What if we lived in a country where parents, and especially mothers, were supported instead of forced to sacrifice other facets of their lives and come up with their own solutions?
My dream in life is to become a Nonna—I even have the word tattooed on my arm. To me, the absolute zenith of late-in-life human existence is to be a little Italian grandmother, laboring over handmade cavatelli while my grandchildren run around my house laugh-screaming.
As it stands, however, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to even become a mother. Clearly if I—a privileged middle-class white woman—am feeling uncertain of how I can possibly take on the social, economic and personal costs of motherhood, we are no doubt failing parents and would-be parents who aren’t as privileged. It’s no wonder that, per the CDC, the U.S. is experiencing the lowest birth rate in four decades—a shift that is actually not sudden at all, and more of an acceleration of a trend that had already been in place.
Putting Off Parenthood
One increasingly common solution, it seems, is to delay motherhood. This year, for the very first time, I confessed to my doctor that I actually might want kids someday. And when I say “confessed,” I mean it; admitting to wanting children felt like sharing the naive dream of a young girl. It felt foolish and almost whimsical. I half-expected my gynecologist to pull up my bank statements and laugh at me. Instead she assured that many of her patients were having babies just fine in their late 30s and into their 40s. She even sent me the link to an Atlantic article about age and fertility, which I immediately sent to my best friend.
For close to a decade now, we’ve been talking over the timing of when to have children. Motherhood often becomes all-consuming, and neither of us is ignorant of the reality of friendship post-baby and how lonely it has the potential to be. We have done complex (for us English majors) math and used online calculators to try to figure out when is the latest possible date we can start trying to have kids, statistically speaking.
I know, without a shadow of doubt, that having children will upend my life. I know that I’m lucky and privileged beyond belief and still, motherhood will fundamentally change virtually every aspect of how I am perceived, whom I interact with, where my money goes, how I spend my free time. And I also know that our government is dead set on giving out as little support as possible. Of course I want to put this off as long as I can. Yes, life gets fuller, but it also gets harder.
Dads and the Division of Labor
When people asked me if I wanted kids, I used to say, “If I could be a dad.” It was a trite joke, but there is a kernel of truth in it.
My sister is planning on having kids soon and she and her husband both have small cars; they also have two massive dogs, including a Great Dane. They will soon need a bigger car, but my sister is (wisely) not offering to be the one to trade hers in. I asked her why and she was clear: “By default, I’m already going to be doing more of the work as the mom, so this is a way to ensure that I’m not always the one doing everything.”
Even in relatively progressive households, men start doing less housework as soon as kids arrive on the scene (and often, said child has just arrived via a major surgery or by emerging from a vagina ripped open to an asshole, so this would be the opportune time for dad to pick up the slack on household chores). The division of labor in cisgender-heterosexual couples is so often imbalanced in favor of men that there are dozens of books about it and also how to fix it.
Addressing this on an individual level is extremely worthwhile, but I also can’t get over the frustration that this is yet another part of motherhood I will have to manage—constantly monitoring how much work is set in my lap as the default. This is the one chore I cannot escape from, no matter how much I delegate or renegotiate: I will always have to watch how much motherhood encroaches on my life and my independence and my career and my personhood in ways that no father I know is doing.
Do They Have Day Care Centers in Mad Max?
Even if your job is secure and you’re lucky enough to not be worried about finances, bringing children into the world as it currently stands feels untimely, to say the least. There have been thousands of peoples and populations before who have faced existential threats—climate change is not the first—but it’s difficult to make a decision to create life when the very livability of the planet seems to be hanging in the balance. We simply don’t know what our future planet looks like.
None of this is to say that the world hasn’t been bad (or even worse) before. But, as a friend of mine said, “I don’t want to damn my child to a Mad Max existence.”
I occasionally imagine myself foraging in a post-apocalyptic hell world with my children, or sorting through the wreckage of our house after any number of natural disasters. But, as Rhiana Gunn-Wright, a designer of the Green New Deal, recently said, “Having children is sort of like an act of hope, like a belief that they can do a thing that helps this place get better.”
While I do have hope for humans, how much is too much to put your child through?
So, How Are Any of Us Supposed to Become Mothers?
While children may be the center of a parent’s world, the work of parenting shouldn’t be. I can see why people are either delaying or eschewing it altogether—even people who want kids. There’s no right choice, there’s no easy choice. Our country is consistently failing parents and yet parents are still showing up and making it work. Because that’s what parents do.