is disgraceful for women to have children outside wedlock. I am not particularly offended by this social code because I do adhere to it; not from a social point of view but rather a Christian one. Accordingly, I consider my childlessness somewhat a personal choice, too.
Having to wait indefinitely －perhaps not that long as the clock is ticking－ for my dream to materialize, I am grateful that I was lucky enough to play a “secondary motherly” role when my mother gave birth to my baby sister when I was 11 years old.
During the first five years of her life I had very specific duties to fulfill: changing her diapers, babysitting her when my mother wasn’t around, feeding her, playing with her, bathing her, combing her hair, telling her bedtime stories and putting her to sleep. Some tasks I did were done on a daily basis, and some others were divided among our whole family.
I enjoyed my “motherhood initiation” a lot and never considered it a burden despite my young age. That is why I am unable to grasp the fact that women are so increasingly leaning towards voluntarily remaining childless.
Statistics show a significant increase in the percentage of child-free women, who are often, either the primary initiator or determinant partner of childlessness decision within a couple. According to a 2010 Pew Research report, childlessness rates have increased among all racial and ethnic groups, the highest rate being in the USA, where 1 in 5 women now pass their child-bearing years childless, compared to 1 in 10 in the 1970s.
The promoters of this trend, such as Jill Filipovic, feminist blogger and columnist, in her article The Choice to be Child-Free is Admirable, Not Selfish (The Guardian, 16 August, 2013), generally tend to aggressively defend it against the societies’ accusations and condemnations. They rely on a number of constraining social and economic factors such as the limitations that a child can impose on a couple’s activities, and the financial burden it can entail. According to http://www.parenting.com, a baby’s first year of life cost was $ 9,116 in 2013, compared to $7,026 in 2005.
The fact that so many women are now choosing to be motherhood-free stirs so many questions inside my head: How on earth can a woman be one hundred percent sure about her decision? Isn’t she by doing so going against her own nature? Is motherhood a natural disposition in women? Is it equal to womanhood? Is womanhood being re-defined?
My questions needed some solid answers, so I interviewed a variety of women, different in age, relationship status, number of children, background and ethnicity. Despite the fact that some of them are friends of mine, their answers were somehow surprising.
Everyone I spoke to agreed that women have the right to remain childless and that societies should respect their choices. Moreover, Dina Mikheil (39), a devoted loving mother of two, dropped this bomb on me: “If I got to choose again I would not have any kids.” As disconcerting these words may sound, they come from a heartbroken mother who has a 6-year-old daughter with special needs and who lives in a country (Egypt) that does not offer proper care for her child. Mikheil wishes she does not have to worry about her daughter’s future all the time, nor to put up with all the pain inevitable in such a condition. She admits, nonetheless, that she might be selfish thinking this way.
None of my interviewees thinks motherhood is equal to womanhood. Nermine Zoheir (38), a mother of two, says that “crossovers are likely to happen but they are two separate identities.” Alexandra Keeler (24), who is currently in a steady relationship but who is biologically unable to have children, gives a whole new dimension to that question when she says, “If womanhood is contingent upon the fact that we can procreate, then I am not a woman.” For her, “womanhood is defined by more than how many babies we can make. [It] is also an attitude, a perspective, a way of life, and a personality.” Reham Meky (33), a mother of two, agrees with Keeler as she believes that “mother or not, a woman remains a woman!” She adds that she has met ladies who never had children yet were very motherly.
The answers I got so far did not quite satisfy me. I wanted to go beyond feminist statements. I wanted to go deeper under a woman’s skin, to talk to a woman who has gone from being reluctant to have a child for 10 years of marriage, to actually adopting the idea and having her first born two months ago. Catherine Jawish (33) who was on both sides of the spectrum confesses: “I was reluctant to have a child because I have a fear of commitment.” Fearing that a child would make her have to step out of her comfort zone into the unknown, Jawish opted for postponing her pregnancy “indefinitely.”
Although she was never directly pressured to have a child, Jawish was inevitably labeled and stereotyped by her Egyptian society that usually condemns a child-free woman or pities her assuming that she has a medical problem. She “started to feel uncomfortable, secretly offended and out of place in the presence of a prospective social circle that would bring up the issue.” But what triggered her decision to have a child was the “age factor.” She knew that she had to face this inevitable factor before motherhood was no longer an option, and before being possibly prone to age-related pregnancy problems. “I am a person who would only resolve a long unsettled decision under the pressure of not having another choice but to make [one],” she declares. “For me it was a done deal. A decision [was] to be made. It was now or never.”
Having had her first baby boy only two months ago, Jawish describes motherhood as “a roller coaster of emotions, responsibilities, contradictions and definitely a serious re-ordering of priorities.” She is blown away by the extent to which “this little creature” took over her life and became “the captain of the ship.” She is drained and the pace of life is much faster than her capacity to catch up with her overwhelming sentiments. “But as time passes by, the positives are surpassing the negatives, the fears are unleashing and the mysteries are unravelling,” she says, marvelling at the discovery of “a reservoir of power within [her] that was kept for the right time to flow where it was intended;” one she never knew existed.
Jawish’s answers brilliantly unraveled the essence of voluntary childlessness. When she overcame her fear －whether she was driven by her natural instinct to “engender life,” or compelled as she believes by her biological clock to make a decision－ she tapped into a whole new dimension packed with discoveries and answers that were hidden within her but ready to blossom at the right moment. Oughtn’t motherhood be regarded as such: a dormant seed within every woman, that flourishes －regardless of her capacity to reproduce－ the very instant that it is nurtured? Shouldn’t women stop hiding behind “legitimate” reasons to defying their very nature, and start fighting the urge to over-think, over-calculate and over-analyze everything? Isn’t it time for them to start facing life with all its uncertainties, embracing the answers it brings in due times, and just let themselves be?