How we talk about motherhood matters. It shapes the way women think and the decisions they make. For generations, the desire to have children was one that was both “taught and caught” by young women from older women in the home and society.
Today, the message is different. Rather than extol motherhood and pregnancy, women often discuss these topics as something that “takes” from women: their time, their sleep, their bodies, and even their sense of self.
One study shows that more than one in six women have no interest in bearing children. Potential mothers claim that countless factors, such as finances, work/life balance, housing prices, and even climate change, contribute to this decision. Consistently, however, studies find that the number-one reason women forgo children is their desire for personal independence.
A report by Morgan Stanley estimates that by the year 2030, 45 percent of American women (aged 25 to 44) will be single and childless. This reveals an unsettling reality: fewer women want or can bear children than ever before.
There are many reasons this is the case. Infertility is a painful barrier that deserves much sympathy. Singleness can be another. But an overlooked factor is the way other women talk about motherhood and pregnancy.
As girls and young women think about having kids, they look to their mothers, mentors, and female influencers. The way these women portray motherhood can and will play an outsized role in the future decisions of young women. If 45 percent of women are single and childless by 2030, we should first look to older generations of mothers for the cause.
It’s time to reframe motherhood as the providential, pleasurable, and life-giving experience that it is. This is not to dismiss the legitimate difficulty it may bring. Rather, it is to suggest seeing motherhood through the lens of what children bring to a woman’s life.
Motherhood unfolds slowly through nine months of pregnancy. It’s common for women to lament how pregnancy changes a mother’s body for the worse. In reality, these changes make a woman’s body stronger and help her adapt to the needs of her child.
During the first trimester, a woman’s appetite mimics a baby’s feeding pattern: both must eat every three hours. Mothers are better conditioned to care for the baby when he or she is born because they understand the child’s physical need and dependency.
Similarly, prolactin (a breastfeeding hormone) is highest around 3am and tends to wake expectant mothers. Far from “depriving” her of sleep, this third-trimester phenomenon prepares a woman, sleep-wise, to feed her child.
Changes in sleep and eating patterns are met by physiological changes, too. For example, a woman’s lung capacity expands during and after pregnancy. This means that a mother, especially if she stays active during pregnancy, has greater physical endurance and strength.
Throughout pregnancy, a mother and her unborn children share cells with each other through a process called fetal microchimerism. The baby’s blood cells play a powerful role in protecting the mother from injury or life-threatening illness. Studies have found that these cells can remain for the mother’s lifetime and can help heal C-section wounds, slow the aging process, and make women less likely to die from any cause. In one case, fetal cells left over from an abortion two decades prior rebuilt a woman’s liver.
As Brad Wilcox at the Institute for Family Studies shows, parents are happier and report greater life satisfaction than their childless peers. Moreover, Wilcox argues that married mothers maintain a higher income than their single, childless peers. Mothers, it seems, benefit more financially and in terms of personal fulfillment.
Motherhood and pregnancy are not experiences that simply “take” from women. They can bring greater life satisfaction, purpose, and, in many cases, physical strength.
Ultimately, kids offer a rich relationship unlike anything else a mother may experience. Jordan Peterson says it best:
Your kids want to have the best relationship with you that they possibly could have. They’re 100 percent on board with that idea, way more than anyone you’ve ever met in your life. And that means you could have the best relationship with your children than you’ve ever had with anyone. That’s what they offer you.
This should fill us with awe. The natural limitations of motherhood do not suppress or diminish a woman. On the contrary, children open a mother’s world to new kinds of wonder, laughter, imagination, and unconditional love.
How we teach motherhood to the next generation is squarely within our power. Our children, and other young women, are paying close attention to how we talk about it. What values will they “catch” from us?